Der Ring des Nibelungen

Arts Centre, Melbourne (Opera Australia)

Das Rheingold
Die Walkure

It takes a while to come down to earth after a complete Ring Cycle. It is an extraordinary experience. We are very fortunate that Opera Australia has taken on this amazing work.

Powerful singing and an extraordinarily good orchestra made Opera Australia’s Ring of the Nibelungs a memorable production.

But unfortunately the theatrical concept and staging of this set of four operas was for me disappointing and underwhelming.

Artistic director Lyndon Terracini faced more than his share of headaches during preparations, with the singers for three of the most important roles (Siegried, Wotan, Alberich) plus the conductor needing to be replaced after unexpected withdrawals. It is to the credit of Terracini that he was able to pull off this remarkable artistic achievement OA’s first Ring, and Melbourne’s first in 100 years.

Pietari Inkinen, called in only two months before the opening after the mysterious withdrawal of original choice Richard Mills, commanded a magnificent sound from the 135-member Melbourne Ring orchestra, led by Aubrey Murphy.

Local and overseas soloists combined to give a vocal presentation of the highest quality.

The singing and associated acting were of a consistently high standard.

In particular, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried gave a performance throughout his two operas that was strong and passionate. Nothing could compare with his singing of the sword-forging music in Siegried.

Terje Stensvold showed great strength in his characterisation of Wotan, particularly in Walkure.

Promoted in the last few weeks of rehearsals from his cover role after the illness of John Wegner, local bass-baritone Warwick Fyfe was a top-quality Alberich, a crowd favourite even outsinging Stensvold’s Wotan in Rheingold.

Susan Bullock offered a well-grounded Brunnhilde, coping well with the great range of singing and acting required in three of the four operas.

Stuart Skelton as Siegmund was very impressive. Partnering him well was Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglunde. Their extended love duet was particularly touching, with a setting of snow flakes giving way to falling leaves. (Perhaps falling blossoms would have been more appropriate?)

Graeme Macfarlane as Alberich’s wicked brother Mime managed to convey manipulative unpleasantness together with a touch of sympathy for the treatment he received from his young ward. Richard Berkeley-Steele conveyed craftiness and superiority as Loge. Andrew Moran thundered well as Donner, a role into which he was slotted late. Andrew Brundsdon did well as spring god Froh, while Taryn Fiebig was particularly charming as the Woodbird.

Daniel Sumegi was a richly powerful Hagen, exuding evil (he was also Fasolt in Rheingold), while as his partners in crime Barry Ryan sang well as a naive Gunther and Sharon Prero was perfect as their bimbo sister Gutrune. (The wedding scene involving Gutrune and her super high-heeled bridesmaids was richly entertaining.)

The special challenges of dual roles were met superbly by Jud Arthur as the not very gigantic Fafner and Sieglinde’s unpleasant husband Hunding, Jacqueline Dark as tough goddess Frika as well as Second Norn, Anke Hoppner and Elizabeth Campbell as valkyries and norns, Hyeseoung Kwon as a lovely Freia as well as a valkyrie, and the popular Deborah Humble as (an increasingly disabled) earth goddess Erda and valkyrie Waltraute.

Adding to the vocal richness and variety of the production were Rhinemaidens Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews (also a valkyrie), and valkyries Merlyn Quaife, Sian Pentry and Roxane Hislop.

The robust chorus, who appear only in the final opera, were well trained by Anthony Hung and Thomas Johnson, although a rare moment of musical imbalance occurred when at one point the orchestra drowned the men singers.

Sadly, the production distracted from rather than complementing the glorious music.

Director Neil Armfield has given us a Ring with no dragon, no ash tree, no valkyries on horseback, no water of the river Rhine. We all accept that contemporary productions do different things with the work, and Wagner’s detailed stage directions have long been binned. But in this version much of the design (sets Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babidge) was drab and ugly.

The gods wore suits, leading to a degree of character confusion in Das Rheingold. The Rhinemaidens in their feathered aquatic costumes were comical rather than alluring. Wotan as Wanderer got around like an aged hippy, with shades and bare chest, Siegfried wore a shapeless jersey (even after his maturing into manhood and discovery of his ‘hero’ mission, whereby his dress sense might have been raised) while the valkyries were in unattractive trousers and loose jackets. Gunther and Hagen were for no particular reason dressed as naval officers. Wagner’s craggy peak on which gathered the Valkyries and Wotan was rendered a gigantic spiralling concrete ramp bringing to mind a shopping centre car park. The valkyries appeared from above on playground swings, descending to collect corpses. The hunting scene where Siegfried was assassinated became a target practice range.

Modernising any traditional opera is fraught with challenges, especially as libretti are sacrosanct. Inconsistencies abound. Why all the effort in repairing a magic sword if the characters are toting guns? Would anyone really forge swords in a bed-sit kitchen? Would the young man Siegfried sleep in a double-decker bunk with his childish animal drawings on the wall, and play dress-up games with his guardian? (I prefer Wagner’s own rare burst of comedy, with Siegfried suddenly appearing with a live bear he’d captured in the woods.) Rather than slicing an anvil in two, Siegried cut up the plaster wall. Instead of his amazing deed in slaying a dragon, Siegfried’s victim was a painted nude man: dispatching such an adversary was hardly the heroic feat about which Siegfried boasted, to anyone who would listen, for the rest of his life. Nor was the replacement of the ring of fire with a curtain. (Incidentally Damien Cooper’s lighting design worked well.)

A huge army of extras came on and off at various times. A host of Marilyn Monroe look-alikes escorted the gods to Valhalla. A hundred or so supernumeraries in bathers in Rheingold presumably represented the river. Ludicrously, for Siegried’s famous journey down the Rhine, the iconic orchestral music was accompanied by the extras miming row-row-row the boat routines. Many eyes in the audience were raised heavenwards at this nonsense. In many scenes I half expected the entrance of a Monty Python figure from the wings waving a clipboard and declaring: “This is silly.”

A top-hatted magician with accompanying showgirl came on to effect Alberich’s magical changes of shape. Very risible, but did it add anything, or do other than distract?

And that, surely, is the key. If the production distracts from rather than enhancing the music, then it isn’t doing its job. I prefer a director to help me understand what the composer had in mind than to have me wondering what the director meant by it all.

One distraction was the appearance from time to time of large stuffed animals (zebra, giraffe etc) in display cases or hanging in the air upside down. Given the environmental warnings in the director’s notes, we are perhaps to take this as a metaphor that the world is stuffed.

Rather than being lectured to (an occupational hazard with theatre directors) Melbourne deserved a more mainstream version. It is unusual for displeasure to be expressed vocally at an Opera Australia production, yet boos were heard at the curtain calls. Many audience members (who at Ring cycles are more inclined than most audiences to talk to one another) expressed the same view great music and singing, pity about the staging.

Challenging productions of the Ring have become normal in recent years, and perhaps Europeans enjoy the variety plus the controversy. But I wonder whether the really radical thing would have been to stage a fairly conventional production, especially for so many Ring first-timers. Lots of theatrical magic and wow factor of course (and Armfield does give some of this, especially in Gotterdammerung), but not repeatedly silly or, most charitably, puzzling.

I have to confess that during the Ring week I snuck off to see King Kong: The Musical at the Regent Theatre. Now that is a ripper of a production, showing all the fantastic things that can be done with modern theatre effects to produce creatures of fantasy. And given the popularity of fantasy in cinema and books, I rather think modern audiences enjoy rather than disdain heroic tales set in a mythical past.

But here’s another idea. If conventional Rings are too difficult for opera producers to conceive, an exciting alternative approach for Australia would be an indigenous Ring. The culture that has given us the Dreamtime, the rainbow serpent and amazing visual art tens of thousands of years old could provide a stunning backdrop and theme for an Australian Ring.

I can even imagine a final scene with ships of the First Fleet appearing on the horizon, foreshadowing the twilight of an indigenous Valhalla.

18, 20, 22, 25 November 2013

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Mon 18th November 2013)