Bendigo has struck gold once again with Melbourne Opera’s mounting of a full Ring Cycle. Not only is there a reiteration of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, but all four operas that comprise Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are being performed in Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre. Due to a current shortage of suitable theatres arising from pandemic cancellations, what is Melbourne’s loss has become a silver lining for Bendigo. The change of venue has required a monumental effort on the part of Melbourne Opera – a company that continues to produce high quality opera performances without the benefit of Government funding. The fact that the company regularly attracts some of the best international singers reflects the standard of their productions and the support they receive.
The smaller Ulumbarra Theatre provided quite a different experience from the relatively cavernous space of Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. On the plus side, the voices were clearly audible – and made even more immediate from Row D of the Stalls. On the other hand some of the visual mystery and otherworldliness tended to be lost at such close quarters. Nevertheless, the initial watery undulations projected onto the scrim curtain still conjured up shadowy Rhine depths, and the way the two Rhinemaidens on the sway poles gradually emerged and gained momentum as the music became more urgent, continued to work their magic.
Coupled with Rob Sowinski’s atmospheric lighting design, Andrew Bailey’s streamlined set design was capable of Tarn helm versatility, with the raising and lowering of the main platform ingeniously creating new spaces. Chief among the transformation of settings were the Rhine scenes, the gloomy mines of the Nibelungs, and the culminating entrance of the gods to Valhalla in a vivid mist of rainbow light. It could be argued that the scene in which Erda appears to warn Wotan against keeping the ring was less successful. Looming over the stage, a huge image of Erda’s face, a cracked white mask with eyes barely visible in the black surrounds, mouthed some of the words. It was a visually striking image but it was a distraction from the singer below. Deborah Humble is renowned as a compelling actress with an excitingly rich depth of tone. Dressed in a splendid flowing blue gown, she crossed the front of the stage and issued her warning with all the focused authority of an earth goddess – and that’s where our focus should have been.
Apart from this reservation, Suzanne Chaundy’s direction was smooth, uncluttered and gave the singers every chance to shine. As the three Rhinemaidens, Rebecca Rashleigh, Naomi Flatman and Karen Van Spall made a lively and mellifluous trio, delighting in using graceful feminine wiles to tease and taunt the lustful dwarf Alberich. Rashleigh’s bright soprano, Flatman’s pleasing mezzo-soprano and Van Spall’s warm lower tones were distinctly different while remaining complementary.
Simon Meadows has attracted an enthusiastic following because of his commanding presence and rock solid vocal technique. He does not quite fit the description of Alberich as a misshapen dwarf, but Harriet Oxley’s costume design has ensured a suitably repulsive appearance. The intensity that Meadows brought to the role was spine-chilling in its vindictiveness at times, especially as he cursed the ring and anyone who possesses it. Whether wheedling, vicious, sadistic, boastful or, as at the end of Act 1, electrified with triumph, Meadows’ portrayal was masterful.
Warwick Fyfe has also been accorded high praise for his Alberich in Opera Australia’s productions of the Ring. As Wotan, he has fewer opportunities to portray a wide emotional range in Das Rheingold – that comes in the next opera in the series. Yet, Fyfe’s powerful voice and focused stage presence brought considerable strength to the flawed character of Wotan, who appears weak when chastised by his wife, immoral when rebuked by the giants, not so bright when he has to call on Loge to rescue him from his predicament, and greedy for power when Erda has to tell him that possession of the ring will bring about the downfall of the gods.
The fiery Loge is sometimes performed by an artist more noted for acting than singing abilities. James Egglestone is gifted in both. He was able to dominate the stage even when wryly observing the carry-on of his fellow gods – quietly in control of the situation. The red mobster-type striped suit drew the eye, but the strength of Egglestone’s voice, the sureness of his movement and steady focus did even more to capture the attention.
I was disappointed that Adrian Tamburini would not be singing the role of Fasolt; he and Steven Gallop’s Fafner had struck me as an ideal combination when they performed together in Melbourne Opera’s initial performances. In this performance, again, Gallop was superb, but Darren Jeffrey was a revelation – tall, imposing, and with a soothing richness and beauty to his voice that made him perfect for the role.
So many of the characters in Das Rheingold seem to come in pairs. Robert Macfarlane sang the role of Alberich’s brother Mime with his usual vitality and coloured his voice remarkably well to suit the character. Jason Wasley and Christopher Tonkin were brothers Froh and Donner, with Tonkin putting a great deal of energy into his singing and the wielding of his hammer.
As the sisters Fricka and Freia, Sarah Sweeting was imperiously demanding as Wotan’s wife and goddess of marriage, and Lee Abrahmsen a convincingly frightened pawn in the power play. From the first note, Abrahmsen’s unforced vocal production impressed. With outstanding resonance throughout the range, her voice seemed to bloom effortlessly and fill the theatre. There was no cutting edge, just a full tone that rode the orchestral waves.
At the helm, Maestro Anthony Negus was firmly in control, shaping the flow of sound for musical expressiveness. There might have been the odd nervous moment in the brass section, but those wonderful low notes that initiate the orchestral action and inform so much of what follows were thrilling.
It will not only be dedicated Wagner tragics who will find this production of the Das Rheingold tremendously exciting. Even students studying German have a chance to hone their language skills by reading the German text alongside the English surtitles on the side screens while broadening their cultural horizons. For so many reasons, this production is not to be missed.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of “Das Rheingold”, performed at the Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on March 24, 2023.