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S & H Opera Review

Wagner, 'The Valkyrie' English National Opera, London Coliseum, January 24th. (ME)

For those of us for whom this is one of the greatest of all operas, it might be supposed that some 'Valkyrie' is better than none at all, but there were moments last night when I doubted this. Described as a 'staged concert,' this was neither fish, flesh nor fowl, and one has to sympathise with a company who obviously cannot yet afford to mount the production they would wish to give us. They valiantly did all they could to make it as theatrical an experience as possible, helped by Marian Stall's vivid lighting, but with a tiny raised platform flanked by harps to the left and drums to the right, and singers who unrelentingly sang to the front, it was a real challenge to suspend any of the necessary disbelief. Matters were not helped by the translation, which displayed no feeling whatsoever for the shape of the music, the import of the words, or the exigencies of the orchestral line.

With two exceptions, the singers were not distinguished, and it was the orchestra which provided most of the evening's musical pleasure, despite a marked aura of tiredness towards the end. The Prelude was paced with real skill by Paul Daniel, raising many hopes with some truly elemental commitment in the storm music, and shaping the lyrical passages with finesse. Sadly, the entry of the Wälsung twins did not encourage; the first thing one had to remark upon was that their costumes (distressed cream linen suit / coat) seemed to have been recycled from those of the Male and Female chorus in the recent ENO production of 'The Rape of Lucretia' in which this evening's Sieglinde, Orla Boylan, sang the female role; a man behind me muttered darkly 'That suit looked better on John Mark Ainsley..'with which I had to silently agree.

Pär Lindskog was simply not up to the role of Siegmund; it is a part often sung by tenors whose lower range has baritonal tendencies, and rightly so, but his voice is flat rather than low, and lacks that combination of rapturous lyrical sweetness and heroic 'ping' so essential to this role. His mien throughout might best be described as petulant, and his singing of such magical passages as the reaction to the drink and, especially, 'Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond..' (Wintry storms have vanished before Maytime...') just made you think ever more fondly of the impassioned sweep and romantic ardour of such singers as Kenneth Woollam, upon whom in better days ENO could count as a company stalwart in such a role. It is possible that Lindskog was simply under the weather (although no announcement was made) but I have seldom been so glad to see the death of a character.

Sieglinde, in the warm, maternal person of Orla Boylan, fared somewhat better. Hers is a voice well suited to the role, in that it combines lyrical sweetness with a sense of powerful ease, and she managed to rise to some of her great moments, although 'O wenn du sie gewänn'st!' (O, could you win it!) lacked the required passion, and she was not helped by having to struggle to rise above the orchestra at 'O hehrstes Wunder!' She was assisted still less, as was true of all the singers, by an insensitive and musically inept translation which forced her to fight the very words she was attempting to sing. Two glaring examples: that wonderful moment of narrative at '.ein Fremder trat da herein' (a stranger then came in) was translated as 'an old man entered the room,' so that instead of keeping the lovely phrasing of 'ein Frem / der, trat da herein' she had to sing 'an old man ent / er / ed the room;' at 'Sieglinde bin ich' we got 'I am Sieglinde' which came out as 'Eyyyye yam Sieglinde' when "Sieglinde am I" would have been preferable.

Gerard O'Connor
's Hunding was strongly characterised, as was Robert Hayward's Wotan, but the latter's voice is unappealing, being much too dry and lacking in grandeur. He tried his best to present the character, but his resources were not up to the most challenging moments, and he did not convey any of Wotan's touching affection at 'Der Augen leuchtendes Paar'(Those bright shining eyes) or his determination at the closing lines. Indeed, the whole of his Farewell had a rather muted feeling. He also had to suffer one of the worst indignities of the translation, and at one of the most noble moments in the whole of music; at 'der freier als ich, der Gott!' instead of being able to sing something approximating to the musical line such as 'a freer than I, a God!' he had to sing 'one who's free / freer than me." This is not only crassly ungrammatical but extremely ugly, and I am not exaggerating when I say that a frisson of distaste went through the row in which I was sitting.

Kathleen Broderick's appearance as Brünnhilde caused some snickering around us; there was some discussion as to whether the model for her presentation had been Emma Peel in 'The Avengers,' Liz Hurley in her Versace days, or, my suggestion, Michelle Pfeiffer's Cat Woman. Whichever model was the one, she looked impressively agile and had most of the notes, but without any real tenderness suggested in the voice or the person; I found it difficult to imagine her as the heroine whose selfless love was to redeem mankind, and found myself thinking fondly of Rita Hunter, who certainly could not have jerked and slinked her way about the stage as Ms Broderick did, but who could make your throat contract at such moments as 'Brünnhilde betet!' (Brunnhilde begs you) and 'Auf den Gebot entbrenne ein Feuer.' (At your command let fire blaze)

The other Valkyries were got up in similar black leather but with red T shirts underneath, and they mostly made the best of what they had to do, Claire Weston's Ortlinde in particular ringing out with confidence. Susan Parry's Fricka was another assumption of real distinction to add to her increasing gallery of roles; she received by far the strongest ovation of the evening, and with good reason - her singing was firmly shaped, exactly focussed and warmly characterised, and when she was on stage you could not take your eyes off her.

The orchestral playing throughout was exciting if at times a little lacking in polish, and the tempi were rather leisurely, especially in the 'Ride:' those horses would have been stepping rather than galloping. Paul Daniel has clearly been listening to the classic Furtwängler recording, as was evident from his management of the strings and his willingness to linger over certain phrases, but Wagnerians who are hoping for a truly involving evening at ENO's "staged concert" might do better to stay at home and wallow in Windgassen.

Melanie Eskenazi

Pictures by Bill Rafferty.

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