One hundred and seventy years after thousands of desperadoes and gold-cravers trekked to a place called Sandhurst, Wagnerites set off to Bendigo on Friday afternoon (in rather more orderly fashion it must be said, along the potholed Calder Freeway) for the opening night of Melbourne Opera’s first full production of Der Ring des Nibelungen
A complete Ring cycle, presented over a week, is an immense undertaking for any company. Since 2021, it has been presented in three instalments: Das Rheingold (the Regent Theatre), Die Walküre (Her Majesty’s Theatre), and Siegfried (Elisabeth Murdoch Hall). These productions surpassed most people’s expectations. Now – because of a dearth of available venues in Melbourne, we understand – the production has moved to the Ulumburra Theatre, high above Bendigo. This was the old colonial jail. From outside, it’s a grand, forbidding sight. The tiny cells that greet you at the top of the stairs, when you move inside, are oppressive. Remnants of the old prison are everywhere, interspersed with an exhibition of Joan Sutherland’s great costumes. The ample foyers work well, and there are several places for drinks and lunches – or just exhausted ruminations on the meaning of this most ambiguous work in the German repertoire.
What a feat it is for this small, enterprising company – fast becoming Victoria’s most impressive one, given Opera Australia’s virtual retreat from local stages. What an achievement it is to stage not one but three full cycles in regional Victoria. Here, it’s worth remembering, as Lady Potter (Patron-in-Chief) reminds us in the excellent program, that ‘this production, a major event in the crucial constituency of regional Victoria, has received no Federal of State government support whatsoever’. (Meanwhile, we know that Opera Australia received $33,324,538 from the Australia Council in 2021.)
Let us hope that the burghers of Bendigo appreciate what a gift this is. Like it or not, most people are there for a week (Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons for two weekends, per cycle). That is a formidable contribution to local tourism.
There is an impressive program of events: talks, masterclasses, symposia, recitals, walking tours, even dinners on stage at the Ulumbarra, if you care to be incarcerated for an evening.
Legendary Heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem is in town to appear on panels and to lead a masterclass. What an opportunity this will be for young singers. Jerusalem is a veteran of Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer’s famous Ring cycles of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, I saw Jerusalem in Berlin, where he sang the three big tenor roles – Loge, Siegmund, Siegfried – a feat that few Heldentenors have matched. (Not all of his colleagues at the Staatsoper Berlin had such stamina. Three different Brünnhildes were needed: Anne Evans cried off after Act Two of Walküre, so they flew in Deborah Polaski during an intermission of monumental proportions; then Janis Martin took over for Götterdämmerung.)
Of the four works, Wagnerites have their favourite one. For some, Das Rheingold – Wagner’s ‘preliminary evening’ – has the edge because of its economy, its narrative cohesion over four relatively concise scenes. There are none of the longueurs of the later operas. One good example is Erda’s great scene, when the ancient, all-knowing god looms to music of great portentousness and exhorts Wotan to hand over the Ring needed in order to free Freia. Compared with later monologues in the trilogy, this slips by like Don Giovanni’s Champagne Aria.
We first saw Das Rheingold in early 2021 during a lull in the lockdown horrors. Emma Muir-Smith reviewed it for ABR.
Suzanne Chaundy’s production is a triumph of lucidity, precision, and common sense. Nothing is extraneous or puerile; Chaundy avoids the extravagances that have diminished many Rings. If something moves or lights up, there is a reason – not a directorial whim. How good Andrew Bailey’s sets look on the broad Ulumburra stage; how simple yet versatile the vast platform with the Ring-like hole in the middle.
The conception is pleasingly timeless. (There isn’t a fascist or show-girl in sight.) In her director’s note, Chaundy writes:
[The creative team] never considered a contemporary or period-style naturalistic setting. ‘The Ring’ is a mythic story – of gods, demi-gods, giants, elves, nixies and people. We have created a non-specific, yet familiar world to serve the story, characters, and situation … Simple and abstract, our focus is on clear and detailed story telling with a symbolic nod to circularity, and there ‘the ring’.
The lighting (Rob Sowinski), much enhanced since the first staging, is inspired, especially at the end of Rheingold when, Freia having been rescued, the moody gods (ironically dubbed ‘the augustly glittering race’ by Fasolt) process to their latest castle.
Mention must also be made of Harriet Oxley’s costumes, not one of which looks silly – surely a first for Wagner productions. Loge’s bright striped suit rightly set him apart, and the two Giants – tall and broad-shouldered – project massiveness without expensive or distracting devices or prostheses.
British conductor Anthony Negus returns to lead the first two cycles (David Kram will conduct the third). For many of us, Negus’s conducting was the highlight of Siegfried, which was presented in concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre last September. Reviewing it for ABR Arts, Michael Shmith spoke of Negus’s ‘unerring sense of structure [which] allowed Richard Wagner’s score to ebb and flow almost as if on its own accord’.
This time, on opening night, the results were mixed. The famous E-flat prelude – such a brooding, suggestive passage – seemed rushed. The brass section was not in good form; this was not the horns’ finest hour. At times there was a certain thinness in the strings.
The first scene with the Rhinemaidens – Alberich’s three temptresses – was superb. Michael Tanner puts it well in his excellent little book Wagner (1996): ‘[The Rhinemaidens] begin their merciless prick-teasing … with the unconscious cruelty of children.’
Once again we could admire Simon Meadow’s Alberich, the bald, grubby dwarf. Somehow Meadows managed to better the celebrated performance he gave in 2021. How he colours the voice to convey Alberich’s endless humiliations and provocations. There was explosive power when he needed it. Meadows clearly knows how to use this theatre, with its bright acoustic. He was at his best in the long scene with Wotan and Loge, when they betray him into parting with the Ring. The famous Curse was searing. Alberich, after all, is just about the only honest character in Rheingold. Meadows – increasingly charismatic – had full command of the stage. This is a performance not be missed.
Equally good was the Loge of James Egglestone, who also sang the role in 2021. Egglestone’s voice has never sounded better. He was consistently droll as the opera’s great ironist and iconoclast.
Of the smaller roles, Darren Jeffrey, a new Fasolt – that sympathetic giant – was the most impressive. Fasolt has some of the sweetest music in Rheingold when, to Freia’s motif, he anticipates married life with her.
In 2021 Eddie Muliaumaseali sang the role of Wotan. This time it was Warwick Fyfe, who all but made the part his own last year in Die Walküre and Siegfried. These were monumental performances, vocally and dramatically. Rheingold is less demanding histrionically. Here, Wotan is static, torn, reflective, anxious – badgered by a succession of women, and needled by Loge. Fyfe’s sheer volume continues to impress; there was much to look forward to in the next two operas.
Last time, Michael Lapina sang the role of Mime, opera’s most repellent character. Here, Robert Macfarlane sang the part, as he did in Siegfried last year. He came on at full pelt – not the only singer who felt the need to project in a large theatre with a reliable acoustic.
It was the performance of Die Walküre in February 2022 that alerted audiences to the fact the Melbourne Opera was on the verge of achieving something quite exceptional with its first Ring. My colleague Michael Shmith, reviewing it for ABR, wrote:
In the event, the result, in visual and sonic terms, as a faithful realisation of Wagner’s vision of Gesamtkunstwerk: to meld music, text, and production values into a seamless entity … It is a hard opera to bring off … Instead, this was one of those rare nights when everything seemed right with the world. This triumphant performance must be regarded as a glory for Melbourne Opera.
I saw it twice last year and was similarly impressed, but the performance in Bendigo on Sunday was even better, led radiantly (and briskly) by Maestro Negus. The production itself looks fine on the stage, especially Act One, when the exhausted Siegmund seeks shelter bei Hunding and ultimately recognises his lost twin sister and future wife, Sieglinde. Andrew Bailey’s set, in its clarity and sheer domesticity, was the perfect backdrop for this brilliant first act, which culminates in some of Wagner’s most rousing and luminous music.
Sets aside, something seems to have happened since 2021 – surely vindicating the decision to stage the Ring over several years. There is a remarkable bond between singers, conductor, and director. In their daring, their passion, their intensity, some of these performances seem to transcend the limitations of conventional opera. It is a measure of what a true ensemble company – working together off and on for a number of years – can achieve.
Of the six main roles, not one was wanting. Adrian Tamburini – Fasolt in 2021 – is the new Hunding (Steven Gallop will resume the part for the second cycle). He brought menace, energy, and accuracy to the role of Siegmund’s suspicious host and eventual murderer.
Any reservations we might have had on Friday night about Sarah Sweeting’s volume as Fricka were soon dispelled during her great confrontation with Wotan in Act Two when Fricka fulminates against the incestuous twins and forces her philandering husband to eliminate Siegmund. Sweeting wielded her burnished, voluminous gown (Harriet Oxley’s most inspired creation) like a conjugal sword.
Lee Abrahmsen – a veteran of Melbourne Opera and its many Wagner productions – was every bit as good as she was in 2022. If anything, she was in more luxuriant voice, and her great outpouring in Act Three – which Wagner called the Glorification of Brünnhilde motif – filled the theatre.
Her soul mate on this occasion was James Egglestone. Despite the demands of Loge on Friday night, he was in ringing, ardent voice as Siegmund. It’s unusual to see such an engaged and credible pair of lovers. During the Todesverkündigung in Act Two, when Brünnhilde foreshadows Siegumand’s death, Siegmund’s revulsion at the notion of abandoning Sieglinde was powerfully conveyed.
Antionette Halloran is our first Brünnhilde; Zara Barrett will appear in the third cycle. Brünnhilde has one of the most testing entrances in all opera, with the repeated war-cry ‘Ho-jo-to-ho’, and there was an edge to Halloran’s high notes, but as the drama unfolded – bellicose exultation giving way to complicity in Wotan’s betrayal of Siegmund, followed by rebellion, exposure, and rejection – Halloran offered a fine performance, always engaged, memorable to watch. Most poignant of all was Brünnhilde’s plea to her adored father: ‘War es so schmälich’ (‘Was it so shameful’).
Warwick Fyfe was simply magnificent. There seems to be no limit to his vocal power, yet he can also be subtle, intimate, almost conversational. His extended Act Two monologue begins with a confession: ‘When the joy of young love departed from me, my spirit longed for power.’ Fyfe almost whispered this passage, before rising at the end of his narration to a shattering and definitive ‘Das Ende’.
The long scene that ends the opera – when Wotan rejects his favourite Valkyrie and condemns her to be abandoned on a rock, easy prey for strangers, only to soften at the end and mitigate her sentence with a ring of fire – was unforgettably powerful. Rare is it in the theatre – rarer still in an opera house (to be honest) – to watch two performers in complete and eloquent artistic accord.
I have seen Walküre many times, but none has impressed me more than this performance. For once, the conductor, the director, and the singers were in perfect sync. Music and drama fitted together seamlessly. At times the emotion on stage – especially during Wotan and Brünnhilde’s Farewell (when both singers were visibly moved) – was almost unbearable. The last hour, in particular, won’t be easily forgotten. If you don’t have a ticket yet, buy one: you won’t see its like again.
Now we look forward to next weekend’s new stagings of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which (as here) I will write about as a pair.
Das Rheingold and Die Walküre (Melbourne Opera) were performed at the Ulumburra Theatre, Bendigo, on 24 and 26 March 2023. There are two further Ring cycles in April.