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Operagoers take the madness of Die Walküre in their stride; but I have non- operatic friends who cannot overcome their shock at the storyline. Yes, it’s incest – a hideous concept down there with Morris dancing and putting the milk into the cup before the tea. And yet strangely, hundreds of strangers, sometimes thousands, sit together in a theatre to watch twins Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other to mutual delight as the curtain falls – and, as Schopenhauer wrote acerbically, ‘Denn es ist hohe Zeit’ (‘Because it’s high time’). And if you watch grainy footage of a youthful and frenzied Peter Hoffman and Jeanine Altmeyer lunging at each other in the Boulez Ring at Bayreuth in 1980, the curtain only just makes it in the nick of time. Pass me my fan.

No such worries in Keith Warner’s Royal Opera House production, revived by him here as part of a series of complete Ring cycles in 2018. Stuart Skelton and Emily Magee are not quite so passionate – in fact slightly staid. Both are very good, but don’t exactly whip themselves into a lather. Skelton’s voice is powerful and he never sacrifices beauty of tone, even in his cries of ‘Wälse’. He is a burly chap but nimble too, and he and Magee bravely traverse the awkward set with alacrity – the stairs look particularly alarming, especially given the rake of the stage. Magee also offers attractive tone and a very warm and engaging presence. She really digs into the role and its text, but (as I also found when I saw her in the theatre), I feel that perhaps Sieglinde is a bit low for her; the voice doesn’t have much of an opportunity to soar with abandon and, when it does, at ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ it is not quite overwhelming enough. As Hunding, Ain Anger glowers and menaces suitably.

Sarah Connelly’s Fricka brings more erotic tension to the stage. She blends her fury with her latent attraction for Wotan and quivers magnificently within the constraints of her stays and bustle. John Lundgren is her Wotan, and makes a firmer mark on film than live in the theatre, when in person he was occasionally drowned by the orchestra. Here his voice is more to the fore and we can relish his beauty of tone and almost bel canto phrasing, which is most refined. He works fabulously with his Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme, and in fact their interrelationship also highlights the incest theme with its passionate kiss during their parting, tempered by the tenderest and most regretful farewell. It is appropriately shocking.

Stemme is in great voice, and the sound here catches the sheer volume and richness of her soprano. She doesn’t have a great time with her opening cries of ‘Hoyotoho!’, which are gulped, but once she is in her stride she is unflinching and vocally secure throughout. She and Lundgren truly listen to each other. It is also interesting to see how supportive they are: in their first scene Lundgren steps back into his cloak dropped on the floor, and Stemme instinctively steps forward with her arm up to support him lest he stumble, then seamlessly weaves this into her action.

The Valkyries are a strong group, sporting voices such as Alwyn Mellor, Lise Davidsen and Maida Hundeling, none a shrinking violet vocally. Antonio Pappano’s conducting tends to the fast and the furious, at times quite frenzied, so if you like your Wagner on the slower side be warned. But the playing is magnificent and the musical pace confident.

Warner’s production is strong on character study and definitely has its theatrical moments, and there are some striking images, but it doesn’t seem to have an overarching message. Maybe it is none the worse for that and allows the viewer an element of interpretation, but it does drifta little. The Ride of the Valkyries is a tame affair despite the singers’ efforts, consisting of waving skulls against a backdrop, and even Wolfgang Göbbel’s excellent and dramatic lighting can’t make much of it. And the costumes are unflattering – sleeveless is not the way ahead for many. Warner saves the best for last, and the Farewell is appropriately powerful. Lundgren and Stemme are unstinting and seem tireless.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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