For good reason, the last scene of Don Giovanni has been dubbed "the directors' graveyard." To a secular audience, the notion of a hell that is not man-made has become impossible to swallow. But what of the last scene of Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera in a cycle that subjects religious belief to intense philosophical, psychological and political scrutiny? Brünnhilde's immolation, Hagen's desperate attempt to reclaim the gold that destroyed both of their fathers, the destruction of their diseased world-order, and the intimation of redemption in the final bars of the orchestral score present an unparalleled theatrical challenge.
Perhaps inevitably, this scene is the most problematic in the final production of Keith Warner's Ring Cycle. Warner's resurrection tableau - featuring a new-look, slim-line Brünnhilde astride a circle fashioned from the original double-helix - is no less valid an interpretation than Tim Albery's screen of numinous newborns for Scottish Opera, and is infinitely more thoughtful than Phyllida Lloyd's Gaza grotesque for English National Opera. Still, it seems curious that having spent nearly 16 hours interrogating what Wagner appears to suggest is the immature thinking of those who cannot out-grow their gods, and/or their parents, Warner should resort to Christian imagery.
For much of the rest of Götter- dämmerung, his focus is again on the way in which Wagner's characters re-define themselves through their repeated accounts of what has already happened. Though there is much fun to be had linking the images in this production with those of the first three - the shattered eye/window motif, the Rhine-Daughter wig which Hagen's raped mother was made to wear, the deer that stood for Sieglinde, the war-torn remnants of the world ash-tree - Stefanos Lazaridis's hydraulic spectaculars and Marie-Jeanne Lecca's dandyfied mafiosi costumes have less impact than the pre-ordained agonies of Siegfried (John Treleaven), Brünnhilde (Lisa Gasteen), and Hagen (John Tomlinson).
As before, Warner's finest work can be seen in the faces of his singers. Such is Tomlinson's charisma that it is impossible to take one's eyes off him - which is just as well given Warner has Hagen on stage for most of the opera. "Bred for hatred", he is a figure at least as tragic as the guileless Siegfried and his Valkyrie wife, and one equally doomed by the dreadful legacy of the previous generation. Though Gasteen's transition from victim to avenger is beautifully drawn, and Treleaven's scene with the Rhine-Daughters is most moving, Tomlinson delivers the most confident and compelling performance of the production.
Musically, there are many arresting moments: the testosterone-charged Act II chorus, the Norns' Prologue (sung with lieder-like delicacy by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Yvonne Howard, and Marina Poplavskaya), the tearful humiliation of Emily Magee's Gutrune, the childlike sweetness of the Rhine-Daughters (Sarah Fox, Heather Shipp, Sarah Castle), Gasteen's ambiguous "Ruhe, du Gott". The woodwind and brass glow, and Antonio Pappano's conducting, though unsteadily paced, is unerringly sympathetic to the singers. Though the final image is perplexing, it is impossible to fault the sincerity and intellectual ambition of this collaboration.
Chen Shi-Zheng's Orfeo, first of three ENO co-productions with the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, posits a parallel between the physical language of Indonesian formal dance and the musical language of Monteverdi's favola in musica. Much of the staging is exquisite - the pellucid waters of the Styx, the fluttering dismay of the Javanese dancers when Orfeo casts his fateful glance at Euridice, the organza cocoon from which Stephanie Marshall's blanched Persephone takes her faltering steps on the backs on the crawling dancers - but the musical compromises would be unthinkable in Amsterdam or Paris or Madrid, where they take Early Music seriously and don't run screaming from the room at the first mention of tactus or esclamazioni.
The pit-band is compromised of a half-dozen authenticity-monitors from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a handful of ENO players who have gamely adopted gut E-strings and shorter bows, and ungamely refused to adopt the original pitch. In attempting to match the pungent sixth-comma meantone temperament of an impressive continuo section, they sound like a school orchestra. Excepting a Songs of Praise moment from the organ, all is well when the score is left to the experts. The sackbutts are spine-tingling, as is Frances Kelly's baroque harp, while, as Orfeo, John Mark Ainsley's Possente spirto illustrates his absolute command of the rhetorical and decorative style. Among a cast whose lack of fluency in the rhythmic and melodic language of this period is made worse by a translation that favours internal rhymes over accuracy, Ainsley's electrifying performance is matched only by that of Anna Dennis, in the tiny role of Ninfa.
Die Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000), to 6 May; Orfeo, Coliseum (0870 145 0200), to 28 AprilReuse content