Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Melbourne’s Ring cycle revival a spectacular triumph

By , 16/12/2016

Der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner

Opera Australia

Musical Director: Pietari Inkinen; Stage director: Neil Armfield; set designer: Robert Cousins; costume designer: Alice Babidge

The cast members are named in the course of the text

State Theatre, Melbourne

Friday 9 to Friday 16 December 2016

Introduction
I went to the third run of the Ring in Melbourne, in December. At its first incarnation in 2013, I had rather set it aside, partly because the ticket prices were pretty steep – well over $1000 for the four – and something in me said that, as I have seen the entire cycle five times over the years, in various places including Bayreuth, I doubted whether Opera Australia would offer me any really new insights beyond what one can get a lot cheaper in most parts of Germany.

But when I started getting reports from people who’d been and had their lives changed, I regretted not going. I doubted that it would be revived. After all, the Adelaide Ring of 2004 had been stored in the hope that Opera of South Australia or another Australian company would revive it. But that never happened and the $20 million worth of staging, costumes, sets were sold off for peanuts.

About the end of October I decided to go, reinforced by the chance to see Handel’s Theodora being staged by Pinchgut Opera in Sydney about the same time: I could see all in the space of about 12 days.

I did not plan to write a comprehensive review of all four music dramas; and as I hadn’t asked for press tickets I was under no obligation. Anyway, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be burdened with the inevitable note-taking in the dark that I always rely on to support my erratic memory. In the event I just enjoyed it untroubled by the search for words, but I kept a sort of diary through emails home. Some weeks later, and after writing about Theodora, I decided to bestir myself and pieced together these impressions, to describe the elements that I found especially interesting and which I could remember in sufficient detail. What follows is about five times the size of what I’d planned to write: it kept growing and is still, of course, far from comprehensive and probably not well balanced.

Production
The production was by leading Australian theatre and opera director Neil Armfield with set designs by Robert Cousins and costumes by Alice Babidge. Their approach varied widely from scene to scene – it was at times spectacular and surprising, at other times bare, black and minimalist, so the drama relied largely on the acting and singing. What really sustained it and often held my attention during episodes that I have sometimes found a bit protracted and tedious, was the commitment of the whole production, the portrayal of emotional interaction through acting and singing; above all, and in contrast to many such enterprises, Neil Armfield was largely successful in placing it firmly in the present day.

There are many excellent reviews available on line, most with a selection of photos of representative scenes which you will find interesting and evocative. A good way in is through the Richard Wagner Society (Victoria) which contains links to most of the reviews (http://wagnermelb.org.au/wp/reviews-of-the-melbourne-2016-ring/.

 

Das Rheingold

There’s no other theatrical experience that takes hold of you as powerfully and as filled with excited expectation as the opening of Das Rheingold. It immediately banishes any residual feelings that it might be diminished through knowing the music and the story pretty intimately. In the dark theatre, the below-the-stave E flat arpeggios slow emergence from silence is an almost overwhelming experience.

I wondered whether the many in the audience who saw this production three years ago had misgivings – would it work again?

The first impression as the curtain rose was of a vivid scene with the three Rhine Maidens (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede, and Dominica Matthews), scantily clad in shimmering white cabaret array, emerging from a writhing mass of bathers; they were said to represent the currents of the river, though no attempt was made to represent water. Fortunately, all three singers were so physically endowed as to profit from such exposure. (I can’t resist quoting The Guardian’s review here: “…with the Rhinemaidens in seafoam sparkles, like Tivoli Lovelies en route from a beachfront spectacular…”).

It set the scene for an updating to the present, which convinced through its sheer unapologetic openness; challenging us with, “well, isn’t this how Wagner conceived it?”, even though obviously, he didn’t. And we took it in our stride.

Alberich – Warwick Fyfe – well known in New Zealand, was hardly the repulsive predator sometime portrayed, and his seduction attempts failed amusingly; provoked to revenge, he steals the gold. He sang and acted with gusto and total conviction, and was critically judged one of the chief ornaments of the entire cycle.

In the second scene, we meet Wotan, wife Fricka, daughter Freia; James Johnson’s Wotan, a beautiful if somewhat underpowered voice, Jacqueline Dark, Fricka, the voice of moral responsibility and financial rectitude, alarmed at Wotan’s reckless deal with the giants to build his new castle, Valhalla; and Hyeseoung Kwon in the small but engaging role as Freia, the provider to the gods of the apples of eternal youth. She’s taken hostage by the giants as guarantee of payment for their construction work on Wotan’s unaffordable new palace, Valhalla.

Here, as throughout the cycle, the implications and details of the story were presented with unusual clarity even though some physical elements were passed over. No effort is made to put the two suited giants on stilts or otherwise to simulate giantness: New Zealand bass Jud Arthur and Australian Daniel Sumegi took the roles of Fafner and Fasolt splendidly.

Some reviews, naturally, felt suits diminished the impact of the myth’s universality and meaning, and at certain moments, so did I, though the conviction of the acting and generally superb singing usually overcame that.

Challenged by Fricka to deal with the debt predicament, Wotan and Loge set off to rob the gold that Alberich had stolen from the river, in an underworld whose subterranean horrors had to be created in the mind. No attempt specifically to portray Alberich’s transformations with the power of the tarnhelm though.

In the last scene the giants are paid off with the stolen gold and Freia is released in a curious mix of mythical tale and modern matter-of-factness. The deal, for the giants, includes both the magic tarnhelm and the ring but Wotan at first refuses to give up the ring until convinced by Erda, the earth mother, that he must surrender it. She acts somewhat like Cassandra in the Iliad and Berlioz’s Les Troyens: knowing the past as well as the future but, as with Cassandra, she is ignored: she warns that possession of the ring will bring the reign of the gods to an end. Liane Keegan projected it with impressive power and conviction.

Erda later reappears in Siegfried, forewarning that it will bring about the end of the gods, for Alberich, furious when the ring was taken from him, had placed a curse on it forever. Apart from the gorgeous reappearance of ‘Rainbow girls’, to accompany the gods taking possession of their new home, the music contributed more to the empty grandeur of the gods crossing the rainbow bridge to Valhalla to bring Rheingold to its splendid end.

 

Die Walküre

Right at the start of Walküre there were a few things that didn’t seem to work or at least didn’t fit the story, especially in Act I. Though the hut that served as Sieglinde and Hunding’s home in the forest didn’t need to be a pretentious, columned-portico affair, this was more like a tiny hut in the Tararuas, with scarcely room for one bed and a table. Siegmund couldn’t even enter from the storm and sat outside, while the text makes it clear that he’s stumbled inside. Nor was the great World Ashtree supplied, in which the powerful sword is lodged; when the time came, Siegmund simply pulled it from the floor.

However, Siegmund and Sieglinde (Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner), both performed with strong, elegant and perfectly well-placed voices (but see below) completely in tune with their characters. Their appearance, as twins, was happily reinforced by their singular likeness, but for me their attire didn’t fit one’s preconceptions (though I read no other misgivings on that account). Sieglinde’s violent husband, Hunding, was Jud Arthur who succeeded in exploiting a reversal of his real self in a Jekyll and Hyde manner, cruel and unbending, actually a somewhat more interesting creation than his Fafner in Rheingold.

Nevertheless, with Daley’s  superb “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond”, the first act came off magnificently with its rapid build-up of energy and excitement, through “Siegmund heiss ich, Siegmund bin ich”, taking the sword, brother and sister race out together.

At the start of Act II there was an announcement that Daley (Siegmund) had a voice problem and would be replaced in the wings by an understudy, Dean Bassett, while the silent one did the acting. I was lucky to be well back in the theatre so the problem of misplaced voice wasn’t too conspicuous. Bassett’s voice was an excellent fit for the task, seeming conscious of the fate that Fricka will demand for him and which becomes clearly inevitable.

Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) appears for the first time, in Act II. At first Wotan tells her to help save Siegmund in the forthcoming fight with Hunding; but then Fricka (Jacqueline Dark) arrives to challenge Wotan, to demand he punish this affront to morality, and the ground shifts.

The stage was dominated by a huge, rotating, spiral ramp on which most of the action took place. In sharp contrast to nil stage sets in other scenes, it was spectacular and visually interesting but hardly in line with one’s picture of the abode of the King of the Teutonic gods (Wotan – James Johnson) and his lady-wife (Fricka). But these things soon diminish in significance.

The beginning of the end of Wotan’s hegemony
The shocking combination of adultery and incest between brother and sister is too much for Fricka. Now, far more than the ritual, carping wife, Jacqueline Dark is assured, clear-sighted, though guided by convention, taking the high moral ground; her voice captured all that confidence and authority. She laid her cards on the table with great skill and Wotan could be seen visibly retreating from his authoritarian position. This further sign of his inevitably crippling loss of power was vividly exposed. Oddly, coincidentally, Wotan’s voice began to show signs of wear during his long Act II monologue, though it was arresting nevertheless.

Eventually Hunding, again violently impressive, strong-voicedly, comes to wreck vengeance on Siegmund; in the fight, Wotan intervenes to break Siegmund’s sword so Hunding can kill him; and then Wotan contemptuously despatches Hunding.

Here Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) intervenes, determined to rescue Sieglinde who, she knows, is carrying the child destined to save Wotan’s godly kingdom (Siegfried). Lindstrom soon emerged the star of the show and got the biggest applause at the end. Slim, pretty, fair, with a splendid but not stentorian voice, that was far from being the archetypal horned-helmeted Valkyrie, but evinced a touch of vulnerability, yet resolute in her essential humanity.

A photo reproduced in the critical website, Man in Chair, review shows Johnson and Lindstrom in Act II about to embrace ecstatically on the spiral ramp with the array of stuffed animals behind them (meaning, a matter of debate). Worth looking at: (https://simonparrismaninchair.com/2016/11/24/opera-australia-die-walkure-review-melbourne-ring-cycle-2016/).

The famous opening of Act III was generally celebrated by critics; typically, David Larkin of Man in Chair wrote graphically:

“Apart from their wonderful singing and stirring acting, the nine women playing the Valkyries deserve bravery medals for their incredible entrances. Flying in from the heavens on swings as they sing the famous war cry, the woman promptly unhook their harnesses and leap into action on the stage. The natural hair and costuming mean that each of these invaluable women can be very clearly identified.” And he proceeded to describe each…

The action was “jaw-dropping, descending from the heavens with voices powerful enough to resurrect the dead”, wrote Tim Byrne in Time Out.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen a production in which the dilemma of the gods and the options available to them have been more vividly explored. The very long dialogue between Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act III can sometimes seem too much, but every statement and counter-statement here had such credibility as a deeply felt confrontation between loving father and daughter that it is worth every long five minutes for the power if its wonderful music.

This long, intensely moving scene in which Wotan relents and agrees to protect his daughter with the fire, is an emotional high point, perhaps THE emotional high point of the entire tetralogy.

There are so many nuances that can be perceived in this denouement, and in the tetralogy as a whole; and as Time Out wrote: “All to the most immersive, often overwhelmingly and intensely beautiful, music written for the stage”.

 

Siegfried

I admit I often find the scene with Mime (Graeme Macfarlane) and Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) trying; their mutual hatred and childishness just wearies me, and I don’t suppose there’s much a director or the singers can do to alter its essential character. This is Siegfried’s first appearance in the cycle, brought up by Mime in a cramped house; the drawings on the wall behind Siegfried’s top bunk speak of a stunted childhood, but also of his already great interest in animals and nature.

(Wagner apparently saw Siegfried as the comedy part of his tetralogy! Equivalent to the Scherzo in a symphony, did he really think all this was amusing?).

Suspension of disbelief is needed too, for Siegfried’s re-forging of Siegmund’s sword which had been shattered by Wotan so that Hunding could kill him (Siegmund). The conflict between realism and symbolism is never convincingly resolved, for the score calls for the hammering to be part of the music.

Things become more interesting in Act II. It reintroduces Alberich and Wotan, aka The Wanderer to do some scene setting. Mime’s long-term plan to get the Ring is revealed; after Siegfried has killed the dragon, Fafner – Jud Arthur – and got the ring, Mime will kill Siegfried and take the ring.

Though I can do without dragons, here I was spared it, as the dragon was invisible behind a screen with a black hole in its centre; we see just a huge projection of his horrible face, snarling and grimacing, with his hollow voice booming and Siegfried seizes the chance to stab Fafner, still unseen, apart from blood that spurts in the form of red ribbons. Then suddenly a stark naked Jud Arthur appears in full view to utter his final words. A coup de théâtre for sure!

Siegfried was infected with a drop of Fafner’s blood which suddenly enables him to understand Mime’s plotting his death, as well as to understand the song of the Woodbird (Julie Lee Goodwin) who is often hardly seen, but here quite visible, and most enchantingly portrayed.

Meantime, Siegfried fully realises Mime’s intentions and kills him. The Woodbird then offers to lead Siegfried to a new companion – behold! Brünnhilde!

Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde
The third act starts with Wotan/Wanderer calling on Erde to advise him, but the sins of men have clouded her mind and the Wanderer finally realises that the end of his world is nigh.

Then there’s his confrontation with the (still) obnoxious Siegfried, ignorant that he’s talking to his grandfather, and he breaks The Wanderer’s spear (which carries the ‘treaties’ by which the gods rule the world). No more is seen of Wotan.

Siegfried is then guided to Brünnhilde by the Woodbird, safely penetrates the fire and wins her. The love scene evolves in which the brilliantly cast Brünnhilde effects the sudden maturing of Siegfried, making him a nearly credible lover, reviving something of the atmosphere of the opening of Walküre; and Siegfried becomes more adult and tolerable.

David Barmby wrote in Performing Arts Hub that Stefan Vinke as Siegfried was the outstanding voice and character of the night, considering him a highly gifted actor and singer and great interpreter of the Wagnerian heroic tenor roles.  He felt that Vinke both looked the part and was “a fully formed character, embracing boredom, loneliness, impetuousness, naivety, heroism and love”.

Reviews varied about the success of the love scene that soon takes hold. One wrote: “Thereafter follows one of the most impassioned duets in the Cycle, wonderfully realised by Lise Lindstrom and Stefan Vinke, finishing the opera with thrilling elation on a unison high C”.

David Larkin in Bachrtrack wrote: “Even the love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the end of the opera is far inferior to the fervent exchanges between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre.” But then he confesses that he found Siegfried the most uniformly enjoyable part of the Melbourne Ring so far: testimony to the production, singers and musicians. But one called that love music that ends Act III “one of the most impassioned duets in the whole cycle”.

 

Götterdämmerung

Here I will reproduce, more or less as I wrote it, my email home describing what I felt the overwhelming impact of Götterdämmerung; it was truly marvellous.

Part of my more than ever delight was the excellent surtitles (English Wagner scholar, Barry Millington) that were bright and clear, didn’t switch off before a relatively slow reader could read and to take in what they meant. There were little things whose relevance I better understood this time: some of the foretelling by the Rhinemaidens at the beginning; Waltraute (Sian Pendry)’s dramatic and movingly sincere plea to Brünnhilde to give the ring back to the river, which struck me more powerfully than ever before.

I’ve never seen the scenes in the Gibichung palace so clearly portrayed, both through design and histrionically – and I don’t mean simply the palace itself: rather, the handling of the potion that makes Siegfried forget Brünnhilde; the awareness/unawareness of the action; and its implications for the roles of Gunter and Gutrune.

The wedding was the most stunning scene of all as Hagen (Daniel Sumegi) seems utterly convinced that Brünnhilde will just accept the inevitable, marriage to Gunther (Luke Gabbedy); however, her reaction on seeing Siegfried about to marry Gutrune (Taryn Fiebig) was tumultuous, her total dismay and fury was hair-raising. Gunther can sometimes be portrayed as a weak-willed inconsequential figure, but here he stood his ground respectably with Siegfried in their particularly graphic and gory blood-brotherhood ceremony. Yet his apparent obliviousness to what had happened and what he was involved in was more bewildering and stupefying than it is sometimes.

The wedding was the conventional middle class affair of a generation ago perhaps: long tables laden with goodies. It was an astonishing scene as the guests remained oblivious to what had happened and blind to the realities until Brünnhilde really spelled it out. Then there was the hunt, proposed by Hagen so that he can kill Siegfried (to get the ring, inter alia); the killing (by revolver) is nakedly perfunctory and the more shocking for it.

It was formal attire all round with both Hagen and Gunter in modern naval uniforms with the correct numbers of bands on the sleeves for naval commander and captain.

The palace however was a bare gabled framework of posts, all on a revolve which was often used but not excessively. And the burning of Valhalla for which the same edifice served, was lines of gas burners the full length of the posts and beams. Perhaps not such a chaotic conflagration, end-of-the-world feeling that I’ve seen in other productions; there was a bit much light, but the tumultuous orchestra and Brünnhilde’s penetrating voice filled out the visual elements. They used a huge chorus, both men and women, though its scored just for men, but they were a prominent part of the Gibichung court and were very present during the last scene.

I’d like to end with a quote from one of the excellent Australian reviews, from Tim Byrne in Time Out: “The rest of the opera is taken up with Brünnhilde’s final act, her self-immolation on the funeral pyre of her husband and other self. It is a purification by fire that seems to take in all the sacraments: a baptism, a confirmation, a wedding and a last rite. Lindstrom is quite simply phenomenal; her voice penetrates to the heart of every note, glorious in the quiet moments and devastating in the throes of passion.”

The stage for the curtain calls was crammed with singers and extras, and then Inkinen called the entire 130-or-so orchestra to come up on stage too. I’ve never seen that before. And the clapping went on and on. Perhaps this especially spectacular curtain call was to mark the last of a total of twelve performances.

Pietari Inkinen and the orchestra
Before finishing, I must refer to the music; orchestra, chorus (in Götterdämmerung), soloists, all conducted by Pietari Inkinen, late of the NZSO. I might be prejudiced in his favour but here are some of the comments:  (To balance the Trans-Tasman tensions, I did see and delight in the Hamburg Ring a few years ago under Simone Young).

“Conductor Pietari Inkinen was masterly, unfailingly sensitive to the singers and to the musical flow, while the 100-strong [about 130 actually] Melbourne Ring Orchestra was superb.” (The Age)

“Pietari Inkinen directing the Melbourne Ring Orchestra brought a new vigour and enthusiasm to the work with particular mention to be made not only for the famous orchestral passages, particularly in Act 3, but also for the extended, sensuous and lingering chromatic sections at the realisation of love in Act 1, complete with some excellent solos from within the ensemble. The exquisitely delicate suspensions as Wotan leads Brünnhilde to her rock were profound and memorable.” (David Barmby, Performing Arts Hub)

“Together, Inkinen and Armfield have created an inward-looking Ring, low on gimmicks and as darkly still as Neidhardt’s was brightly energetic. Armfield’s premise is to tell the Ring as a tale of the human race today, steadily destroying its own environment while failing tragically at the business of love. Wagner’s magic is translated as show-business sleight of hand.” (Shirley Apthorpe in The Financial Times)

“…the orchestra once again turned in a sterling performance … One of the only places where Inkinen let the orchestra dominate was the culmination of Mime’s hallucinations, where the fiery music drowned Macfarlane’s cries of ‘Fafner’, but this was not dramatically unwarranted. The open pit may throw up challenges in terms of balance, but it has also allowed the perception of fine details of Wagner’s colouristic orchestration: particularly gorgeous was the delicate sound beginning the “Ewig war ich” section of the duet, the tune famously repurposed for the Siegfried Idyll.” (David Larkin in Bachtrack)

“Under Inkinen’s watch, the Melbourne Ring Orchestra is in superb form, in particular the lower brass that is the Ring’s thrilling engine (and shout out once more to the Ring feature that so delighted me back in 2013, the “anvil orchestra”: an offstage room full of, well, playable “anvils” that soundtrack Das Rheingold’s descent into Nibelheim).” (The Guardian, London)

“With Pietari Inkinen’s sublime conducting, and the orchestra’s intense and supple playing, the effect is almost uncanny.” (Tim Byrne in Time Out Melbourne).

“Maestro Pietari Inkinen presides over a massive orchestra of players sourced not only from Orchestra Victoria and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, but also from ten other national and international orchestras. The effect of the glorious music emanating from the voluminous pit from so many players is difficult to describe. Most striking is the sense that various strains of music are originating from distinct sections of the pit; this effect is usual enough in opera orchestras, but is significantly magnified on this scale. With a profound knowledge of the music, and gentle air of assured confidence, Inkinen capably caters to musicians and singers alike.” …
… and elsewhere: “As the Cycle progresses, the supreme capability of maestro Pietari Inkinen becomes ever clearer. Adroitly managing subtle underscoring and dramatic climaxes alike, Inkinen maintains manageably brisk tempi and supportive accompaniment. Inkinen’s expertly judged conducting shows the incredible musicians at their best without ever drawing undue attention.”  (Simon Parris in Man in Chair).

Even though this revival didn’t attract the nationwide excitement and attention that the earlier 2013 one did, by its end the three cycles had created the sort of communal emotional impact that a football world cup might generate in those who derive their spiritual sustenance from that sort of thing. It’s one of the most wonderful music experiences I’ve had (that is, since my last Ring).

 

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