United Kingdom Wagner, Götterdämmerung: Soloists of Fulham Opera, Nick Fletcher (piano accompanist), Fiona Williams (stage director), St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 16.2.2014. (JPr)
Norn 1: Lindsay Bramley
Norn 2: Jemma Brown
Norn 3: Laura Hudson
Alberich: Mark Holland
Gunther: Stephen John Svanholm
Gutrune: Laura Hudson
Waltraute: Jemma Brown
Brünnhilde: Zoe South
Siegfried: Jonathan Finney
Hagen: Oliver Gibbs
Wellgunde: Emily Blanch
Woglinde: Emma Peaurt
Flosshilde: Lindsay Bramley
Vassals: The London Gay Men’s Chorus
Stage Director: Fiona Williams
Lighting Designer: Colin Grefell
Musical Director: Benjamin Woodward
Pianist: Nick Fletcher
This review is partly a standalone one but is best read in the context with my recent reflections on Das Rheingold since this was the culmination of my Wagner journey with Fulham Opera. It need hardly be said that putting on the Ring was an insane idea for a small independent professional company such as this with limited financial resources – when many better endowed organisations have failed, heroically or otherwise. (I include myself in this during my time leading The Wagner Society when against my better judgement it was believed that throwing money away on how the Ring was staged provided the answer to everything.) Here if anyone was looking for absolute perfection they were in the wrong place but what was achieved by Fulham Opera was an absolute triumph of ambition, perseverance, the love of music and joy of performing.
With his assistant, Nick Fletcher, at the piano, music director Ben Woodward, helped out or conducted the small ensemble of six instrumentalists and the London Gay Men’s’ Chorus when necessary. Essentially it is a (their own?) four-handed piano arrangement augmented occasionally by Carla Finesilver’s refined flute and Hilary Manning’s tinkling harp and four valiant French horns (Jon Cooley, Daniel Heanes, Mick Nagel and Peter Kaldor). The singers were mostly, it seems, left to their own devices and it is a credit to the musical preparation – and their own talent – that they didn’t come adrift of the music more than they occasionally did.
Any misgivings I had were about the stage direction: the first three instalments of the Ring brought the story from its Dallas setting for Das Rheingold, to Hollywood for Die Walküre and a backwoods US community for Siegfried – linking it all together with Wotan’s failure to match reality to film fantasy. However, where exactly we are for Götterdämmerung is never particularly clear. Hagen looks like Rory Kinnear’s recent Iago at the National Theatre, and Gunther and Gutrune are dressed like pilots for some extravagant airline. That Wotan/Wanderer has abandoned his hopes to be a movie mogul is shown on video(!) as Waltraute recounts his plight in her Narrative ‘Höre mit Sinn’ (‘Hear and understand’) – sung with deep feeling by Jemma Brown – when he is shown unreeling his finished film. Otherwise to decorate their ‘cave’ Siegfried and Brünnhilde seem to have gone to Ikea; the three infirm Norns are being looked after by their carers and playing with knitting wool (I’ve seen this idea before) and quite who the Rhine-daughters are supposed to be I am still none the wiser now as I was after watching Das Rheingold.
I’m never one for strict adherence to Wagner’s own ‘stage directions’ but Alberich does sing ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?’ with some implication that he is ‘appearing’ in his dreams – but this is not what we saw. Also as often happens now, it is Gunther wearing the Tarnhelm rather than Siegfried. But why did need a mask of his own face – surely Siegfried’s face would have been better and would have allowed Brünnhilde’s indigent Act II response about what happened that night to make more sense? In Act III it was not clear whether Siegfried’s hand was raised to flourish the ring so repelling Hagen. Then at the end – even though we saw some flickering flames – as the music died away it just went dark. The set basically was a tripartite white backcloth, the central part lifted from time-to-time to reveal Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s ‘bedroom’ and later employed the altar for very aptly acting as the slain hero’s bier. However, after all the destruction (in the music) and there is some repose as Götterdämmerung ends I expected we would be shown something to give us food for thought but there was nothing.
I could go on but will not because I seem to be striving for the perfection I said was impossible anyway. I make these points because the many other wonderful moments over four evenings left me wishing there has been no loose endings for me who (thinks he) knows his Wagner and those new to this mythic world.
Fulham Opera has been able to twist the arms of some fine singers for some of the most fiendishly difficult roles in the operatic repertoire. The thought ‘weakest link’ never came into my mind during the evening though, of course, some of the singers were much better than others. The two trios of Norns and Rhine-daughters sang solidly, Laura Hudson who had stepped in as Third Norn gave – for me – the most rounded performance of all as an impassioned Gutrune. Her voice had something genuinely Wagnerian about it and seems destined – if she gets the luck – for some bigger stages. Stephen John Svanholm’s more impassive Gunther was the perfect counterpoint to his sister’s heightened emotions. I liked Oliver Gibbs better as Hagen than Alberich and with his dark tones and ability to sneer through his words he was full of menace, even if he did tend to overact at times. Mark Holland brought all his years of experience to his portrayal of Alberich. Jonathan Finney acquitted himself well as Siegfried and his final lines as he dies had tremendous pathos. Zoë South as Brünnhilde sang her fearsomely difficult part with unforced ease – if occasionally unrelenting volume for the small hall. She was very believable as the woman scorned and dressed in red she looked very much like Tosca, a role I suspect she could do very well.
Praise also goes to the enthusiastic participation of the London Gay Men’s Chorus in Act II which made Hagen’s exciting call to his Vassals one of the highlights of Fulham Opera’s entire Ring. It was another masterstroke by their talented artistic director, Ben Woodward, for whom musical aspirations alone would never have been enough to see this ‘Wagner journey’ to its tremendously successful conclusion – he must have needed bucket loads of chutzpah … I only wish I had had a fraction of this when I was trying to do something similar with the Ring all those years ago!
For more information about the Fulham Opera Ring (the second cycle is 23rd, 25th, 28th February and 2nd March) go to www.fulhamopera.com and to www.stjohnsfulham.org for details of other musical performances at the church.