Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and James Johnson in Opera Australia's 2016 production of Die Walküre. Photo credit Jeff Busby.
In many ways Wotan is the image of the modern politician, perhaps even American President-elect, Donald J. Trump. Anxious to advance the interests of his constituents and satisfy his own ambition, he is not above doing a few deals while staying, if he can, on the right side of the law. But he also believes he is entitled to the perks of office and is ready to defend his rights against the opposition.
‘The Valkyrie’, Day One proper of Wagner’s tetralogy, introduces a human dimension into the battle between the forces of light and dark. Perhaps to excuse the sharp practices through which he paid for the building of Valhalla, Wotan begat on Erda a set of warrior daughters who have the task of gathering up heroes fallen on the field of battle and carrying them off to live with the gods. His favourite is Brünnhilde, the title heroine of this opera. It is her tragic fate to become human.
But Wotan also knows his opponent, Alberich, continues to plot to regain the Ring of Power, so he needs a champion who can recover the ring without the gods’ connivance or having any knowledge of its powers. Wotan’s first move is to beget a dedicated pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, whose mortal mother belongs to the clan of the Volsungs who are in constant feud with the Gibichungs. Growing up separated in adversity, the fugitive Siegmund is reunited with the unhappily married Sieglinde, a trophy of the tribal warfare, in her husband Hunding’s house. In the centre of its hall is a mighty ash tree, avatar of Yggdrasil, the World Ash, where Wotan had earlier embedded a magic sword, to be retrieved by the hero who he intends will restore his power and dominion.
But Wotan’s wife Fricka intervenes. Knowing Wotan is cheating, she forbids this deliberate murder and incest, insisting that Siegmund cannot be aided. But Brünnhilde, summoned to carry off Siegmund to Valhalla, understands her father’s secret wishes and attempts to give him the victory. Wotan, in an apparent rage of frustration and fury at being disobeyed by the women in his life, smashes the magic sword so Siegmund dies and then contemptuously despatches Hunding. Brünnhilde gathers the sword fragments and saves the life of the pregnant Sieglinde, who is now carrying the Volsung child, grandson of Wotan. He will be the new hero, Siegfried.
Wotan’s temper tantrum leads him to ban Brünnhilde to isolation on a rock in the forest surrounded by Loge’s magic fire, a fire only to be penetrated by the bravest of heroes. Love and empathy are united in a truce against the implacable rigours of the law.
‘The Valkyrie’, the second of the four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner presented by Opera Australia, was far stronger in every way than the first. The highlight performance was given by American soprano Amber Wagner who provided a three-dimensional interpretation of the character Sieglinde, ranging from the touching pathos of her mistreatment as wife and elation of finding true love in Act 1 to utter unhinged despair in Act 2. Her voice is true across the range and her diction impeccable. If only her second costume, a nightie, a fur coat and ankle boots (Alice Babidge, costume designer) had been more dignified. Needing to be the twin of Siegmund, it was fortunate that she was paired with a similar looking Bradley Daley, Australian tenor and principal artist with Opera Australia. His role is highly demanding and taxing on the voice and there were times where his steely tone exhausted. His role was finely studied and convincing. Jud Arthur’s Hunding was a tellingly cruel and bitter characterisation, his granite-like bass well suited to his merciless need for vengeance.
Lise Lindstrom, in the important role of Brünnhilde for the first time, was another highlight of the production. Her young, agile and infectiously vibrant approach was markedly different from many famous Brünnhildes who, dressed in helmet and shield, simply stand and deliver. Her reconciliation with Wotan in Act 3 could not have been more touching and heartfelt. All that was lacking was a stronger resonance and steeliness to her lower range. Wotan’s efforts in Die Walküre remained true, if underpowered. Jacqueline Dark as Fricka his wife developed in characterisation in her sturdy resolve and resentment, her dramatic outbursts shocking for their utter selfishness. The Valkyries in Act 3 were a rowdy and unruly lot, slapping backs and forming into pally scrums. They were dressed like paratroopers in khaki; perhaps as a concession to the film Apocalypse Now which appropriated their music into its soundtrack in an infamous scene. I thought their performance thrilling, but perhaps a little over the top.
Pietari Inkinen directing the Melbourne Ring Orchestra brought a new vigour and enthusiasm to the work with particular mention to be made not only for the famous orchestral passages, particularly in Act 3, but also for the extended, sensuous and lingering chromatic sections at the realisation of love in Act 1, complete with some excellent solos from within the ensemble. The exquisitely delicate suspensions as Wotan leads Brünnhilde to her rock were profound and memorable.
Neil Armfield’s direction and Robert Cousins’s sets were effective and less self-referential than for Das Rheingold though I missed a lush forest-scape in Act 1, was dissatisfied with Hunding’s bush shack and tired quickly with the falling paper squares as snow. Siegmund’s sword simply jutting out of the floor without its tree was a perverse departure from the text, as was the scene where Siegmund is meant to meet the gaze of Brünnhilde though in this production they are facing away from each other.
A technical fault delayed the second act by nearly an hour so that following the opera’s 5pm start the final curtain came down at midnight making this a long but memorably fine night in the theatre.
4 stars out of 5
Pietari Inkinen, conductor
Neil Armfield, director
Robert Cousins, set designer
Alice Babidge, costume designer
Bradley Daley, Siegmund
Amber Wagner, Sieglinde
Jud Arthur, Hunding
James Johnson, Wotan
Lise Lindstrom, Brünnhilde
Jacqueline Dark, Fricka
Anna-Louise Cole, Gerhilde
Dominica Matthews, Schwertleite
Olivia Cranwell, Ortlinde
Sian Pendry, Waltraute
Hyeseoung Kwon, Helmwige
Amanda Atlas, Siegrune
Nicole Youl, Grimgerde
Roxane Hislop, Rossweisse
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
Melbourne Ring Cycle 2016
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
21 November – 16 December, 2016
Wednesday, 23 November, 2016