Opera Australia 2016 Season – A completely unique experience: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde in The Ring Cycle. Photo: Jeff Busby
With Neil Armfield and Opera Australia’s dazzling and moving revival of Wagner’s epic production, it’s easy to see how a ‘ring nut’ is born
Opera Australia 2016 Season
That was my immediate thought as I walked out of the State Theater at the conclusion of my first Ring Cycle, holding an archival print of the original Bayreuth stage design backdrop that I had purchased at the Ring Cycle pop-up shop.
Music & Theatre
When Opera Australia and Neil Armfield’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen premiered in Melbourne in 2013, I had just returned from two years abroad in search of wealth and inspiration – bringing back plenty of the latter and a heavy deficit of the former. My mother and I, poor as church mice, huddled around a small radio in her forest cabin and listened mesmerized as ABC Classic FM broadcast the entire cycle: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – four operas in about 16 hours. of music at all.
Summarizing the story of Wagner’s epic takes some work – although it may remind the casual reader of the other famous story of a magic ring. It begins in the prelude, when the rogue dwarf Alberich condemns love for stealing the precious “Rheingold” – a treasure that can be forged into a ring of great power – from his guards, the Rhinemaidens. The gods, led by Wotan, try to reward the giants Fasolt and Fafner for building their western castle, Valhalla.
Word comes out of the ring’s existence, and the fate of the gods—and humanity—is set in motion.
Through the coverage of the earlier production, I saw several images of Armfield’s performance – especially the rainbow bridge that closes Das Rheingold – and was sad that I would not get to see such a wonderful scene in real life. So when Opera Australia announced a return season in 2016, it was one of several “dream come true” moments in my life (the other being when Steven Spielberg responded to my fan letter in 1994).
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Many present on the opening night of the revival had also seen the 2013 production and seemed more subdued by the excitement than I was. But when the lights dimmed in front of Das Rheingold and maestro Pietari Inkinen came out, a woman next to me instructed her friend: “Listen to the first sound.”
And then there it was: 136 bars into E-Maxhor, a drone set to create the universe before us. Prompted by Wagner’s Vorspiel (prelude), Armfield’s vision of the waters of the Rhine, represented by hundreds of lazy bathers – like a lost, colorful Max Dupain photograph brought to life – was almost overwhelming.
When Rheingold appeared as bundles of shiny golden tinsel rustling above the bathers’ heads, it was as if Armfield had taken us all back to the Christmas mornings of our childhood.
Whether one “bought” this opening—with the Rhinemaidens on the sparks of sea foam, like Tivoli Lovelies on their way from a spectacular sea—seemed to set the tone for one’s reaction to the rest of the Cycle’s staging, which is contemporary—if not occasionally experimental .
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Working with set designer Robert Cousins, costume designer Alice Babidge and lighting designer Damien Cooper, Armfield favors a “lean theatre” approach (a performance style that focuses on the actor’s voice and body rather than theatrical excess). Nowhere is this more compelling than in the “black box” introduction to Die Walküre’s third act, the bare scene that heightens the scope of father and daughter’s grief as Wotan kisses Brünnhilde’s sleepy eyes. This approach makes this ring’s occasional moments of acting all the more compelling.
The “bad theater” approach to much of the production makes the show’s moments all the more engaging. Photo: Jeff Busby
In Das Rheingold, the giants Fasolt and Fafner tear up a copy of Bayreuth’s original backdrop in twin cherry pickers as brutal property developers; in Die Walküre, Wotan, Fricka and Brünnhilde spar over a Jeffrey Smart-esque spiral exit ramp filled with animals addicted to taxidermy; and in Siegfried, a false lamp-surrounded proscenium with a curtain of flaming gold represents the flames separating the eponymous hero from the sleeping Brünnhilde.
And of course, there’s that rainbow bridge: a stairway to heaven populated by dancers reverently waving feathered fans in all the colors of the rainbow as they lead the gods to Valhalla. It is reflected in the final image of Götterdämmerung, as humanity gathers on the steps to watch Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s funeral pyre, built on a carpet of loose bouquets like those laid after the siege of Lindt, lead to the fall of the gods.
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Given the global political developments in the years between this production’s first presentation and now, Armfield’s interpretation of Wagner’s cautionary tale about the pursuit of wealth and power feels even more urgent. For much of that, we have the cast to thank – many of them new to the production.
Lise Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde, her first full cycle in the role, should establish her as one of the greats. Her tears during the standing ovation of her Götterdämmerung invocation suggested a mixture of relief and surprise at overcoming one of opera’s most punishing challenges.
James Johnston, impressive but lacking power throughout Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, appeared in full heartbroken voice as Wotan became the Wanderer in Siegfried. And as doomed twin lovers, Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner are revelatory.
Stefan Vinke returns as Siegfried and makes the stubborn man-child – a difficult role and often one that can make Brünnhilde’s love for him seem confusing – more innocent than infantile. (His attempt to talk to Woodbird, a Julie Lea Goodwin sprite, is cute.)
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“Aware of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s fate, I found myself clinging to the same false hope”: Winke and Lordstrom as Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung. Photo: Jeff Busby
Although I was well aware of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s fate, through Vinke and Lindstrom’s generous expression of their love, I found myself clinging to the same false hope that a great performance of Romeo and Juliet inspires: maybe this time will be different! Maybe the potions, disguises and interventions will just be a big misunderstanding!
They are supported by an ensemble so vast in their talent that ranking the individual highlights becomes a Wagnerian task in itself. It’s an artistic collection of artists, among them some of the country’s best “singing actors”, further expanding the vision that Armfield first laid out three years ago.
Although I am not a Wagnerian by any means, I appreciated Der Ring’s music before I saw it, but I was not prepared for the extent of its vivid power. To see the entire cycle, presented as Wagner intended (complete with dinner breaks), is to go on a great journey with the people around you. You don’t just experience a ring cycle, you survive it.
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Under Inkinen’s watch, the Melbourne Ring Orchestra is in fine form, especially the low brass who are the exciting engine of the ring (and shout out once again to the Ring feature I enjoyed so much in 2013, “the anvil orchestra”: an offstage room full of, well, playable “anvils” that accompany the soundtrack of Das Rheingold’s descent into Nibelheim).
I was also reminded of what it was like to look at something beautiful that you can no longer see except in memory. We are so used to being able to access what we want when we want – the movie you like will end up on a streaming service; the concert or performance will be filmed and released on DVD – which is rarely the case.
One of the great sorrows of any Ring Cycle is that the ticket prices usually reflect the monumental business of the production. (A significant irony, given the anti-capitalist themes Wagner presents.) Could there ever be an egalitarian ring cycle that exists outside the bounds of profit and presents this divine masterpiece to mortals? Maybe one day, although the recent news that an anonymous donor had subsidized the remaining C reserve slots for this ring by halving the price was chilling; now that’s what I call philanthropy!
As for this former ringmaiden: Over the past week, the marriage of Wagner’s music and Armfield’s vision has inspired, thrilled and saddened me all at once. It is easy to see how a “ring nut” occurs.
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Before the lights dimmed to herald Das Rheingold, a lady two seats away from me leaned in, her friend telling her this was my first ring cycle. “So wonderful,” she said, nodding solemnly. “This is an adventure that will last the rest of your life.” This premiere season is highlighted by a pair of outstanding performances by French soprano Clémentine Margaine and South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee.
In the director’s note, thoughtfully included on the back of the cast, Bell describes his choice
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