Staging Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is the ultimate achievement for any opera company worthy of the name. Nearly sixteen hours of music, more than thirty characters, not to mention an enlarged orchestra, monumental settings, as well as chorus and extras; all these demands drain the resources of every company, be it the mighty New York Metropolitan Opera or the tradition-laden Vienna State Opera, or any of the much smaller companies that attempt it – a notable recent example being Melbourne Opera’s Ring in Bendigo. This challenge is never undertaken lightly.
Opera Australia last staged the Ring in Melbourne in 2013 (revived in 2016 and reviewed in ABR: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung), directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Pietari Inkinen. The production blended Australian references with a strong theatricalism, but also incorporated an environmental theme. However, some found the constant ironic perspective of the staging somewhat undermining of the Wagnerian tropes of idealism, nobility, and heroism, and highlighted a tension found in many recent stagings where an almost fatal disjunction emerges between elements of a prevalent post-dramatic theatre ideology and Wagner’s ideal of music drama.
So it was with great anticipation that the announcement by former Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, of a new Ring to be performed in Brisbane was greeted. Sydney, of course, always misses out, as the Opera House does not have the required space to do justice to the scale of the work. However, a Wagnerian stroke of fate in the form of Covid 19 intervened, and the original date of 2020 was postponed to 2021, which, in turn, was moved to December 2023 – a delay of over three years, but well worth the wait. For many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the work. A fair number of the singers in the earlier Opera Australia Ring return in this one, and Brisbane was full of interstate and international visitors.
Of all operatic works, the Ring has provoked the most discussion in terms of its ambition, its scope, not to mention the way in which during the almost 150 years of continuous performance it has been interpreted by a wide range of directors, from its première in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth in 1876. The Ring grips the imagination of the opera world – it is estimated that there were nearly forty complete cycles of the Ring between 2000 and 2015 alone. As Barbara Eichner observes: ‘If Richard Wagner is one of the most written-about men in history, this is due in no small part to the extraordinary amount of debate and controversy inspired by Der Ring des Nibelungen. Friend and foe agree that the tetralogy occupies a unique position in the development of art and that its influence is (or should be) felt in all areas of society, culture, and politics.’
Although the conception for the Ring was born out of the revolutions of 1848–49, of fundamental importance for Wagner was the centrality of myth in his conception of music drama, drawing on Greek drama roots. He claimed that ‘the incomparable quality of myth is that it is always true, and its content in concentrated form is forever inexhaustible’. Myth exists in the eternal present which we can never know; however hard we try to understand the present, the experience is already past. Myth is concerned with essentially human emotions and situations; the focus is the human condition. Wagner was mindful of the crisis of faith in Christianity in the West as the nineteenth century progressed: ‘One might say that where religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for art to save the essence of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation’.
One of the most interesting aspects of the way in which Wagner developed his characters for performance is the fact that they were written with no particular singers in mind, unlike Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and most other composers of the period, who were often constrained by pre-imposed casting. Like the setting of the Ring, its characters can easily be regarded in archetypal terms. Thus, as with the abstract setting, diverse directorial approaches are always possible, giving a director great freedom. This has led to the Ring being the operatic work that has inspired the widest range of often deeply philosophical interpretations, not merely the many shallowly ineffectual flashy stagings of recent times. As Heinrich Porges, the chronicler of the first Ring of 1876, remarked before the première: it was a work that strove to ‘recreate the totality of the hustle and bustle of the world in a unified artwork’.
Ever since 1876, many have sought the ‘meaning’ of the Ring. As Roger Scruton suggests, Wagner ‘recognized that modern people, having lost their faith in the divine order, need another route to meaning than that once offered by religion’. The Ring is, in many ways, a ‘search for meaning in a world where meaning exists only if we ourselves provide it’. The Ring has enjoyed an enormous variety of approaches to its staging which continue to attempt to shed new light on what the work actually ‘means’. Eminent German critic Carl Dahlhaus wryly noted: ‘Wagner himself was by no means certain what his own works meant.’
One watched with fascination, and no small sense of relief, as the new, ‘digital’ Ring unfolded – no evidence of an all-too-familiar sleazy kitchen-sink family drama, and, even better, no Nazi kitsch in sight! The ever-increasing rumble of the famous orchestral E flat major opening of Das Rheingold revealed a setting far removed from any of these examples. The director, Chinese-American Chen Shi-Zheng, draws on aspects of his background, merging symbolic elements from Eastern cultures with images of the Australian landscape in a complete reimagining of the medieval legends that inspired Wagner. He observes:
This is a fantasy, a myth. What I want to do is take the myth as a platform to dive into, to reimagine it for the 21st century – in Australia, in this very landscape. I hate to say sci-fi, but sci-fi is like the new mythology in our modern vocabulary. Primitive myths have been reimagined in a sci-fi way. That’s what we are trying to do in the Ring. What we are trying to avoid is using the familiar European cultural references. It is not necessary to be in the Black Forest.
In Shi-Zheng’s conception, we are far from a detailed, specific setting. Indeed, we find an aesthetic similar to that developed by Wieland Wagner in the 1950s as he endeavored to ‘cleanse’ Bayreuth from its Nazi accretions during the 1930s and 1940s. We see the three Rhinemaidens (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede, Dominica Matthews), accompanied by body doubles who swim through the air around them, as they clamber on a large and intriguing white coral reef one might find off the Queensland coast rather than at the bottom of the Rhine.
There was some level of apprehension when it was made clear that this Ring would strongly feature the use of LED technology. Several recent local productions have used this to excess, drawing attention away from the characters on stage, and often leaving them stranded with no alternative but to ‘park and bark’ downstage. To one’s great relief, it became clear that the imaginative use of this technology would enhance the drama rather than obscure it. The colourful swirls of water added depth to the sound world of the opening, and as the opera progressed, it was apparent that distinctive visual features such as the swirling ripples and bubbles surrounding the Rhinemaidens acted as a recurring visual leitmotif, complementing Wagner’s well-known musical strategies.
The sets for all the locations in Rheingold were attractively minimalist, with spare, classical lines, often with an Eastern flavour. Wotan and Fricka are moved in on their white throne, flanked by Chinese lion sculptures. Similarly, the costumes of the gods were mostly in a simple, silky white, with long, elegant coats, contrasting with the striking apparel of the giants and the inhabitants of Nibelheim. The tall LED panels moved in and around the stage to create effective playing spaces – the evocation of the sinister world of Nibelheim particularly striking, but never overwhelming the characters. The visual technology was effective as backdrop to the music evoking the journey down to Nibelheim, as well as the rainbow bridge as the gods leave for Valhalla at the end.
A delightful ‘low tech’ moment occurred in the confrontation between Alberich, Loge and Wotan, where Alberich, using the magic Tarnhelm, transforms himself into a snake. Instead of a possible computer-generated visual extravaganza, a stylishly elegant metal snake manipulated by two bunraku puppeteers appears. Another impressive visual effect was giant busts of the gods projected onto the screens which rapidly dissolved into a bloody mess, a symbol of their ultimate decay resulting from the loss of Freia’s golden apples of eternal youth and presaging their ultimate destruction.The final, vivid projections of the opera called to mind a starry, infinite universe, or possibly a simulation of a computer printed circuit board – both visions of infinity in their own way.
The singing was of a consistently high standard, with the Alberich of Warwick Fife particularly fine. His familiar, award-winning portrayal of this character was superb, the sudden moments of vocal beauty in his powerful singing giving the character unexpected but moving glimpses of a flawed and deeply buried humanity. He was matched by Daniel Sumegi’s Wotan. Sumegi is well known to Australian audiences in a wide variety of roles, but there was a vocal beauty and refinement in his portrayal that recalled two of the great Wotans of the twentieth century: Canadian George London, and American James Morris. The dark, attractively grainy quality of the voice brought out the anguish of the character and boded well for his two further appearances in Die Walküre and Siegfried.
Deborah Humble sang strongly as a resolute Fricka, while Mariana Hong was a fresh-voiced Freia, and Liane Keegan delivered suitably sepulchral tones as Erda. David Parkin produced burnished, smooth-voiced bass tones as Fasolt, and Andrea Silvestrelli displayed a sumptuously cavernous bass as Fafner. Dean Bassett as Froh, and Alexander Sefton as Donner, were vocally and visually impressive, while the Mime of Andreas Conrad revealed an incisive and well-focused tenor. Particularly outstanding was Hubert Francis as a wily, conniving Loge, his flexible tenor and lithe physical demeanour conveying much of the character’s combination of ambivalence and opportunism.
The conductor was Philippe Auguin. The opening of Rheingold at first sounded a little unfocused, but the full sonority of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra soon emerged and justice was done to Wagner’s brilliant music, with sufficient power in the big climaxes, as well as stylishly nuanced musical phrasing in the many more intimate moments of the score. The acoustic in the hall is excellent and the connection and balance between pit and stage never faltered.
The Berlin-based digital design team, ‘flora&faunavisions’, consisting of Leigh Sachwitz, Sebastian Grebing, Milena Mayer, and Antonia Böhme, are complemented by associate set designer Maruti Evans, costumes by Anita Yavich, lighting by Matthew Marshall, and choreography by Akasia Ruthy Inchaustegui. This outstanding creative team restores one’s faith in the innovative use of current technology that respects and enhances the storytelling of Das Rheingold, and that whets the appetite for the unfurling of the rest of the Ring.
One’s expectations were not disappointed with Die Walküre, the first part of the trilogy, but second opera in the whole cycle. The largely bare stage opens to reveal a large, white, stylised Bonsai tree as opposed to the Rheingold coral. Siegmund (Rosario La Spina) staggers in, soon met by Sieglinde (Anna-Louise Cole), both confronted by a vocally and physically terrifying Hunding (Andrea Silvestrelli) – a voice perfect for the character. Although the stage remains empty, there is quite a lot of LED action, which occasionally left Siegmund and Sieglinde in the dark and drew too much of the focus. The much-loved and intensely lyrical music of the second half of the act, with its two great showpieces – ‘Der Männer Sippe’ for Sieglinde, and ‘Winterstürme’ for Siegmund – was well sung, although occasionally La Spina lacked some of the ring at the top of voice which does much to create the heroic aspect of the character. Cole has an attractive, sumptuous voice, with much metal, suggesting that she will be an excellent Brünnhilde in the final cycle. This is a true Wagnerian sound.
The energy levels rose substantially at the entrance of Wotan and Brünnhilde at the start of the second act. Sumegi sustained his excellent vocal and dramatic level as in Rheingold, and Lise Lindstrom’s incisive tones matched his intensity. Wotan’s great monologue was beautifully paced and revealed the anguish and pathos of the character with a lieder singer’s attention to detail. Humble’s Fricka was outstanding, creating a character of great presence with strong, sustained vocal tone and impeccable diction – every word projected effortlessly into the hall. Again, several elements in the design function as visual leitmotifs. When Wotan references Erda’s warning from Rheingold, a vividly patterned black and red panel with Eastern motifs reappears, providing a visual reminder to complement both text and music. Rheingold had a ring image occurring throughout, while Walküre now has a sword motif. A Japanese bunraku puppet appears again in the form of a dragon-like creature accompanying Brünnhilde’s pleading with Siegmund to accompany her to Valhalla. As in Rheingold, the creature is manipulated by stagehands dressed in black, signifying their invisibility.
The third act has some of the most intense and personal music of all. Of course, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is the best known of all Wagner’s music, and the eight flying ladies (Jane Ede, Jennifer Black, Deborah Humble, Dominica Matthews, Mariana Hong, Agnes Sarkis, Angela Hogan, Ruth Strutt) arrived in a magnificent silver, sci-fi flying machine and provided a vocal feast, surrounded by vivid projections and lighting. However, for many, the highlight of the opera is the final, heart-breaking scene as Wotan, full of regrets and anguish, bids farewell to his beloved daughter, Brünnhilde. Lindstrom’s beautiful, silvery tone and expressive physicality would move the hardest of hearts. Sumegi did full justice to the famous monologue, ‘Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ Here, the full range of the voice was on display, and there were no signs of vocal fatigue at the end of this most demanding of roles. The chemistry between the two brought out the full emotional range of these sublime final moments. Brünnhilde then mounts a jagged rock, reminiscent of the coral and bonsai, which is then surrounded by an enormous silver dragon, drawing trucks laden with fire which ignited as Wotan gives the signal. This spectacular ending is enhanced by the full range of visual effects on display.
Halfway through the Ring, high expectations have certainly been met. Some might feel that the visual elements are too intrusive, but for this reviewer they add much to the excellent storytelling by Chen Shi-Zheng. His subtle character direction keeps the power dynamics clear at all times, and the uniformly strong cast are matched by expressive playing from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Philippe Auguin. One looks forward to Siegfried and Götterdämmerung later this week.
Das Rheingold (Opera Australia) will be repeated on 8 and 15 December 2023 (performance attended: 1 December) and Die Walküre on 10 and 17 December (performance attended: 3 December) at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
Correction: In his review, Michael Halliwell inadvertently referred to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as the Queensland Philharmonic. Alberich – not Mime – turns himself into a snake.