James Johnson as Wotan and the Rainbow Girls in Opera Australia's 2016 production of Das Rheingold. Photo credit Jeff Busby.
Richard Wagner’s four interlinked operas Der Ring des Nibelungen are nearly 150 years old yet they still pack a punch. Wagner, a perfectionist leaving nothing to chance, wrote the libretti and composed the music. In his writings he paid attention to the smallest details, demanding the work be performed during summer in a remote place so as to avoid distraction. Even the length of the intervals and meal breaks are identified. His artistic vision incorporated a musical language not based on a sequence of arias as in traditional opera but through-composed music held together with leitmotifs, melodies or harmonic progressions with specific meaning determining how we should feel. Moreover, Wagner created his own theatre at Bayreuth in northern Bavaria funded by enthusiast King Ludwig II to accommodate his unique creation, including a much larger than usual orchestra.
In devising his text for the cycle, Wagner combined elements of Old Norse myth with portions of the Nibelungenlied, a 13th-century German epic poem. The original natural world is presented where everything has its balance and place. Thereafter a battle unfolds between powers divine, demonic and human. Greed, lust, violence and love all take part. At the work’s end in a great auto-da-fé and tsunami, gods, demons and mortals perish, either restoration or a new beginning.
One hears in a complete Ring a work of genius that always astounds for its originality and force while presenting insoluble enigmas.
The first opera, described by the composer as a ‘Vorabend’ or preliminary evening, Das Rheingold is the shortest at two and half hours. It introduces the magic gold protected and celebrated by the daughters of Father Rhine that is stolen from their custody by the lustful dwarf Alberich the Nibelung. By renouncing love, he fashions part of the gold into a ring that gives its owner dominion over the world. Wotan, god of light, air and wind descends with the trickster Loge to Nibelheim to appropriate the treasure being fashioned by the dwarves from the stolen gold. Wotan intends to use the gold as payment to the giants Fasolt and Fafner, builders of his family’s newly constructed heavenly abode, Valhalla, thus redeeming Freia, guarantor of the gods’ eternal youth, deceitfully promised in bad faith to the giants. The giants want all the gold, including the tarnhelm (a magic helmet), but Wotan at first refuses to give up Alberich’s ring until convinced by Erda, the earth mother, to surrender it, forewarning that it will bring about the end of the gods. Alberich, furious when the ring was taken from him, had placed a curse on it forever. The gods walk towards Valhalla over a rainbow bridge.
Thus begins the second staging of this enormous undertaking by Opera Australia, the first being in 2013. In his note in the program booklet, director Neil Armfield makes the following statement: ‘In this production we have been at pains to render a world which connects to our own. “It is essential [Wagner wrote] that everyone can recognise himself with Wotan” … as we face deluge and conflagration in the 21st century, Wagner’s Götterdämmerung is perhaps only a matter of time.’ There is always a tension when a director seeks to make a work relevant to our time that the dignity and integrity of the original artistic conception is lost; I daresay Wagner could not have conceived burlesque as being in any way central to his epic.
Michael Honey as Donner, meant to be a heroic god of thunder, was dressed as an insignificant businessman in a pale grey suit (Alice Babidge, costume designer). His vocal presence, however, compensated. James Egglestone’s clear tenor delighted for its fresh portrayal of Froh, the god of spring and happiness. Freia, usually depicted as a blonde goddess of the north, was well sung and acted by Hyeseoung Kwon. The Rheinmaidens, Lorina Gore as Woglinde, Jane Ede as Wellgunde and Dominica Matthews as Flosshilde, were effective enough, though dressed as Las Vegas chorus girls with towering aqua-marine ostrich feathered hats, I was further confused as to why forces of nature were transformed so gratuitously into sleaze.
Jacqueline Dark gave a strongly consistent performance as Fricka, Wotan’s wife despite her characterisation being contained as a formidable bourgeois hausfrau in a brown frock with fox fur. Graeme Mcfarlane was an excellent Mime with fine stage presence. I felt that the otherwise excellent Warwick Fyfe as Alberich was unnecessarily humiliated by needing to strip to his underwear in the first scene as was Liane Keegan as Erda in a most unflattering costume. Keegan’s voice though was warm and sincere and Alberich (Fyfe) performed with energy and resonance throughout, delivering the outstanding performance of the production.
Andreas Conrad, dressed in an awkwardly ill-fitting shiny suit as Loge, showed vocal fatigue on opening night, his necessarily lively cunning and mercurial character only partially coming across. James Johnson is an experienced Wotan who had a distinguished and godly presence, though sounded vocally worn on this occasion. The giants, Daniel Sumegi as Fasolt and Jud Arthur as Fafner, were valuable and engaging singers. In a further concession to relevance, they were dressed as sleazy property developers in dark suits with pink ties, adorned with sunglasses and expensive watches that robbed Fasolt in particular of being believable in his innocent, simple love of Freia, accompanied by some of the loveliest music in the opera.
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra, a combination of Orchestra Victoria with local guest musicians, guests from national orchestras and abroad, gave some fine playing from the pit though much could have been improved, particularly in terms of the ensemble taking the dramatic and narrative lead with music. Pietari Inkinen paced his way through the score, eager to keep everything together and on track rather than taking the lead in directing the course of events and sharing no particular insight into the work.
The set design (by Robert Cousins) was often incongruous and uncompromising, particularly when a reproduction of the backcloth, Walhalla by Max Brückner for the 1896 production is pierced and penetrated by two back-lit cherry pickers amongst floating caged taxidermy. Why was the stage covered with slumbering bodies in bathing costumes at the start? Was this an Australian reference to Bondi Beach as substitution for the Rhine? Why was the rare, precious and bulky Rheingold represented as golden pom-poms tossed effortlessly into the air (discarded strands of which littered the stage for the rest of the evening) and later appearing as weightless shiny gold iPhone boxes? And what on earth did the 30 identical chorus girls in blonde wigs, skimpy beaded costumes and silver tap heels with more fluttering ostrich feathers held aloft have to do with anything?
It will be interesting to see how Der Ring des Nibelungen develops over the coming week.
3 ½ stars out of 5
Cast in order of appearance:
Lorina Gore, Woglinde
Jane Ede, Wellgunde
Dominica Matthews, Fosshilde
Warwick Fyfe, Alberich
James Johnson, Wotan
Jacqueline Dark, Fricka
Hyeseoung Kwon, Freia
Daniel Sumegi, Fasolt
Jud Arthur, Fafner
James Egglestone, Froh
Michael Honeyman, Donner
Andreas Conrad, Loge
Graeme Macfarlane, Mime
Liane Keegan, Erda
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen, conductor
Melbourne Ring Cycle 2016
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
21 November – 16 December, 2016
Monday, 21 November, 2016