Fringe Opera seems like a contradiction in terms when it comes to Wagner’s magnificent Ring Cycle which comprises four complete operas, sixteen hours of music. How could they hope to put across the most ambitious, wide-ranging imaginatively philosophical story of river maidens, enslaved mine workers, gods and giants without any of the usual panoply of set and design considered essential in most presentations?

The answer is that with their first opera, Das Rheingold, Regents Opera succeed well beyond expectations. They are helped by their venue of the weirdly grand Freemason’s Hall, just round the corner from The Royal Opera House. But it is their concentration on characterization singing, brilliantly backed by an eighteen piece orchestra (instead of the usual ninety) which makes this story of hubris, lust, murder and hope as real and gripping as any much grander production.

It will not suit every-one. Those who enjoy The Ring Cycle for the spectacle, the fortress, Valhalla, a reality on the horizon, or the sight of Alberich the Nibelung, disappointed in love, swaps it for power, turning from dwarf to dragon to toad, will not recognize this simple production as Wagner’s masterpiece.

Lack of money may be the cause of the simplicity but Director Caroline Staunton describes how she tried to turn that into a positive. ‘In conceiving Wagner’s Ring Cycle of Regent’s Opera, my instinct was to turn away from notions of archetype/stereotype of gods, giants and dwarves and amplify the journey of each figure.’

This aim throws an enormous challenge to the singers who, far more than is usual, need to act their parts so that the audience will be carried with them as they thieve, curse and eventually look forward to a better future. The voices must be strong, of course, but, unsupported by any show, they must be able to able to portray character s well as trained actor. Judging by their reception at the end of the opera, they amply succeeded.

It is hard, in fact, to pick stand-out individuals. The Rhinemaidens, (Jillian Finnamore, Justine Viani, Mae Heydorn) in the opera’s opening scene, undulate alluringly while tossing aside Nebilung Alberich’s advances, also sing with individual emphasis but equal conviction, and some comedy. Alberich (Oliver Gibbs) brings a huge amount of energy to the part and manages to be cruel and ridiculous, dangerous and pathetic, as he determines to renounce love for power. He is certainly part of the glue that holds the evening together.

The gods, in scene two, who are given neither clothes nor thrones to make them god-like, must again rely on their voices and their acting. Perhaps deliberately, they seem less strong, although Wotan, sung by experienced bass-baritone Keel Watson is convincingly old, lowering and despotic. They are easily dominated by, Loge, played by Keel Watson, a young tenor who bounds about the stage in dark glasses and makes it clear that, with the exception, of ever-beautiful Freia, (Charlotte Richardson) he, a mere semi-god of fire, is worth more than any of these stately has-beens. Nevertheless he has not yet found a way to release Wotan from his promise to hand over Freia to the giants, as payment for building the fortress.

The giants arrive, accompanied by their famous heavy-footed music. Fasolt is played by Henry Grant Kerswell as a mountainous force of nature, both threatening as he towers over Wotan, and also sentimental in his drooling desire for Freia. The scene has been set for Wotan and Loge’s visit to the Neibilungs’ and their theft of the gold and the dangerously magic ring which Alberich has stolen from the Rhinemaidens.

As the story unfolds, other characters appear, Alberich’s brother, Mime (Holden Madagame) Erda, the prophetess, (Mae Heydorn) Fasolt’s brother Fafner ( Craig Lemont Walters ) Their voices, perhaps made stronger by a smaller orchestra, convey all the immediate emotion of Wagner’s mythic tale. Of course none of this would be possible without Ben Woodward and his musicians. He explains that in order to work out how he could convey Wagner’s intention with a much smaller orchestra, he spent an hour working on each page of the score. For example, how do you deal with a particular motif when it moves from trumpet to bass trumpet and you don’t have a bass trumpeter? The answer, probably, is use a trombone – or maybe a horn or even possibly a viola or cello.

Some audiences will not want to do without the vast sounds of a full Wagnerian orchestra. But on the evening that I went, there was a massive wave of shared excitement that such a masterpiece could be presented in such a relatively modest way and yet send you away heart pounding with that true Wagnerian magic. We must hope that Regents Opera will gather enough funds to stage Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung in the next couple of years, as planned.

Director Caroline Staunton
Conductor Ben Woodward