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The Valkyries go to school - review of Die Walküre Acts I and III, Fulham Opera
VALKYRIES GO TO SCHOOL
Die Walküre Acts I and III, Fulham Opera,
Burlington Danes Academy, 1 May 2016
When Fulham Opera performed their celebrated Ring cycle at St John's Church, it was accompanied by piano or a small group of instruments. Now they are performing sections of the Tetralogy with full orchestra through their educational programme, which every year includes three weekend orchestral study days, at least one of which is devoted to Wagner. This year's choice was Acts I and III of Die Walküre. The huge orchestra barely fitted into this small school hall, with spectators crowded to the back or around the edges, and the singers were so close that we could almost touch them.
The ambience may have been intimate, but as ever with this company, the music making was epic. I never fail to be astonished by the level of attainment which the orchestras at these workshop events can reach in such a short space of time. Inevitably there was the occasional uneasy note, but the scope, the scale, the passion of the score were all there, and the attention to detail was wonderful, especially in the delicate violin work and the thrilling brass. The players' emotional investment in the music communicated itself to the listeners. This Walküre had a broad, symphonic sweep, and it was one of the most deeply felt performances of the work that I can remember.
Given the lack of space and the fact that most of the singers were "on book", there could be little in the way of production, but the dramatic effect was a potent as many a fully staged performance. Roland Samm, who only a few days earlier had poleaxed the Royal Festival Hall audience with an all too short extract from his Otello, was a baritonal Siegmund, capable of wall-shaking power as he evoked Wälse and claimed the sword, but also of great tenderness and lyricism as he wooed Sieglinde. I wish that I could have the chance to hear him sing the Todesverkündigung. Cecilia Bailey's experienced Sieglinde expanded vocally from timid, battered wife to clarion Heldensopran for a thrilling Du bist der Lenz and O herstes Wunder. The flat deadness of Nicht sehre dich Sorge um mich was heartrending. John Milne, the only singer to perform completely off score, had only to walk out in front of the orchestra and stare the siblings down to establish Hunding's character before he had uttered a note, and his black-toned bass was filled with menace.
All these three had sung their roles in London before, but Act III brought two notable debutants, with Keel Watson and Jemma Brown singing Wotan and Brünnhilde for the first time. Watson, Fulham Opera's unforgettable Dutchman and Falstaff, was predictably outstanding. His singing was utterly magnificent: that mighty voice was barely contained within the boxy acoustic, and the god's anger, arrogance and vulnerability shone forth. A complete performance of the role clearly beckons. Brown, making her debut as a soprano in a role which, as Dame Anne Evans has observed, can be sung by a mezzo, sang in a confident, creamy, rather white soprano with impressive power. The voice may need a little more work in its new register, but this was a convincing transition. She, too, was completely inside her role, afraid of Wotan but growing in strength as she became the voice of his conscience. The shifts in the relationship between the enraged god and his wayward daughter were tellingly conveyed, and were topped by a glorious rendition of the Feuerzauber music. The leading singers were backed by an exemplary team of Valkyries, among which Janet Fischer's Helmwige, Mae Heydorn's Siegrune and, especially, Sidonie Winter's Waltraute were outstanding.
I do not have sufficient words to praise Ben Woodward, the presiding genius of this enterprise. In the space of two days he moulded his assemblage of players into an orchestra capable of a performance full of insight. This rendition of the score, in a suburban school on a Bank Holiday Sunday evening, was worthy of a central London concert hall. All power to Ben and to Fulham Opera, and may their passion for Wagner never diminish!