When Opera Australia first mounted Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 2013 much of the production details were secrets as closely guarded as Fafner’s golden hoard. This time, most members of the audience had seen this production at least once or had followed some of the controversy surrounding Neil Armfield’s conception.
The element of surprise might have essentially vanished but, even though I was seeing this production for the fourth time, I was unexpectedly moved as that slowly revolving, giant petri dish of quickening mankind was reflected in a massive overhanging mirror. A sustained orchestral pedal note emerged in primal solemnity to reverberate with the mystery and weight of planetary motion, gathering volume and momentum in a joyous celebration of watery life: the surging Rhine, the bathing-costume-clad swimmers in various shapes, sizes and ages (just like us) and finally the seductive Rhine maidens.
Reprising their roles as Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde, Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews made a comely trio in their blue showgirl costumes, which, by sheer coincidence, echoed the glamour of the Kylie exhibition a couple of floors above. Although Gore’s resonant crystalline voice tended to dominate, all three sang with lovely tone, both individually and as an ensemble, giving each role a distinct vocal colour and personality.
Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich had been something of a revelation in the earlier Ring series and acclaimed by audience and reviewers alike. It is no exaggeration to say the audience response to his performance in the Rheingold dress rehearsal was ecstatic. He had surpassed himself. Even the less unbuttoned opening night audience gave him the lion’s share of the applause, which he richly deserved; he had taken his performance to yet another level. An instrument of exceptional focused power, essentially beautiful yet capable of a sneering edge, it seemed there was nothing Fyfe’s voice could not do. Physically, his performance had also developed further detail and intent. Although there was a suggestion of demented psychoanalyst in his beard and glasses, there was plenty of repulsive, conniving dwarf in his body language. The intensity of his fury at having been tricked and his concentrated malevolence as he cursed any usurping owner of the ring gave his opposition to Wotan enormous dramatic force.
The role of Wotan calls upon a mixture of determined authority as he asserts his will and fear that he will be unable to disentangle himself from his predicament of having to give Freia to the giants as payment for building Valhalla. He must also deal with lectures from his wife Fricka and dire warnings from his lover Erda. James Johnson negotiated conflicting emotions with assurance, employing his smooth, strong bass baritone to powerful effect.
Once again, Jacqueline Dark was a commanding Fricka, but Armfield had remade the characterisation of Erda. Replacing the mega-rich, Chanel-suited figure with a more recognisable Earth Mother incarnation, he had Liane Keegan slowly progress from the door at the back of the stage dressed in a simple, revealing, flesh-coloured nightgown to confront the fur-clad Wotan with his potent staff. Her vulnerability against the stark black background made Erda’s warning all the more poignant and telling. Keegan’s superb dramatic contralto was compelling as she projected focused meaning into Erda’s long phrases. It is a short role in this opera but one that registered significant impact.
Graeme Macfarlane’s Mime was stronger than ever and Daniel Sumegi and Jud Arthur were terrific as a well-matched pair of giants, Fasolt and Fafner. While it was impossible to miss their dramatic entrance in the cherry pickers, Armfield devised some stage business for Fafner that could easily be missed. His revels in the gold that he had just secured by killing his brother included taking selfies and photos of Loge with an iphone from the gold ingots that actually bear the label “iphone” – one of the many references to heedless contemporary greed. Hyeseoung Kwon made a vibrant Freia and tenor James Egglestone and baritone Michael Honeyman sang well and threw themselves into the action as her brothers. Dressed in a gleaming sharkskin suit, Andreas Conrad’s account of the trickster Loge featured incisive articulation and a playfully cunning persona.
From the outset it was clear that the orchestra was in exceptionally fine form, responding to Pietari Inkinen’s nuanced musical shaping with an assurance born, at least partly, of greater familiarity with Wagner’s demanding score. Anybody with reservations about some aspects of the production would have found great satisfaction in the work of this large body of musicians, selected from twelve Australian and international orchestras.
The intentions of Armfield and set designer Robert Cousins may not always have been clear but the power of Wagner’s story of lust and competing forces prevailed. The imaginative theatrical devices and transformation effects were entertaining and thought-provoking as they referenced contemporary society. But the experience was not just an examination of the self-destructive nature of human beings; it was also an assertion of their more positive aspects. As the gods ascended the rainbow staircase between the Busby Berkeley showgirls with their huge feathery fans that became quivering lyrebird tails, we were reminded of the beginning of this “Preliminary evening, music drama in one act” where mirrored humanity and the Rhine maidens in their feathered headdresses frolicked in the golden waters.
Judging from the warm applause and extremely positive comments from members of the capacity audience as they slowly filed their way out of the theatre, this was two hours and forty minutes of Rheingold to treasure. I can vouch for the fact that Opera Australia’s efforts to attract new and young audiences are paying off; school children of my acquaintance were among the most enthusiastic converts to Wagner’s operatic world as a result of this production of Das Rheingold.
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of Opera Australia’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, at the Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre on November 21.