So it’s done. All over. Wonderful experience. A great thing to be immersed in Wagner’s music drama the way he envisaged it. Four performances in the week. In our case each one preceded by a talk by Professor Heath Lees explaining what we had in store. All wonderful.
The great strengths of this Ring, generally agreed in the foyer talk, were the clarity of the story-telling which was exceptional. Then the music – the orchestra received ecstatic applause at each curtain call. It was fantastic – all those harps, double basses, horns and bassoons. Thirdly, it was acclaimed for the high quality of the singing in nearly all of the roles.
My highlights were Stefan Finke’s performance as Seigfried. Such a hard role to get right – to credibly evolve in character from callow youth to heroic lover. And to fulfill the musical demands – so much singing! Stefan had a wonderful voice that stayed strong and wonderful to the end. Despite an ordinary costume he played the part of confused and angry boy nicely. Swinging his legs, whittling his bear, questioning Mime. Perhaps not quite angry and boorish enough early on. But he took us on his journey, yearning for a mother, wondering about his father, discovering his skill in forging the sword, embarking on his adventures. Expressing sympathy for Fafner. Playing with the Woodbird. Youthful bravado in his encounter with Wotan and finally a stellar performance matching, both vocally and dramatically, the awakened Brunnhilde. Bravo!
I loved all of Die Walkure. Great first Act in particular but good all the way through. This is not so exceptional. It’s the most sympathetic and accessible of the four operas, but it can be mucked up. Seigmund and Seiglinde were both great throughout – both in the singing and dramatic portrayal. Hunding was terrific. I loved the forester’s hut, the softly falling snow turning into falling green leaves when Spring entered, and the sword pulling scene with Seiglinde standing behind Seigmund urging him on. Loved the solemnity of Brunnhilde’s Annunciation of Death with the three performers forming an almost religious tryptych. The long dialogue scenes – Wotan and Fricka, Wotan and Brunnhilde – for which the winding walkway worked well, were also good. And the drama of the ending – Seiglinde’s nightmare, Seigmund’s death – was vividly done. The Valkyries and Wotan’s farewell were okay, without being spine tingling for me. But I was pleased to see the traditional ring of fire encircling Brunnhilde’s rock at the finale. Walked out of the theatre rocking!
For sheer theatricality I loved the death of Fafner including the set up at the start of Act III of Seigfried. A new and interesting interpretation. I liked the Rhinemaidens in their Tivoli outfits – beautiful singing and great acting – looking like the aquatic floozies described by Fricka. I didn’t mind the Tarnhelm as a magical Carnival box with flashing lights and top-hatted and sequined assistants. I liked seeing the Woodbird on stage instead of up in the rafters somewhere – and she sang the role exquisitely.
After Seigfried, the other best performances for me were Fricka who brought a depth and sympathy to her role that’s often missing. Then Seigmund and Seiglinde – not so unusual as these are sympathetic roles with beautiful music and some great set pieces. Alberich was great and his curse of the ring was a highlight. As was Hagen, suitably sly and manipulative and in good voice as he summonsed the vassals and swore vengeance. I loved Wotan’s singing but not his characterization which I discuss below. It was the same with Erda, beautiful singing, but her entrances and outfits undercut her power and the central role she plays in the drama. She is the keeper of all the wisdom in the world! She saves Wotan from himself in Das Rheingold. And when she’s powerless to help him in Seigfried we know he’s done for. Both her appearances should have been spine tingling but sadly they weren’t.
Brunnhilde was best in Die Walkure as the dutiful daughter doing Wotan’s bidding until won over by Seigmund’s love for Seiglinde, she performs her great act of betrayal. I also loved her Salute to the Sun despite the strictures of the box. I really liked the whole of the first Act of Götterdämmerung ; the toing and froing between Brunnhilde and Seigfried was convincing.
I was disappointed with the death of Seigfried and the immolation scene. Some critics have praised the dressing of Seigfried’s body by the vassals as suggesting shamanistic rituals. I didn’t like it and was wanting them to hoist the body on their shoulders and march him somberly back to Brunnhilde on their shoulders. His white face and red hair reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker and having him standing still centre stage while Brunnhilde did her thing was another distraction for me. Compounded when she finally stands next to him holding a bunch of lilies. They looked like plastic statuettes on a wedding cake. I did like the flames engulfing the set at the end – but by then the build up to the healing crescendo had been a bit lost for me.
What it lacked for me, and for others I talked to, was a readily identifiable, cohesive vision of the work. There was no unity in the look – both internally in each of the single operas or in the four together. The costuming was all over the place. Wotan resplendent in a long fur coat and Fricka in fitted dress and fox fur straight out of the upper bourgeois. The other gods in spivey suits. Not much to distinguish them from the gangsterish giants (who looked better – classier suits). Then a gold dress for Freia, presumably signaling her role as keeper of the golden apples. Some cross refencing to our Tivoli clad Rhinemaidens – the carnival Tarnhelm, the fan dancers making up the rainbow bridge in Das Rheingold and later the golden curtain in Seigfried. But seemed a bit ad hoc.
Besuited Alberich at the start was fine in his capitalist over-lord role but he stayed in his pristine suit after his fall from grace. Still in his shiny suit outside Fafner’s cave and again during Hagen’s Watch. I thought he looked out of place. Didn’t make sense. Others changed outfits – Mime in his apron in his cave come kitchen. (Itself a misstep I think – too much domestic harmony in this place – why would Seigfried hate it so?) Then Wotan as Wanderer changed costumes – though disastrously – to look like a rock star ageing badly. Dark glasses instead of his floppy hat. To achieve what end was unclear. Similarly Erda changes costumes, as, eventually does Seigfried. So it was strange that Alberich remained unchanged throughout. Perhaps meant to indicate he survives the whole thing. Didn’t work for me.
Die Walkure was the better realised opera in terms of its internal look. Hunding and Seiglinde looked like Scandinavian hikers and Seigmund was non-descript. But the Valkyries looked awful – like guerrillas in some insurgency. Seigfried in a rugby jumper looked okay in himself but unrelated to the other characters. Erda initially appeared in pristine pink suit – sort of matching Fricka. Then in her second appearance she’s wheelchair bound with a nurse looking like Jackie Kennedy at John’s funeral. The Norns appear as apron wearing house-wives. The Gibechungs are in contemporary gym clothes then she’s in cocktail dress and fishtail wedding dress while he reverts to military uniform. All that worked, but the vassals and hunting party seemed somewhat overdressed in black pants and dress shoes. A strange mix of contemporary and some ill defined other was the overall impression of the costumes.
With no overall look, it was hard to determine a holistic interpretation. Instead we were treated to bits and pieces – or a series of theatrical tricks that never amounted to a whole. Stuffed animals in Act I of Das Rheingold returned in Act II of Die Walkure and were never seen again. Signifying the home of the gods? Perhaps. To what end? Fafner’s cave seemed to be behind an iron industrial facade. Brunnhilde in a box (similar to the boxed animals?) when Siegfried finds her on the rock. Woman as commodity? Probably but presented out of the blue – a one-off idea. The canvass backdrop that is sundered in Das Rheingold returns being sewn up by the Norns in Act I of Götterdämmerung – what does that mean? The ring of fire is presented as a gold theatrical curtain – harking back to the Tivoli and carnival theme? They all seemed to be devices and distracting ones at that.
A big distraction for me, were the supernumeraries – people who appeared on stage during each of the four operas – without, in my view adding anything to the story. Their presence at the start, stretching out on the revolve in all their different shapes and sizes to finally resemble a crowd at the beach, under-mined the great opening bars of Das Rheingold. What did they signify? The birth of the world? Or humanity? Who cares? In Die Walkure they appeared as the heroes selected by the Valkyries are being lifted aloft to Valhalla. Were they refugees fleeing a war zone? To what end? They were back for Seigfried’s beautiful journey down the Rhine doing calisthenics before becoming synchronized rowers (I closed my eyes). They were a final distraction during Brunnhilde’s immolation scene. Were they meant to reflect ourselves as an audience back to us? Who knows? Who cares? I didn’t like them.
I didn’t think the guns worked. Not sure what they were meant to symbolize. Ongoing human violence? Who knows. But giving Donner a pistol instead of his hammer made a bit of a joke of his summoning of the clouds and dispersing them with his clap of thunder. Hagen didn’t need a shiny pistol to emphasize his evil – he was sinister enough. And swearing blood brotherhood on a pistol instead of a sword didn’t have the same symbolic significance and we missed the slicing of the cup. An unnecessary prop in Hagen’s Watch. But the silliest of all was the pistol shooting during the hunt. Complete with animal targets. And having Seigfried shot by Hagen lacked the visceral violence of a stab in the back. Didn’t work for me.
Another disappointment was the characterization of Wotan. In short I felt he was not god-like enough at any stage during the drama. My favourite character, I think he should exude authority for the majority of the cycle – to make his final capitulation to fate all the more moving. To enhance the scale of the fall we have to see him at the height of his power. And this I did not see. Not in Das Rheingold where he seems mostly in thrall to Loge. Later wrestled to the ground by Alberich when he curses the ring. Too much humanity here. Then later with Fricka we see him bowed down by his wife – she even plants a triumphant kiss on his lips. Too much again. And then in his farewell to Brunnhilde, there’s too much kissing and gnashing of teeth, even lying down next to her to put to sleep gently. I know he’s devastated – but he’s also meant to be godly! It’s worse when he’s the Wanderer. The music is indicating he still has authority and there he is writhing on the ground. We need to believe in that authority for the drama to make any sense. He’s lost his eye to achieve it. His purpose is a noble one. This element of his character was somewhat lost in this humanistic interpretation and I felt the whole suffered as a result. Despite the magnificent singing by the seventy year old Terje Stensvold.
But enough carping. These qualms are mere bagatelle’s in the scheme of things. There was more to admire than question. And the questioning is respectful. It was a great achievement by all involved. I am privileged to have seen it – my third Ring. Different interpretations give us plenty to absorb and ponder. There will be lots of opportunities for me to debate the rights and wrongs of these different aspects over coming days with friends who’ve been lucky enough to see it too. That’s the beauty of The Ring. It never ends. The Melbourne Ring adds another layer to that already fertile ground.