I’m pleased I saw the second Melbourne Ring, despite misgivings about the production which made me hesitant about doing so. We attended the final cycle by which time things were running smoothly. It’s wonderful to have this great opera festival here in Melbourne. If it comes around a third time I’ll be there again. This being my fourth experience, I’m now an experienced Ring goer; and as finicky and opinionated as the best of them. That’s the thing about the Ring; it leads to endless discussions about motivations and meanings as well as the merits or otherwise of differing interpretations.
The clarity of the story telling is the biggest strength of this production. Neil Armfield’s theatre experience tells here, with even the trickiest dialogues and complex interactions between characters coming across clearly. He was ably assisted in this endeavour by his performers.
We had a wonderful Brunnhillde in the American soprano Lise Lindstrom. She looked the part, being tall, slim and blonde. She sang the role beautifully; childishly enthusiastic with Wotan, strong and sombre announcing Siegmund’s imminent death, thrilling in her welcome to the sun and love duets with Siegfried. She was a magnetic presence whenever on stage. It was hard to believe this was her first complete Ring cycle. The German singer Stefan Fink, reprising his role from the first Melbourne Ring (and lots of international ones in the meantime), has made the notoriously difficult role of Siegfried his own. His forging of Notung was brilliant: he really did forge a sword in front of us. He was able to move from churlish youngster through to dashing lover with a larger measure of authenticity than is often the case. We were also very privileged to have the American soprano Amber Wagner as Sieglinde. She is being rightfully lauded around the world for her interpretation of this role. Her ecstatic recognition of the future hero was literally hair raising. The Australian Bradley Daley, playing Siegmund looked disconcertingly similar – they truly were the Walsung twins. Other great local performers, again reprising their roles from the first Melbourne Ring were Warwick Fyfe as Alberich, Jacqueline Dark as Fricka, Jud Arthur as Fafner and Daniel Sumegi as Hagen. We also got to see the original Erda from the first Adelaide Ring, Liane Keegan who has a wonderful voice and brought great gravitas to this small but critical role.
The three great weaknesses in this production are (1) the lack of a coherent vision reflected across all of the operas, (2) a lack of authority and grandeur in the gods, especially in the figure of Wotan and (3) too much distracting movement on the stage – often at odds with the underlying psychological motivations of characters being expressed in the words they are singing.
Both of the Adelaide Ring productions presented distinctive worlds revealed in set designs and costumes that formed a coherent whole. In the first this was an Edwardian world of repressed emotions and strict class stratification. In the second it was a surreal world of excess and indolence. In Neil Armfield’s production the most effective motif reflects the world of the theatre: Rhinemaidens, Tarnhelm box, Busby Berkley rainbow bridge, Fafner as dragon, proscenium arch ring of fire. It is a shame, in my view that this is not reflected across all of the action and costuming. The costumes are a mish mash of periods and genres and unreservedly dull. A sub motif about environmentalism (stuffed animals in boxes) seems half hearted; and putting Brunnhilde in a similar box was far too opaque for me! The stripping away of the majesty of the gods, in particular Wotan is another mis-step to my mind. We see a very human god right from the get go; one who is virtually indistinguishable from the Wanderer in the latter half. While Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde is beautiful, and one of the high points, it is a very fatherly interpretation, not an almighty God dispensing justice. This follows through to the final fall of the gods. One needs the majesty to appreciate the fall. Finally I was driven mad by the constant activity that fills the stage at every moment. In my view often distracting from the music and psychological underpinning of the story. There is just too much writhing about, waving of hands, clawing at objects for my liking. It seemed to me that Armfield was not confident that the music itself is enough, especially at critical moments like the opening scene, the ascent of the gods into Valhalla, Siefgfried’s journey down the Rhine and in particular Siegfried’s funeral march. This ceaseless activity was augmented by some frankly silly props; especially pistols!
Das Rheingold, was the weakest of the four operas. This often under-rated opening opera is critical to all that follows. It’s especially important that the figure of Wotan comes across as a commanding and majestic presence and as a deeply conflicted character. This doesn’t come through. Nor are the gods presented in any sort of fully realised fashion. They are a clothed in modern dress of an indeterminate period and you only see their world once. In my view the supernumeries, as the extras are called, are completely distracting whenever they appear. They are very active in this first opera. Writhing on a beach during the long, and mighty opening chord signifying the beginning of the world and eventually revealing the depths of the Rhine. Whilst others have applauded the golden banners pulled from bathers representing the precious gold, I was not convinced. Nor did Alberich running off with a child provide any insight into his renunciation of love. I thought it just looked creepy. The Rhinemaidens as chorus girls worked okay although jarring with the beach theme but consistent with the magic later utilised in the capture of Alberich. The Giants, Fafner and Fasolt looked like members of the Carlton Gang in their dark suits and sunnies; and the Gods, Froh and Donner, like real estate agents in their cheap grey suits. Instead of a giant hammer, poor Donner has a puny pistol with which to summon his clouds.
The stuffed animals displayed in the Gods abode purportedly indicate a contemporary reading of the Ring – destruction of the planet = destruction of the gods. Perhaps Donner and Froh could have been safari hunters. This would have reinforced the theme of mutual destruction and at least provided Donner with something capable of igniting his storm clouds more effectively. Loge (indistinguishable from his superiors) sings his beautiful aria about the search for women’s love whilst, distractingly pawing Freia. I found the rainbow coloured dancing girls who make up Froh’s rainbow bridge similarly distracting. Others have described them as an inspired dramatic device. Last time we had been up in the bleachers and I wondered whether better seats would have made a difference – they didn’t. Admittedly beautiful looking, in disciplined Busby Berkely choreography they just kept flapping their ostrich feathers too much! Diluting the impact of what should have been the Wotan and the God’s grandiose ascent to Valhalla presaging his, and their, ultimate destruction.
The little house that opens Die Walkure is cute, although it lacks the requisite tree from which the sword will be drawn which is a shame. There was great chemistry between Siegmund and Sieglinde throughout. Hunding was appropriately threatening. The ugly walkway is a bare backdrop for all of the action away from the hut. However Brunnhilde’s interactions with Wotan, Siegmund and Sieglinde were all wonderful. The Wotan/Frika and Wotan/Brunnhillde dialogues were excellent. The walkway made the staging of the annunciation of death scene between Brunnhilde and Siegmund difficult. I am one of those who think Brunnhilde should be doing as Wagner instructed, looking directly at the hero she has been sent to take to Valhalla, during this scene; it is after all what they sing. The walkway also makes the battle scene a bit tricky although I felt this was better accomplished than previously. As already noted, Sieglinde was stunning in her final aria committing herself to bearing Siegfried. The Valkyries were also great, despite looking like Viet Cong commandos. And despite all the distracting fiddling about hoisting the heroes on trapezes. Wotan was strongest in this opera and his farewell to Brunnhilde was heartbreakingly beautiful.
In Siegfried, presenting Mime’s cave as a suburban household complete with bunk beds and childish drawings is at odds with the harshness of Siegfried’s upbringing. Its this harshness which drives the boy’s hostility to the dwarf. Making Mime all ‘house-wifey’ makes this hostility seem almost incomprehensible. I’m a bit conflicted about how much humour was drawn out of this scenario. It was okay, but possibly at odds with the overall drama. The sword forging was brilliant as was, again, the depiction of Fafner as a theatrical construct. The dialogue between Mime and the Wanderer was well done and I liked the presence of the Woodbird on the stage. The final encounter between Wotan and Siegfried didn’t carry the emotional punch of other productions I have seen; due to the downplaying of Wotan’s godly power. The role of Siegfried is a difficult one, but Stefan Vinke is truly wonderful. Including in the final scenes with the wonderful Lise Lindstrom where the complex range of emotions, from joy to fear to passion, were finely drawn by both performers.
Gotterdammerung was presented in exactly the same format as the first Melbourne Ring. Gunther and Gertrune are good. The naval uniforms on the blokes work well. This opera depends a lot on Hagen and Daniel Sumegi is very good. Once again the props are unnecessary and distracting – he doesn’t need a gun, nor Alberich’s hands all over his face during the famous waiting duet. The complex story is told clearly which is quite an achievement. The action – Hagen setting out his plan and gaining Gunther and Gertrune’s complicity; Siegfried’s introduction to these weak willed siblings; the swearing blood brotherhood; drinking the magic potion and forgetting Brunnhilde and falling in love with Gertrune – races along. The abduction by Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, of Brunnhilde was really effective and better than I had remembered. Brunhillde’s humiliation and agreement to Siegfried’s murder all quite convincing, remarkably. I was, once again, unimpressed by the target shooting that replaces the traditional hunting scene – again too much distracting activity which was also present during the beautiful, sombre music of Siegfried’s death. I read that Stefan Vinke agreed with that! Then onto the whole catastrophic conclusion which, despite Siegfried painted and standing instead of lying on his bier, worked okay. In large part because of Brunnhilde’s commanding performance.
Of course the music which soars over everything and which overcomes minor quibbles with sets and production decisions. The orchestra performed, as before, really well. It was augmented by musicians from overseas, including Bayreuth. I’m not qualified to make any musical criticisms. I can’t really distinguish a quick Ring from a slow one. I did however agree with a critic who felt the more august, magisterial passages were inclined to be a bit rushed meaning on my part, they were not sufficiently heeded at the time.
Performances of the Ring are usually accompanied by a range of other Ring related activities. This time around we attended a symposium A Day With The Ring presented by Renaissance Tours at the State Library. We went on Tuesday 13 December 2016 and enjoyed it immensely. Peter Bassett gave a number of presentations which were all great. The Evolving Stage looked at the changing focus of Ring productions around the world, including footage from some pretty amazing productions. Which has convinced me I must thoroughly check out any international productions before signing up to one. He also provided an overview of the building of Bayreuth and finally showed us Marjorie Lawrence’s famous immolation scene in Gotterdammerung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she rode a live horse into the funeral pyre. Fantastic. We also got to hear from people involved in the production. This included performers; Warwick Fyfe (very loquacious) and Liane Keegan. They were very interesting about the difficulties the sets in this production create for the singers. It also included two musicians whose names I cannot recall who provided insights into how the orchestra members view the production. Heath Lees, whose lectures on each opera we enjoyed last time, was also on the panel. We also heard from the Chorus Master for Opera Australia who was delightful. It was all very instructive and enjoyable, albeit exhausting!
We also signed up for the special meals on offer at the Arts Centre and were very glad that we did. There were two levels; Dine Amongst the Stars which was on level 8 of the Art Centre and provided 3 courses with matching wines plus an introductory champagne, and A Kings Feast which was on level 7 and consisted of a 5 course degustation menu with matching wines. We enjoyed two of each. The food was very good, especially the degustation menu; but what was particularly great was the opportunity to meet other Wagnerites. And to share responses to this production and hear about others from around the world. Great fun. Here are the menus from two of our dinners.
First Das Rheingold
Second Die Walkure