THE RINSE CYCLE – Charing Cross Theatre, London.
In The Rinse Cycle, Unexpected Opera, the Theatre company that asks emerging opera singers to transform opera into an accessible, often hilarious, cabaret, mocks Wagner as only Wagner-fans can. That is, with a great deal of affection and some emotionally rich singing. There are some hammy moments, and occasionally the jokes fall flat, but on the whole Unexpected Opera have succeeded in turning Wagner’s 16-hour Ring Cycle into two hours of surreal, unexpected fun.
The story which spans the four operas that make up The Ring Cycle is somewhat ridiculous, but at the same time pretty exciting. There are water-nymphs, dwarfs, an all-powerful ring, incest, Gods and Goddesses and suicide. It’s the sort of story that gets reimagined in more modern epics like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars – a fact that’s not lost on Unexpected Opera, who make these pop-culture references. But 16-hours of Opera is probably more than anyone except a die-hard fan could handle. Unexpected Opera distil the Ring Cycle to its essential elements and give a sort of ‘best of’ selection of Wagner’s composition. They manage to both give a sense of the grandness of the tale, and convey some of the more subtle psychological themes which would be explored in more depth in the full-length operas. There’s even a brief mention of the leitmotifs – musical themes which guide the audience through Wagner’s drama and which help make his operas so memorable.
The five singers, together with their able and enthusiastic pianist Kelvin Lim, relate the Ring Cycle story to us while simultaneously assuming the roles of out-of-work opera singers temporally running a patisserie/launderette. It’s all a bit silly and the first-level characters are rather clichéd. Harriet Williams especially has the unenviable task of playing the disgruntled wife of philandering Ronnie (Simon Thorpe). Her first-level character is a bit too familiar to be funny, and the jokes that play on the ‘awful wedded life’ trope tend to feel a bit awkward. However, the pantomime feel of the first-level story along with the frequent 4th-wall breaking are, on the whole, lots of fun. The faff about how one baritone is going to perform dwarf Alberich and god Wotan when the two appear in the same scene is predictable, but no less funny for it. Edward Hughes pulls off the quick switching between his aristocratic buffoon first-level character to delightfully exaggerated versions of his Wagnerian characters with panache. He’s also a charming tenor and not bad with glove puppets.
The cast often come into their own when they start to sing. Harriet Williams plays with dynamics to give lovely expression to her voice. Mari Wyn Williams, who keeps the audience engaged and entertained with her bright first-level character Hilda, sings the part of Valkyrie Brünnhilde with energy and emotion. But really, the whole cast do a fine job. It’s also evident in all their performances that they love what they’re doing, and that’s always great to see.
Perhaps there’s more in The Rinse Cycle for an opera fan to enjoy than for a complete novice. But, if you’re in any way intrigued by opera, then The Rinse Cycle will give you a taste, while at the same time exposing some of its foibles and removing its pretentions.
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By Andrea White
15th February – 12th March 2016
Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL.