The prolonged standing ovation that greeted singers, conductor, orchestra, and creative team at the end of Götterdämmerung was as much an acknowledgment of what Melbourne Opera had achieved over the four days of Cycle 1 as for what was an intensely moving culmination of Wagner’s final work in his Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In perfect unison, the repeated opening chords of Götterdämmerung heralded what was to be an enthralling journey. While it is the longest of the four operas, weighing in at an epic five and a half hours or so – the Prologue and Act 1 alone lasts 125 minutes – it is full of such variety and mesmerising music that time can seem to evaporate as we are drawn inexorably into Wagner’s fantastical world.
Making their first appearance, the Norns, daughters of Erda, entered weaving the Rope of Destiny. Harriet Oxley’s costumes were stylish, relatively simple and created a sense of the archaic. The light brown rope lacings set against a dark background reflected the Rope passed between them. Dimity Shepherd, Jordan Kahler and Eleanor Greenwood all sang expressively and with generous tone, with Greenwood’s resplendent vocal power being particularly impressive; she will be singing the role of Sieglinde in Cycle 3 – something worth a trip to Bendigo to hear, judging by her Third Norn.
Feminist hackles could well rise in Act 1 as Siegfried bids his fond farewells to his bride, who is stranded on a fire-encircled rock. No wonder Brünnhilde is so enraged at Siegfried’s supposed betrayal that she betrays him in turn by exposing his point of vulnerability to Hagan. All she has left is The Ring; she’s even allowed him to ride off on her beloved horse. Bradley Daley and Antoinette Halloran displayed considerable vocal and dramatic passion in this extended duet, although Halloran’s voice tended to suffer from an intrusive vibrato and some straining on the top notes. As the evening progressed, her voice became more even and there were some extremely beautiful vocal moments in the famous “Immolation Scene” as Brünnhilde gains wisdom and joins Siegfried in a fiery end. It is difficult to avoid the cliché “inhabited the role”, but that is exactly what Halloran did. Despite certain vocal limitations, the audience was transfixed by her characterisation of the Valkyrie’s passage through joyful love, fear and nihilistic revenge to a dubious brand of enlightenment.
Bradley Daley’s vocal stamina was remarkable. His substantial Heldentenor was often alluringly lyrical and once again punctuated by brilliant, rock solid top notes – ringing, true and free. As the naïve loyal friend to Hagan’s half-brother Gunther, Daley’s portrayal of cheerful confidence was convincing. Siegfried’s moment of enlightenment is short-lived as Hagan immediately stabs him in the back after giving him the antidote that brings him to his senses.
The three siblings Hagan, Gunther and Gutrune shared a mother, but it was Alberich’s son, Hagan, who easily surpasses them in wickedness. Moving from the role of greedy Fafner/Dragon to even greedier and more malevolent Hagan, Steven Gallop was a commandingly ruthless plotter as he manipulated them into giving Siegfried a potion that would make him fall in love with Gutrune and forget Brünnhilde. “Hagan’s Call” with its repeated “Hoi-ho!” and “We-he!” is one of the most arresting vocal moments of the Ring, and Gallop’s voice was thrilling in its immense power as he summoned the vassals to the Gibichung Hall for the marriage of Siegfried and Gutrune.
Finally given a chance to participate in the action, Melbourne Opera’s male chorus sang with hearty exuberance as they responded to the call, and later lent commendable expressiveness to passages where softer singing was required. Together, Suzanne Chaundy’s effective direction and Andrew Bailey’s uncluttered, but suitably evocative, set design enabled efficient movement when male and female chorus members were on stage.
Considered by many to be a comparatively thankless role, Gunther became less of an easily corrupted weakling in the hands of baritone Christopher Hillier. Combined with an intense acting style, the well projected, gathered tone of his voice elevated the stature of the Lord of the Gibichungs. As the relatively pallid immature Gutrune, Kerry Gill was at her best on the swelling higher notes, her appealing youthful voice being somewhat underpowered as yet in the lower reaches.
Alberich has a much less prominent part in this opera, but Simon Meadows continued to impress as he asserted control over Hagen in his quest for the Ring. “Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?” was compellingly modulated in its sinister intent.
Wotan does not appear at all in this opera, his situation described in Act 1 by Waltraute, who in defiance of his orders begs Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens. With only the token of his love to console her as she waits on the rock for his return, she refuses. This confrontation is a powerful scene, and Deborah Humble’s performance was one to remember. Waltraute’s Monolgue and the ensuing duet were sung with lavish tone and excellent colour throughout – low notes darkly despairing and the climactic high notes superb in their resonance and beauty of tone. The vocal splendor and dramatic presence that enabled Humble to encompass both the sinuous dark presence of Erda in Siegfried and the youthful despair of a Valkyrie in this opera, distinguish her as a singer of exceptional gifts.
The Rhinemaidens, the third trio of Götterdämmerung, were just as delightful as they had been in Das Rheingold. Rebecca Rashleigh’s lilting bell-like sweetness sparkled above the warmer voices of Naomi Flatman and Karen Van Spall while ensuring a harmonious balance between the three. The joyousness of their singing and wafting about provided a stark contrast to Hagan’s thwarted final attempt to grasp the ring and the immolation scene.
The musical recapitulation of major themes as the ring is returned and Valhalla burns included some fine playing from the orchestra. The care and attention with which Anthony Negus has treated the complex score and shaped its trajectory have made this a Götterdämmerung worth hearing for the orchestral music alone – the famous Rhine Journey, the soaring “redemption-through-love” motif and the drama of the gods’ demise. There might have been the occasional uneasy moment, but all sections made outstanding contributions – sonorous brass, a shining trumpet, sparkling harps, expressive woodwinds and tremendously satisfying passages from the lower instruments, including the strings. Possibly a life-changing musical experience for some of the younger members of the orchestra, playing the whole Ring Cycle will undoubtedly also nurture their professional growth.
It might have been The Twilight of the Gods, but this performance was far from bringing down a final curtain on Melbourne Opera’s Wagner Festival. There are two more Cycles to come, with some significant cast changes for Cycle 3 and conductor David Kram bringing his own interpretation to this monumental work. In between the operas, an array of terrific recitals, talks and master classes are on offer. Many Wagner “tragics” will be there to revel in another Cycle or two, while others will be discovering the addictive power of Wagner’s music for the first time and wishing they had done so earlier.
Huge congratulations to Melbourne Opera for mounting such a splendid Ring plus associated events – a mammoth effort and a resounding success against all the odds. And an enormous Bravi! to those who have enough faith in this small opera company to fund it when our governments fail to do so.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, performed at the Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on April 2, 2023.