No Allowances Needed as Fulham Opera Present Wagner as Wagner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner: Soloists and Orchestra of Fulham Opera/Ben Woodward (conductor). Burlington Danes Academy, Wood Lane, London. 1.5.2016. (JPr)

Die Walküre Acts I & III

Sieglinde: Cecilia Bailey
Siegmund: Ronald Samm
Hunding: John Milne
Wotan: Keel Watson
Brünnhilde: Jemma Brown
Helmwige: Janet Fischer
Gerhilde: Catharine Rogers
Ortlinde: Emily Blanch
Waltraute: Sidonie Winter
Grimgerde: Joanna Gamble
Siegrune: Mae Heydorn
Rossweisse: Olivia Barry
Schwertleite: Liza Graham

Who are Fulham Opera? It is worth reminding readers of how they describe themselves on their website: ‘One of the UK’s premier independent professional companies, Fulham Opera exists to produce large scale works in the intimate space of St. John’s Church, Fulham. Based on a co-operative business model, cast and crew are paid from shares of the ticket takings after production expenses have been covered.’ But now they are much more than just this as later this month they head to Wilton’s (website) to repeat their inventive Falstaff production, presumably as part of the celebration of all things Shakespeare in this anniversary year.

Another part of their activities is their weekend workshops where an ad hoc orchestra gathers together along with Fulham Opera’s usual roster of young or experienced singers. This May Day Bank Holiday weekend they revisited Wagner, at which they have previously excelled. It took place at a school in West London and the hall – graced somewhat incongruously by notice boards with House names such as Galatians, Colossians and Ephesians – was two thirds full with orchestral players and singers, with those looking on doing their best to find somewhere to sit. There were so many involved in the orchestra that the conductor Ben Woodward, the founder member and artistic director of Fulham Opera, did not have a number for me but he said there was every instrument Wagner wanted.

Speaking before the performance of Die Walküre Acts I and III that was the culmination of their weekend, the casually dressed Woodward (in Fuzzy Bear T-shirt proclaiming ‘Don’t Stop The Music’) reminded us how between 2011 and 2014 Fulham Opera explored Wagner’s Ring and how they were ‘Unique among London’s fringe companies’ in doing this. He ruminated on how similar organisations ‘wouldn’t attempt this repertoire’ and how Wagner has also been a feature of their previous orchestra workshops. Currently people are being asked to pay up to £240 for a ticket to Royal Opera’s Tannhäuser which features a disappointing conductor and cast. As a veteran of Wagner in Europe, Bayreuth particularly, for many decades, I feel that audiences – and many critics – in London have no real idea what this music should sound like. Rather than in their expensive seat at Covent Garden, more should have been in this school hall near Wormwood Scrubs to hear Wagner as Wagner.

I really do not need to make too many allowances for this scratch orchestra and the wonderful singers to say these excerpts from Die Walküre were as good as I am likely to hear anywhere. Ben Woodward conducted lucid, beautifully paced performances, superbly controlling the emotional trajectory. He did not allow the music to linger very much but nothing seemed too fast with Act I at about 65 minutes and Act II around 68. The sound from the orchestra was often as thrilling as it should be and their integration and discipline was mostly quite exemplary. I lost count of the many fine details and wonderful symphonic moments from the orchestra during two of Wagner’s most atmospherically scored acts. After an emotionally charged Act I, Act III was even better. The Valkyries were a vocally remarkable line-up and no better or worse than I have encountered elsewhere; any individual musical weakness was more than made up for by their resounding ensemble singing. Everything was splendid from the exhilarating ‘Hojotohos’ and ‘Heiahas’ of the Valkyries reverberating around the school hall during their famous Ride, through Brünnhilde’s desperation to save Sieglinde and her unborn child, Wotan’s rage at his perceived betrayal, and to her gradual calming his fury down to acceptance, regret and valediction.

Act I was remarkable for Ronald Samm’s ardent Siegmund. Renowned for his Otello  performances (review) Samm deserves to have more opportunities in Wagner. His voice had plenty of lyricism but also a tireless heroic timbre. He was well matched by Cecilia Bayley’s youthfully passionate and glowing Sieglinde and John Milne’s potent menace as Hunding.  Keel Watson (Fulham Opera’s Falstaff) is a very reliable Wagnerian and ‘acted’ how Wotan relents through his imposingly dark vocal expression and musical intelligence. Mostly finely sung, I have rarely heard the lengthy dialogue with Brünnhilde bettered even in a staged production. A former mezzo, Jemma Brown was making her debut as a soprano and on this evidence I believe she has made absolutely the right change of Fach. It was a remarkable first stab at a fearsome role but she appears to have a bright refined sound, good control and ample reserves of power at her command and I look forward to hearing about her progress.

Jim Pritchard


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