Wagner, Das Rheingold, Secret Opera

In King’s College’s highly-wrought, painted and gilded chapel, almost fine enough to be an antechamber of Valhalla itself, Secret Opera’s Das Rheingold opened with a truly magical evocation of the river Rhine. The whole cast formed a stately procession up the aisle to the sanctuary, carrying blue helium balloons whose long ribbons were coiled carefully inside sardine tins, headed by Erda, bearing the Rhinegold under a black cloth. As the overture began, each cast member slowly unwound their ribbons, the blue balloons gliding elegantly towards the ceiling like bubbles floating to the water’s surface; and we could almost feel the Rhine rising before us, as the silvery, glitter-encrusted Rhinemaidens (Woglinde, Elaine Way, Wellgunde, Jasmine Adrian-Dawson and Flosshilde, Catherine Wood) began to pluck the balloon strings, making the ‘river’ swirl and move in the air as they sang.

This was one of designer Billie Achilleos’s finest moments, mirrored by her closing evocation of the rainbow bridge as another bunch of multi-coloured balloons, soaring high into the sky as the gods danced their way into Valhalla, before disappearing under a huge canvas banner proclaiming, in black paint, “Alles was ist endet” (“All that exists will end”, Erda’s dire warning to Wotan which forms the philosophical crux of the entire cycle). Achilleos’ use of puppetry for Alberich’s Tarnhelm transformations was also highly effective: the Riesenwurm was a glorious Chinese dragon, its head worn by Alberich, its lashing tail animated by a Rhinemaiden in black, while the toad was cleverly portrayed as a green foam puppet body worn under the chin, still using the singer’s own face, wonderfully clever and disarmingly comic. However, these fine decisions from Achilleos made it more surprising that other creative opportunities were simply thrown away: the journey to Nifelheim saw Wotan, Loge and Alberich merely sitting in a motionless row on chairs, occasionally glancing at one another in a passive aggressive-way, like three old men stuck on a bus while late for a doctor’s appointment, as the music whirled along.

The obvious comparison is to Fulham Opera’s 2014 astonishing Ring Cycle at St John’s Church, also carried out on a shoestring budget to a piano accompaniment. Secret Opera unfortunately could not match the sheer quality of the casting, singing or production values of Fulham Opera’s exceptional Rheingold. However, despite notable unevenness in this cast, not to mention a few odd directoral decisions and some savagely unsympathetic lighting, this Rheingold was not without merit in certain areas.

Apart from the design highlights, and Richard Black’s tireless and sensitive piano accompaniment, which touched many of colours and textures of Wagner’s scintillating orchestral score, Richard Roberts’ superb Loge really was the star of this production. Never has Rheingold felt more like Loge’s personal mission to win: the problems all fell to Loge, the solutions all came from Loge, and Loge alone remained untouched by all, wisely staying out of Valhalla as the other gods merrily followed a rather blundering Wotan. Roberts’ excellent acting gave us a masterful, wry, supremely effective Loge, no joking trickster, but rather the kind of cutthroat commercial lawyer who impresses you by achieving a brilliant deal, while quietly ensuring his own name doesn’t actually appear on any contract. Roberts’ air of underlying, controlled menace made his exchanges with a querulous Alberich particularly effective (while Wotan stood absently by).

The other notable performance came from Ian Wilson-Pope as an intense, emotional and deeply moving Fasolt, who here (as in many productions) was shown to be truly and affectingly in love with his Freia (Cecilia Bailey). Wilson-Pope’s voice and acting impressed equally, his Fasolt full of warm tone and sad, hopeless longing. Joanna Gamble made a fine, imperious Fricka, slightly over-acted, but really Fricka only benefits from over-acting here: she is a Joan Collins character, if Wagner ever wrote one, as firmly fixated on her new castle as a Stepford Wife on her next kitchen.

Robert-John Edwards is an imposing Fafner, imbued with pantomime nastiness and a deep bass, though less intensely focused in his characterisation than his stage brother. And this is where we feel the task for director David Edwards must have become hard: as the cast grew, acting skills became patchier. Often petulant, but never truly acrid, Colin Morris could never quite act convincingly enough to give us a believably bitter Alberich, though making sincere efforts to do so. If Alberich’s hate is enough to curse the Ring for all eternity, causing the ultimate destruction of the known universe, he has to be more than just a little dyspeptic, or annoyingly moody. Morris seemed merely mildly annoyed by the Rhinemaiden’s rejection, childishly gleeful at the Ring, and sourly bossy down in Nibelheim: other Alberichs benefit from much more aggression and bite.

David Ubaka also had a difficult time with Donner, singing with less confidence than his pleasing voice ought to give him, not helped by the fact that he had to wield the thunderstorm with a broom – a less than successful design decision, which wouldn’t have helped any Donner. Colin Reed’s  dandyish Froh had a certain P.G. Wodehouse charm about him, sung competently but unexcitingly, but was never going to be wrestling giants for his sister’s virtue.

Stephen Holloway’s imperturbable Wotan wasn’t sung badly, but simply didn’t fit this phase of the cycle. Rheingold sees Wotan is at his most entrepreneurial: here, the god is still a dynamic creature of light, cutting deals, making decisions, taking on the impossible. It is only later, as his will shifts to self-destruction towards the end of Die Walküre (and arguably, not even then, depending on your view), that Wotan becomes disengaged from his surroundings. However, Holloway seemed constantly on the back foot emotionally from the very start, registering shock and determination with glacial steadiness, and varying between (I counted them) three or four basic facial expressions. Gods do need to be majestic – but they also need to be alive. Holloway’s voice coped with Wotan’s music fairly well, giving us a solid, if not earth-shattering, account, but his performance couldn’t hope to depict this most complex god at the beginning of his philosophically astonishing journey towards nirvana.

Annette Dumville’s quavering Erda didn’t have the majesty or presence I’d tend to hope for in this most powerful of goddesses, while Randy Smartnick’s Mime was entirely outclassed and outpaced by the rest of the cast: Smartnick’s vocal technique is a West End, rather than operatic one, and the difference between him and his companions was acute, demonstrating why it takes years to train to sing opera, let alone Wagner.

Despite the unevenness, the quality of some cast members and the strength of much of the design promises well for Secret Opera’s companion production of Die Walküre.

Reviewed at King’s College Chapel, London on Saturday 7th November

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