CAN WAGNER OPÊRA REACH OUT TO THE COMMON MAN?

We review the latest brand new production of the Wagner Opêra “the Valkyrie”, at London’s ENO English National Opera, and ask – what is it about this performance, that is so special that we want to come see it?

I am seated at a nice seat, somewhere. I txt my wife. “I’m excited”, I say. “Did you bring your mask?”, she asks. “Yes. And it is very crowded” . “Then make sure you wear your mask”. The line goes dead. The man sitting next to me is not wearing a mask. He is talking with his friends.

It is not that ENO produces safe opera. You could almost say that English National Opera carries a health warning. It is risky. You don’t come to ENO because you necessarily want to sing the tunes on the way home. You come for the journey. You could almost say that ENO Members and Supporters are addicts.

So, when Annilese Miskimmon steps in advance onto the stage prior to curtain up, and says something like: “look guys, we’ve got just one or two little issues… there’s no big fire at the end… and oh -forget COVID – two of the leading singers are down with bad colds, and one of them can’t even sing a note, for God’s sake!”- seasoned supporters are used to this. It is not relevant.

How so?

Because the driving force of this “Valkyrie”. Is not the individual singer, but the communication of the emotion, the human relationship, as much as the storyline itself. It is the synergy of the parts of orchestra, the subtlety, the ambience, that support the protagonists on stage, that keep all of our attention, for the full five hours. ENO has been perfecting this approach for a very long time. Even from my very first opera, Wagner’s “Mastersingers” at Rosebery Avenue, as a 12 year old kid hitch-hiking across London to see something called an opera – looking back at my top five all-time best performances at ENO – Wagner would fill three of the spaces – and I am not even a Wagner aficionado.

This production is brand new, it brings to the table some of the best Direction and Performers. With minimalist scenery and graphic intervention -its secret is that it lets the performers “do their thing”. It treats this Wagner project as a modern opera in style and approach, and lets the singers and their relationships with each other, keep us guessing and spellbound.

The programme notes describe this new staging as “narratively gripping and emotionally poignant”, and I think that for the most part – they get there.

The standout Act, perhaps surprisingly, was Act 1 – the performance of Emma Bell as Sieglinde, is phenomenal, and her chemistry dramatically and vocally with Nicky Spence as Siegmund. Is the driving force of the opera. There is a noticeable tension when they re-emerge later in Act 2.

This is a long opera, with a deep multi-level message. You and I will not get all of this, in one sitting. But that is not the point. We go for the total experience, and pick up what we can, and then perhaps go again.

But there is also a point that might have been overlooked by so many of us, and that is one of the key objectives for both this performance, and production – and that was briefly alluded to by Annilese Miskimmon in her opening prelude – that is the giving away of free tickets, to a younger audience. There was a round of applause when she made that statement.

The inclusion of a new non-opera audience, and showing its relevance, and its ability to change lives for perhaps more than just one or two – is a key mandate at ENO. And I should know. All those years ago, I was one of them.