Review: The Met Opera’s Next ‘Ring’ Will Be a Sea Change

LONDON — It’s never a good idea for a critic to make predictions, but I’ll venture one: When the Metropolitan Opera’s next staging of Wagner’s epic “Der Ring des Nibelungen” arrives in New York in a few years, there won’t be any stories about the set.

The last time the Met unveiled a “Ring,” 11 years ago, there were hardly stories about anything but the set: Twenty-four massive, seesawing planks conceived by the director, Robert Lepage. Splashed with projections, those planks shaped themselves into the sprawling four-opera cycle’s various locales, from the heavens to the depths. And “the machine,” as it became known, kept making news, 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 working or not, the machine was always the focus — not the music, the characters or the intellectual themes of Wagner’s deeply human, politically charged magnum opus.

Richard Jones’s new production — the first installment of which, “Die Walküre,” was presented on Friday by English National Opera at the London Coliseum — could not be more different. (“Das Rheingold,” “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” are scheduled to roll out here over the next few years before it all comes to New York starting in 2025.)

Simple, straightforward, clear and grim, Jones’s “Ring” thus far features sets that are pared down — even, by the end, nonexistent: The final act of his “Walküre” takes place on a bare stage, dusted with black snow and ringed with plain dark curtains. The machine is no more.

The sets, by the end of this “Walküre,” are nonexistent: The third act (with Emma Bell as Sieglinde) takes place on a bare stage.Credit…Tristram Kenton

In these austere surroundings, designed by Jones’s longtime collaborator, Stewart Laing, the interactions of the opera’s emotionally wounded, invariably disappointed characters feel bleaker than ever. Amid the starkness, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s covert love in the first act offers them less ecstasy than barely momentary relief. In the third act, without Lepage’s planks noisily shaping a snowy mountain around Brünnhilde and Wotan, the audience has no distraction from the shattered relationship of this father and daughter.

The setting is contemporary — but vaguely so, stylized, almost abstract. In the opening act, the hut in which Sieglinde lives is a lonely cabin of ominous newness, as if a band of survivalists had recently constructed a hideaway. (This may not be far off: Her husband Hunding’s gang all have the same obscure symbol printed, militia-style, on their shirts.) At the start of the second act, Wotan, dressed in a bright red ski jacket, is staying at a lodge; Brünnhilde wears sneakers, a baggy T-shirt and shorts, with her name printed down the sides.

The soprano Rachel Nicholls, as a Brünnhilde loosely inspired by Greta Thunberg, wears sneakers, shorts and a breastplate over her T-shirt.Credit…Tristram Kenton

But though the soprano Rachel Nicholls, who plays that role, said in a recent interview that Jones’s vision of Brünnhilde, the cycle’s heroine, is loosely inspired by Greta Thunberg, that seems more a reference to Thunberg’s youthful assertiveness than to her environmental activism. This is a current but not (at least not yet) explicitly current-events “Ring.” Wotan and his furious wife, Fricka, chic in white, are identifiably bourgeois here, but there is not a strong social or political message driving the opera’s conflicts.

Like many recent productions of the “Ring,” the overall modern gloss of this one is shot through with traditional touches, and little here truly violates the libretto. A tree grows in the center of the hut in Act I, just as Wagner wrote, its branches tearing through the roof and a mighty sword buried in its trunk. The Valkyries have horses — shivering cloth-draped actors with animal heads — and spears. At the end, Brünnhilde, who wears a breastplate over her T-shirt, is encircled in a blazing ring of fire. (Well, more on that later.)

And the production, while spartan, doesn’t stint on theatrical flair, as when the Valkyries, charged with carrying slain warriors to Valhalla, attach cords to the men’s bodies, which then float up in solemn limpness. Without scenic spectacle, small events — like Hunding’s hut moving slowly upstage — register as almost thrilling.

Jones elicits tiny yet revealing moments from his performers, too. Climbing on all fours over a daybed, the eloquent, lyrical bass Matthew Rose conveys in an instant the essential childishness of Wotan, the king of the gods. And when Fricka reaches out a couple of inches, trying to take his 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 are dragging on the floor, a strangely poignant intertwining of love and death.

A projection of the nefarious Alberich looms over Brünnhilde and Wotan (the eloquent, lyrical bass Matthew Rose).Credit…Tristram Kenton

This is altogether more detailed, moving, stimulating and satisfying than the Met production it will replace. And tellingly, Jones’s single use of projections is more haunting than anything Lepage came up with: The nefarious Alberich, who forged the all-powerful ring of the title, appears, grinning with gold-capped teeth, as Wotan’s waking nightmare.

The applause at the end for Jones — hardly 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, begun in the late 1980s, he made another effort at the Royal Opera in London a few years later, in the spirit of the influential Brechtian, absurdist “Ring” that Ruth Berghaus staged in Frankfurt in the mid-80s.

Jones’s “Ring” was a notorious fiasco, with the catcalls — brought on by Rhinemaidens in fat suits, Fricka driving what looked like a black cab, Beckettian giants, childlike drawings and tribal masks — making the front pages of local newspapers. It was enough, in his telling, to scare Jones off opera for a bit. (During his break, among other projects, he directed the 1997 musical “Titanic,” which surmounted a raft of early technical issues to become a Broadway hit.)

But he has since returned in earnest to opera houses with productions including a melancholy, dreamlike “Hänsel und Gretel” that has been a frequent holiday presence at the Met since it arrived there in 2007. A surreal image from that production recurs in Jones’s “Walküre”: The fish and trees in dress suits from “Hänsel” are now shadowy figures on the margins of the set, with human bodies and the oversize heads of birds.

The Valkyries have horses (shivering cloth-draped actors with animal heads) and carry spears.Credit…Tristram Kenton

English National Opera — performing, as is its custom, in English translation — has brought together an excellent British cast committed to Jones’s vision. Nicholls’s voice isn’t huge, but it’s penetrating and sweet, and she’s convincingly a smart, brave if headstrong teenager. The tenor Nicky Spence is a robust, ne’er-do-well Siegmund; Emma Bell’s strong yet mellow soprano, full through its range, vibrates with emotion as Sieglinde; the bass Brindley Sherratt is a brooding, bruising Hunding.

Suffering from a cold, Susan Bickley acted Fricka while the 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 music director, led a lethargic first act that later improved in responsiveness, without ever feeling truly urgent. (At the Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct a different set of singers.)

Not everything works in the staging: When the action is this exposed, any false step is magnified. Siegmund and Sieglinde end the first act running around in big circles, which came across as silly. And while the agonizing stillness of Brünnhilde and especially Wotan in their long final scene is effective in theory, Rose and Jones do not quite sell his endless impassivity, and the tension sometimes slackens.

Hunding (Brindley Sherratt, left) and Siegmund (Nicky Spence) prepare to fight.Credit…Tristram Kenton

But all in all, this will be a tonic for the Met and its audience, conditioned by the Lepage era — and the monumental, 19th-century-style Otto Schenk staging that preceded it — to think that the “Ring” can’t be put on without impossible extravagance and expense. Jones offers a reacquaintance with the intimate drama at the heart of the magic fire.

Oh, but about those flames. Even with a production this seemingly uncomplicated, it just wouldn’t be a “Ring” without technical complications. Days before Friday’s premiere, the local government vetoed the crucial, climactic fire effect to ensure the safety of the century-old Coliseum. So Brünnhilde, wrapped in Wotan’s jacket, was lifted toward the flies — and remained suspended there as the stage stayed cold and bare.

Yes, the Jones “Ring,” just like its Lepage predecessor — whose rainbow bridge stalled on the opening night of “Das Rheingold” — has officially begun with a headache. Perhaps the Met should start working on those fire code approvals now.

Die Walküre

Through Dec. 10 at the Coliseum, London;

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