To celebrate the start of this year’s Melbourne Ring Cycle, here’s my review of the 2013 cycle, which appeared originally in The Opera Critic.
And so it arrives. The Ring Cycle, flagged as a key piece of Lyndon Terracini’s artistic directorship when he took up the position in 2007, and secured with the munificence of Maureen Wheeler and a host of other visionaries putting their money where their mouth is, is here, happening, in Melbourne. Has all the work, the expense, the wait been worth it for this, Opera Australia’s first complete, staged Ring Cycle?
Yes. A thousand times yes. As with any megalomaniacal 16-hour theatrical endeavour there is plenty to poke and prod as well as praise, but the Melbourne Ring Cycle is worth the wait in gold.
A huge part of the success of this cycle lies with the director. Regietheater has been the bane of many a Wagnerian reinterpretation, but in Neil Armfield Wagner has found a searching interpretor and studious listener who overlays his own view of the legend with utmost delicacy. Armfield’s greatest asset in the Wagnerian arms race of theatrical whizzbangery is his eye for detail. His approach works on many levels, tossing little in-the-know clues to the rusted-on ringnuts, while at the same time telling the story with the pace and humanity of a child’s bedtime story.
There are elements in this Ring which will be familiar to anyone who has seen Armfield’s work (which includes three Britten operas for Opera Australia and the acclaimed premiere season of Brett Dean’s Bliss). He’s a sucker for quirky anachronisms: if you look closely at the pile of ingots in Das Rheingold you can see they are iPhone boxes; and the ‘ping’ of Mime’s microwave announces that dinner is ready. ‘Spot the contemporary reference’ is an old Armfield joke, but a good one, which works particularly well in the fantastical world of Wagnerian archetypes.
Armfield’s other signature style has been described as ‘poor man’s theatre’, an approach which eschews literalism and cinematic detail in favour of bare stages and imagination. With Wagner’s music providing such a rich and complex narrative, it makes a great deal of sense. When Brunnhilde and Siegfried consummate their love on a bare mattress they don’t need actual fireworks to signal their joy, while with Wotan and Brunnhilde’s father-daughter chat in Die Walkure a bare stage lets the intense tangle of philosophy and emotion play out just through the words and music.
That’s not to say that this cycle looks like it is done on the cheap. In Das Rheingold the gods convene to discuss their home renovations in front of a magnificent backdrop – a reproduction of Bayreuth’s first backdrop – destined to be shredded by the giants. (A few operas later the Norns attempt to repair it.) The waters of the Rhine are created from a writhing mass of human figures on a giant revolve, reflected in a huge mirror suspended above the stage, in a kind of Busby Berkeley meets Hieronymus Bosch scene. And the crossing of the rainbow bridge features all the feathers, sequins and long legs of the Folies Bergere. And so on, throughout the cycle, spectacular set pieces, from trapdoors and trapezes to flying zoos and flames, punctuate the action with a visual ‘wow’ factor to match the vocal pyrotechnics.
But while they are a fitting accompaniment to Wagner’s expansive musical scene-setting, some of the real highlights are less showy. You can almost see the excuses, the slick lines and backstories being calculated on the fly in Loge’s mind as Project Valhalla goes off track. Hagen’s face turns from a fixed grin to a death stare with choreographic precision as his brother dobs him in. And, my personal favourite, Alberich allows himself a triumphant little skip to the rhythm of the anvils when he trumps Wotan. These are the kind of details which make the story come to life.
As for the music, it more than serves the story: it is the story.
With a standing army – the well-respected Orchestra Victoria – of only 60 musicians, Opera Australia has had to assemble an international team to make Wagner’s score sing in the pit. The 90-strong Melbourne Ring Orchestra is, in effect, a festival orchestra, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a beast: there is a palpable excitement at the sheer beauty of the music as it unfolds, but also a slightly precarious feel to some of the more complex passages. Rather than creating a sense of danger, it comes across as a very pragmatic reading: conductor Pietari Inkinen – remember that name, he’s brilliant, he’ll be back — keeps an incredibly tight ship but does not push the tempos (in either direction), resulting in a sound which is fundamentally gorgeous, but occasionally lacks the range of tone colours and extremes – in dynamics and tempi – which a more experienced ensemble might experiment with. The Ride of the Valkyries hangs together by the skin of its teeth, the fire music tends to be stately rather than scintillating, and by the last Gotterdammerung of the season, ragged edges begin to show in the recitative and exposed brass entries. It is, however, a huge achievement for an ensemble, many of whom are playing this repertoire for the first time, and they received a richly deserved ovation as they gathered on stage for the final curtain call.
And so to the vocal performances. Opera Australia is an ensemble company, and it is good to see a cast assembled almost entirely from its ranks. There has been a little shuffling of names amongst the international imports in the run up to the rehearsal period, but the final casting of Wotan, Siegfried and Brunnhilde is impressive.
Terje Stensvold’s Wotan is a joy: a rich, buttery baritone with a gritty rasp in the lower registers is coupled with a glorious sense of line and a stage presence which grows in power through the first three episodes. Oh to be rocking the sunglasses and topless look at 70!
Susan Bullock’s Brunnhilde is more elusive. She has a magnificent instrument, and throughout Die Walkure it feels like she is holding plenty in reserve: her wild ‘hojotoho’s hang in the air like an unrealised threat. By Gotterdammerung, however, the full range of her voice is evident. Her Brunnhilde is a scary woman scorned, and a desperately noble wife as she takes her place on the funeral pyre.
As for Siegfried, Stefan Vinke manages the impossible, by making the feckless hero almost likeable. It’s a spirited and nuanced performance of a damaged child warrior who realises the duplicity of the human race only moments before his death. Watching that realisation sink in is one of the most poignant moments in the whole show.
Vocally, Vinke makes a beautiful sound about 98% of the time. A pesky 2% of the time he veers towards shouting or gives the impression of tiring, but then his tone bounces back with a radiance all the more brilliant for its momentary absence. In a role of this magnitude, it is a splendid result, and he is never stronger, musically and dramatically, than in the final act of Gotterdammerung.
The other roles reach a consistently high standard, notwithstanding some underpowered deities in Das Rheingold and some wayward Valkyries. Most affecting is the intense duet of Siegmund – the impeccable Stuart Skelton, showing us all how it should be done – and, as Sieglinde, the astonishing Miriam Gordon-Stewart. A big voice with far to go.
Deborah Humble gives us a memorable Erde and Waltraute, while Rhinemaidens Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews manage to wiggle and pout through the tricksiest of trios. As Fasolt and Fafner, neither Judd Arthur nor Daniel Sumegi quite find form in Das Rheingold. Their time comes later. Sumegi is a terrifying Hagen, with stony face and a gunmetal grey voice dipping effortlessly into the lowest registers. For Judd Arthur, his Fafner in Siegfried is less about the voice (which is appropriately amplified when he sings from within his lair) and more about the performance. In a stunning scene, which has little to do with dragons but everything to do with transformation, his face is projected, in monstrous technicolour, onto the backdrop as he applies the black eyes and bloody grin of a naked evil clown. Respect.
Back in Valhalla, Jacqui Dark sings her first Fricka with growing confidence. The more complex the emotions, the more she finds in the music, positively blooming in her fraught scene with Wotan in Die Walkure. Hye Seoung Kwon is a convincing Freia, Sharon Prero is a wonderfully hysterical Paris Hilton Gutrune, and, as the Woodbird, Taryn Fiebig lights up the stage with her bright soprano, matching her glittering dress and livewire physical presence.
Some of the strongest acting comes in the lesser roles, notably Richard Berkeley Steele as an always calculating Loge and Graeme MacFarlane, who absolutely nails the character of Mime as the fussy, bitter old craftsman who everyone loves to kick.
Finally, the stand out performance of the cycle must be Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich. The role went to Fyfe less than three weeks out from opening when a health problem forced John Wegner to withdraw. It is a tribute to both Fyfe and to Opera Australia’s reportedly meticulous preparation of covers that he didn’t just step in. He owned it.
This was a fascinating performance which crackled with detail – his gait, his facial ticks and, in Gotterdammerung, even the way he held his hands. When the Rhinemaidens pulled his shirt over his head, exposing his middle-age spread, the audience gasped at his unflinching vulnerability. As the showman in charge of the Tarnhelm he was maniacally delightful. But most of all, when he opened his mouth to sing a gorgeous sound, skilfully articulated, phrased with the utmost sophistication and unerring tonal aim came forth. It was a revelation, and it deserved the audience’s unreserved ovation.
There are many more contributors who deserve a mention: a shout out to assistant director Kate Champion, whose choreography proved that ordinary people can dance to Wagner, and lighting designer Damien Cooper, who directed our gaze to the right place at the right time. And, ultimately, Lyndon Terracini for starting this whole crazy adventure.
Every Ring Cycle, no matter where it takes place in the world, is a triumph of ingenuity over impracticality, and everyone involved in creating Wagner’s great work can count themselves heros. But I can’t help feeling that the Melbourne Ring Cycle has been a little bit special.
The 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle begins with Das Rheingold on November 21. Toi toi toi to all taking on this massive challenge. I wish I could be there!
In case you were wondering, given my chequered history with Opera Australia, I did not get freebies to see the Ring. In fact, I paid $2000. I don’t get paid anything for writing this blog, but if you think it’s worth something and would like me to write more please take a look at Sanctuary, crowd-funding now on Unbound. I take cash, credit and Rheingold.