Ben Woodward has done something amazing in Fulham. Whether you have never seen a Wagner opera before, never seen an opera at all, or seen Der Ring des Nibelungen twenty times in all the major opera houses of the world (as one ecstatically happy Fulham Opera audience member told me), you have to see this. It is simply staged, brilliantly sung, and terrifyingly, spine-shiveringly powerful. Be warned: it may change your perception of Wagner forever. With skeletal orchestration, which for the large part is simply one piano, played with masterful skill and relentless energy by Woodward himself (with assistance from an equally talented Nick Fletcher in the first cycle), and fabulous singing from a cast whose talent and commitment knows no bounds, Fulham Opera’s Ring Cycle is a provocative, glorious, enlightening journey from Vorabend (Preliminary Evening) to Ende.

Zoë South (Brünnhilde) © Richard Carter
Zoë South (Brünnhilde)
© Richard Carter

The general design concept for all four productions sets them in America. For Das Rheingold, the Gods are oil-rich Texan barons (complete with Stetsons, big dreams, and aggressive dirty dealing). In Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde are trailer trash, while Wotan’s beloved Valhalla is revealed as a Hollywood film studio. Siegfried necessarily takes place in a more mythical landscape, but by Götterdämmerung the original setting reasserts itself quietly: as Waltraute (the magnificent Jemma Brown) sings to Brünnhilde (an electrifying Zoë South) of Wotan’s despair, a beautifully-edited video is projected behind her showing Wotan exposing all his erstwhile studio’s film reels. As the tapes unspool luxuriantly and wastefully onto the floor, echoing the Norns’ torn rope of fate, Wotan (Ian Wilson-Pope) gazes over us into nothingness with his one remaining eye. Among many powerful images, this elegant allusion to seeing, watching and creating reality stayed with me long afterwards.

The American setting, however, never overpowers. In keeping with the pared-down orchestration, all scenery is minimalist, with much achieved by atmospheric lighting design from Fiona Williams (Das Rheingold), Anthony Arblaster (Die Walküre), Eliot Griggs (Siegfried) and Colin Grefell (Götterdämmerung), whose use of light and projections was particularly daring and effective. Janet Fischer (Production Manager) and Alec Jordan (Stage Manager) provide their singers with only the most relevant props: they have what they need for each scene, and nothing more. Nothing extraneous is allowed to detract or distract from their wonderful singing. Fulham Opera’s production is an act of distillation which rebels against everything we’re usually told about the Ring: and it allows the vibrant power of Wagner’s story, and the sheer beauty of his music for the human voice, to hit us harder and deeper than any production I have seen before. The words which are cried out to us at key moments (Siegmund’s impassioned “Walse, Walse!”, Siegfried’s jubilant “Nothung, Nothung!”, and Waltraute’s dismayed “Wehe, Wehe!”) feel like alarm bells marking a fatal turning-point.

As I have already written in some detail about their opening night of Das Rheingold, it’s now time to focus on the main singers in the last three parts: the trilogy proper. First and foremost, Zoë South is to be congratulated on a stellar performance as Brünnhilde. Her voice is supple, strong and beautiful, and her acting is impeccable, particularly in her scenes with both of her Siegfrieds. Amidst much other excellent singing, “Sieh’ meine Angst!” (“See my fear!”) is a moment of perfect tension and vulnerability at the end of Siegfried; the warmth and passion of her opening duet in Götterdämmerung almost broke my heart on the spot. South makes this punishing role sound natural, fresh and full of tenderness, with a generous energy which does not wane or waver. Meanwhile, Ian Wilson-Pope allows his Wotan very real emotions, showing him as a conflicted god, his rational decisions sabotaging his loving impulses, in a thoughtful and well-judged portrayal which makes the most of Wagner’s complex intentions. From Wilson-Pope, moments which stand out for me are his contest with Fricka (a fabulous Elizabeth Russo, resplendent in fur, diamonds and demands) at the start of Die Walküre, his next scene with Brünnhilde in which he philosophically unravels with frustration, and of course his final abandonment of Brünnhilde, in which his fatherly tenderness is irresistible.

Philip Modinos (Siegfried) © Richard Carter
Philip Modinos (Siegfried)
© Richard Carter

It is so good to see Siegfried played as a genuine, honest-to-goodness hero: simple, fearless, and unstoppable. Too often, modern directors turn Siegfried into mere muscle-for-hire, which damages all Wagner’s intended emotional dynamics, but Max Pappenheim directing Philip Modinos in Siegfried, and Fiona Williams directing Jonathan Finney in Götterdämmerung, each allowed their Siegfried an honourable innocence which cannot fail to move us.  Philip Modinos’s voice seemed perfectly suited to Siegfried’s early music, with a deep tone throughout, lovely softness in the gentler passages, but also huge vocal power in fight scenes. Acting this first Siegfried is something of a tightrope (one false move, and the whole character will crash), but Modinos’ honed delivery and vivid characterisation kept him believable from beginning to end. His resolute physical stillness in the face of a quavering, sly Mime (Peter Kent) gave an impression of limitless strength, and when he forged his sword, I could see real sparks flying off the metal during some wonderfully rhythmic hammering. One of the most endearing things about Siegfried is that, after killing Fafner (Antoine Salmon, singing through a drainpipe to create the dragon’s booming sound), he feels only that he has failed to learn fear, and after killing Mime, he is overwhelmed by loneliness.

In Götterdämmerung, it is Siegfried’s sincerity which is his downfall. Jonathan Finney, a louche Loge in Das Rheingold, was another excellent Siegfried, rather more of dreamer this time, deeply romantic and tragically trusting of all around him. His gradual realisation, just before his death, of his love for Brünnhilde was truly beautiful. Oliver Gibbs, previously Alberich in Das Rheingold, put in a cold, callously manipulative performance as Hagen which reminded me irresistibly (for any Andy Macnab fans) of Nick Stone ‘gone bad’. Once again, Gibbs’ singing is smooth, confident and rich: his “Niblungen Sohn” at the end of Scene 2 is truly eerie. Brilliant direction from Fiona Williams draws out the parallels between Hagen and Siegfried, each instruments of their absent father’s will, yet free to make their own choices.

Jemma Brown features in every instalment of the Fulham Ring Cycle: as Erda, Waltraute and the Second Norn. Characterising each role uniquely and singing all three fabulously, Brown’s voice seems made for Wagner, and she is a sumptuously powerful presence on stage, her voice suffused with passionate entreaty. Lindsay Bramley is marvellously ancient as the First Norn, strong as Schwertleite the Valkyrie, and hilariously playful as Flosshilde the Rhinemaiden. Emma Peaurt sparkles with energy as her fellow Rhinemaiden Woglinde, and is a truly stunning Woodbird in Siegfried. Emily Blanch excels as Wellgunde and Ortlinde.

Ian Wilson-Pope (Wotan) © Richard Carter
Ian Wilson-Pope (Wotan)
© Richard Carter

The scenes between Siegmund (Andrew Friedhoff) and Hunding (Oliver Hunt) at the outset of Die Walküre work brilliantly in their white-trash trailer-park setting, directed by Genevieve Raghu. Friedhoff and Hunt square up to each other over fried chicken and beer, Friedhoff playing a war veteran, Hunt a wife-beating thug, both in marvellous voice. The former acted so well as Siegmund that, even when the surtitles temporarily disappeared, we were left in no doubt as to what was happening in his mind. Laura Hudson’s Sieglinde is adorable: sipping bravely at her whisky, nervously wiping her hands, falling in love with Siegmund in front of our eyes. Laura Hudson also excelled as Gutrune and as the Third Norn (at short notice) in Götterdämmerung. Her Gutrune was sexually charged and kittenish; her Norn was ancient and wise.  Stephen John Svanholm was plausibly uptight as Gunther, while his Donner is sublime.

Fulham Opera treats us to three excellent Alberichs: the role begun by Oliver Gibbs is picked up by Martin Lamb in Siegfried and Mark Holland in Götterdämmerung, who may just have the edge in terms of nastiness, though both are compelling. All three Alberichs bring home their ownership of the ring and their obsession with power. Finally, the London Gay Men’s Chorus put on a spirited performance, creating a great sound, navigating their way through difficult passages in full staging with aplomb. They should all be congratulated.

Inclusive and unpretentious, with a fluently written and fascinating programme (a genuine asset for audience members new and old – don’t miss out on that), the Fulham Ring could bring a whole new audience to opera. I’m not saying we should do away with orchestras, but I would draw a contrast between the infamous $16 million price tag attached to the 2012 New York Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle (and its dismal reviews), and the positive energy and buzz of this intimate, intense, cash-lean production, where artists and audience seem to genuinely be “in it together.” On my second night, Alberich pours me a drink at the bar in the first interval. Later, Fricka and Sieglinde will do so too. Wotan mans the ticket desk. Ben Woodward plays the piano, conducts the brass section by nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder, runs smoothly to the back of the church to conduct the chorus, runs back, turns over a page and so on. The sheer talent, focus, commitment and team spirit of this company is infectious and irresistible – particularly when the sum total of all their efforts is so astonishingly, defiantly superb.

If I may, finally, share my task of warmly commending this production to you, let me enlist Wagner himself in his own words (Opera and Drama, 1851, Part III, Section III), to explain what Ben Woodward and his team have achieved: “…The Absolute Musician saw himself driven, in his shapings, to condense an endless element of Feeling into a definite point such as the Understanding might apprehend; for this purpose he had more and more to renounce the fullness of his element, to labour to concentrate the feeling to a thought…”. Woodward, in his superb musical act of reduction, has brought us a Ring of eyewatering clarity, raw beauty and visceral power. Cancel everything, and go. 

*****