LONDON – It’s never a good idea for a critic to make predictions, but I’ll dare to make one: when the next staging of Wagner’s epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” at the Metropolitan Opera hits New York in a few years, it won’t there will be any story about the set.
The last time the Met unveiled a “Ring”, 11 years ago, there were hardly any stories about anything. but the set: twenty-four huge swinging planks conceived by the director, Robert Lepage. Dotted with projections, those planks molded themselves at various locations in the lengthy cycle of four operas, from the heavens to the depths. And “the machine,” as it was known, continued to make headlines, with its 45 tons, its technological sophistication, its phenomenal expense, its creaks and malfunctions.
It worked, the Met insisted, more than it didn’t. But functioning or not, the machine was always the focus, not the music, characters, or intellectual themes of Wagner’s deeply human and politically charged masterpiece.
Richard Jones’ new production, whose first installment, “Die Walküre”, was presented on Friday by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, could not be more different. (“Das Rheingold”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” are scheduled to roll out here for the next several years before everything hits New York starting in 2025).
Simple, direct, clear and gloomy, Jones’s “Ring” so far features sets that are reduced, even, in the end, non-existent: the final act of his “Walküre” takes place on a bare stage, dusted with black and ringed snow. with plain dark curtains. The machine no longer exists.
In this stark setting, designed by Jones’ longtime collaborator Stewart Laing, the interactions of the emotionally hurt and invariably disappointed opera characters feel bleaker than ever. Amid the rawness, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s covert love in the first act offers them less ecstasy than only momentary relief. In the third act, without Lepage’s planks noisily forming a snowy mountain around Brünnhilde and Wotan, the audience is not distracted from the broken relationship between this father and his daughter.
The setting is contemporary, but vaguely stylized, almost abstract. In the opening act, the cabin Sieglinde lives in is a lonely cabin of ominous novelty, as if a group of survivors had recently built a hideout. (This may not be far behind: her husband Hunding’s gang has the same dark symbol printed, militia-style, on their shirts.) At the beginning of the second act, Wotan, dressed in a bright red ski jacket , stays in a lodge; Brünnhilde wears sneakers, a baggy T-shirt and shorts, with his name printed on the sides.
But while soprano Rachel Nicholls, who plays that role, said in a recent interview that Jones’s vision of Brünnhilde, the heroine of the cycle, is loosely inspired by Greta Thunberg, that sounds more like a reference to Thunberg’s youthful assertiveness than to his environmental activism. This is a current “Ring” but not (at least not yet) explicitly of current events. Wotan and his furious wife, Fricka, dressed in elegant white, are clearly bourgeois here, but there is no strong social or political message driving the opera conflicts.
Like many recent “Ring” productions, the overall modern brilliance of this one is full of traditional touches, and little here really violates the libretto. A tree grows in the center of the hut in Act I, just as Wagner wrote, its branches ripping through the ceiling and a mighty sword buried in its trunk. Valkyries have horses, trembling actors covered in cloth with animal heads, and spears. In the end, Brünnhilde, who wears a breastplate over her shirt, is surrounded by a burning ring of fire. (Well, more on that later).
And the production, although spartan, is not limited to theatrical style, as when the Valkyries, in charge of bringing murdered warriors to Valhalla, attach ropes to the men’s bodies, which then float in solemn flaccidity. With no stage show, small events, like Hunding’s cabin slowly moving onto the stage, are recorded as almost thrilling.
Jones also provokes tiny but revealing moments from his artists. Climbing on all fours on a divan, the eloquent and lyrical bass Matthew Rose instantly conveys the essential childishness of Wotan, the king of the gods. And when Fricka reaches out a few inches, trying to grasp her unreceptive hand, it’s a miniature portrait of a broken marriage. Siegmund lifts Sieglinde’s sleeping body and walks with her so that her toes drag across the ground, a strangely poignant intertwining of love and death.
This is altogether more detailed, moving, thought-provoking and satisfying than the production of the Met it will replace. And tellingly, Jones’ unique use of projections is more haunting than anything Lepage came up with: the infamous Alberich, who forged the almighty title ring, appears, grinning with gold-covered teeth, like Wotan’s waking nightmare.
The applause at the end for Jones – just euphoric cheers, but not a boo to be heard – must have been gratifying for a director whose history with the “Ring” is troubled. After an aborted cycle at Scottish Opera, which began in the late 1980s, he made another effort at London’s Royal Opera a few years later, in the spirit of the influential and absurd Brechtian “Ring” that Ruth Berghaus performed in Frankfurt in the mid-80s.
Jones’s “Ring” was a notorious fiasco, with the boos, sparked by the Rhine maidens dressed in thick suits, Fricka driving what looked like a black taxi, Beckett giants, children’s drawings and tribal masks, appearing on the covers of local newspapers. According to his account, it was enough to scare Jones out of the opera a little. (During his hiatus, among other projects, he directed the 1997 musical “Titanic,” which overcame a series of initial glitches to become a Broadway hit.)
But since then he has made a serious return to opera houses with productions including a brooding, dreamlike “Hänsel und Gretel” that has been a frequent presence at Met parties since he arrived there in 2007. A surreal image of that production is repeats in Jones’s “Walküre”. ”: Fish and trees in“ Hänsel ”dress costumes are now shadowy figures on the margins of the set, with human bodies and oversized bird heads.
English National Opera, performed, as is its custom, in English translation, has assembled an excellent British cast committed to Jones’ vision. Nicholls voice is not huge, but it is penetrating and sweet, and she is convincingly a smart, brave yet stubborn teenager. Tenor Nicky Spence is a sturdy Siegmund and not good at all; Emma Bell’s strong but soft soprano, in all her range, vibrates with emotion like Sieglinde; Bass Brindley Sherratt is a haunting and painful Hunding.
With a cold, Susan Bickley played Fricka as mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones, one of the Valkyries, sang it, with articulate power, from the side of the stage. Martyn Brabbins, the company’s musical director, led a lethargic first act that later improved in responsiveness, never feeling really urgent. (At the Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will lead a different group of singers.)
Not everything works in the staging: when the action is thus exposed, any misstep is magnified. Siegmund and Sieglinde end the first act by circling in great circles, which seemed silly. And while the agonizing stillness of Brünnhilde and especially Wotan in his long final scene is effective in theory, Rose and Jones don’t quite sell their eternal impassiveness, and the tension sometimes subsides.
But overall, this will be a tonic for the Met and its audience, conditioned by the Lepage era – and Otto Schenk’s monumental 19th-century staging that preceded it – to think that the “Ring” cannot be Put on without extravagances and impossible expenses. Jones offers a reunion with intimate drama in the heart of magical fire.
Oh, but about those flames. Even with such a seemingly straightforward production, it just wouldn’t be a “Ring” without technical complications. Days before Friday’s premiere, the local government vetoed the crucial and climatic fire effect to ensure the safety of the centennial Colosseum. So Brünnhilde, wrapped in Wotan’s jacket, was lifted up to the flies and remained suspended there while the stage remained cold and bare.
Yes, Jones’ “Ring”, like its predecessor Lepage, whose rainbow bridge stalled on the opening night of “Das Rheingold,” has officially started with a headache. Perhaps the Met should start working on those fire code approvals now.
Until December 10 at the London Coliseum; eno.org.