Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Das Rheingold, Fulham Opera

Wagner is different. The differences between this composer's music dramas and those of other composers are often issues of taste, let alone the business of scale or technicality. With all the attendant paraphernalia of a full-blown theatrical production what sets it apart can sometimes get obscured. Fulham Opera's production of Das Rheingold is necessarily without the benefits or trappings of a mainstream production, allowing one to examine it on its own terms. It invites one to stare the art form as Wagner conceived it in the face, toe to toe.

Literally, I might add. This production, staged within and incorporating the frame and furniture of a church in Fulham has the singers brushing past performers in the aisles and perspiring directly onto the front row of seating. The acoustic is odd but actually plays into the hands of the audience - a lack of presence as the sound goes up and back as well as forward disperses the harshness from the operational clatter of having large voices at such proximity. No tinnitus-by-Tosca in the back room of a pub here.

This is valuable. Wagner really is different, demanding breadth in performers and patience in an audience. All that Stabreim, the alliterative mortar of Wagner's self-penned libretto was sharply in focus here. For all Ben Woodward's heroic (and thematically detailed) rendering of the score at the keyboard, the colours of the orchestration, its line and sonority cannot be recreated on a piano. However, this reduction does reveal the inherent sound of the text as an unimpeachable component of the experience.

Chief among those on top of this issue was the outstanding Alberich of Robert Presley delivering heft and quality of sound, within character and without dropping a syllabic stitch. The same can be said of Brian Smith-Walters' spiv Loge, with a charming characterisation whose cynicism was most at ease with the updating. Ian Wilson-Pope's heraldic-baritoned Wotan held back some silver in the top third of his voice for the key moments, as Wotan releases his frustrations with the moral compromises of absolute power.

These three performers took their curtain call last as befits their importance in the drama, although the whole company was strong in the key areas of text, sound and characterisation. For example, Sara Gonzalez's Flosshilde, doubling as Erda makes a credible volte face from first scene tease to penultimate scene Cassandra with modest adjustments to the colour of her voluptuous mezzo-soprano.

Fiona Williams' expedient production used a high concept of Wotan as a mid-West oil baron (There Will Be Cursing?) into which Presley's Aloha-shirted Alberich and the glazed, corporation-suited giants fitted coherently, if loosely: gangsters all in different guises. Humour did work, particularly Elizabeth Capener's never over-played hot-pink Rhinestonemaiden Freia. Now and then the staging struggled with familiar issues of the inflexible space and modest lighting with people often caught in anonymous upstage crevices or shadow. That said, the lighting variation and back-projected surtitles were more than I had been expecting and were welcome.

Above all I was delighted that the cast had the courage to remain static for stretches of the piece and just deliver the score. Wagner may be different, but it's still opera, making demands on the ability of performers to sing their way into a role and deliver character and drama to the audience by this method. For all the invention of the staging (the Tarnhelm/Wurm transformation is a genuine coup) the onus remains on the singers to offer a lyric argument and this was delivered emphatically.

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