Review: The Melbourne Ring Cycle, the 2016 Revival

Melbourne Ring Cycle 2016

By Douglas Sturkey
If my memory serves me correctly, this has been my eighth Ring Cycle. (Attendance at individual parts of the Cycle does not qualify.) The Cycles that I’ve seen include two different productions at the Met, with Birgit Nilsson and Hildegard Behrens respectively. Then there’s the Goodall version at the English National Opera, the so-called ‘English’ one at Bayreuth, the Neidhardt production at Adelaide, a German import that I saw at Prague, and the 2013 and 2016 presentations at Melbourne. As presentations differ among sponsoring authorities, their financial resources, and directors, comparisons are barely relevant and boil down to satisfaction with the singers. But as both of the Melbourne stagings reflect Neil Armfield’s vision, and with the benefit of Clive Paget’s interpretations, I feel more confident in declaring this year’s presentation better than the earlier one. That may be because the stage images—some of which I found somewhat curious on first viewing—have been explained by Paget and are now comprehensible.* This does not mean, however, that the production is without its flaws.

The great strength of this year’s staging was that of two of the Cycle’s principal singers. Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde), a Californian, has buried the old maxim that "the show's not over until the fat lady sings". She has the tall slim athletic figure of a member of a women's basketball league and as much energy as its top players, long blonde hair, and is absolutely gorgeous! No wonder Siegfried fell in love with her at first sight. As if it weren't enough just to look at her, she also has a stunning voice. Heath Lees slipped a clip of Kirsten Flagstad into one of his pre-performance lectures, making a comparison of the two sopranos tossing off ‘Hojotoho’, and Lindstrom's voice did not suffer.

Her Siegfried was Stefan Vinke, who also sang that role in 2013. His voice has matured beautifully, and his performance was very assured. Despite several hours of vocal exertion to get to the hill’s fiery summit, he had the high notes and power to rival Brünnhilde's in their duet at her awakening. His voice seemed a bit tired at the hall of the Gibichung, but regained its clarity for his encounter with the Rhine maidens and final scene.

James Johnson was not always as vocally commanding a Wotan as others that I’ve heard, but I found his Wanderer more engaging than those of others. His ‘Farewell’ to Brünnhilde produced a moment of great emotion which almost reduced me to tears when he threw down his spear and they embraced for the last time. There was an evident genuine bond between the two singers that transcended their roles.

Of the host of other admirable singers and performers, I single out Amber Wagner (Sieglinde), Jacqueline Dark (Frika), Warwick Fyfe (Alberich), Graeme Macfarlane (Mime), Daniel Sumegi (Fasoltand Hagen), Luke Gabbedy (Gunther), James Egglestone (Loge), Liane Keegan (Erda), and the wonderfully matched ensembles of the Rhine maidens and Valkyries. Bradley Daley (Siegmund) had a sore throat and mimed his second act to the excellent tenor voice of a member of the chorus [Dean Bassett-Editor].

My recollection is that the orchestra was more assured under Pietari Inkinen in 2013 than was always the case this year. The great E flat that begins the “Cycle” was fumbled as other instruments chipped in, and there were also some odd sounds early in Die Walküre, but order was restored soon thereafter in both operas. From then onwards the sounds from the pit were produced harmoniously with clarity and, when necessary, overwhelming force. The response of the audience to the conductor and orchestra—all of whom were brought onto the stage at this, the concluding evening of the three Cycles – was ecstatic.

Ross Burns has told me that Neil Armfield likes to put his actors on a bare—or minimally dressed—stage, the audience undistracted by extraneous scenery. This worked very well in Nibelheim where apertures in the black platform suggested gold-mining pits, but not at all when Donner, devoid of his hammer, was obliged to slap the backstage wall with his bare hand in order to conjure up the storm. The total absence of an Ash tree in this production, whether withering or a bushfire blackened stump, remains an egregious error. And there is no convenient way around Wagner’s musical interlude for the transformation of Brünnhilde’s crag into the Gibichung court during the course of Siegfried’s Rhine journey, when scenery is absent. An empty stage does not cut it: nor does a crowd of streamer-throwing well-wishers and flash-mob dancers. Queries: how did they learn from Brünnhilde’s and Siegfried’s eyrie that he would be setting out to perform further heroic deeds; and how did the horde manage to cross the ring of fire to reach the departure point?

At one of his lectures in Sydney, Antony Ernst observed that the vocal line for Gunther/Siegfried’s assault on Brünnhilde was so pitched that it could be sung by either a baritone or tenor. At this performance it was sung by the latter, wearing a costume identical to Gunther’s court dress. It was whilst singing at this lower register that Vinke’s voice seemed to tire, fortunately to recover later.

There were Aussie touches that resonated with me: the bathers at a popular swimming hole on the Rhine, the circus magic sideshow of the Tarnhelm, the developer/wrecker giants, the Tivoli girls in rainbow feathers (though I think that flimsily clad statuesque females on staircases owe more to the Ziegfeld Follies than to the Tivoli circuit), the minimalism of Hunding’s isolated hut and Mime’s lodging, the Valkyries on trapezes, Fafner putting on his makeup, the setting for the wedding breakfast from hell and much, much more.

Was it worthwhile revisiting this production? Absolutely; and especially for the singing.

You can read Clive Paget’s reviews in Limelight at:

www.limelightmagazine.com.au/live-reviews/das-rheingold-opera-australia-review

www.limelightmagazine.com.au/live-reviews/die-walkure-opera-australia

www.limelightmagazine.com.au/live-reviews/review-siegfried-oa

www.limelightmagazine.com.au/live-reviews/review-gotterdammerung-opera-australia