Fulham Opera Works a Wagnerian Wonder with Modest Means

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists of Fulham Opera, Benjamin Woodward (piano accompanist), Fiona Williams (stage director). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 25.5.2012. (JPr)

Act III Wotan and his Valkyries c Robert Workman

On the day when the coach of one of our top British Olympic hopes criticises those who should mind their own business from commenting on her preparation for the Games, it would churlish of me to be too critical of a semi-professional opera company trying to mount an entire Ring Cycle. It seems so hard these days for any of our major British opera companies to put on anything by Wagner; for the fledgling Fulham Opera (founded in 2011) to be succeeding in this is an incredible achievement.

I know how hard it is to be involved in these sorts of enterprises, I recall my first multi-singer event in the 1990s – that had more performing on the platform than in the audience – being blighted by someone breaking into the artists’ changing room and stealing some of their personal belongings. I certainly learned a valuable lesson about security that day! It was around the same time I presented someone called Bryn Terfel (whatever became of him?) singing to a battered upright piano in a tiny hall in Central London. Later I became involved with a semi-professional organisation with pretensions to do what Fulham Opera are managing to do but on a grander scale. However lack of money stopped that Ring Cycle halfway through.

On a seemingly shoestring budget and drawing on the goodwill of singers wishing to perform for next to nothing, I presume, Fulham Opera worked wonders with this Die Walküre. It followed Das Rheingold that they put on last year that seems to have been another success, so much so that it has been ‘picked up’ by The Wagner Society for an encore performance on 24th June at Fulham Opera’s usual home of St John’s Church, just off Fulham Broadway.

With some incredible foresight – because I believe this is close to what Frank Castorf will do for his 2013 Bayreuth Ring – young director, Fiona Williams (with Robert Presley), sets Die Walküre (and the entire Cycle?) in modern day America. Hunding and Sieglinde are a trailer trash pairing of wife-beater and victim, Siegmund is a marine veteran back from Iraq or Afghanistan, Wotan has made his money in oil and is now the head of a film studio in Hollywood. His wife, Fricka, a faded Norma Desmond-like screen goddess, cannot countenance the incestuous goings-on of Siegmund and Sieglinde, whilst dallying herself with a young chauffeur. Brünnhilde is a black leather-jacketed Goth, partly rebelling against her father and his excesses until she understand the realities of life as the story unfolds. Her Valkyrie sisters are employed by Wotan as ‘gofers’ on his film productions and anyway one of his forthcoming attractions will be a film about Siegmund’s adventures, since there is a poster for that in Act II.

I will stop here and mention Fiona Williams’ masterstroke is Act III’s opening ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ that was absolutely wonderful stuff. By chance the singing talent on show was so ill matched with every dress size there from 0 to … well it would be indelicate for me (a person of prominence himself) to speculate. They were consulting the cards, doing a work out, tearing pages from script submissions, checking their make-up, drinking, generally playing around, as well as, riding in on bicycles. This was a visual tour de force and on top of that they sounded better than most groups of Valkyries I have ever heard … anywhere. I will name all the singers involved because they were so good: Lisajane Ellis, Janet A N Fischer, Jemma Brown, Cathy Bell, Alexa Mason, Jennie Witton, Nuria Luterbacher and Rhonda Browne.

With any ‘updating’ of a mythical story there is a conflict between the text (excellently projected in English translation on the back wall) and the references to a curse, sword, spear, giants, heroes and gods. I am sure the director knows all the backstory of her characters and the context she has now placed them in. However the Hollywood idea came and went, Wotan had an umbrella instead of a spear and incongruously Siegmund’s ‘sword’ was a rather small hunting knife that didn’t break. Then finally Brünnhilde is banished to her endless sleep by a gesticulating mournful ‘Greek chorus’ that I couldn’t see fitting in anyway in the earlier concept. She settles down to sleep accompanied by tea lights, flash effects … and two flaming torchbearers! (On a related topic I am doing the best I can to avoid everything to do with the Olympic Torch Relay currently doing the rounds in Britain. Indeed, if it came near me I would use a fire extinguisher on it for ‘health and safety’ reasons!) For me the best moments were the more ‘human’ ones between brother and sister, husband and wife, and father and daughter, often with only the two alone spot lit on the stage.

It is really an incredibly solid cast that Fulham Opera have managed to get together. Usually something like this will have more than one weak link but there really wasn’t any. Maybe some are not the finished article or may never achieve ‘greatness’ but no one switched off and they were all enthusiastic and committed to the task in hand. This is a great credit to all concerned. To be a very ‘picky’ would be unreasonable: Jon Morrell’s burly Siegmund lacks a little calm lyricism that may have given him more vocal stamina in crucial moments but his ‘Walse! … Walse!’ had great impact in a small hall, I though Laura Hudson as Sieglinde was the best actress on show and her mousy downtrodden EastEnders’ demeanour was very believable – and she was an accomplished singer, too! Zoë South’s impeccable diction and powerful voice made her Brünnhilde sound easier than I know it is, Ian Wilson-Pope’s Wotan was a plausible patriarch and reminded me – to his credit – of the wonderful Norman Bailey from another era. For me Elizabeth Russo’s neurotic Fricka and Oliver Hunt’s snarling Hunding were rather more two-dimensional, but that might be Wagner’s fault and not theirs.

Central to the performing space is the altar, that I assume is a permanent fixture, and good use is made of it. All this would be even better if it could find someone to throw just a little more money at it, as the costumes and staging has the hand-me-down look of a school nativity play leftovers. And truth-be-told, St John’s Church is not the most prepossessing of venues and might put off people who would enjoy taking a chance to see something as good as this production.

Another drawback which might stop enterprise drawing a large audience is that its uncut four-hour score is ‘reduced’ to being played on a single piano. For many Wagnerians this will mean it can never be the ‘real thing’ – though this is less of an issue now than it once was. But what a bravura – and tireless – accompaniment Benjamin Woodward gave throughout the opera. As the evening wore on I missed an orchestra less and less and at times (end of Acts II and start of Act III particularly) I really needed to check it wasn’t two pianos – or four hands on one keyboard – as it seemed impossible for one person to play so many notes in so short a time … and so atmospherically.

Jim Pritchard

Follow the development of this Ring Cycle by going to www.fulhamopera.com where there will be details of this autumn’s ‘half-cycle’ and its culmination next year. See www.stjohnsfulham.org for details of other musical performances at the church.