As opera comes to the festival for the first time, Anthony Holden offers a beginner's guide to The Valkyrie

Sandwiched between Paul McCartney and Oasis, English National Opera makes history today by bringing Wagner to Glastonbury - in the shape of the final act of The Valkyrie , just one hour of the 16 that make up his epic four-opera Ring cycle.

The 100,000 mudlarks sampling opera for the first time in Glastonbury's history will be joined by millions more as the show goes out on BBC2 today. Many may never have seen an opera before, let alone Wagner, let alone The Ring. ENO sings in English, but you won't be able to make out a word. So here's a potted guide to what's going on.

The first thing you'll see is eight feisty women ascending to a mountaintop. They should be riding in on flying horses, but that's beyond ENO's special-effects department, let alone its state-subsidised budget. Normally, they'd be dressed in pigtails and Viking helmets, but this is a thoroughly modern production - by Phyllida Lloyd, director of the West End hit, Mamma Mia! - so they're in Vietnam-style fatigues.

Which is appropriate, for you'll recognise their theme-tune as the chopper music from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now . Accompanied by all 91 members of ENO's orchestra, under conductor Paul Daniel (last seen in C4's Opera-tunity), these whooping women are the Valkyries, daughters of Wotan, king of the gods. The hunks with them are dead heroes they are bringing to their heaven, Valhalla.

Next on the scene is their sister, Brunnhilde, Wotan's favourite daughter - but not right now, as she's just disobeyed his orders. In the previous acts, Wotan told Brunnhilde to protect Siegmund, her half-brother (though she doesn't know it), in a fight with a nasty piece of work called Hunding.

Then, for reasons we don't have time for, Wotan changed his mind and told her to protect Hunding. But Brunnhilde took pity on Siegmund and switched sides to ensure he won the fight.

In vain. He got killed. So now Brunnhilde's trying to make up for it by looking after his girlfriend Sieglinde. She was married (unhappily, of course) to Hunding (who's now dead, too). She's also Wotan's child - just about everyone in The Ring is - which makes her Siegmund's sister. Which, in turn, makes it rather dodgy that she's carrying his child.

Incest is par for the course in The Ring . The real point is that Sieglinde's child by Siegmund will be Siegfried, the hero of the next opera (this one's only the second - there's a long way to go yet). So it's crucial that the Valkyries protect Sieglinde. They lend her a horse just in time to scram before an angry Wotan arrives on a thundercloud.

Boy, is he mad. Fresh from a row with his wife, Fricka (who is goddess of marriage, so she's got plenty to complain about), Wotan is so angry with Brunnhilde for disobeying his orders that he strips her of her Valkyrie status and decrees that she must lie here in a deep sleep, defenceless, and marry the first bloke who turns up to awake her. Even the other Valkyries think this is a bit steep, until Wotan tells them they'll share her fate unless they vamoose sharpish. So they do.

Brunnhilde fails to change Wotan's mind, but he takes pity on her, to the point of surrounding her with a ring of fire, so that the guy she has to marry will at least be a mega-brave hero. In the next opera, that turns out to be - you guessed it - her nephew Siegfried, which thickens the plot (not to mention the incest) even further.

In Lloyd's version, even Wotan and Brunnhilde have the hots for each other. Father removes daughter's clothes before injecting her to sleep in front of medics at a clinic which suddenly materialises on this remote mountaintop. A gang of yobs then emerges from nowhere (certainly not from the text) to grope her. This is what's called 'director's opera', as it bears no relation at all to the composer's intentions.

Got all that? Glastonbury's proximity to the land of Arthurian legend makes it the perfect setting for a slice of Wagner's marathon morality tale, a cross between Tolkien and Harry Potter. If you enjoy tonight, be in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday 7 July, 7.30pm, when ENO is mounting a live performance of Puccini's heart-breaker La Bohème. It's easier on the ear - and a lot easier to follow.


Anthony Holden

The GuardianTramp

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