Promising “an encounter with the sublime”, a new Ring cycle is about to begin in London – one where the emphasis will be firmly on the magic and splendour of Wagner’s saga of gods, giants, dwarves, a golden ring and a deadly curse. Director Caroline Staunton and conductor Ben Woodward are seeking to bring a combination of psychological insight and musical inventiveness to what many identify as the ultimate in operatic achievement.

Conductor Ben Woodward
© Sara Porter

Fresh from working on Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new Ring at the Berlin Staatsoper, where she is a staff director, Staunton is bursting with ideas about her own Ring – so much so that her voice can hardly keep up as she talks animatedly about the art form she loves. She condemns “Oedipus in the kitchen”-style productions where “everything about wonderment and spectacle is made banal. We seem to think that people aren’t capable of believing in magic any more, whereas I believe in the transformative power of art – and I want this Ring to be transformative.”

There’s a meeting of minds between the fiercely imaginative Staunton and the talented conductor Woodward. They came across each other in Berlin when staging operatic scenes in a wine bar. “Caroline curated some marvellous moments, each with thematic relevance to the other,” says Woodward. Staunton recalls “things really getting cooking” when she staged the love duet from Butterfly, holding the wine bar audience spellbound for twenty minutes. That experience convinced Woodward to ask her to direct his next Ring. She jumped at the chance and as soon as the first night of Götterdämmerung was over at the Staatsoper, she got on a plane and came to London.

She has had a rapid career, regularly working with directors such as Claus Guth, David McVicar and Calixto Bieto. She co-directed Wagner’s Tannhäuser with Kornél Mundruczó at Staatsoper Hamburg, and has directed revival productions of repertoire works including Don Giovanni, Tristan und Isolde and Die Frau ohne Schatten. She also co-founded the pop-up opera company Puccini’s Toaster, for which she has directed a series of site-specific productions, including Dido and Aeneas and La bohème.

Ben Woodward rehearsing Die Frau ohne Schatten with the Regents Opera Workshops Orchestra
© Tom Medwell

Helping to shape her transformative vision in London will be the imposing gold and marble interior of the Grand Temple, Freemasons’ Hall, the backdrop for Das Rheingold and all the subsequent operas of the cycle. (The operas are to be individually staged between 2022 and 2024.) Woodward subsumed his Fulham Opera into Regents Opera when he took it over in 2020. His Fulham company – renowned for tackling the big works of the 19th and 20th century – staged a full Ring cycle in 2014, praised by Bachtrack as “brilliantly sung, and terrifyingly, spine-shiveringly powerful”. That cycle was set it in modern-day America – all Stetson-wearing Texan oil barons, trailer trash and Hollywood glamour – but this Ring will be totally new.

Audiences will be presented with the abstract environment of an exhibition space, “a gallery where art is presented in a mode to be engaged with and scrutinised in a philosophical manner – a place where magic, wonder and splendour can soar”, says Staunton. “This inter-communal understanding of the sublime and the elevation of art will be the central conceit that will carry on through the entire cycle.”

Graphic design for the Regents Opera 2022-24 Ring cycle
© Regents Opera

Rhine-maidens Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde will be the custodians of these magical artworks and sinister, power-hungry Alberich’s invasion of the gallery space and his subsequent renunciation of love and embrace of nihilism promises to be chillingly dramatic.

“In rehearsal, we are talking so much about the emotional truth of the scenes. I don’t want the singers to lose the freedom that abstraction gives them, and I’m a big fan of not doubling what the music is already doing,” says Staunton. “The idea itself will develop over two years. The cast is extremely well prepared; they really dig into the text and think hard about different ways of standing and moving. It’s completely organic. And I want the audience to go home with key moments that need to be thought about, discussed and figured out.”

Grand Temple, Freemasons’ Hall
© J Rennocks | Wikimedia Commons

A raised performance space, designed by Isabella van Braeckel and lit by Mitch Broomhead, will be placed in the centre of the hall, with the audience on three sides. Woodward and his players will occupy the dais on the fourth side, in front of the hall’s grand Willis organ – an instrument destined to play a central role in each of the four operas that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Musically, Woodward’s 2014 Ring featured “mainly my ten fingers at the piano” with some additional instrumentalists, but this time he has arranged Rheingold for eighteen players – four winds, three horns, trumpet, bass trombone and nine strings – plus organ. As a former Cambridge organ scholar and graduate of the Guildhall School, he is no stranger to the distillation process, having arranged (among others) Verdi’s Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra and La forza del destino for eleven instruments, and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for six. He now works extensively in German opera houses, having moved with his wife to Berlin in 2020.

“My work as a repetiteur is all about reduction onto the piano, so I know where the harmonies lie, I know the colours I’m after, and I’m a former viola player, so I know how strings work. You divine it down as best you can. If the score gives the tune to the clarinet, of course I give the tune to the clarinet and so on; the tricky bit is when you have the Wagner tuba textures to deal with. You need eight horn players, but if you have only three you exhaust your players, so having the organ is really useful – it doesn’t run out of puff!”

Woodward says he writes all his scores out long hand into the computer, note by note. So far he has completed Rheingold, slightly over half of Walküre, a third of Siegfried and the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung. This meticulous labour takes him about an hour for every minute of performed music. You can judge the results for yourself, even before opening night. Toccata Classics have released a CD of some of Woodward’s reductions, entitled Wagner by Arrangement, conducted by Woodward and recorded at Freemasons’ Hall.

Keel Watson as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, Fulham Opera 2019
© Matthew Coughlan

Woodward has gathered an impressive new cast for his epic, with the bass Keel Watson singing Wotan and Ronald Samm as Siegmund. “At Fulham Opera, we lost our title character in Verdi’s Falstaff and Keel came at short notice and did a brilliant job. After that he sang the title role in The Flying Dutchman for us and Sachs in Meistersinger. I had seen him sing Iago opposite Ronald Samm in Otello with Birmingham Opera and so it’s great to have Ronald on board, too.”

He has brought singers from Berlin to join the cast, including Jillian Finnamore as Woglinde and Craig Lemont Walters as the giant Fafner. Henry Kerswell will sing Fasolt, Mae Heydorn both Flosshilde and Erda, James Shouten will be Loge and Holden Madagame, Mime. Only Oliver Gibbs as Alberich, and Philip Modinos as Siegfried, are from the 2014 Fulham Opera Ring.

The suggestion to use Freemasons’ Hall as a venue came from Woodward’s wife, the soprano Catharine Woodward, who will be singing Brünnhilde in the cycle. She recalled performing there as a young sprite in a production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and felt it would be a perfect setting for Wagner. The hall was keen on the idea and has become a partner in the enterprise. Regents Opera has attracted some large donations but admits that ticket sales will be key – so Wagner fans, you have your mission: get booking.

Der Ring des Nibelungen at Regents Opera – Das Rheingold: November 2022, Die Walküre: May 2023, Siegfried: February 2024. Complete cycles, including Götterdämmerung, will be staged in November and December 2024. All productions will be sung in German, with English surtitles. This article was sponsored by Regents Opera.