Melbourne’s Ring cycle revival a spectacular triumph

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

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.

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 (


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: (

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”.



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”.



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).


No Christmas without “Messiah” – with the Tudor Consort and the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL: Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Graham Abbott (conductor), with Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Christopher Field (counter-tenor), Henry Choo (tenor), James Clayton (bass), The Tudor Consort (Michael Stewart, Music Director), James Tibbles (harpsichord), Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 10 December 2016, 6.30pm


This was a remarkable performance, in many ways.  The smaller-than-usual orchestra was matched by a larger-than-usual Tudor Consort in fine voice, and splendid soloists, all directed by Australian Handel specialist Graham Abbott.  Unusually, there were no cuts in the score; all was performed.  ‘Their sound is gone out’, in Part II is usually a chorus.  But this was composed three years after the première; in the first performance it was a tenor solo, and so it was in this performance.  (Thank you, Wikipedia).

An excellent printed programme gave much information, as well as the full libretto.  The biographies of the soloists were marred by a number of minor errors – whether the fault of the singers or the NZSO, they should not have been difficult to correct.  No author was given for the excellent notes, but the subscript ‘Approximately 2 hours’ was certainly a considerable understatement.  Perhaps it was based on performances where some numbers are omitted.  As happens so often, the lighting was too low for much of the audience to read the programme easily.  It is a strange New Zealand custom that I have not met in the UK or other countries.  Programme designers for this type of concert need to bear in mind that a large proportion of the audience is over 55 years of age; it is known that older people need more light to read by.  But in any case, this is not a spectacle like ballet, opera, cinema or plays.  There is no detail on stage needing to be seen.  The printed words are what need to be seen – especially at the $10 price-tag.

This was an approach to an ‘authentic’ (aka historically-informed) performance; the soloists introduced their own flourishes to endings of arias; the string players played in baroque style, with little vibrato (but not authentic instruments or bows), and the high trumpet was used.  Tempi were in the main fairly fast compared with what was usual 30+ years ago.

At first I was doubtful of the capacity of a small orchestra and relatively small choir (39 singers) to produce an authentic performance in a huge auditorium such as Handel would not have dreamt of for his oratorio’s initial production in Dublin (in a hall that, at a squeeze, accommodated 700), but I was wrong.  The placement of the choir behind the orchestra, where its sound resonated off the wooden panelling behind provided a more than adequate, accurate sound, for the most part.

The orchestra, too, created a sound that was readily heard, whether forte or pianissimo.  It was led by recently appointed Yuka Eguchi, Assistant Concertmaster.  The opening number, the gorgeous Sinfonia, gave the orchestra a chance to prove its lovely tone, with crisp oboes to the fore; the pace was not too fast.

The choir is really the principal performer in this work; how much of the finished product  was due to Graham Abbott and how much to the choir’s Music Director we cannot tell, but certainly what was produced was accurate, mellifluous, alert, flexible and very pleasing on the ear.

The soloists were a very even bunch (was it because most of them, and the conductor, were Australians?).  Henry Choo was first to be heard. He is a very accomplished singer, although not the most beautiful tenor I have heard in this work.  However, he has superb control and shaping of phrases and runs,  His embellishments at the end of ‘Every valley’ were wondrous.

The choir’s entry of ‘And the glory’ seemed a little understated, but it soon proved that it has plenty of volume, especially the men.  The clarity of words matched that of Henry Choo.  Accuracy was assured; throughout the performance only a few consonants were out of place, and intonation was always spot on.

Bass James Clayton in his declamation ‘Thus saith the Lord’ let us have it, in a robust reading.  His runs were well-articulated, and his words were exemplary.

It was a little surprise to hear the alto solos sung by a counter-tenor.  I find that Handel’s first performances in 1742 had a woman alto soloist; the first use of a male alto was in 1750.  Christopher Field has a fine voice and technique, and his flourishes in his recitatives and arias were remarkable, but his lower notes often disappeared.  He excelled in ‘O thou that tellest’; he had great breath control throughout the aria, taken at a fairly fast tempo.  The chorus section of this was bright and punchy.

The choir was notable in the tricky ‘And he shall purify’; the ensemble was salutary, making for an admirable rendition.  There was no muddiness despite the slick pace, and attacks and cut-offs were absolutely together.  However, here and elsewhere there was too much ‘thuh’ instead of the mute ‘e’ of ‘the’ in normal speech.

Throughout, the orchestra was simply top-class, not least in the lovely Pifa (Pastoral) movement for orchestra alone.  It was followed by the first appearance of Madeleine Pierard, who declaimed with great clarity the recitatives leading to the choir’s ‘Glory to God’, in which the brass instruments are first used – they made their mark.

‘Rejoice greatly’ went at quite a lick; Pierard’s decorations were sublime.  The harpsichord was notable in this aria; I hadn’t always heard it earlier, but there were no violas or organ in this number.  The counter-tenor’s return with the recitative ‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened’ revealed the singer’s expressive singing giving the words meaning.  The soprano part of ‘He shall feed his flock’ came as a bit of a shock because of the contrast..  Both singers have incisive but beautiful voices.  Pierard exhibited great control as she sang high notes in a delicate pianissimo.

The choir sang ‘His yoke is easy’ at a cracking pace to end the first part.  Consonants were clear, and accuracy was maintained.  The opening chorus of the second part, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ surprised me, since the interpretation involved no double-dotting of the rhythm, as had become customary.  This was a beautifully smooth performance; throughout the work, there was admirable contrast between punchy, staccato choral movements and others that were legato.  The choir’s next chorus, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ was an example of the former style.  Then ‘And with his stripes’ reverted, in contrast, to legato, followed by staccato ‘All we like sheep’ with its musical word-painting, and legato ‘And the Lord hath laid on Him’.

Before these, ‘He was despised’, a favourite alto aria, was sung well apart from one or two ugly notes, and a rather unattractive habit of the soloist bending his knees while singing.  There was a wonderful high note in his final embellishment.

The tricky chorus ‘He trusted in God’  had some ‘s’s that happened before they should have, but this is nit-picking; the singing was excellent.  The contrast of tenor recitative ‘Thy rebuke has broken his heart’ was made meaningful by its very slow tempo.  ’Behold and see’ revealed a lovely tone from Henry Choo, followed by ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’.  Here, as elsewhere, Andrew Joyce (cello) and James Tibbles (harpsichord) were busy providing the continuo – though unlike other baroque composers, Handel frequently used other instruments to accompany recitatives.  Singing again in ‘But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell’, Choo expressed the words clearly and phrased the music intelligently.

One word describes the  chorus ‘Lift up your heads’: splendid!  ‘Let all the angels of God’ is a chorus I had never sung, or heard – it is usually cut, likewise the very florid alto aria ‘Thou art gone up on high’.  In ‘The Lord gave the word’, great was the singing of the chorus.

Another favourite soprano aria, ‘How beautiful are the feet’ followed.  How beautiful is the voice of the one who sang it.  ‘Their sound is gone out’ was slow but strong from the tenor, followed by the rousing ‘Why do the nations’, in which James Clayton was in his element with excellent vigour and clarity. These characteristics persisted in the next tenor recitative and the aria ‘Thou shalt break them’.  Part II concludes with choral music’s most celebrated chorus: Hallelujah’.  Following tradition, the audience took to its feet (but I did not, due to a current infirmity).  It was rendered brilliantly.

The pinnacle of all the solos is probably ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, and Pierard gave  rich, controlled performance – one out of the box.  The soft notes were exquisite.  The following chorus ‘Since by man came death’, with its contrasts of quiet phrases and  contrasting excitement of ‘…even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ was spectacular.  The choir’s uniform timbre owes a lot to the careful discipline of every singer making the vowels in the same way.

Another highlight is the aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’.  Clayton was in fine form.  The high trumpet was splendidly played by Cheryl Hollinger; it was relatively legato playing, and she only required back-up on a couple of notes.  The only vocal duet in the work ‘O death, where is they sting’ was pleasingly sung by alto and tenor, followed by a good outing for ‘But thanks be to God’ (it is often omitted).

Another less familiar aria ‘If God be for us’ was superbly sung by Pierard, with ethereal high notes.  Finally, the glorious chorus ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’.  It was accurate and lively despite coming after much singing and playing.  The two trumpets and timpani brought a jubilant end.  What a magnificent conclusion to a long work!  What a great variety of wonderful music Handel wrote in this masterwork!

All praise to choir, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  The audience’s enthusiastic response was well deserved.

Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera triumphs in Handel’s Theodora

Theodora: dramatic oratorio by Handel

Produced by Pinchgut Opera
Artistic director and conductor: Erin Helyard; director: Lindy Hume; designer: Dan Potra
The Orchestra of the Antipodes
Chorus: Cantillation (music director: Antony Walker)
Cast: Valda Wilson, Caitlin Hulcup, Christopher Lowrey, Ed Lyon, Andrew Collis, Andrei Laptev

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

Tuesday 6 December, 2016, 7 pm

I’m glad that last year I broke the ice with Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, for my delightful experience with Grétry’s L’amant jaloux made me more than ready for another.

The title Theodora did rang a bell: my first reaction was that it was an oratorio, as I was fairly sure that I’d recognise the names at least of most of Handel’s operas that have been much performed. Furthermore, it was in English and I knew that Semele was Handel’s only English opera (if you don’t count Acis and Galatea).

But nowhere in the publicity did the word ‘oratorio’ appear, not even in the programme itself – apart from an interview with one of the singers where the word ‘oratorio’ slipped past. But a quick check in my reference books confirmed it: his second to last. I’ve no doubt that the company had guessed, probably rightly, that the Or… word might have deterred prospective opera customers, knowing that oratorios are usually on religious subjects and are basically undramatic (not necessarily so). I’m sure that, generally speaking audiences for opera and oratorio are fairly different.

However, the piece is far from unknown today, as it has emerged suddenly as one of Handel’s great masterpieces: there have been various performances of it in recent years. Best known in the Anglo-Saxon world would be that by the Glyndebourne Festival in 1996, under William Christie, directed by Peter Sellars, with the unforgettable, late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Irene, Dawn Upshaw as Theodora and David Daniels as the male soprano Didymus. Among others: in Vienna from the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2004; the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 2006 with Christie’s Les Arts Florissants; the Göttingen Handel Festival in 2015.

So far, all my Handel experiences have been good, and anyway, I was confident that Pinchgut would turn even the most unpromising sow’s ear into a rewarding and entertaining silk event.

From both musical and, with slight reservations, the story point of view, it is little short (perhaps not-at-all short) of a masterpiece. And the singing, of principals and chorus, and the orchestra, were world class. Only aspects of the production didn’t quite equal that.

Even though I confess that I didn’t specifically recognise much of the music, it proved great Handel, dynamic, dramatic and often very beautiful and moving. There were moments when it sounded like Bach, especially in the more conspicuously religious passages.

And before I go any further I must remind you that Days Bay Opera are presenting Theodora alongside their Eugene Onegin, with three performances from 11 February.

The story
The story is straight-forward enough and, being an oratorio, it is in English.

It tells the story of the love and eventual martyrdom of Theodora, a young Christian woman, and her lover, Didymus, a Roman soldier, in the city of Antioch.

The Roman governor announces that those who refuse to make sacrifice to Jupiter on his name day will be tortured and killed, the two lovers who are secretly Christians are each determined to sacrifice their own lives to save the other. They cannot bring themselves to comply with the city’s ordinance and eventually die. Interest lies in the portrayal of the chorus of the Roman militia, initially baying for blood, as becoming deeply affected by the quiet courage of the Christian lovers and their friends.

Opera seria in mid 18th century, even handling the most awful crisis, usually turned up a last minute rescue or change of heart by the villain so there was no blood on the floor. Death at the end of tragic opera became OK later in the century and has become the basic stuff of most opera ever since. So for the baddies to win should be no problem for audiences today.

The puff offered by the Royal Northern College of Music for their planned March-April 2017 staging of the work characterises it like this:

“The plot of Theodora resonates to this day as conflicts continue to erupt around the globe. Innocence, love, faith and courage bloom strong and full of promise, only to be struck down by the thirst for power and blind hatred.”

The theme was certainly heavily Christian and the two leads die rejoicing that they’ll be happy in heaven for ever after. I did find the story a bit laborious and piously religious in spite of its moving to modern times. Perhaps that explained why one local review remarked that the portrayal of the Christians failed to suggest the fundamental arrogance, fanaticism, even treachery, that undoubtedly coloured early Christian behaviour and would have aroused more than mild irritation in the authorities.

How it looked and sounded
The job of creating a credible environment for a late Roman story of authority against subversion, becomes almost impossible in sets and costumes of the present day; not that I’m suggesting it should have looked like a traditional production of La clemenza di Tito (set in the first century AD).

It was in modern dress, and one did note the inconsistency with rituals and behaviour that couldn’t be anywhere but in the late Roman Empire. Nothing unusual there. But the bulky and inconvenient furniture on a fairly small stage and the look and behaviour of the characters detracted from an evocation of the period and from the nature of the conflict as portrayed by the words.

The overall concept was the work of Lindy Hume while the design was by Dan Potra, who desgned for Wellington City Opera in the 90s – The Barber of Seville and Rigoletto.

And it struck me as perhaps resonating with what is happening now in a city not far away, Aleppo. Echoes of ISIS might have arisen as the Roman militia and populace in Antioch were harangued by the governor or pro-consul who insisted that any Christian refusing to pay obeisance to Jupiter would be killed or be persecuted. I wondered whether we were supposed to see the Roman rulers as Islamic State and the Christians as, well, Christians, or one of the many mutually antagonistic, anti-Assad factions in Syria. But that didn’t really stack up.

Perhaps a more serious issue was the fact, which I confess only dawned on me as I explored the libretto more carefully later, searching in the libretto printed in the programme book for arias and a duet that I caught in certain You Tube offerings, that it had been cut here and there. I felt that they could well have found room if certain of the over-long da capo arias had been abbreviated.

The singers, two non-Australian, were just wonderful. Australian soprano Valda Wilson sang the role of Theodora, a beautiful voice that soars above the orchestra.

A superb American counter-tenor, Christopher Lowrey, was magnificent in the role of Didymus, a Roman soldier, a Christian secretly in love with Theodora.

His army colleague Septimus was sung by English tenor Ed Lyon, who has extensive European experience in baroque opera, and he too was excellently cast vocally; he finally fails to rescue the couple.

Mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup sang the hardly less important role of Theodora’s friend Irene, with equal intensity and vividness.

The Roman Governor Valens was sung with excessive fury, practically unhinged, by Andrew Collis who’s familiar here as Don Magnifico in the 2015 Cenerentola and as Kissinger in the Auckland Festival’s Nixon in China last year. Uncontrolled histrionically, it didn’t really come off.

Individual arias and duets, especially between Theodora and Didymus, were just breathtakingly beautiful; pity we didn’t hear more of them.

Chorus and orchestra
And the wonderful chorus was, like last year in the Grétry opera, the famous Sydney ensemble, Cantillation, strong and entrancingly nuanced made one overlook any of the other minor shortcomings.

The whole assemblage was conducted by the same conductor as last year, Eric Helyard who taught at Vic for a few years (I wonder why he never seemed to do in Wellington what he’s so accomplished at in Sydney. Perhaps he did and I never noticed).

His baroque orchestra – the same as last year, The Orchestra of the Antipodes – an ever-present force: gutsy, elegant, often rhythmically thrilling and in balance with singers and chorus, with an unerring instinct for Handel’s detailed and effective orchestra. They specialised in really rich, throbbing basses – well, two double bass, three cellos and two bassoons, and timpani – as well as gorgeous natural horns and woodwinds: they made marvellous sounds.

Perhaps I’ll end by borrowing some fine words from Sydney reviews: ‘Christopher Lowrey animates a natural sense of line with elegantly stylish ornamentation, energised at times with sinewy agility without losing smoothness.’; ‘wonderful rose colours and freshness in her sound’ (about Valda Wilson); ‘rounded firmness, fluid mellifluousness and natural attractiveness’ (Caitlin Hulcup);  Cantillation in a ‘tapestry of refinement’; Erin Helyard’s magic with the orchestra where ‘in some of the cadenzas time suspended itself for a moment so that truth and beauty could merge’.

If there were the negatives, the positive elements of the work, its production and performance, far outweighed them. Yes, a triumph at virtually every level and from every angle. It was a memorable evening and my journey was magnificently rewarded.


Shaken but not stirred – Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s “Peter and the Wolf” and other delights

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
GIOVANNI GABRIELI: Canzon per sonar septimi toni a 8 Ch.171
Sonata Octavi Toni a 12, Ch.184
CPE BACH: ‘Cello Concerto in A, Wq.172 (H.439)
TCHAIKOVSKY –  The Nutcracker Suite (three movements)
PROKOFIEV – Peter and the Wolf

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Andrew Joyce (soloist and conductor)
Garry Smith (narrator)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace

Sunday 4 December 2016, 2:30pm

This concert was very well attended, the audience including many children, despite its not being advertised on RNZ Concert’s “Live Diary”, or the fact that the NZSO performed one of the works the previous afternoon at a free concert at Te Papa.

The Gabrieli works featured brass instruments only. The nature of the work and the instruments employed were described by Andrew Joyce, and the instruments were demonstrated by their players. The antiphonal nature of the music, written for St.Mark’s Venice, was very effective (though the intontion was a little wayward at times, early on), the two brass choirs facing each other across the platform.

Amazing to think that, in Gabrieli’s time, these instruments had no valves…..

Next the strings came to the fore, with more explanations; and Andrew Joyce played the solo part in the CPE Bach concerto, one of the first ‘cello concertos ever composed. I found that, in this item, as compared with those later in the programme, most of the children were not attentive. Obviously the melody and characterisation of the other pieces appealed much more.

A very fast, busy Allegro was tossed off with apparent ease. The Largo produced some beautiful melodies and lovely long lines from the soloist – when I could hear him above the children’s chatter! – the latter varied hugely in how “good” they were. They were all given a page with illustrations for them to draw and enlarge on.

The allegro assai finale contained an energetic solo that nevertheless had variety and subtlety. Andrew Joyce’s playing was very accomplished. Throughout the orchestra’s playing was fine, even if it seemed to be lost on most of the children.

The first half concluded with three movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: the “Chinese Dance”, “Dance of the Mirlitons”, and “Waltz of the Flowers”. Now there was demonstration and explanation of the woodwind instruments, part of the much bigger orchestra for this work. The children were much quieter in this: it was more appropriate music for them to enjoy, and was played with verve and expression, though I found the flute’s intonation suspect in the first one.

Peter and the Wobble…er…Wolf, comprised the second half. I thought the programme over-long for children. With the encore it made up over two hours – though there was a generous interval. Some of the audience left after the first half. The reason for the amended “title” was the earthquake that occurred at 16 minutes past 4, one that turned out to be 5.5 in scale. So inured are we to these events now that nothing stopped, no-one dropped, covered and held, and apart from glances with raised eyebrows between adults, there was no reaction.

While I felt the introduction to the work contained too many unnecessary words, I found Garry Smith’s narration of the story excellent. He didn’t miss a beat when the church shook. I have been unable to find out who was responsible for the delightful English translation of the words: the original of the story was written by Prokofiev himself.

The orchestra’s playing of this magnificent music gave us a wonderful performance. It beautifully demonstrated the woodwind instruments particularly. It was good to hear the detail so much more clearly in this venue compared with a large concert hall. The composer’s delightful and decorous music,  and the words in Garry Smith’s characterisations, easily brought to life Peter, Grandfather, and the cat, bird, and duck – and the wolf!

The encore was the “Sleigh Ride” from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite.