The week in classical: The Valkyrie; Sacconi Quartet review – at the mercy of the gods

Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Coliseum; Wigmore Hall, London
Indisposed singers, doused flames and musical longueurs aside, it’s way too early to dismiss Richard Jones’s new ENO Ring cycle. Elsewhere, the Sacconi Quartet fly on the wings of Jonathan Dove…

Wagner maintained that the kernel of The Ring of the Nibelung lay in the second of the cycle’s four operas, The Valkyrie, in which Wotan, flawed leader of the gods, gives an exhaustive account of the backstory. The reason English National Opera began its five-year Ring adventure here, conducted by Martyn Brabbins and directed by Richard Jones, may be more pragmatic. With human emotion at its heart, The Valkyrie can feel like a self-contained work. It lasts five hours, with two extended (and usefully lucrative) intervals. It’s an event. The cycle’s first opera, Rheingold, is roughly half that length, with no interval.

There was certainly a sense of occasion at the Coliseum last week. Elite Wagnerians – singers, conductors – were out in force to hear what a new generation of British performers could offer in this overwhelming score. The cast, mostly new to their roles, has some of the best British singers: Rachel Nicholls (Brünnhilde), Matthew Rose (Wotan), Nicky Spence (Siegmund), Emma Bell (Sieglinde), Brindley Sherratt (Hunding) and Susan Bickley (Fricka), richly contrasting voices all, from the beauty of Nicholls’s steely, pinpoint accuracy to Bell’s more diffuse warmth, to Sherratt’s snarling, dark-toned heft. Their performances haven’t yet gelled, but the first outing of a new Ring always feels like work in progress, for musicians and production team alike.

This will not comfort a paying audience looking for a fully achieved result and at least a degree of spectacle. The opening night was blighted. The final ring of fire, when the erring Brünnhilde is consigned to a flame-encircled rock, had to be abandoned for safety reasons. With an aerial Brünnhilde wrapped in Wotan’s all-weather red anorak, it had the makings of something interesting, especially with Nicholls’s androgynous, childlike portrayal of the Valkryie.

Spence, surely born for this central role of Siegmund, had a cold, but still sang, and acted, with lyricism, magnetism and tenderness. He alone had impeccable diction. Elsewhere, John Deathridge’s new translation, literary rather than colloquial, was often lost. Bickley, looking a million dollars as the stern goddess of marriage, Fricka – she who puts her foot down at incest – was suffering from an even worse cold than Spence. She walked the part, with one of the collectively impressive gaggle of Valkyries, mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones, singing from a side box.

You can’t blame an empty stage and a dreary grey curtain; something wasn’t happening in the pit to hold attention

Jones goes back a long way with the Ring – from half a cycle with Scottish Opera in the late 1980s to a full production for the Royal Opera House in the 1990s, arguably ahead of its time. Today his latex-clad Rhinemaidens would barely raise an eyebrow. Then, the staging was widely derided as a comic-book insult. Jones’s international reputation now established, ENO has put its faith in him. So too has the Metropolitan Opera, New York, which says it will roll out Jones’s new Ring in 2025, and will present full cycles by the end of the 2026/27 season.

The Met’s last Ring, directed by Robert Lepage, was burdened with immense but ineffectual stage machinery. Here, stage crew dressed as ravens push the scenery as required. Stewart Laing’s designs, with lighting by Adam Silverman and movement by Sarah Fahie, feature a log cabin in a leafless forest, a larger, deluxe hut for Wotan, king of the lumberjacks in red and black checked shirt, echoed in his son Siegmund’s blue version. Menacing vapours, swirling round a world heading for destruction, fall as sooty rain.

The ENO orchestra played with customary expertise, but the opening act, including the turbulent prelude, lacked bite and power. Pacing was problematic throughout, meandering in the long first act, and rushing in Wotan’s Farewell, leaving Rose, a singer capable of immense verbal clarity and insight, having to swallow the text and with it some of the emotional resonance of this huge set piece.

Matthew Rose as Wotan in ENO’s The Valkyrie. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

No production can provide adequate stage action to fill the long, overarching exchanges in this opera (and in much of Wagner). You can’t blame an empty stage and a dreary grey curtain; something wasn’t happening in the pit to hold attention. It may yet, when the rattle and tension of a first night give way to greater confidence. I’m not ready, as some already have, to write it off yet. There’s plenty of Jones’s customary perception. Let’s see what happens next. The production runs until 10 December, with the penultimate performance conducted by the distinguished Wagnerian Anthony Negus.

From a 92-piece orchestra, with harps and percussion spilling into the side boxes, to a string quartet is as big a musical step as you can take. The Sacconi Quartet marked their 20th anniversary with an enticing programme of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Jonathan Dove at Wigmore Hall. Named after the Italian luthier Simone Sacconi (1895-1973), and with the two violinists and violist playing 20th-century instruments made by him (only the cello dates from earlier), this is a group committed to aural equality in performance, whatever may or may not happen offstage.

The Sacconi Quartet – Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson, Robin Ashwell and Cara Berridge – at Wigmore Hall. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

This was especially evident in the beguiling new work written for them by Dove, On the Streets and in the Sky (2020). Many works have been composed during lockdown. This will surely survive as a sonorous record of the time: for the anxiety and dislocation of its first movement, the soaring, twittering birdsong of the second, and the serene, meditative melancholy of the last. Dove, among the most communicative of composers, isn’t always given full recognition. To cheers and applause he was called back four times to take a bow – sign enough of the work’s success.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Valkyrie
Sacconi Quartet

  • The Valkyrie is at the Coliseum, London, until 10 December

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