Texan Oilmen and Ranchers in Fulham Opera’s Rheingold

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Das Rheingold: Soloists of Fulham Opera, Nick Fletcher (piano accompanist), Peter Relton (revival director). St John’s Church, Fulham, London, 9.2.2014. (JPr)

Rheingold c Richard Carter
Rehearsal Photo credit Richard Carter – Loge and Wotan confer during the Texan Rheingold

Cast: Woglinde:  Emma Peaurt Wellgunde:  Emily Blanch Flosshilde:  Lindsay Bramley Alberich:  Oliver Gibbs Wotan:   Gerard Delrez Fricka:  Elizabeth Russo Fasolt:  Oliver Hunt Fafner:  Antoine Salmon Freia:   Elizabeth Stock Froh:  Daniel Meades Donner:  Stephen John Svanholm Mime:  Ian Massa-Harris Loge:  Jonathan Finney Erda:  Jemma Brown   Production: Original Director: Fiona Williams Revival Director: Peter Relton Lighting Designer: Fiona Thomas Musical Director:  Benjamin Woodward Pianist: Nick Fletcher

Fulham Opera’s informative Ring brochure begins with a welcome from artistic director Ben Woodward who comments that this project is ‘perhaps the maddest and most complicated theatrical production ever undertaken by a tiny fringe opera company! The idea was never to do a complete Ring Cycle. After a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors in December 2010, our dear departed friend Robert Presley said to me “Let’s do Rheingold. I wanna be Alberich”. He should have already known at that point not to put such a silly idea in my head! That Rheingold was a remarkable success, to our great surprise, and rather laid down a gauntlet. The idea to revive the shows for full Cycles was that of Fiona Williams a year ago. Between the two of them, along with the support of Zoë South’s wonderfully colourful Brünnhilde, they have caused something wonderful – not to say unlikely – to occur.’

 I never saw that Rheingold (I can’t remember why) and joined the venture with Die Walküre (review) followed by Siegfried (review). However I couldn’t get to Götterdämmerung towards the end of last year so will review this (if all goes well) when this first cycle concludes on 16th February. Meanwhile, I am following the new Ring as it is staged opera-by-opera in Geneva so it has been intriguing to be in Switzerland one week and with Fulham Opera’s enthusiastic cast and crew the very next one. I can slightly revise something I wrote before and state how 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 have succeeded in this is an incredible achievement.

 My first visit in 2012 to Fulham Broadway’s St John’s Church was not the happiest and I described it as ‘not the most prepossessing of venues and (how it) might put off people who would enjoy taking a chance to see something as good as this production (Die Walküre).’ However in 2014 it seems to be benefiting from the ongoing regeneration of the area and no one should now be put off going there. The clouds of dust emanating from sadly neglected hassocks is a thing of the past and there is now new, surprisingly comfortable, seating.

 With the outline of a crucifix remaining on the wall behind it, the action of Das Rheingold is mostly on the platform around the altar – unlike Siegfried that was performed in the nave with the audience on either side. It is clearly a shoestring budget with the shoestrings much in evidence (especially as neckties for the cowboys!) but the evident esprit de corps – a phrase used by one of the singers -transcends the ‘let’s put on a show’ gung-ho approach and never lets Wagner down, either artistically or musically.

 Frank Castorf’s new Bayreuth Ring last summer is set, I understand, against a global quest for ‘black gold’ – oil! Fiona Williams’ Rheingold – revived here by Peter Relton – predates this but similarly brings us Dallasthe musical. Like the next instalment, Die Walküre, we are in modern day America and Wotan – the JR Ewing figure – had made his money in oil and become the head of a film studio in Hollywood. In Das Rheingold, Stetson-wearing, bourbon-swilling and cigar-smoking Wotan, who already seems to have plenty of money to keep his blowsy Sue Ellen-type wife, Fricka, in luxuries, is egged on by her and craves even greater wealth and power. Donner and Froh, dressed as cattlemen, and Freia, the Lucy Ewing ‘poison dwarf’ in gaudy pink and rhinestones, complete the Texan Southfork Ranch family.

 Personally, I would have done something else with the Rhine-daughters, Alberich, Mime and the seemingly robotised Nibelungs because I wasn’t sure how they fitted in with the rest of the concept. Fasolt and Fafner were credible baseball bat-wielding heavies determined to extract full payment for their labours in whatever way necessary but I wondered why better use of lighting them from behind was not used to cast giant shadows on the back wall. Erda seemed to be scolding Wotan like an ex-wife; and that leaves us with Loge, in a scarlet-suit and with hair to match, who seemed inordinately attracted to Freia who did little, in turn, to spurn his advances. Loge was definitely a trickster and obviously someone who could be relied on for a cunning plan. As a bit of an angry mockney geezer there were hints of Ben Elton in his early stand-up days – however where this Loge fitted into the overall Dallas setting was also a bit of mystery.

 When the laptop driven projection of the very clear English surtitles shut down a screen-saver of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise was briefly seen and this unfortunately showed up the lack of use of visual effects to enhance certain scenes. I don’t want to get too picky as there were many other great moments mixed with the not-so-good such as the rainbow umbrellas at the end – an idea so kitsch it should have been stillborn. Two of the better ideas were for Alberich’s transformations into the ‘dragon’ (something I have seen done less well many times) and the frog – here an amusing tiny windup green one.

 The Rhine-daughters (Emma Peaurt, Emily Blanch and Lindsay Bramley) sounded better together but were less-than-convincing individually though they were energetic ‘swimmers’. Oliver Gibbs was a dark-hued and very bitter Alberich who hadn’t done as well in life has he had hoped for. I am not certain what one of this generation’s greatest Mimes, Graham Clark, who was in the audience, would have made of Ian Massa-Harris’s very individual take on this character/caricature: it was a very interesting approach but I am not certain – despite some convincing singing – whether he succeeded. Elizabeth Stock was a feisty Freia; Elizabeth Russo a suitably indignant Fricka; Daniel Meades a sweet-toned Froh; and Stephen John Svanholm a potent Donner. There was also a good vocal contrast between Oliver Hunt’s soppier Fasolt and Antoine Salmon’s scheming Fafner and one of the best voices of the evening was heard from Jemma Brown as a resplendent Erda of great augustness.

Gerard Delrez is one of the great unsung heroes of fringe opera and his commanding Wotan was intelligently sung with his acting revealing the full gamut of the only-too-human frailties of this king of the gods. Jonathan Finney – another fringe opera stalwart – impressed with the clarity of his singing as Loge who was somewhat more thoughtful and less playful than some are.

 Nick Fletcher was the valiant pianist, and once over the realisation that it would the only instrument that would be heard such was the atmosphere he created that in the end I was not missing an orchestra. Music director, Ben Woodward, sat with him and conducted the ‘anvils’ to accompany the musical descent and ascent to and from Nibelheim – I don’t know how these were created but they were some of the best I have heard. Near the end he joined Fletcher so that four hands at the piano could underscore the gods’ vainglorious entry into Valhalla as this triumphant evening for Fulham Opera ended on their own high.

 Do see this Ring if you can. Everyone concerned deserves all the support they can get.

Jim Pritchard

For more information about the Fulham Opera Ring (first cycle continues 11th, 12th and 16th February and 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.