A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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The Impossible Cor

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l-r Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser, Antony Pitts

There’s not much that can defeat the Song Company. This tight knit group can sing, act and, most important, think their way around pretty much anything you can throw at them. But with Cornelius Cardew they might have met their match.

Cardew was an experimental composer and activist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1981, aged 45. His relationship with music was, like his relationship with life, art, philosophy, everything, passionate, playful and enduringly tricky. If ever there was someone who could think themselves into a corner, it was Cardew.

There’s never going to be a double CD boxed set of Cardew’s greatest hits. For a start, the whole idea of a finite word, a recording setting the sound in shiny silver, is something one feels he’d rage against. Nevertheless, the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, has dreamt up a ‘kind-of-opera’ (his description) which brings together fragments and glimpses into the musical machinations of Cardew’s iconoclastic mind. It’s designed, with input from designer and writer Adrian Self, as a chronology of  Cardew’s life, with music, some synchronymous (is that a word?) and some tangential.

The performances are, as you’d expect from the Song Company, wild and wonderful. They’re all fine singers but, more than that, they are sound artists. Something like Steve Reich’s ‘voicetruments’. Plus they occupy the stage with a highly tuned awareness of the interplay between themselves and the audience. No shy genius hiding behind a score here. It makes for a very intense experience: the music is beautiful but discombobulating, nothing is predictable, and the threat of audience participation hangs in the air.  You’re never quite sure whether you are being entertained, educated or are in fact the subject of a covert scientific experiment.

As a way of portraying this curious artist I found it superbly effective. As a way of trying to answer the question always hanging in the air — what is this new music for? — I found it confronting and, ultimately, quite sad. There wasn’t a hint of irony in the ensemble’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, and I even felt the physiological surge of joy as cross-rhythms combined with key change combined with sweet, sweet harmonies. The darkness I felt came from all that went before.

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L-R Cornelius Cardew, Richard Rodney Bennett, Susan Bradshaw, 1956, Dartington. (Photo: Catherine Scudamore, courtesy Summer School Foundation).

In Anthony Meredith’s biography of Richard Rodney Bennett he gives an account of a concert where Susan Bradshaw, English composer and fellow student of Cardew, jumped out of her seat in the audience, leapt on stage and dragged Cardew away from the piano. Anything to make it stop.

I think I know how she felt. I wasn’t driven to yell ‘stop’. It was too well-crafted, too entertaining for that. We knew we were in safe hands, safe voices, with the Song Company.

I did, however get glimpses into Cardew’s relentless questioning, his moments of High Nihilism, and it was a scary place. Scary but necessary, because asking questions is what art is all about, and that’s why the Song Company is one of the bravest ensembles around.

Accidental Plans goes to Canberra on Friday 17 Feb, then Wollongong on 18 Feb, Melbourne on 20 Feb, Newcastle on 23 Feb, back to Sydney on 25 Feb, with a final concert at Richmond School of Arts on 3 March. Details here.

(BTW if you were at the concert, yes, I admit it, I was the one who walked in late. Sorry. No exciting excuse, just life getting in the way. My apologies to performers and audience.)

The 1956 photo above is from the Dartington International Summer School of Music’s archive, which I’m currently immersed in as I do doctoral studies and prepare a book for publication sometime next year. It’s crowdfunding at Unbound so you need to go and have a look and tell all your friends about it and pledge lots of money. Thanking you in advance.

 

 


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Decoding the stars

Biographica
Sydney Chamber Opera / Ensemble OffSpring
Carriageworks, 7 January 2017

constellations_stars-1280x7201The life of scholar Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576) is an impossible tale. Obsession. Delusion. Murder. Betrayal. Invention. No one medium could do hope to do justice to the complexity of this Renaissance (in every sense, including temporal) man, so thank goodness for opera, thank goodness for composer Mary Finsterer and thank goodness for the many hands which came together to make this palimpsest of sights, sounds, words and music.

Gerolamo Cardano may be a fascinating forgotten genius but, be warned, he is not a nice man and he does not live in a nice world. The sixteenth century is portrayed as a series of suppurating pustules and ragged wounds against which the nascent discipline of medicine can but flail. Yes, there are a couple of violent deaths, and an ear lopping or two, but you are just as likely to be carried off by a tribe of microbes which, for Cardano, make up the intricate web of life on earth as the stars make the skies. His attempts to cure patients are haphazard, by modern standards, but his passionate desire to make sense of the universe is the saving grace of this deeply flawed character.

Finsterer, along with librettist Tom Wright, creates his life story as an episodic work, jerc3b4me_cardanflitting backwards and forwards in time, like a series of Holbein portraits, each coherent as a whole but studded with secrets. The non-linear narrative is confusing, even frustrating at times – meaning in spades, if you care to reflect and connect, but with a seductively fast-moving surface. There is a grief-stricken mother – Jane Sheldon, wracked with the pains of motherhood — and a child’s eye view of the universe, magically captured by Jessica O’Donoghue. There is an intricate mechanism to decipher, and multiple death scenes. And running through all of it, there is Finsterer’s delicately patterned music, repeating, evolving. I wanted to step back to take in the whole picture but, at the same time, I didn’t want to miss any of the detail.

Central to the work is the relationship between choral writing and the spoken monologue. Cardano is a speaking role — played with brilliant charisma by Mitchell Butel — while the chorus, playing multiple characters, sing and play percussion. There is scarcely any dialogue (and I wonder if it could be done with no dialogue at all to underline the different states).  As it is,  the combination of biographical evidence and vocal scoring makes Cardano increasingly isolated, a lone voice against a crowd which, by the power of music, can make voices heard individually and collectively.

The stage and music direction, by Janice Muller and Jack Symonds respectively, makes a tricky space work far better than should be possible. The balance between chorus, ensemble and speaking voice is cleverly done by a combination of amplification, stage positioning and orchestration — Finsterer is good at picking lines out of the morass of sound using an unusual timbre here or a high register there.  And Muller explores the space fully, using a distant stage, movable screens and furniture and, as Cardano and his young daughter contemplate the universe, one of the most dramatically effective uses of projection (which has been used and abused on the opera stage in recent years) I have seen.

Mitchell Butel is a mesmerising Cardano. The way he makes the audience part of the action, part of the bemused world he is trying to enlighten, is deliciously seductive. The vocal performances are consistently good, if not yet great, and the ensemble, at least on the first night, was exciting, but still coming together. And this is one of the reasons why this work needs many more performances — it’s demanding for all involved, including the audience, but with great rewards for those who listen. I’d be happy to see any one of the twelve scenes being performed in isolation, in concert performance, and encourage new music ensembles to check it out. The final scene, in particular, is an irresistible funereal dance, driven by drums and a ground base, and spiked with chaos.

Biographica is presented by Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring as part of Sydney Festival. It plays for another six performances, until 13 January. (And while it shouldn’t be noteworthy, it’s worth noting that Biographica is the first work for Ensemble Offspring’s 2017 program, a year  dedicated entirely to music by women.

It’s also worth noting that this is my first review for 2017, the first of many I hope. Reviewing is a labour of love for me, and although I’d like to think all you need is love, my writing is also improved by chocolate, coffee and your support. If you feel moved to help please take a look at my book project, http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary, and pledge lots of money. (I accept chocolate but at this time of year it melts).

 


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Po marie, po aroha

16abo-noel-sydney-196There’s no better antidote to the nuttiness of the end-of-year, end-of-term, end-of-everything scramble than 90 minutes of music from the Australian Brandenburg team. Their annual Noel Noel concert has become a permanent fixture in so many people’s calendars that this year the number of times they perform this show is into double figures. And, as ever, the unquenchable energy of their artistic director Paul Dyer infuses the evening with a freshness and almost childlike sense of wonder. Humbugs and Grinches have no place here, and glitter and tat and dad jokes and glorious singing are all part of the joy.

Singing is, of course, central to Noel Noel, and with it the Brandenburg Choir, an occasional but long-standing band of hand-picked singers directed and driven and cajoled and coralled by Dyer. Their opening salvo, ‘Wachet auf!’, in lusty unison, would stir even a school-shy teenager from his or her doona lair, and they skip through the traditional carols with crisp, bouncy rhythm. Meanwhile, there are some superior vocal chops on display, in works like Ola Gjeilo’s ‘The Spheres’ from his 2007 work, Sunrise Mass. Smudgy note clusters, bruised chords, textures which fade in and out like a tapestry woven of different yarns. Rather lovely.

madison_nonoa-69-photo-steven-godbeePaul Dyer has an impressive track record for his choice of soloist at Noel Noel (including Taryn Fiebig, Sara Macliver and Max Riebl.) This year’s is another doozy. Madison Nonoa is a soprano of Samoan-New Zealand and European descent, and a recent graduate of the University of Auckland. Her performances, to date, have all been in her home country, New Zealand, but that is surely about to change with this, her Australian debut. Nonoa’s voice promises many different colours: she sings ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with a tight, choirboy clarity and a slightly feverish vibrato; in her ‘Ave Maria’ (the Vladimir Vavilov aka Caccini one) her voice opened up, with the long, lyrical lines sounding blissfully easy (although I’m sure they were anything but). In Eriks Esenvalds ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ the bright sheen of her voice contrasted with a solo chorister, singing in duet. And in ‘Amazing Grace’ we got a hint of a richer, deeper quality to her tone, a clue as to where this still very young voice might be heading.

Accompanying the choir and Nonoa was a select ensemble of strings, brass, keyboards and percussion. In fact, it was not so much an orchestra as a collection of soloists, most of whom had their featured moment in the limelight as Dyer explored the full palette of tone colours on stage. So a baroque trumpet (Leanne Sullivan) had the prized first verse solo of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ while the generous array of sackbuts — early slide trombones — came to the fore in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and Rittler’s Ciaccona a 7 slid deliciously in and out of improvisation over a simple ground bass.

Beyond the singing and playing, a quick mention for the unsung heros of Noel Noel: the arrangers. Some of them we already know: David Willcocks, for example, with his unforgettable descant countermelody for ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, or Felix Gruber, who arranged his own tune, originally for two voices and guitar, to become the choral version of ‘Silent Night’ so beloved by all. Others try to slip by unnoticed: Tristan Coelho, award-winning Sydney composer, who put together a spicy, wistful version of sixteenth century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez’s ‘Con que la lavare’; British composer and arranger Jim Clements, who has worked with Ben Folds to create a scrunchy, delicate a capella version of ‘The Luckiest’ which the Brandenburg choir delivered with touching intimacy; and film/tv composer and music director Alex Palmer, who fashioned stylish, fresh and beautiful new arrangements of traditional and more recent compositions. His handling of close harmonies in the Vavilov sent tingles down the spine and his take on ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ was an inventive instrumental break which, surely, must have melted even the most determined Scrooge.

Noel Noel has five more performances: at City Recital Hall on Saturday 17 December at 5pm and 7pm, at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral tonight, 15 December at 7pm, at St Patricks in Parramatta next Monday at 7.30pm, and at Newtown’s St Stephen’s Anglican Church on Tuesday. Highly recommended.

And a quick plug for my stuff: I’m writing a book on the Dartington International Summer School of Music. It’s called Sanctuary, and it’s due to be published by Unbound in 2018. If you enjoy my writing I urge you to visit my author page, take a look at the short video and pledge to buy the book! Many thanks, and best wishes for Christmas and New Year.

 

 


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Romans and Christians

I have a confession to make. Yesterday, at the first night of Pinchgut Opera’s Theodora, I did something I frequently do at concerts, but not at operas. I didn’t intend to, but I couldn’t resist. Yes, I admit it. I closed my eyes.

Pinchgut Opera presents Theoroda

Theodora in rehearsal. Andrew Collis, as president of Antioch, lays down the law. (Photographer: Robert Catto)

It wasn’t that there was nothing to see on stage. Handel’s Theodora is actually an oratorio, rather than an opera, but there is plenty of drama and character to work with, and director Lindy Hume is a genius at choreographing singing actors. She picked just the right scale and weight of movement for the moment, whether it was a collective hand up to the heavens, or an individual drunken shimmy. Likewise, Dan Potra’s design matched in size and simplicity the big, archetypal questions being asked by the story, and his costumes were an elegant response to the drama of duality. (Actually, the coloured hands were a bit spooky, but very clever…). The main challenge for staging was that this is a show where all the real action is in the music.

The story of Theodora and Didymus is adapted from Robert Boyle’s novel The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus of 1687. It’s set in Antioch in the 4th Century AD and, as Lindy Hume comments in her director’s notes, it’s a classic clash of civilizations moment. The Roman president decrees that everyone must pay homage to Juno. The Christians don’t want to, so they have to die. Sorry if that gives the ending away, but this is not a drama fuelled by suspense, nor yet by the hope of a happy ending.

The real driver of this work is the extraordinary writing for solos, duets and chorus, and that’s my excuse for closing my eyes. Because, once it became clear that Theodora and Didymus were doomed, I couldn’t resist turning my attention to Handel’s music. There was so much to hear. The orchestral scoring, for a start. Pinchgut is rightly proud of its specially commissioned instruments, funded by an enlightened bunch of supporters, and we got to hear many of them last night. The chamber organ, for example, and the latest addition to the stable, the mighty contrabassoon. The underpinning of the orchestral textures with the low, farty rasp of this colossal instrument made me grin every time I heard it. And the bass line wasn’t the only star. I was completely transfixed by Mikaela Oberg’s wraithlike flute solo, stripped of vibrato, even of tapering, just raw sound.

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Valda Wilson

As for the singers, the standard was as impressive as ever. In the title role was Valda Wilson, making a spectacular debut with Pinchgut in a fiendishly challenging role, not because of the vocal fireworks, but because of the rich, centred delivery, a perfect match for her characterisation. Her female foil, Caitlin Hulcup, as leader of the Christians, radiated compassion. Andrew Collis was a suitably hateful Valens, whipping up the crowd into an orgy of drunken hate. Ed Lyon returned (after his Pinchgut debut in the comedy L’Amant Jaloux last year) as the unwilling executioner. Lyons voice sounds like it might have two gears at the moment — a lyric tenor and something more helden-like. This sometimes made for an unstable sound as he transitioned through the register, but also suggests exciting potential for future roles. Finally, counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey played Didymus, the Christian convert who sacrifices himself to save Theodora. To be honest, I blame Lowrey for the whole eye-shutting thing. His aria, ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’, was so arresting, in terms of its sound, that I couldn’t help myself. That opening phrase, the long held note on ‘raptur’d’ was so complex, so easy and yet pained, and revealing more with every ritornello. All the suspense, in just one note.

I can’t finish without throwing a few more bouquets. Erin Helyard, the able spider weaving all the threads together from his position in the heart of the orchestra; the chorus, who deserve a review all of their own; and Liz Nielsen, founding Chair of the Board, whose vision, energy and extraordinary generosity has brought Pinchgut to where it is today. You have made something beautiful, Liz. Thank you.

Theodora runs till December 6 at City Recital Hall in Sydney. It’s being broadcast ‘almost live’ on Sunday December 4 on ABC Classic FM.

This blog is a labour of love. If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.


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Porgy and Bess

crowded-houseIt was a crowded house last night. Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, an all-star cast and a packed Concert Hall within. And without, all of Bennelong Point swarming with people either inside the enclosure, on the steps, or outside, straining to see over / under / through the barriers cutting out the view.

I don’t know how the Crowded House concert was, but Porgy and Bess was great. David Robertson, Sydney Symphony’s chief conductor and artistic director, set the orchestra bowling down Catfish Row at a terrific lick, and the energy just kept coming.

It was billed as ‘semi-staged’, which can mean anything from soloists waving a prop here and there to full on fight scenes. This production, directed by Mitchell Butel, made space for the action and the music with a generous apron stage built out into the stalls but, apart from this infrastructure, mainly let the cast do their job. What a cast. What a job.

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Alfred Walker

The cast was as close to ideal as it is feasible to expect: a tight knit ensemble of artists with serious vocal chops, winning stage presence and some nifty dance moves. Alfred Walker is a seasoned Porgy (with a side-line in Wotan, Bluebeard and Erik), and Nicole Cabell is a supremely classy Bess, with a creamy upper register which can take on an intense edge when required. Eric Greene is a genuinely scary Crown and Leon Williams catches the youthful vigour of Jake with bittersweet charm. Karen Slack and Gwendolyn Brown, as Serena and Maria, own the stage in their numbers. As Clara, Julia Bullock wins all hearts with her opening Summertime, switching up the octave at the end with sybaritic ease. Finally, Jermaine Smith must be of the world’s great Sporting Lifes. Oozing with charm, it’s hard to take your eyes or ears off him when he is on stage, and in ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ he has the entire choir – no – the entire auditorium – eating out of his hand. (Can he sing Loge to Alfred Walker’s Wotan, pretty please?)

Of course, being a semi-staged production, there was also plenty to see behind the main action. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra glittered and whumped and muddled a bit but generally kept in and out of the way as required under the deft direction of Robertson. Behind them, off into the distance, was the 100-strong chorus provided by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. For such a large group of choristers they were impressively responsive – right time, right dynamic, right pitch, for every entry, with none of the rhythmic or dynamic lag you can get with a large choir. They also appeared to be having a really good time, responding to Sporting Life’s increasingly outrageous challenges with enthusiasm.

All in all, a grand night at the house, hearing a work which doesn’t get out to play nearly as often as it deserves. The only quibble was the decision to pass up on surtitles: the quality of the (amplified) voices was magnificent, so big thumbs up to the sound designer, but even where I was sitting, in the stalls, the words were only partially audible and I suspect further back they would have been lost in the glorious welter of sound. The music made up for a lack of clarity, but the story-telling suffered.

There are three more performances of Porgy and Bess, on this Friday, Saturday and Sunday 1, 2 and 3 December. Go.

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.

 

 

 

 


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Selling opera

flightfacilities

I’ve started so many blogs commenting on how opera is faring in Australia. Here’s the start of yet another…

Last Friday Mumbrella published a post covering a presentation on Opera Australia’s rebrand, given by its head of marketing and tourism, John Quertermous. According to Quertermous, he knows what we want. We want experiences.  We want to feel that delicious shiver down our spine as the leading man clasps the leading lady in his arms, as we see the price of the Champagne Methodoise. That quickening of the pulse as we realise the drink is poisoned, or when we spot another person across the foyer wearing the same dress as us. That warm glow of delight as the violins soar and the hero wins the prize. Or when our instagram photo of arriving at the Opera House registers 73 likes.

I never finish them because I’m worried a) it’ll come out all bitter and twisted or b) I won’t say anything new or c) it’ll be boring or d) all of the above.

The bottom line, for me, is that I hate the creeping reductionism of this kind of thinking. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes pop groups like Flight Facilities hire Melbourne Symphony Orchestra then enter their record in the Classical section of the Aria Awards. (It worked). Looking for the buttons to push, being driven by a desired reaction, rather than an internal vision. Call me romantic, call me wibbly lefty dreamer, but surely art is about being brave, not cynical?

The other thing that worries me about the ‘entertainment’ tactic is that OA have been trying it for a number of years, and I’m not sure I can see much success. Ticket sales are down, productions are down, and the Opera Review expressed clear frustration with the company’s lurch towards a narrower, more populist bill of fare.  And doing this while other sections of the music community are seeking success by finding a lesser-spotted niche…

Not sure whether this is a), b), c) or d. But I do hope Opera Australia is not thinking of entering the Arias Awards in the entertainment category. It’s already quite crowded.

In the mean time, good luck to all for the Melbourne Ring Cycle. Good old fashioned entertainment. Or something like that.

If you’ve read this far, pop over to see my book project. There’s more of my writing and you can pledge lots and lots of money pretty please.

 


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Ring Ring

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.

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Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens with the Sea of Humanity in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

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.

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Stefan Vinke as Siegfried & Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

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.

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Jud Arthur as Hunding, Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglinde & Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

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.

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Warwick Fyfe as Alberich in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

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.