Die Walk&uuml;re, Royal Opera House, London <br/> Les Arts Florissants, Barbican Hall, London

Brave, sensual, extraordinary
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The Independent Culture

The second opera of Keith Warner's densely-wrought Royal Opera House Ring cycle reveals a world in chaos. Culture is dead, civilisation overturned, and the opulently embroidered costumes of Das Rheingold's decadent divinities have ceded to the mud- and blood-streaked rags of revolution.

The second opera of Keith Warner's densely-wrought Royal Opera House Ring cycle reveals a world in chaos. Culture is dead, civilisation overturned, and the opulently embroidered costumes of Das Rheingold's decadent divinities have ceded to the mud- and blood-streaked rags of revolution.

Pride, greed and ambition have brought Wotan's world to the brink of a Dark Age. The gods have left their former residence - now a shell for Hunding's hut - in haste. Books lie in heaps, ready to be burned; silver cutlery is strewn about, outmoded by the rough vessels of the new inhabitants. Outside this scorched and blistered structure one imagines badlands of nightmarish violence; the killing fields from which the Valkyries later harvest bodyparts. Nature, cruelly abused by Wotan, is also in rebellion. The world ash-tree thrusts up like a tongue through the hi-gloss floor of the fire-damaged palace. And in designer Stefanos Lazaridis's strobe-lit storms and ulcerous cloudscapes there is a suggestion that the freakish weather that permeates Die Walküre - including the sudden spring of Act I - is a further result of misused power.

To describe Warner's production of Die Walküre as idea-heavy is an understatement. It is stimulating, richly detailed, provocative, engaged, but uneven. The first appearance of the Valkyries is anticlimactic; the subsequent development of their scene with Wotan - seemingly multiplying as they pass through the narrow door of the vast revolve propelled by their furious father - electrifying. The opera is essentially a series of conversations, and it is these, rather than the few points of physical action, that are most powerful here. But so thickly strewn with symbolic accessories is the set of Acts I and II that it almost obscures Warner's careful exploration of the characters. In an ideal world one shouldn't have to peer through clutter to see them. In most of Act III one doesn't. But if imperial eagles, corseted chairs, rickety ladders and rectangular UFOs are the price you have to pay for acting and singing of this intensity, so be it.

In a production dominated by eye-contact broken, sustained, enforced, or avoided, three moments of connection stand out: the first when Siegmund (Jorma Silvasti) ignores the cup of water offered to him by Sieglinde (Katarina Dalayman), gazing into her eyes with childlike openness; the second when Fricka (Rosalind Plowright) glances at Wotan (Bryn Terfel) in tenderness, desire and suspicion after he kisses her; the third when Brünnhilde (Lisa Gasteen) realises that her father will afford her some protection. Though the presence of Erda's hourglass suggests preordination, these relationships are subtly intensified through each crisis. The facial acting is exceptional, while the singing - give or take the odd stridency from Gasteen in her first entry - is as lyrical and textually truthful as could be desired. Young as he still is for this role, it is hard to imagine a Wotan of greater vocal beauty than that of Terfel.

Notwithstanding Terfel's remarkable performance - or those of Dalayman, Silvasti, Plowright, the magnificent Valkyries, and Stephen Milling's nasty, brutish and tall Hunding - Antonio Pappano's conducting was for me the highest achievement in what is, on balance, an extraordinarily compelling drama. Pappano is acutely responsive to the "now" of each scene; the brief flickers of doubt, defiance, heroism or cowardice, and the constantly shifting colours of Wagner's orchestration. This is brave, intimate, sensual conducting: highly descriptive, consistently sensitive to his singers, consummately balanced, with breathtaking pianissimi and luxurious relaxes woven in to a propulsive, urgent narrative. Excepting some hairy articulation in the (very fast) storm and the the odd hiccup from the harps, the playing of the orchestra was unparalleled, with radiant work from the woodwind in particular. A tender Fricka, a strong Sieglinde, and a Walküre the five-hour duration of which feels more like two? Purists will loathe it.

So from chateaubriand to parma violets, with William Christie's Caen-based Fame Academy for young singers, Le Jardin des Voix. Directed with winsome charm by Vincent Broussard and accompanied by the superlative orchestra of Les Arts Florissants, this year's lovelies mugged, mewed and mouéed their way through a whistle-stop tour of Italian, French and English baroque medleys; skittering about like a litter of eager circus puppies, and navigating the distinct idioms of each decorative style with gleeful versatility.

Decoration may indeed be the key to baroque style, but watching Le Jardin des Voix was like being handed an exquisitely gift-wrapped parcel of suspicious lightness: layer after layer of artfully tied, shimmering ribbon, a bed of delectable pastel-coloured tissue paper, and beneath it a tiny handful of itty-bitty bonbons. Much of the repertoire was delicious. But the sight of all seven singers and their stylistic mentor swaying to the first beat of every bar of Spargete, sospiri like an Italian baroque offshoot of Live Aid was less than edifying. Some of the voices are lovely - Claire Debono's bell-like soprano, Xavier Sabata's bosomy counter-tenor, Andrew Tortise's slender, glamorous high tenor - but the way in which they were encouraged to use them was often shouty or squeaky. Soprano Judith van Wanroij, the most mature artist in the line-up and the only singer to make Grétry's daisy-headed trio from Zémire et Azor meaningful, was under-utilised. Almost all of them will be more interesting in five years' time, though I fear Tortise will have been snapped up by then and pushed too hard too quickly. He's cute, he's smart, he's a tenor, go figure.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Die Walküre': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 28 March

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