The Valkyrie/ ENO, Coliseum, London; <br/>Francesca da Rimini &amp; Pagliacci/ Opera North, Grand Theatre, Leeds; <br/>Hall&eacute; Orchestra/ Mark Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

One more Ring to bind them all
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The Independent Culture

Like a film critic with a closely guarded plot twist, I have some misgivings about drawing attention to the beginning of The Valkyrie. But few readers will be unaware by now of the ear-splitting scream that opens Phyllida Lloyd's production: the boldest gesture yet in her ongoing Ring Cycle for English National Opera. In the second opera of the cycle, Lloyd's ideas have begun to ignite. Her use of video projection is smoother, Richard Hudson's sets are sharper, and Mark Henderson's lighting is breathtaking. As Siegmund (Pär Lindskog) and Sieglinde (Orla Boylan) embrace, the walls of Hunding's hut peel back to reveal a wash of brilliant, intoxicating lime - a colour last seen on Erda's stockings in Rhinegold. Colour is crucial throughout. Brünnhilde's ring of fire - a vague red spot-light that intensifies and intensifies to bathe the auditorium in scarlet - is first muted then triumphant. The beginning of Act III sees a spectacular coup de théâtre as the Valkyries reel in the Fal

Like a film critic with a closely guarded plot twist, I have some misgivings about drawing attention to the beginning of The Valkyrie. But few readers will be unaware by now of the ear-splitting scream that opens Phyllida Lloyd's production: the boldest gesture yet in her ongoing Ring Cycle for English National Opera. In the second opera of the cycle, Lloyd's ideas have begun to ignite. Her use of video projection is smoother, Richard Hudson's sets are sharper, and Mark Henderson's lighting is breathtaking. As Siegmund (Pär Lindskog) and Sieglinde (Orla Boylan) embrace, the walls of Hunding's hut peel back to reveal a wash of brilliant, intoxicating lime - a colour last seen on Erda's stockings in Rhinegold. Colour is crucial throughout. Brünnhilde's ring of fire - a vague red spot-light that intensifies and intensifies to bathe the auditorium in scarlet - is first muted then triumphant. The beginning of Act III sees a spectacular coup de théâtre as the Valkyries reel in the Fallen Heroes from a blanched skyscape, though the passivity of these iron-pumping play-things is but a brief distraction from the Valkyries' habitual prostration. Here, as in several other places, one starts to question whether Lloyd can maintain her moral agenda without detracting from Wagner's more ambiguous original. The enforced sedation of Brünnhilde is undeniably harrowing but appears to have been imported from another drama, while Wotan's exit through the audience - tripping over their bags and coats - is a mistake.

Showing Brünnhilde as Wotan's help-meet in the nightmarish opening scene - an echo of his appearance with Loge at the start of Rhinegold - establishes their relationship instantly and emphatically. Lloyd pulls no punches here and I admire her courage in drawing their incest and mutual fascination so matter-of-factly. Were it not for the minor issue of some stolen gold, she suggests, this dysfunctional father and daughter might live happily ever after: fighting, fucking, playing and scheming. But they can't. And the trouble with having an exceptionally bad Wotan is that you need an exceptionally good performer to play him. Robert Hayward's acting still lacks authority and fluency - making Kathleen Broderick's quirky, kittenish Brünnhilde weirdly forceful by comparison - and his diction is woofy. (In Wotan's Farewell, for instance, I caught "Rolling with Prodi, billing with joy, you sucked your Fiat...", which sounds more like poésie concrète than Jeremy Sams's translation.) For clarity and colour, the stars of this cast are in Act I: Lindskog (brilliant of tone despite intonation problems), Boylan (committed and radiant) and Clive Bayley (as a brutish, bewildered Hunding). But the orchestra are much invigorated after a woeful Rhinegold and Paul Daniel's conducting, though rarely more than efficient, is greatly improved. A giant step forward from part one then, but as great a step again will be required for Siegfried.

The fifth and sixth of Opera North's "Eight Little Greats" opened in Leeds last Friday with what has become this project's signature cocktail of panache and provocation. David Pountney's production of Francesca da Rimini has Dante's chorus of lost souls in a displaced persons' camp: evocatively choreographed in scurrying waves of terror, if rather at odds with the Raphaelite poses of the protagonists. On stage Jonathan Summers (Malatesta/Ghost of Virgil) dominates - as indeed he does as Tonio in Christopher Alden's Pagliacci - but the most impressive aspect of this production is Martin André's compelling account of Rachmaninov's swirling, febrile score and the orchestra's hypersensitive response. Here is a conductor who wrestles with the meaning and texture of a score, who propels it yet allows it to breathe. Which is not something I can say of David Parry.

Bright and clean as Parry's Pagliacci is, it is also too linear and driven, as though he were worried that his audience might be bored by such familiar repertoire were he to linger over its curves. This seems to me to be a redundant concern - especially given Majella Cullagh's electrifying Nedda and Summers's intelligent Tonio - but Alden's production is itself a commentary on over-familiarity, with an onstage "audience" mouthing the words and waving cigarette lighters during Vesti la giubba. Canio and his clowns are here a down-at-heel novelty group who accompany the orchestra (silently) on synthesiser, drum kit, tambourine and guitar: clearly despising their nostalgic fans, each other, us, their material, and most horribly using their nerdiest groupie, Silvio (Mark Stone). Verismo, my arse! Or maybe not? As with so many of Alden's beautifully directed, provocatively conceptualised productions, the subject is that nauseating nexus of hilarity, complicity and horror that we feel when watching an abusive act in the name of entertainment. But this self-reflexive deconstruction may be too rich for those first-time opera-goers that "Eight Little Greats" set out to attract and one can but wonder how Alden would have adapted to the Savoy Opera ethos for his now cancelled production of La traviata.

The penultimate trip to Leeds presented an opportunity to visit Manchester's Bridgewater Hall for the first time: a venue of such brilliant acoustics and architectural transparency that Londoners can only gawp with envy and admiration, and home to the Hallé Orchestra. Under Mark Elder, this once-tired orchestra has rejuvenated beyond recognition and is now a silky, dynamic, magnificently versatile beast: equally riveting in the luxuriant lyricism of Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder (with Anne Schwanewilms), the shimmering textures of Webern's Im Sommerwind, and the wit, wisdom and yearning of poor, homesick Dvorak's Ninth "New World" Symphony. Worried about over-familiarity? Don't get faster, get Elder. A superb performance from a superb orchestra in a truly superlative venue.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'The Valkyrie': Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 5 June; 'Francesca da Rimini'/ 'Pagliacci': Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 222 6222) to 19 May, then touring

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