The Mariinsky Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen continued its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome last night with Die Walküre (The Valkyry), the tragic love story of incestuous siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the renegade Valkyrie who disobeys the gods to defend them.
Once again, the show begins with a stunning set of epic proportions, though unlike in Das Rheingold, the prelude is played out before the curtain rises. This time, instead of suspended above the stage, the gigantic statues are integrated into the set, becoming at once the walls of Hunding’s house and the ash tree at its heart, the thick body of one of the figures statue standing in for a trunk. As in the previous show, too, Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting is magical, with subtle changes in colour and brightness creating shifts in mood and atmosphere that beautifully complement the music.
Once the story begins, however, things take a little longer to get moving in Die Walküre, with chemistry seriously lacking between lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. Though their singing was strong, the acting styles of Avgust Amonov and Mlada Khudoley were oddly matched, with the former remaining remarkably restrained even in the face of extreme peril, while the latter went the opposite way, overplaying the drama of her situation, perhaps in part to compensate for the lack of emotional display from her partner.
Act II opens on a glimpse of a far more convincing relationship: Ekaterina Gubanova returns to her role as marriage goddess Fricka, this time performing alongside the excellent Vitaly Kovalyov as the ruling god Wotan. Already strong in Das Rheingold, the Fricka/Wotan dynamic is noticeably improved by this pairing. As the couple bicker over Wotan’s infidelity and determination to undermine his wife’s decrees, their turbulent, troubled marriage feels totally real to us: this is a story we instantly recognise from much more contemporary fare.
Nevertheless, the most engaging of this production’s relationships is not romantic but filial. The mutual love of a father and daughter produces the most moving scenes in the show, and Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s final farewell must have left barely a dry eye in the audience. Brimming with love and compassion, the mighty yet kind-hearted Brünnhilde is played magnificently by Olga Savova. Between them, Kovalyov and Savova largely carry this production, their spellbinding performances elevating it to heights it’s hard to see it reaching without them.
That said, Savova is certainly in excellent company among her fellow Valkyries: though surrounded by some questionably choreographed fighting, in their dramatic entrance, they command the stage so fully that the heroes they arrive to collect fade to virtual invisibility. With strobe lights flashing out beneath the curtain as it flies upwards, the carriers of the battle-slain appear, clad in black against a blazing red sky (and in case you were wondering, yes, it is impossible to get “Ride of the Valkyries” out of your head after seeing this show).
Act III’s opening scene looks fantastic. Things get a little stranger, however, during the end section of the show, when the giant statues are relocated to the background, peering threateningly down on the action from all sides. This in itself is effective setting, creating a strong sense of foreboding and making even the great god Wotan look tiny as he moves towards his inescapable demise. What is more difficult to make sense of is the bizarre paraphernalia adorning the statues: seashells, tentacles, giant sperm cells and vaguely uterine-shaped animal skulls cling to their bellies and hang in the air around them, sometimes glowing bright red. Once Wotan and Brünnhilde get into full acting swing, it’s easy enough to forget about the weird stuff in the background, but during less emotional moments, they’re a curious and rather distracting presence.
On reflection, I wondered if they might be intended to reflect the themes of love, (in)fidelity and parenthood explored by the drama: there is, after all, something fitting about Wotan referring to his favourite illegitimate daughter as a part of himself while surrounded by such images. However, a quick search online offered a rather stranger explanation.
The giant figures themselves are, apparently, inspired by the myths of the Alan and Scythian cultures of the North Caucasus, where conductor Valery Gergiev was raised. So far, so logical: there are clearly a range of mythic influences involved in the design of this production – not to mention in the creation of the story itself. But set designer Georgy Tsypin had more to say about his work:
“The Ring was written during the Industrial Revolution, when it seemed that humanity would appropriate the secret of nature – the ‘Ring’. Now it seems we are on the verge of discovering the secret of life, so we created a ‘Ring’ that reflects our current preoccupation with cloning, mutations, artificial intelligence, discoveries in genetics and biotechnology.”
Such themes have served as excellent material for tragedy since 1818, and continue to dominate Hollywood sci-fi today. But while stories about scientific over-reachers may hold some parallels with those of their mythic counterparts in Der Ring des Nibelungen, it’s difficult to see what incorporating these concepts really adds to this particular story, or what new perspective it offers us on Wagner’s ideas.
The most effective use of any of the statues in Die Walküre is perhaps to serve as the mountain where Brünnhilde is imprisoned, put under a sleeping spell and left to await her future husband. Bulky and cumbersome as it is, it takes a little while to get the central statue into place, with black-clad figures flying from the wings to help with the awkward manoeuvrings. Yet the final image is impressive: against such a dramatic set, Brünnhilde’s new-found mortality and relative powerlessness hit home hard. It also serves as a reminder of how the whole thing started, recalling Wotan’s deal with the giants in Das Rheingold. Now, as before, there is an attempt to marry a woman off against her will, and now, as then, Wotan has cause to fear the consequences of his actions.
Just before the curtain falls, Brünnhilde’s resting place is surrounded by flames, a group of dancers emerging with glowing red headpieces in a warped reflection of the Prelude to Das Rheingold, where swaying green and blue lights mimicked the waves of the Rhine. Above them, the statues creak and and begin to tumble forwards, a touch of the ‘Ozymandias’ about them now.
The Mariinksy Opera’s Ring Cycle continues its run at the Birmingham Hippodrome with Siegfried tomorrow evening, and concludes with Götterdämmerung on Sunday. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.
Header image by N. Razina. All other photographs by @JohnVecchio via Twitter.