Monday, 28 May 2012

Die Walküre, Fulham Opera

As hot on the heels of their Rheingold as a such a company can make it, here is the second instalment of the Fulham Opera Ring Cycle. Die Walküre is the high water-mark of Wagner's first compositional maturity and so demands equal respect towards both music and drama. Fulham Opera necessarily have their own compromises to make irrespective of the material - music director Ben Woodward is the orchestra at the piano and the space is a working church dominated by an immovable stone altar in the middle of the stage. The glass-half-full upshot is that both music and drama, having the same privations, are indeed accorded mutual respect.


Once again the altar has been easily absorbed into the production, this time by Fiona Williams, which continues the contemporary American themes and styling. The above view shows the altar in the centre of the staging area and also the projected surtitles, a welcome addition for Rheingold (though not offered for the Il Trittico productions*). Once again Ben Woodward's piano reduction is heroic not only for the stamina required for a one-man-band but also for the faithfulness towards thematic highlighting and general voice-leading. Certainly, the heft of the orchestra cannot be recreated but the other end of the dynamic spectrum is also tricky to replicate, the telescoping effect of individual instruments pulling an audience into tiny intimate cracks in the drama.

What Woodward and his cast did manage were moments of lieder-like clarity. As one tends to be familiar with orchestral performances and recordings, the experience of the more tender passages is akin to listening to a series of songs by Hugo Wolf. Instrumental in that effect was the fine German singing from the two principals of this leg of the tetralogy, Ian Wilson-Pope's Wotan and Zoe South's Brünnhilde. Clear German and their clear understanding of the German allied to a dynamic range beyond that which the piano offered focused the performance. Nordic hammer-blows were available when necessary, and with some control. The dangerous corner of Brünnhilde's commitment to save Siegmund, a top A# on a closed vowel that's also the crucial major third of a new statement of F# major, was a thrillingly executed moment of epiphany and joy - a genuine highlight.

The rest of the cast brought the usual palette of different, sizeable voices to the performance: Jon Morrell's classic Siegmund was clearest and strongest in alt, with Laura Hudson's absorbingly committed Seglinde acted through the voice but still adhering to the score. Oliver Hunt's lean, present bass was a fresh-lumber Hunding to match his logger's shirt with Elizabeth Russo's Fricka every inch the fabulous alimony-drain the conceit demanded. I was particularly impressed, if not surprised, by the casting of the Valkyries themselves. An ensemble of fine individual voices truly justifying the collective undertone of the opera's title, it speaks well for the company's culture that they can secure professionals of the same calibre as the principals - and then count on them to help out in the menial front of house duties that make the theatrical experience go smoothly.

It will be interesting to see how the basic conceit that has moved west from oil fields to Hollywood matures in the final two operas. There's pragmatism at work in adhering to the ongoing scheme and reasonably so. However casting has proved very sure thusfar and it's clear that there is a strong pool of singers prepared to take on the challenge of Wagner's cycle with solid technique, musicianship and commitment to the drama.

* Director Ben Woodward has asserted that surtitles were given for Suor Angelica, the Il Trittico production given in Italian

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