The first thing to say about the Fulham Ring cycle is: go. Stop reading this article immediately, buy yourself a ticket, and if you get one of the few remaining, count yourself lucky. Because this is an unmissable, unrepeatable, unbelievable experience: and Fulham Opera and musical director Benjamin Woodward, having never intended to come this far, may never be mad enough to do it again. Their madness – their bravery – in attempting a full Ring cycle on a shoestring budget, with affordable ticket prices, simple staging, some wonderful singers and one tireless piano (played very skilfully by Nick Fletcher) must be applauded. Its effects are frankly electrifying.

© Richard Carter
© Richard Carter

There was an atmosphere of intense anticipation on Sunday night for the Vorabend, or preliminary evening of the cycle, Das Rheingold. It felt almost like I was stumbling in on a secret society, where some impossible feat was about to be attempted behind closed doors. St John’s Church, with its spartan interior, high ceiling and lofty arched windows, even feels like the kind of hall Beowulf himself might have feasted and slept in (though I am glad to report it is considerably warmer).

The stage is set very simply – we have the sanctuary, and we have the altar. The church has clearly been very generous in giving over this beautiful, atmospheric space wholly to the Ring for these performances. There’s something primeval about seeing anything played in a sanctuary space, and the quasi-religious setting is frankly ideal for a cosmological drama like the Ring (and I am sure the architectural compliment would not be lost on Wagner). The sanctuary, bounded by curving shallow steps, is dominated by a huge, simple altar (which looks pleasingly Norse), adapted cleverly in every scene by the stripped-down stage design and minimalist props which give us everything we need: the Rhine (which enters and exits, brilliantly), Nibelheim, a jumping toad, and even the rainbow bridge (as I guarantee you have never seen it before). Clever lighting by Fiona Thomas adds movement and colour everywhere.

© Richard Carter
© Richard Carter
Stripped back, bare, minimalist: not epithets you’d automatically apply to Wagner, the man who expects you to give over four days of your life to him every time you experience Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the composer whose orchestra is so huge that opera houses all over the world have to remove seats to accommodate it. But this act of paring down by Fulham Opera, directed by Peter Relton after an original production by Fiona Williams, produces a vividly intense, gripping Das Rheingold which keeps us spellbound from start to finish. As my companion said, “I didn’t expect it to be like this. I keep forgetting to breathe.”

Das Rheingold’s intensity is, first and foremost, a testament to the sheer quality and power of the singing. Our Rhinemaidens (Emma Peaurt, Emily Blanch and Lindsay Bramley) sing with rhapsodic beauty and positively devilish glee as they taunt a wonderfully well-drawn Alberich (Oliver Gibbs), whose kinetic performance gave the dwarf a physicality and sensuality which made his frustration with the world (and love) utterly believable. When we moved to the celestial plane, Gerard Delrez gave us a strongly-rooted, grounded Wotan, a confident negotiator in his cowboy gear, who was only unsettled finally by the magnificent entrance of Erda (the sensational Jemma Brown, who was my musical highlight) in the final act. On the principle of “the higher they come, the harder they fall”, the gradual descent of this Wotan into doubt and resignation should be fascinating after such an assured start.

© Richard Carter
© Richard Carter
Elizabeth Russo was a deliciously petulant, wifely and stroppy Fricka. Jonathan Finney, resplendent as Loge in a red linen suit, acted the changeable fire-god with sophisticated energy: Loge seemed to have permanently just rolled in from a much better party elsewhere – which is generally exactly what he does in myth. The lesser gods were strong: Elizabeth Stock was a charming Freia; Daniel Meades a gullible, yet well-meaning Froh; Stephen John Svanholm a Donner seething with barely suppressed rage, whose call to the winds and mists in the final scene had me absolutely spellbound. Oliver Hunt and Antoine Salmon (as Fasolt and Fafner respectively) gave the Giants a stiff exactitude which worked well, menacing slowly in sharp suits with matching bloodstained baseball bats (a nice touch). As ever, Fasolt’s love for Freia seemed movingly real. And, in Nibelheim, as all gods doubled as Nibelung slaves, Ian Massa-Harris gave the terrified Mime a jealous, incipient craftiness which I hope will be picked up by his successor in Siegfried.

A piano can’t be an orchestra, and certainly not a Wagnerian one (though we did get our anvils at the crucial moment). But it can pick out leitmotifs with clarity and deftness, give colour and texture, and above all allow the vocal line to really shine out. If Das Rheingold weren’t such a great opera, this whole enterprise frankly wouldn’t work. But because it is, and because the Ring is “music-drama” – not really opera at all – this production fires on all cylinders, philosophically and emotionally. Yes, we miss the sweep and delicacy of the orchestra. But what we lose in one place, we gain in another: the chance to see Wagner’s engine, his words and his masterful dramaturgy, vibrantly at work to tell his story and bring his characters to life. I can’t wait for the next instalment.