In what seemed almost lightning speed turnaround, the second opera of Wagner’s addictive Der Ring des Nibelungen was in full swing at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre. On Friday we had Das Rheingold, on Sunday Die Walküre – with several principal roles being sung by the same singers. It was in keeping with Melbourne Opera’s punching above its weight approach.
Of the performers singing in both operas, James Egglestone’s achievement was the most remarkable. In the central role of the trickster god of fire Loge he had impressed with his fine tenor voice and his dynamic acting. The role of Siegmund demands quite different emotional engagement. The orchestral introduction, with its surging scud of lower strings and horn calls, immediately sets pulses racing as the storm brews and Siegmund frantically tries to escape the baying hounds and murderous vengeance of his pursuers. The dramatic tension increases when, exhausted, he seeks refuge in the home of his enemy only to be met with a very different emotional extremity.
With Egglestone as Siegmund and Lee Abrahmsen as Sieglinde, the moment when brother and sister share the cup of reviving drink initiated an immensely moving scene of doomed passion. In Sieglinde’s main aria and in the final duet Abrahmsen’s voice was glorious – she just seems to go from strength to strength. Equally ardent, Egglestone made this a scene to remember, leaving many audience members in tears, completely bowled over by the rapturous singing and fully committed acting, as the curtain fell on Act 1.
Sieglinde’s deplorable situation was made even more pitiable by the aura of menace Adrian Tamburini brought to the role of Hunding. A towering, lowering figure with body language that radiated potential violence, he coloured the dark power of his bass baritone voice with an arrogant snarl.
Meanwhile, Wotan continued in his role of less than devoted husband caught in a trap of his own making while his wife continued to be a most insistent upholder of marital rights as she reminded him of his duty to the cuckolded Hunding. As Fricka, Sarah Sweeting’s firm, rounded and admirably even vocal production was suitably assertive. Torn between the competing demands of what he should do and what he desperately wants to do, Wotan’s character develops into something much more noble and appealing. Dramatically, it lays the foundation for his intimate exchange with Brünnhilde, the subsequent enraged confrontation at her betrayal, and his heart-wrenching farewell. His voice powerful and emotion driven, Warwick Fyfe was truly outstanding in the way he conveyed Wotan’s inner struggles, his outrage at his favourite daughter’s betrayal, and his capitulation to her entreaties.
As Brünnhilde, Antoinette Halloran was a perfect fit as what Wotan addressed as his dauntless, glorious child – chief pride and smiling delight of his heart. Immersing herself in the role, Halloran brought an intense poignancy to their exchanges. For what is predominantly in a lower than usual vocal range for a soprano, the role benefits from a strong lower register. Halloran was able to meet this challenge with substantial, pleasingly natural chest notes, making this aspect of her performance one of the most satisfying to be heard in recent Australian productions. The highest notes were less comfortable but were well projected.
The “Ride of the Valkyries” would have to be the most familiar piece of music by Wagner, and one of the main reasons audiences are attracted to Die Walküre above his other operas. The Melbourne Opera Valkyries were in fine form, with Rosamund Illing leading the charge splendidly as Gerhilde. Coming close behind was Olivia Cranwell’s Helwige with vibrant cries of “Hoyotoho!” Strong, gleaming and accurate, they were enough to make you sit up and make a note of the singer’s name.
Continuing to be a major asset in this production was the versatility of Andrew Bailey’s set design. Almost human in its spreading extensions, the base of the ash tree became a functional resting place for the fleeing lovers and a theatrically effective structure for Brünnhilde’s message of doom for Siegmund. The final scene, in which Brünnhilde is placed on the rock surrounded by the ring of fire, was another visual coup. Sounds of appreciation and enthusiastic applause from the audience at the beginning of several scenes, especially the two Valkyries riding their sway pole steeds, was yet another indication of the successful collaboration between director Suzanne Chaundy and other members of the creative team.
In the pit, the orchestra seemed more assured this time. Wagner’s liberal use of brass and lower instruments sounded weighty and imposing, while the strings and winds excelled in the tender moments. Anne Gilby’s oboe was particularly effective in rendering the scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde even more emotionally charged. From full orchestral storm power to the sparkling flutes and piccolo of the fire music, the orchestra was an impressive force under the baton of Anthony Negus.
Without having seen Siegfried or Götterdämmerung, I would still venture to say that, if you can make only one trip to Bendigo, the Cycle 2 performance of Melbourne Opera’s Die Walküre is the one you should make every effort to see in person. The second half of the Ring Cycle will undoubtedly have a huge amount to offer, as does Das Rheingold, but this Die Walküre is something extra special.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of “Die Walküre”, performed at the Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on March 26, 2023.