Three stars for the experience; a fourth for the sheer chutzpah of mounting part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at London’s humble Arcola Theatre, a not-very-converted old warehouse hidden behind the Dalston branch of McDonald’s. It’s the unexpectedness that carries the day, plus the fact that Das Rheingold is so grippingly realised by director Julia Burbach and conductor Peter Selwyn, the team behind last year’s fine account of The Rape of Lucretia at the same address.

Angharad Lyddon, Kiandra Howarth, Claire Barnett-Jones (Rhinemaidens) and Seth Carico (Alberich) © Lidia Crisafulli
Angharad Lyddon, Kiandra Howarth, Claire Barnett-Jones (Rhinemaidens) and Seth Carico (Alberich)
© Lidia Crisafulli

They make things easier for themselves, if only relatively, by using Jonathan Dove’s lean reduction of Wagner’s score for just 18 players. Even so, fitting so big an Orpheus Sinfonia contingent into the Arcola’s confines is an achievement in itself, and probably a record. Originally done in the 1990s for Graham Vick’s City of Birmingham Touring Opera, Dove’s pocket Ring opener loses around 30 minutes of material and dispenses altogether with the characters of Froh and Mime; but, dammit, it works. Whether the same can be said of Burbach’s cardboard city environment (“something one might find in a Dalston back alley” she writes, a touch patronisingly, in a programme note) is another matter, but once the drama starts designer Bettina John’s fuss and clutter recedes in importance and just about holds up as an abstract space.

Selwyn is a considerable conductor and his attention to orchestral texture helps the score to emerge as the epic it is. Dove’s chamber orchestration is a marvel of musical cunning, not least in his use of a saxophone to fatten the tuttis, and in the conductor's heavily juiced reading only some tinkly Nibelheim anvils let the side down.

Paul Carey Jones (Wotan) © Lidia Crisafulli
Paul Carey Jones (Wotan)
© Lidia Crisafulli

A Wagner production is as good as its singers, and this Grimeborn Festival offering boasts a choice crop, aptly fitted across the board but with three performances that made me sit bolt upright. Australia’s Kiandra Howarth doubles as Woglinde and Freia but still didn’t have enough to do, so ravishing was her tone and so radiant her vocal projection. American bass-baritone Seth Carico may not have projected much by way of hinterland as Alberich (although it should be said that Burbach’s production gives him little to work on) but his vocal performance was everything one could wish for: baleful, needling and insidiously well sung.

Seth Carico (Alberich) © Lidia Crisafulli
Seth Carico (Alberich)
© Lidia Crisafulli

As for Paul Carey Jones as Wotan, a role he will also take at future Longborough Festival Ring performances, the bass-baritone gave a masterclass in characterisation. His focus never slipped and even when silent he filled every second of Wotan’s stage time with action, reaction and reflection. Who needs surtitles, exemplary though these were, when you can follow the whole plot by watching Wotan’s face? Carey Jones's powerful, grand-operatic voice was everything the role requires, perhaps more sonically potent than the Arcola necessarily needs but I’m not quibbling.

His fellow Welshman Gareth Brynmor John, although he too was given insufficient dramatic motivation to chew on, was vocally the pick of a supporting cast that included Claire Barnett-Jones and Angharad Lyddon, both very convincing as Wellgunde and Flosshilde, plus Marianne Vidal as an expressive Fricka and Philip Sheffield as an interesting Loge, mesmerising in his physical work but not blest with the most idiomatic timbre for this idiosyncratic and edgy tenor role.

****1