After re-mounting the first two operas of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen with notable success, Melbourne Opera’s ambitious project of presenting all four operas in one season has taken a giant leap forward with Siegfried.
Having been presented in concert form last September at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne Opera’s Bendigo Siegfried is not an entirely new undertaking; with the exception of Brünnhilde, all roles were performed by the same singers and the orchestra included a large proportion of the same players. But there is a huge difference between a concert performance in the vibrant acoustic of the smaller Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and a fully staged one in the much larger Ulumbarra Theatre. One big advantage in Bendigo was having the orchestra in the pit.
In the title role, Bradley Daley was already at ease in the concert version, making minimum use of his score, and using well-judged movement to illustrate the action. He appeared to be equally at ease on Andrew Bailey’s set, which was the most elaborate of all seen to date. A kitchen, a forge and an enormous amount of clutter – including a dragon’s head poking out from beneath the piles of slats (a symbol of Mime’s preoccupation?) – were dimly lit as a contrast to the central staircase leading up to the light and the prospect of escape for Siegfried. Daley bounded around, a rude and brattish teenager, smarting under the limitations imposed by the dwarf’s niggardly, whining behaviour. Daley’s ability to convey both Siegfried’s youthful exuberance and his wistful longing for knowledge about his parents and the world resulted in creating a sympathetic character. His forging of the sword was performed with great gusto, even if the hammering was something of an assault on the eardrums. Vocally, he paced himself through one of the most demanding of Heldentenor roles to sustain both the high tessitura and energy level effectively. The powerful burnished ring of his top notes was outstanding while lyrical passages were sung expressively and with pleasing, focused tone.
Robert Macfarlane’s Mime was in some ways more contained than in the concert version – not such a bad thing considering that the role of the nodding, blinking elder brother of the similarly power-obsessed Alberich can invite caricature. His shuffling, lumbering gait and extensive vocal colorations captured much of the wheedling, devious self-interest of the murderous dwarf. Macfarlane’s vocal and dramatic attributes are essentially very well suited to the role. The upper reaches of his tenor voice were secure and vibrant and he will doubtless gain more strength in the lower reaches with time.
Once again, Simon Meadows was a formidable Alberich, his voice brimming with vindictive hatred. Every note was intense in its focus and intention, rising easily above the orchestra as required. Warwick Fyfe shone as Wotan the Wanderer, his vocal power also equal to whatever orchestral forces Wagner has chosen to pit against him. His fine-grained, gathered tone was always pleasing to hear, irrespective of dynamic. Although Siegfried provides less opportunity to display the range of emotion inherent in Die Walküre, Fyfe’s portrayal of Wotan’s series of confrontations, particularly with his son, was dramatically persuasive.
Main points of interest in any production of Siegfried is how the giant Fafner is portrayed as the dragon/”wurm” in in Act 2, and how Siegfried is going to kill him. Video projection is an obvious means of depicting the dragon, but Chris Hocking’s imaginative video design goes well beyond the conventional, with skin, eye and teeth chilling sights. Steven Gallop’s mighty, resonant bass baritone initially emerged off-stage as if amplified. He appeared later as the giant without the Tarnhelm disguise, vanquished, only to be piled up against Mime’s body. What makes the scene doubly thrilling is Wagner’s orchestration. Those yawning lower instruments – the bass clarinet, contrabass trombone and contrabass tuba such a wonderful contrast to Siegfried’s feeble attempts to whittle a pipe and play his perky defiant horn.
After tasting the dragon’s blood, Siegfried is able to understand the Woodbird, sung with a bright clear tone by Rebecca Rashleigh. It’s not an easy role and Rashleigh lost some ease as the succession of high-pitched verses progressed. Her sweet demeanour made her a charming guide to Brünnhilde’s fire-ringed peak.
As Siegfried makes his way to encounter passion and fear, Wotan seeks out Erda. This opening scene of Act 3 featured a significantly different realisation of Erda from the one we saw in Die Walküre. The giant mouthing video projection at the back of the stage was replaced by smaller, static images of faces – presumably representing the Norns and a reminder of an implacable fate that cannot be changed. In Suzanne Chaundy’s staging for this scene, Erda emerged slowly, awakened from deep slumber dressed in robes more evocative of the Earth Goddess than previously and with the focus of attention plainly centred on the singer. Deborah Humble’s graceful winding movements suggested skeins of sleep (and perhaps the Norn’s weavings) as she resisted Wotan’s requests for enlightenment, her darkly ominous voice rising in fierce protest as he pressed. Humble’s top notes were full, powerful and accompanied by matching gestures – a theatrically exciting combination.
The only newcomer to the cast, Antoinette Halloran was a luminous presence as Brünnhilde. Her joyful awakening, and her wavering between fear and rapturous acceptance of a mortal life with the person she loved before he was born were both nuanced and expansive. Halloran’s voice took a while to warm up to steadiness – it’s not easy to have to wait for hours before your big entrance – and there was some worrying discomfort on the final top notes, however, her performance certainly had impressive strengths. I was unsure whether being “caught out” in an extended embrace as the curtain rose for the curtain call had been choreographed. I hope not – tacky if it was.
There might have been a few orchestral blemishes along the way, but Maestro Negus has wrought musical gold from this band of musicians – an amazing feat considering the limited rehearsal time devoted to the task. And now for the biggest challenge yet: Götterdämmerung.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of “Siegfried”, performed at the Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on March 31, 2023.