Sunday 4 September 2011

Rhinegold in Fulham

If you can perform Puccini's La Boheme in the confines of the upstairs room in a pub, then the idea of performing Wagner's Das Rheingold in a church in Fulham starts to sound reasonable. Fulham Opera have done just that, performing the entire Das Rheingold fully staged, with piano accompaniment, in St. John's Church, Fulham. And very creditable it was too, we almost forgot about the extreme discomfort of the church seats, so engrossing was the performance.

St. Johns is a Victorian church which has been modernised, so that the playing space was a plain, modern-ish chancel with undecorated walls on which Fulham Opera were able to project designs, a set of steps led to the raised playing area and the only drawback was the presence of the altar (a modern, marble table) which was, inevitably, unmoveable and rather gave the proceedings the feel of the sacred play. That said, it must be the only production of Das Rheingold that I have ever seen where the back drop includes a substantial stained glass window of the crucifiction - definitely an interesting mix of iconography in this opera.

Fiona Williams directed the piece, Rob Dyer lit it and Gaynor Woodward facilitated the costumes and produced the rather 80's altar cloth which functioned as the river Rhine.

It has to be confessed that the opening was the weakest part. The ambient light was still quite high (no blackout curtains of course) so that lighting effects were not dominant, Wagner's evocative orchestration does not lend itself to piano reduction and the budget restrictions meant that we lacked the coup de theatre possible in bigger theatres.

But things took on an entirely different complexion when the Rhinemaidens appeared; one of the big strengths of this production was the depth of its casting. The Rhinemaidens were a lusty bunch, Elizabeth Capener (Wellgunde) also sang Freia, Sara Gonzalez (Flosshilde) also sang Erda and Zoe South (Woglinde) has Brunnhilde in her repertoire. But they were nicely matched in voice and supremely playful; big voices having fun.

The object of their fun was Robert Presley's Alberich. Dressed as a contemporary wide-boy in garishly flowered shirt, Presley's impressive performance brought out the humour in this scene. He lacked the ultimate feeling of danger that the finest Alberich's bring to the role, but he was thrilling nonetheless and his abjuring of love was fully committed. I feel that in a darker production he would bring out the scarier side of this character.

When the scene changed to Valhalla, we moved from the Rhine to Dallas! Fiona Williams's neat idea was to stage the opera as high-octane family drama and what better family to model the opera on than the Ewings of Dallas. This was in keeping with the vein of humour which ran through the performance, but Williams and her cast never sent the opera up, the laughter helped us see another aspect of the Wagner's opera.

Frankly, the costume and props budget just wasn't bit enough to turn St. John's Church into the Ewing's ranch (Southfork?) and the costumes looked a  trifle make-do. But the cast entered into the idea with a will and with fine committment; you could moan about the details, but sheer committment will get you a long way.

Ian Wilson-Pope made a physically impressive Wotan and captured the right cowboy type swagger the production needed. His was a dominating performance, which something that both opera and concept called for. His voice was the one that suffered most from the restricted acoustic; we were simply not far enough away from him for his vibrato to settle down and at times it became intrusive in a way that probably does not happen in bigger theatres.

Elizabeth Russo as Fricka was in the unfortunate position of having to try and emulate the glamour role in the piece. She did this creditably and is a fine Fricka, albeit in a rather understated way. This was a neatly sung performance, which impressed with its attention to detail. But I couldn't help wishing that she had taken Joan Collins character from Dynasty as her role model; Fricka as power dressed super-bitch.

Of course, the problem with Das Rheingold is that we tend to view the characters from the prism of the later operas, so that it makes sense if Fricka is a bitch in Die Walkure playing Das Rheingold on its own means that the character can be less hard edged.

The third major character was, of course, Loge sung by Brian Smith-Walters. I was less clear how he fitted into the Dallas concept and we seemed to have lost the element of fire. Surely Loge must be tricky and clever, here he seemed in danger of being something of an oaf. Smith-Walters performance carried things through, though his dark tenor added a heroic element to the part which is usually omitted. Simply, though what Smith-Walters did was impressive, I wanted something lither and tricksier. And Fiona Williams really ought to have come up with a concept which allowed this Loge to bring intelligence and fire into play.

Capener was a fine Freia, dressed in lurid pink and rhinstones, she was the baby of the family. But there was, thankfully, no baby in her voice. Her brothers, Froh and Donner, were played as hick cowboys, which rather limited the scope of Stuart Laing and Stephen John Svanholm, but when it came to their set piece at the end when the gods entered Valhalla, then both delivered. But for the remainder of the opera I was a little to aware of how the directors concept of Dallas cowboys was something of a mismatch to the singers natural inclinations.

Fasolt and Fafner were played as besuited business men but Oliver Hunt and John Woods, both providing some fine singing and some neat coordinated movement.  Sara Gonzalez appeared from the audience to sing Erda, though more could have been made of this; but Gonzalez contributed and admirably firm vocal line.

The cast were all admirably hard working, providing the anvils in the descent into Nibelheim as well as playing the Nibelung. Like the Rhine scene, Niblelheim was played pretty straight with some nice physical theatre solutions to the scenes technical problems.

At the end, for the entrance into Valhalla, we were again aware of the budgetary limits but the cast entered into things with a will and the rainbow umbrellas didn't quite look risible.

For the closing moments of the opera we were left with the piano and it was here that the heroic nature of the enterprise made itself felt. The entire opera was played admirably and vigorously by musical director Benjamin Woodward. The sheer physical enterprise of playing the opera in piano reduction (albeit with an interval) added an extra heroic element to the opera.

The group are planning a fully staged Die Walkure next year. On this showing it should be something to watch out for, though I would suggest that they invest in a piano duet version of the accompaniement to try and help do more justice to the bigger moments in Wagner's orchestration

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