A reduced orchestration but no reduction in impact.
This is not the first time that Regents Opera has embarked on a Ring Cycle. In 2014, its predecessor Fulham Opera presented the tetralogy with piano accompaniment, but this time around it is employing a reduced orchestration that its creator Ben Woodward began in large part as a lockdown project. Woodward is approximately halfway through reducing the score for all 4 operas from around 100 instruments to 18, and the results are now seen for the first time in the Cycle’s ‘preliminary evening’, Das Rheingold.
No one could deny that it is impossible to achieve the same richness of sound as can be garnered from greater forces, but this should not detract from the skill and achievement of Woodward’s orchestration, which, along with the effective staging, makes for a very impactful evening. It is interesting to see the instruments that various lines have been assigned to, and to hear the different colours that these bring to them. For example, the Prelude in E flat major cannot ‘grow’ through rows of brass as in the original, and here begins on double bass before the sound is added to with bassoon and French horn. The organ is used but very sparingly and, while one might argue it could have legitimately been used more, it would have gone against the spirit of a reduced orchestration to have leant too heavily on the instrument, and the chosen approach means the arrangement can be used in venues that do not have one. The employment of the bass trombone to capture the descending spear motif feels especially appropriate, while the Valhalla motif is also particularly well rendered. Perhaps because it feels less overtly powerful, the sense of warmth and glow if anything feels even stronger, while the allusions to the sorrow and distasteful deals that have undermined its achievement come across just as clearly.
In the Art Deco Grand Temple of the Freemasons’ Hall near Holborn, the opera is staged in the round, except that the central performance area is oblong rather than circular. This presents challenges since Das Rheingold takes place ‘on the vertical’, as it involves descents to Nibelheim and ascents to the mountain outside Valhalla, but Caroline Staunton’s production rises very well to them. A small ‘pit’ is built into the raised stage so that Alberich takes both the Rhinemaidens (Jillian Finnamore, Justine Viani and Mae Heydorn on wondrous form) and audience by surprise when he rises out of it towards the start. All of the dynamics that are normally rendered through Alberich, for example, attempting to clamber up the rock are played out by having the characters move across the horizontal stage. It changes the tone a little as some of his advances towards the nixies feel less frantic and comical and more slow and menacing, but they are no less effective for that.
Designer Isabella van Braeckel litters the stage with a series of plinths that contain small white sculptures. These sometimes change in line with the setting so that the mountaintop scenes include one of an apple to signify Freia’s golden fruit. With another looking like a miniature Jeff Koons sculpture, this introduces contemporary ideas on wealth, power and reverence. One plinth remains empty throughout and, in carrying the slogan ‘du hast nichts’, could pertain to the ring itself where the power people believe it possesses is more important than the intrinsic value of the object. Alberich’s stealing of the gold is signified by him taking several sculptures, with the Rhinemaidens’ horrified reaction being akin to them watching him attempt to smash a priceless work of art. Only Wotan’s spear remains on a plinth for the entire opera, revealing how it is the bargains he has made in his pursuit of power that underpin everything we see, and it is notable that he only touches it at the very end.
“…Woodward’s orchestration… makes for a very impactful evening”
There are very long thoroughfares onto and off the stage and overall these are contended with well. We are so distracted by all that is going on that when Loge and Erda respectively appear they suddenly seem to be present because we simply did not notice them moving into place. Slightly less effective is the moment when Froh and Donner attempt to confront the giants. It needs to feel as if they spring out of nowhere but, because they are already on stage, Froh is forced to tread water by spinning around before his first line, which mars the effect of him leaping into action. It is good, however, that no attempt is made to fill the descent to Nibelheim with excessive visuals, which would have been difficult in this setting and thus felt false. The subsequent carrying up of the gold by the Nibelungen is similarly left to the imagination, and neither the gold nor the tarnhelm is physically seen until they are required to cover Freia. This choice does lead to one of the few occasions when clarity is not as strong as it could be. When Alberich first makes himself invisible with the tarnhelm the only thing to tell us is Mime’s response ‘ich sehe dich nicht’, but he says this while covering his eyes. For anyone unfamiliar with the story that would seem reason enough why Mime cannot see Alberich, making it difficult to grasp what a helmet they cannot see anyway is actually doing.
All of the gods have white patches on their faces or hair, but with Erda appearing totally in white the implication is that these are the final traces of a purity that has otherwise left them. Certainly for Wotan white gives way to gold, symbolising the corruption that his lust for power has brought, as Alberich smears his face with it. Prior to this Alberich covers himself far more thoroughly with gold, revealing how he and Wotan are cut from the same cloth, but also how all consuming power is for Alberich since he has renounced love. He also sports a tattoo proclaiming ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, which interestingly links Wagner’s philosophy to Alberich’s lust for power. Once he has piled up the gold so high that everyone has to bow before him, then for him the whole world will be his masterpiece or total work of art.
The cast is superb, and several performances stand out in particular. Keel Watson, with his tremendous bass-baritone, is an excellent Wotan who reveals how the more power he has garnered the more out of control of events he has become as he has leant so heavily on Loge’s counsel. Oliver Gibbs is an outstanding Alberich, who asserts his strong and secure baritone and a malevolent presence while still making it hard for us simply to label the character as evil. In one interesting touch he knees Loge while he is transformed into a dragon, thus inflicting more than just (supposed) fear. This may explain why when Loge unties one of Alberich’s hands so he can summon up the gold, he takes the opportunity to push him to the ground. James Schouten, with his sublime tenor, is brilliant as Loge as his movements, expressions and gestures feel inspired because they are so intrinsically in keeping with the character of the trickster. His trance-like dancing to the Rhinemaidens’ final lament feels a step too far since it undermines the sense of sorrowful ‘stillness’ in their sound that persists in interrupting Wotan’s triumph, but there is an excellent touch as he unties his long hair when considering whether to turn back into fire.
Henry Grant Kerswell, with his immensely powerful bass, gives a convincing portrayal of one who truly loves Freia, and who knows the only power he has is that of reason. Thus, as he passionately argues his case, even quietening Fafner when he interjects, one can see his desperation as deep down he knows this will never be enough against the wily gods. Craig Lemont Walters is similarly fine as Fafner and it is noticeable how he has greater aspirations because, although both giants are basically dressed the same way, he wears his braces down and sports shinier trousers that are not, unlike Fasolt’s, tucked into his boots. Ingeborg Børch is a nuanced Fricka and Mae Heydorn a beguiling Erda, having also played the part for Longborough Festival Opera, while there is excellent support from Charlotte Richardson as Freia, Calvin Lee as Froh, Andrew Mayor as Donner and Holden Madagame as Mime. The great achievement of this Rheingold is, through strong staging and characterisations, to offer a production that feels as engaging and all embracing as many that are able to muster infinitely greater resources for the venture. I for one cannot wait for Die Walküre next May.
• Regents Opera’s Die Walküre appears in May 2023, Siegfried in February 2024 and the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen in November and December 2024. For further details and tickets visit its website.