In the scandalous absence of Government support, it has been up to the generosity of philanthropists to enable Melbourne Opera’s significant contribution to Melbourne’s cultural life to continue. Notable amongst these invaluable supporters are Lady Primrose Potter and Hans Henkell, whose passion for the Arts, and for music in particular, have been instrumental in providing Victoria with many rich musical experiences.
In his talk before Siegfried, the third instalment of Melbourne Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it was clear that Hans Henkell was on more than a musical mission; he is an educator, who seeks to encourage deeper cultural understanding. In the audience, we saw a teacher of German who had brought along a group of students to broaden their learning. What an excellent idea – especially as they had German language expert Carmen Jakobi, wife of the conductor Maestro Anthony Negus, explaining some of the nuances in Wagner’s text for Siegfried and their impact on our understanding of character dynamics, in addition to a few details regarding German language pronunciation for singers. They would have been delighted that Melbourne Opera’s concert performance included surtitles in both English and German – a bilingual practice that is common overseas, but seldom seen in Australia.
Hans Henkell wisely corrected himself when he was about to say that this performance of Siegfried was a rehearsal for Melbourne Opera’s staging of the full Ring Cycle in Bendigo next year. As he knew, this was much more than a rehearsal. True, it was a compromise necessitated by postponements due to the pandemic and a resultant lack of theatre venues, and it might not have been the rich experience of their highly successful theatrical productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, but it was certainly one that deserved the standing ovation it received at the end of the performance.
In the relatively reduced space of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, a Wagnerian orchestra was bound to offer pretty stiff competition to the singers. It was loud. And it was exciting. Four horns, five tubas, four trumpets, four trombones, and a contrabass tuba are bound to make an impression. The dragon Fafner has never sounded more alarming due to the sterling efforts of the tuba and contrabass trombone. Under the inspiring guidance of Maestro Negus, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra has never sounded better. Whether in the featured horn solo of Siegfried’s Horn Call, wind solos or the orchestra as a whole, attention to detail and commitment to the score were clearly evident.
Much of Wagner’s music is kind to singers, with orchestral might drawn back to a lighter accompaniment. In the case of Siegfried, this is largely the case for the female roles. The men often have to contend with much weightier forces, especially the Heldentenor in the title role. It is a long, taxing role in which Bradley Daley excelled, his voice true and powerful from beginning to end. He was also one of the few who sang without a score. As a concert performance, singers tend to act out their parts on different levels; Daley found exactly the right balance. Raised by the dwarf Mime, who seeks to infantilise him in order to use him, Siegfried can present as brattish and unlikable – not exactly the hero you would barrack for, but Daley’s energy and basic cheerfulness had us on his side. Helpfully, he outlined just as much of the action, such as some of the movements for the reforging of the sword, to kindle our imaginations.
Mime too has a central role, and Robert Macfarlane went to great pains to remind us just what a despicable character he is. Despite using a score, he managed to convey much of the action, finally slithering across the stage to exit after being killed by Siegfried. Whether some of the more grotesque actions and mouthings were too extreme is a matter of debate, but he certainly livened things up and his uninhibited style seemed popular with the audience. How much of this was the result of Suzanne Chaundy’s direction is unclear; Macfarlane’s acting often seems to be on the slightly frenetic side. The beauty of his attractive tenor voice was sometimes successfully coloured by Mime’s wheedling tones and carried well in the upper register although lower notes fared a little less well.
Warwick Fyfe chalked up another triumph as the Wanderer, his vocal power a match for Wagner’s heavy scoring even at such close quarters. With less orchestral competition it would have been possible to invest the role with a little more variation.
Simon Meadows and Steven Gallop, as Alberich and Fafner respectively made an interesting contrast. Gallop’s deep, resonant bass was perfect for the role of the treasure-hoarding dragon, and Meadow’s firm bass-baritone provided appropriate strength and intensity for Alberich, Mime’s equally scheming brother. Both portrayed their roles expressively.
The female roles were equally well sung and portrayed. Rebecca Rashleigh was a charming Woodbird, her soprano voice sweet and resonant. As Erda, mother of Brünnhilde, Deborah Humble was impressive in her use of the dark lower tones of her rich mezzo-soprano and expansive upper register, singing the text with measured assurance. In making her debut as Brünnhilde, Lee Abrahmsen sang gloriously. She has been blessed with uncommon vocal amplitude – her voice just seemed to pour out in resonant splendour. Her awakening scene also contained some beautiful gestural moments.
Although separated physically by the conductor in the final scene where Siegfried and Brünnhilde come together, there was a soaring unity of their voices in the orchestral fabric that left the audience exhilarated.
Congratulations, Melbourne Opera – performers, creatives and supporters! You all deserve much better from our governments for what you give to our cultural life.
Heather Leviston reviewed Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried”, presented by Melbourne Opera at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 25, 2022.