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Der Ring des Nibelungen in Melbourne

| March 13, 2014

The second cycle of this season was dedicated to the memory of Elke Neidhardt, who had died just days earlier.

Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde & Terje Stensvold as Wotan. Photo credit Jeff Busby.Like every other director who has taken on the monumental task of mounting Wagner’s four part epic, Neil Armfield looked for something new to say about it.

In Opera Australia’s first complete assault on opera’s Everest in Melbourne’s State Theatre, Armfield appeared to be searching for a balance between reverence and irreverence, between tradition and innovation, between illusion and reality, looking to please both camps – Ring Believers and Ring Sceptics.

Outright mockery prevailed in the beginning and end of Das Rheingold. The three Rhinemaidens were a bunch of Giggling Gerties straight out of Les Folies Bergères. Body suits, blue sequin bras and G strings, metre-long blue feathered headdresses. For the rainbow bridge, a squad of red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet pom-pom dollies, they posed on the steps of Vallhalla, and became fan dancers. In response to the ensuing applause, they wobbled their fans. The audience laughed, as the director surely intended. It’s a story, folks!

Innovation too. The forestage was littered with togs-clad bodies on a beach, curled up like chromosomes. The Sea of Humanity. Above them a Fisher’s Ghost screen, angled so we could see them swimming as well as walking. Clever.

Armfield tackled Wagner’s magical transformations with mixed success.

Alberich climbed into a magician’s box, complete with ditzy assistant, the door was shut, the box revolved, door opened – abracadabra, a toad! And again, and a serpent! Ingenious, credible, funny.

But the dragon?

Terje Stensvold as Wotan & Rainbow Girls Photo Credit Jeff Busby.During the prelude to Siegfried Act II, a huge threatening face on the screen was smeared with white stage make-up, its lips painted blood-red and also its tongue – ugh, its eyes ringed with kohl. Turned out it is Fafner, guardian of the gold, sitting at his mirror kitting up. It’s a man. Anticlimax number 1. Siegfried kills him inside the cave, drags him out dead. Only a man. Letdowns 2 and 3. Surely intentional.

According to his programme notes, Armfield read messages about conservation and protection of endangered species (man, even) into Wagner’s frighteningly prescient text.

Life-sized stuffed animals – dingo, giraffe, zebra – stood around in various scenes, childlike drawings of them were stuck on the wall above Siegfried’s bunk bed in Mime’s ‘cave’ (fully equipped with fridge, microwave and forge).

In other cases, Armfield’s meanings were less clear.

Ignoring the text (no ash-tree in Hunding’s hut), the all important magic sword, Nothung, was stuck in a log in the ground, barely visible.

Drawing major criticism were two of Wagner’s many dramatic masterstrokes, both enormous challenges to directors and designers.

Wotan put Brünnhilde to sleep, as per the text, on an isolated rock surrounded by a ring of fire, condemned to godless lifelessness until a hero brave enough to risk his life comes to rescue her. End of Siegfried Act II.

Act III. Siegfried eventually found his promised bride. No rock, no ring of fire. She is curled up inside a wooden box sealed with plastic sheeting. Not, however a directorial cop-out. Siegfried ripped away at the barrier between them, struggled clumsily through the frame to kiss her. Highly symbolic of nature against artifice,a modern view of an ancient legend? Maybe.

Armfield’s handling of Götterdämmerung brought clarity to the most dramatically complex plot of all four parts of the entire Ring. Belief was readily suspended through impersonations, forced marriages, betrayal and murder

But fully a week later, Forum confesses continuing puzzlement over the staging of the dénouement.

Siegfried, dead, shot in the back, stood while the funeral pyre was built around him. Brünnhilde took her place beside him. Hand in hand they faced the flames.

Readers concerned that Forum is spending too many words on these matters will recall Wagner’s aim to integrate music and drama into an indivisible whole. The pit was on fire. The stage was too, but only literally.

A higher score for the music.

The 132-strong Melbourne Ring Orchestra, with ring-ins from Bonn, Lucerne and Oslo and from around Australia took top honours for the whole cycle. Under Pietari Inkinen’s direction they mastered Wagner’s extravagant score so thoroughly that on many occasions Forum was reminded of his dictum that ‘the orchestra should provide a carpet for the singers to rest on’. It happens in Bayreuth. Skilful as the orchestration is, perceptive, detailed management is still essential. Voices soared across the divide, apparently effortlessly.

On stage, admirable music-drama from Warwick Fyfe, a sleazy Alberich and Daniel Sumegi, his awful son Hagen. Their plotting scene in Götterdämmerung –‘ Hagen, mein Sohn’ – still resonates evilly.

Terje Stensvold’s perfect vibrato distinguished his Wotan and Wanderer, the tops of helden tenors Stuart Skelton (Siegmund) and Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) were positively thrilling. Regrets that we did not hear more of the former, admiration for the histrionic and vocal versatility of the latter – spoiled brat, swashbuckler, dragon- and-man slayer, curious ingénu, lover, cheat, victim, upright corpse.

Graham Macfarlane’s pathetic Mime, the quicksilver-plated Loge of Richard Berkeley-Steele, Jud Arthur, more Mafia than giant Fafner, arriving with Sumegi (Fasolt) on cherry pickers; the men took the lion’s share of singing credits.

The mellow mezzos of Deborah Humble (Erda, Waltraute) and Elizabeth Campbell (First Norn) were especially pleasing. Forum found the Sieglinde of Miriam Gordon-Stewart more effective as abused wife than impassioned lover; the tomboy Brünnhilde (Susan Bullock) raised the neck hairs with her battlecries and was brilliantly vengeful on betrayal – the warmth written into her love scenes, though, eluded her. As Fricka, Jacqueline Dark built on her thankless role in Rheingold and went for Wotan’s jugular over his past and present infidelities in Die Walküre. Taryn Fiebig’s sweetly warbling Woodbird fluttered so prettily she flew.

Freia’s golden sheath dress was a beacon among Alice Babbage’s largely, supposedly deliberately non-de-script costumes.

Robert Cousins alternated his set designs between busy (opening of Das Rheingold, Mime’s hut, double wedding) and passive (Hunding’s hut, both of Erda’s scenes). His multi-levelled spiral staircase was inspired.

Forum’s overall summation of Opera Australia’s first complete Ring?

Pietari and the orchestra followed Wagner’s directions to the hemi-demi-semi-quaver.

The most refreshing aspect of Armfield’s and Cpusins’s production was that they did not treat the work as the Holy Grail. Elke Neidhardt would surely have commended their touches of iconoclasm.

Elizabeth Silsbury here reviewed Der Ring das Nibelungen for the seventh time, including three in Bayreuth.

i. But not Australia’s. In 1998, State Opera of SA imported the production from Le Chatelet and brought Jeffery Tate to conduct. In 2004, Elke Neidhardt started from scratch, with mainly Australian cast and more than a few sly digs. Remember the Wunderbar?

ii. While in Mlebourne for the Ring, I was reading, in Richard Davis’s biography of Marjorie Lawrence, her own account of actually riding her horse into the flames at the Met, as decreed by Wagner.

Title Photo Credit: Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens & the Sea of Humanity. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Article Image 1: Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde & Terje Stensvold as Wotan. Photo credit: Jeff Busby.
Article Image 2: Terje Stensvold as Wotan & Rainbow Girls Photo Credit: Jeff Busby

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