By Katie French
In Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Neil Armfield’s Melbourne Ring, he juxtaposes two worlds. There is the entertaining world of follies, of magic, of dazzling fantasies and wizardry. Then there is the stark and empty world full of achingly human frailties, vulnerabilities and pain. He reveals that, far too frequently, it is the careless world of razzle dazzle and misuse of magic powers which inflicts unintended (and sometimes even unintended) painful consequences on the vulnerable and the innocent.
This is not just the Wagnerian myth-magic of spears with runes, dragons, gods and poison potions. Armfield has visually and playfully extended this to include the circus and magic tricks. Alberich becomes the Master Magician with his fluffy assistants, and a Disappearing Machine. There are the feathers and froth of the Folies Bergere, and Wotan, his power in decline, attempting to deceive us as a mythical Busby Berkeley. He and his Babes choreograph a kaleidoscopic feathered fan dance which culminates in an ephemeral illusion of a Rainbow Bridge, his Stairway to Paradise. (And all except Loge are dazzled!)
However, the core of the production, the hard reality of Armfield’s Ring is located in the humanity and frailty of all the characters, and their weaknesses and blunders, which members of the audience recognise all too clearly in themselves. That focus is clearly made in the opening of Das Rheingold, where the huge reflective eye of an overhead mirror depicts a mass of humanity, sprawled and squirming like micro-organisms in a drop of water - or Aussies on a sun-drenched beach. All is as innocent and naive as the three Folies-feathered, fun-loving Rhinemaidens, until they take their teasing to a cruel extreme, and a Bullied Dwarf sets the whole Ring rolling.
These are first impressions after having seen only the first two performances of the first Ring of the Cycle, however, it is a pleasure to highlight that Warwick Fyfe, as that only too ‘human’ Bullied Dwarf, provides the standout performance to date.
His is a very different interpretation from the overwhelmingly virile and savage Alberich of the remarkable John Wegner (in the 2004 Adelaide Ring Cycle directed by the late Elke Neidhardt-Editor), a version so many of us have seen. Warwick is physically fearless on stage, exploiting a physique very different from John Wegner’s. Stripped down to his undies, and with his grimy old singlet pulled over his head by the teasing Rhinemaidens, he touches our hearts as a bullied bloke, hard done by. Here his voice is somewhat stentorian, (one would expect him to bellow!), but there is a weaselly viciousness, a whine, in the style he uses occasionally, which warn us that he, too, is capable of being a Bully Boy himself. His performance drew roars of approval.
The productions have moments of breath-taking simplicity: white petals of snow falling on Hunding’s house, which quite magically turn into green leaves falling on Siegmund and Sieglinde as they discover they are kindred spirits: the use of shadows, which turn the desperate Siegmund, in search of a sword, into a veritable Titan when he sees Nothung.
There are moments of ‘how did he do that?’ magic, as Hunding’s revolving box-like house suddenly becomes lit from inside and the back wall disappears.
There are strikingly powerful gestures as a theatre backdrop of a Byzantine-like fortress, an extinct wonder of an ancient world, is blasted through by two powerful Giants, huge in their cherry pickers. (So much for the fortress of Valhalla!)
There is the sheer delight in watching Susan Bullock’s expressive face and body. She springs down the spiral at the stage centre of Die Walküre, boyish, with prickly hair and a Hojo to ho, and you just love her, as Wotan does. This night there is not the same warmth in the voice, but we are wrapped in the warmth of her performance. The image of a broken Wotan, collapsed and sobbing at her feet, as he says his farewell, is another one not to be forgotten, nor is the image of him lying on the platform beside her, stroking her hair, lulling her into a dreamlike sleep. It is as heart- breakingly human an image as that of Brünnhilde, Siegmund and Sieglinde, standing together in a single down-light, all blighted by their Father’s follies.
Still, there are ‘flat’ moments in ‘ Das Rheingold and in Die Walküre. Directorial ‘black holes’, where that stage is too vast for an intimate ‘chamber’ scene shared by two people. After the visual triumphs of Acts 1 and 2 of Die Walküre, people will be disappointed, if not mortified, by the perfunctory depiction of the iconic Ride of the Valkyries.
The Conductor guides that orchestra incredibly lovingly, (yes, tenderly even!) enabling the narrative to be centre stage. It may at times seem slow, however, it enables sensitive voices to tell their tales beguilingly, and when heft is required, it is there. When one leaves a performance, and the buzz is all about the next performance, one knows one is on a roll. Flawless it is not, but the entire audience is willing it to succeed as they are living through those characters on that stage
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
In an overwhelmingly splendid evening of music-theatre, in Siegfried, Neil Armfield, brings his two worlds of Das Rheingold and ‘Die Walküre’ together. The world of the follies and fantasies of power-hungry Gods, Giants and Dwarfs becomes enmeshed quite deliberately with our own very human world, under that most typical architectural sign of theatre: the proscenium arch. Its back wall is pushed hard downstage, right into the faces of the audience. (No more Directorial ‘black hole’ expanses here!) Clearly now, our own world is on Armfield’s stage, in a rather cramped bedsit, and any remaining comforting thoughts that monstrous betrayals and disastrous urges for power occur only in the world of myths, are clearly blown away.
This becomes a night of theatre of powerful voices and powerful, no-holds-barred imagery. For example, the very favourite moment of children’s pantomime theatre - the slaying of the dragon - is accompanied initially by a loud whoosh, a showering of blood red paper droplets, which inspire a kind of childlike glee. And then, agonisingly slowly, Jud Arthur, as the real, living giant, Fafner, who so spectacularly murdered his brother for possession of the Ring, appears spectacularly himself, naked, riven by the sword of the bumptious young Siegfried, soaked in blood from head to toe. His judgements are delivered thunderously, both visually and vocally. The repercussions of Alberich’s curse on the Ring are truly shocking.
Terje Stensvold, as the Wanderer, also carries the scars of these repercussions. More comfortable now in this incarnation of Wotan than in the two previous operas, and still a giant of a character, though now a bare-chested, more notably human Wotan, he wears the long, grey locks of a painful learning experience. He has grown in monumentality, in both his movements and his voice.
However, his consultation with Erda provided another of those shatteringly powerful moments of self-recognition, with two former great powers in decline. Erda, is fragile, in a wheelchair, Deborah Humble her ‘black-shadow’ voice, as her carer. The gorgeous grandeur of Deborah Humble’s voice is such a poignant reminder of what this now-frail Earth Mother once was, and a devastating reminder of what we will all become.
However, the spectacular for the evening, is provided by the emergence of a hormone-fuelled teenager on the brink of manhood – Siegfried - and his powerfully sensual and joyously voiced encounter with the newly awakened and equally gloriously voiced, Brünnhilde.
This boy/ potential hero (Stefan Vinke) locates Brünnhilde (Susan Bullock) on her rock, in a shipping packing crate. She is taped to its base, shrouded in plastic, looking much like one of those stuffed animal trophies that were the signs of Wotan’s power and glory. (How ironic that his most-loved ‘creature’ should become just another trophy from his follies.) Absolutely radiant, awakening to the warmth of Siegfried’s kiss and the rays of the sun, Susan Bullock embodies Brünnhilde as a sensuous Venus Reborn. She is now lusciously blonde- haired - all those years for it to grow! The electricity between these two glorious humans, the magnificent power of their two astounding voices, is totally exhilarating.
This is indeed the ‘magic moment’ of the production to date. Forget about the feathers and the frippery: this is what we came for.
APOCALYPSE ... NOW?
What does it signify when, after four nights of sometimes splendid music-theatre, one hears oneself saying, ‘It needed more ‘apocalypse’? Where did this saga of epic proportions seem to lose its way?
‘Team Armfield’s’ Ring has, until now, seemed to have a firm hold onto two core concepts. One, inherently Wagner’s own, has been the irresistible allure of power, the deceitful subterfuge and magic that can be employed both to acquire it and to camouflage it, and the hideous transformations that take place in those who lust after it.
The accompanying, more creative concept, has been to provide visible evidence of power, of deceit, of hideous transformations, which has enabled the audience to participate in the production, and be carried along at its heady pace. Wotan’s trophy animals, including his “cryovaced” daughter, his dazzling feathered stairway to paradise, the twisted and tormented Alberich, even Fafner’s superficial power lying in his theatrical makeup, have evidenced this concept, and allowed the audience to draw swift conclusions.
But where are these concepts carried forward inGötterdämmerung. Where is that ‘arc of development’ that holds the Cycle together? If the perfunctory depiction of the Norns is any indicator, the concepts have sunk into the Rhine River. This scene takes prime position at the forefront of Götterdämmerung. It is not just inconvenient ‘back fill’. It marks the end of the eternal, established order, and should convey terror and awe. Instead, we get three mending ladies, one singing sharp, one singing flat, and one somewhere in the middle. When they’ve completed their incomprehensible needlework, they gather up their failed workpiece, and unceremoniously lug it off stage.
Too harsh? But what a disappointment after the sheer pleasure of having seen the traditional ugly duckling,Siegfried, transform itself into a magnificent swan in the previous performance. Expectations are now high. So, let’s dispose of the disappointing impressions first, and then revel in the highlights.
Will Set Designers never learn that one can’t throw all singers onto a huge, bare stage - save for the framework of an aircraft hangar- and expect them to extract their voices from the rear of the stage, the wings, and the flies, and throw them across the top of an orchestra that, until now, has been kept on a firm leash, and is straining to let go? Powerful singers like the irrepressible Vinke, and the heroic Bullock can do it. Singers in that stark environment, like Gutrune (unfortunately depicted, yet again, as Bimbo Barbie), and to a less extent, Gunther, are hung out, seeming to be mouthing their lines.
And while we’re grumbling, so many in the audience are tired of these “flash mob” crowds of humanity, who flood onto the stage just in case people are incapable of visualising Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and turn the whole affair into a group aerobics class, despite this being one of the most gorgeously evocative equivalents to a tone poem ever written! And let’s try to forget that remarkable transformation of Siegfried’s dead body, only to have the shattering scene invaded by crowds who want to turn the spot into a temporary memorial for the victim of some road accident by spreading around plastic flowers! (Directorial Teams have to learn to trust their audiences as well as to trust their singers.)
So, where were the highlights, (and yes, sadly this became the usual stringing together of highlights)?
Alberich’s transformation into a virtual Dracula brings a magic touch of gothic horror to his inhabiting of Hagen’s nightmares. One can almost hear the sucking sounds of the interchange of bile between these two, and Warwick Fyfe continues to be in his element - aided no doubt by the ‘sounding board’ of the marquee which he and the powerful Daniel Sumegi, as Hagen, have been given as assistance.
In stark contrast, the chest-thumping shock, the heart- rending tenderness, of the ritual bathing of the hero, Siegfried’s, body, is totally arresting. It is a transcendent moment where all of Time comes together, and stands still. (Such is the perfect antithesis of the ephemerality of those magic tricks, the hallmarks of power.)
There are the pleasurable delights of three out-of-work Rhine girlies, headdresses awry, holes in stockings, still plying their trade with an almost susceptible Siegfried. And then, there is the Wedding! (Why is it that such gatherings bring out the bad in people?) One thinks of Muriel when one beholds the tarty Bridesmaids, and there are terrifying traces even of Dimboola as these newly conjugated individuals stare each other down in front of mortified ‘family’.
Susan Bullock is again formidable, mascara smudged, wedding hair in disarray, hobbled by the strictures of that horrible formal gown. Beware of any oath she swears on the muzzle of a gun! Stefan Vinke continues to astound. (Both were betrayed directorially by the Immolation set.)
The orchestra and the chorus, now permitted to let rip, provide standout performances.
So why does one yearn for more apocalypse? It seems to lose its way: the Team fails to carry us with them on their conceptual wave. The opportunities are there with trophy wives and even more potions, but they throw us no lifelines to assist us in overall understanding, and the audience is too occupied in holding onto the narrative to unravel those connecting links for themselves. Still, this ‘Ring’ is never less than really good, and sometimes is marvellous, but it could have been really great.
Having now seen the ‘Ring’ through two Cycles, the following comments may be in order. First, a mea culpa. It was quite incorrect to give the impression that the Cycle lacks an ‘arc of development’. Clearly, to have Alberich on stage during the Immolation scene (seemingly frozen in a state of shock and awe at the apocalypse he had set in motion), and to have the Rhinemaidens, their Ring rightly restored, accompanying the sacrificial couple, is a completion of that circle commenced in ‘Rhinegold’
The hunting scenes in the Gibichung’s gym also continued the trophy motif first seen in Act 2 of Die Walküre, as did the Paintball hunting ‘games’ in Götterdämmerung, (among other images.)
Secondly, clearly overwhelmed by the powerful performance of Siegfried, and thoroughly underwhelmed by both the depiction and performance of the Norns, I seem to have damned Acts 2 and 3 of Götterdämmerung with faint praise. There were indeed splendid moments in both Acts (as outlined in the original impressions), the swearing of oaths being amazingly powerful.
Which brings me to the most (personally) powerful scene of Götterdämmerung - the ritual bathing of Siegfried’s body. Such was the power of this scene, and its lasting impact (with Siegfried’s body, ritually anointed, standing erect through the entire Immolation scene), that the final scene seemed such an anticlimax. (Hence the plea for ‘more apocalypse.’) This impression was not helped by the final Wedding Cake tableau, with Brünnhilde holding aloft an Olympic torch of arum lilies, which subsequently burst into flames.
It was also remiss not to mention the role of the surtitles in carrying the narrative from beginning to end. For ‘Team Armfield’, conveying the ‘story’ was a key focus. This was assisted by the pared-down production, and also by the sensitive and superb handling of the orchestra by Pietari Inkinen.However, the surtitles, (from Barry Millington in Rhinegold andDie Walküre, and Peter Kreiss in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung), were exceptional. No signs of archaisms to convey a false gravitas; they were in simple, largely conversational English, and were a vital part of the success of the production.
Overall, after two viewings, we have a ‘Ring’ which is splendid both vocally and musically, and sometimes conceptually.