Review: Die Walküre (Royal Opera House)

Episode two of Wagner’s ”Der Ring des Nibelungen” at Covent Garden

Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (ROH)
Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (ROH)
© Bill Cooper

Titans at every turn, and I don't mean on the page. The Royal Opera's Die Walküre is so strongly cast that the Sieglinde of American soprano Emily Magee stood out for merely being good. Everyone else was stonking.

At the opening performance Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra sounded less majestic than they had in Das Rheingold, with some small issues of accuracy and a lack of momentum in act two, but given that this Der Ring des Nibelungen has been mounted on pinch-and-borrow rehearsal time it's a wonder they sounded as polished as they did. One more run-through should see them hit the groove.

I know it's the cycle's third or fourth incarnation, but this is my own first go at it so everything's new and I'm figuring out Keith Warner's production on the hoof. Not always easy. It's fun to tick off tiny triumphs (that improbable ceiling fan in Hunding's house looks like the propeller from the heavenly aeroplane in Das Rheingold… oh, I get it, it's a conduit to Wotan's eye) but unquestionably I'm missing much else. Does that matter? Perhaps not, except that grasping nuance might help me appreciate certain things more. Take the ‘Ride of the Valkyries': Warner's drama-club staging of this glorious moment is so obviously naff that he must have had an ulterior intention. Mustn't he?

Die Walküre starts as a tale of two twins and a jealous husband (standard love triangle with added incest) and ends with a Judas kiss from Wotan to his daughter Brünnhilde. In between there are celestial machinations between the top god and his wife Fricka that can only have one winner, and it's not him. This is powerful stuff until you ask yourself why a pack of omnipotent deities would be acting like the Underwoods in House of Cards.

Sarah Connolly is at the peak of her considerable powers as Fricka, delivering a performance of naked manipulation and mezzo power that would make any opponent crumble – even John Lundgren's Wotan. And what a pleasure (and relief) to find this fine baritone restored to full vocal fitness after his out-of-sorts turn in Das Rheingold. In this second opera he absolutely needs to fire on all cylinders because he has to hold his own throughout one of the most intense duo scenes that even Wagner ever wrote, and to do so opposite the great Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. The Swedish pair sets Covent Garden alight with their sustained firepower until, at the end, Wotan's literal encirclement of flames springs to life.

On any other day the headline for this Walküre would have been the belated Royal Opera debut of Stuart Skelton as Siegmund. Really, it is unconscionable that Britain's premier house waited until the Australian tenor turned 50 before recruiting him, possibly through competitive snobbery following his long association with ENO, but thankfully the leading Heldentenor of our day gives an expertly dramatised performance in firm, clarion-resonant fettle. And in Ain Anger the company has located a balefully magnificent Hunding to confront him.

The eight Valkyries make a fabulous sound – unsurprisingly, given that between them they've sung their own host of Brünnhildes, Brangänes, Erdas and Ariadnes. Seats to hear them sing live have all but gone, but Die Walküre is coming to cinemas on 28 October and you should ride like the wind to catch it. Hojotoho!