It’s a delight to see newly formed operatic groups come together and bring us ambitious material. In their first show, Tarnhelm Opera have taken on one of the big boys, Richard Wagner. Not only Wagner, but Das Rheingold, the first part (or rather “Preliminary Evening”) of The Ring of the Nibelung. A grand tour of West Country has concluded with a performance in Cardiff, at our stunning Llandaff Cathedral. Yet, my last venture of The Ring was at Bayreuth (Wagner’s own infamous theatre in Bavaria), so my expectations were high. Could they pull off such a demanding piece?
Director Alexandra Denman has fused Samuel Beckett into this over the top story of greed via gods, dwarves, giants and Rhinemaidens. This ramshackle collection of scruffy vagrants might be suffering with social delusions about their worth, playing on who has the real power. This is a production which tries to implement these ideas, but does not go far enough to really make a point. A wall of beer cans might represent Valhalla, the god’s new abode and also the hoard made from the Rhinegold that Alberich (the Nibelung in question) stole. The portability of the production is proven in the simple, scaffolding feature, where various singers climb up to make bold declarations. It’s also the perfect place for the surtitles screen to be nestled into.
“I write music with an exclamation point!” once said Wagner. Not once has anyone ever denied this. On this night, a strange version of the score was held in an the arrangement for pipe organ and percussion. Amazingly, the massive orchestra has been compressed into just three musicians. This mostly works well on organ, some of the bleeding chunks having fine footing on the organ: highlights included The Decent into Nibelheim, Erda’s scene and the spine tingling finale, The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. The opening is also noteworthy: the chord of E flat has a duration of 136 bars, masterfully capturing the relentless ebb and flow of the river Rhine. This may sound dull, yet the layering of each new feature swells upwards, as the Rhinemaidens are about to start this mighty journey.
The singers are mostly suited to their roles. As chief-god Wotan (in tatty top hat and tails, his staff a rowing ore), Robert Larson tackles this epic role, though his voice is not always up to the mark. He can sound like Wotan, but the demands of the part can take the toll. His wife, Fricka from Judy Davis has that shrill, nagging quality that the role is expected to feature. Niall Hoskin channels Steptoe and Son with his Alberich, well-formed in moments, though relying on the conductor too heavily in others. Sophie Kirk-Harris is Freia, the goddess who keeps the gods young with her fresh apples (or baubles on a coatrack here), who shows off her desperation in fleeting moments of drama. Her costume was noteworthy, a sort of Pippy Longstockings on acid, her native German also well-regarded. The comic timing and slapstick of Dave Key-Pugh as Alberich’s brother Mime is another addition. His throat curdling hate for his sibling is expressed in brief moments, after his labour of forging the Tarnhelm magic helmet, seen in this production as a strainer (and where the company gets their name).
As an English cricket of yesteryear, Aleksi Koponen is Donner, whose hammer is (of course) his cricket bat. The register of his voice was uncertain and never really had as musical an impact as his hammer blow. Australian Thomas Wood as Froh has pleasant moments when defending his sister Freia and creating the rainbow for the gods to get to Valhalla. As the demi-god of fire, Loge is tackled by Robert Felstead. This role demands a lot of acting (pondering, scheming and arrogance feature strongly), Felstead pulling off well the swift trickster. His voice will mature into his ever-increasing classical roles. The giants Fasolt and Fafner (as construction workers) are William Stevens and Roderick Hunt, proving lower voices have a charm and power all of their own. Director Alexandra Denman spoils herself with her evocative and show-stopping cameo as the earth goddess, Erda. Though out of the whole cast, perhaps it is the Rhinemaidens played by Rebecca Chellappah, Amanda Wagg and Julia O’Connor who frame the night with pristine singing. Whether it’s mocking Alberich, basking in the glory of the gold (here hidden within a metal lunchbox) or lamenting their loss at the end, they shine.
Much has to be said of the efforts of the small band of instrumentalists. Peter Blackwood is a focused conductor, a huge resource for the singers in their cues and committed throughout in keeping the focus. Organist David Bednall is the mighty backbone of the night, playing most of the orchestration, filling the cathedral with the murky, opaque glory that Wagner details. This versatile organ has been masterfully restored and my word, does it make for a spectacular listen. It is the percussionists Harriet Riley and Mark Whitlam who pepper the evening with dramatic punch. I guess real anvils might be too much to ask for in the third scene, so we had to make do with an electronic version instead.
Perhaps this company should next consider one of Wagner’s earlier, rarely performed operatic endeavours, such as Rienzi or Das Liebesverbot. I’ll be honest and say I can’t quite see them continuing with rest of The Ring anytime soon. Hats off to them anyway!
Photo Credit: Tarnhelm Opera