Review: 'Das Rheingold', Melbourne Opera, 3 February 2021 & livestream

By Terence Watson

Das Rheingold

 

Conductor - Anthony Negus | Director - Suzanne Chaundy Cast: Eddie Muliaumaseali’i - Wotan | Simon Meadows - Alberich James Egglestone - Loge | Sarah Sweeting - Fricka
Lee Abrahmsen - Freia | Jason Wasley - Froh
Darcy Carroll - Donner | Roxane Hislop - Erda
Michael Lapina - Mime | Adrian Tamburini - Fasolt
Steven Gallop - Fafner | Rebecca Rashleigh - Woglinde
Louise Keast - Wellgunde | Karen Van Spall - Flosshilde

Sway-pole Performers: Emily Ryan | Lily Paskas Goodfellow

Andrew Bailey - Sets | Harriet Oxley - Costumes | Rob Sowinksi - Lights Choreographer of the Rhinedaughters - Miki Oikawa
Sway-pole choreographer - Phillip Gleeson

In her program note, director Suzanne Chaundy explains her thinking about the way in which Wagner’s work can be seen to relate to contemporary problems: 

in a world of ever escalating catastrophe, I reflected that Wagner’s Ring Cycle may be the story of the ‘Twilight of the Gods’, but our world is currently feeling unnervingly like the ‘Twilight of Humanity’, with the outbreak of COVID-19, worldwide disasters linked to climate change and where a petulant man-child has ruled “the land of the free.”

The challenge, then, was to find a way of interpreting the artwork to reflect this political and existential program. Chaundy explains how they approached the challenge:

With my creative team...we have looked to create a world that does not drag the mythological characters of ‘Das Rheingold’ down to being ‘normal’ recognisable people. I found inspiration reading literature imagining Norse Gods 

in our contemporary world and this has been influential in the creation of the production style. The other operas in cycle are largely about people—albeit some heroic ones. We have asked ourselves what is the essence of the characters; the Gods, Giants, Nibelungen and Rheinmaidens [sic] and how they can be presented in a way that speaks to contemporary audiences, to reinforce the eternal relevance of this story of the machinations of power, entitlement and greed.

From my perspective, I found it puzzling how the team solved the problem of not dragging the mythological characters “down” to being normal human beings. Firstly, the male gods and Loge are dressed in more or less contemporary male suits, though Donner’s metallic outfit looks rather more like a costume party suit, and his hammer a little wimpy (perhaps it was his dress hammer?). In what way were the Giants supposed to be “mythological”? Since there is no such thing, why were they dressed as if they had stepped out of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations? In what “mythological” world are all the female denizens dressed in swirly, opalescent, dare I say “girly” outfits? In what way are the costumes presenting us with the “essence of the characters”? Raise these queries because I could not understand how the costumes achieved the director’s stated aims, which is probably to admit my limitations, but I hope that my more specific comments below will illustrate my quandary.

The opening of the artwork was wonderfully suggestive and novel. Two indistinct figures high above the stage swaying gracefully back and forth in blue light. A nice introduction to the Rhinedaughters, except I wondered where the third might be. I soon realised that these two were at the top of two “sway poles,” whose bendy properties were exploited to the full by the two performers in quite breathtaking ways. But, later in the scene they b became a little distracting as they continued their aerial dance while the main characters sang and acted down below. The two swaypolers were dressed in what was to become the costume de rigueur for the female performers, that is a layered, diaphanous, opalescent gown that flowed as they moved, and prettily reflected the light. However, after a while, I was assailed by an image of a pair of Kewpie dolls upstaging the legit performers. The Rhinedaughters were similarly attired, but each was initially seated inside a circular blue, fluorescent tube, a little like a trapeze, that moved as they did to contribute to the sense of water flowing.

Alberich arrived in a boilersuit and singlet, extensively muddied by the bottom of the Rhine through which he had arrived to startle the Rhinedaughters. More of him anon.

The Rhinedaughters now dismounted and danced around Alberich, who slipped and slid in the mud, while they sang and teased him. Wagner would have approved of this clever integration of dance, of which he was a strong advocate despite his experience with Tannhäuser in Paris, into the stage action. While the lighting effect for the arrival of the sun, a golden glow bathing the stage, was impressive; the gold itself was not. Alberich opened a little trapdoor and grabbed a handful of what I took to be alluvial gold and smeared it over himself, making me wonder how he made a ring and a Tarnhelm out of that small haul. But then that is what magic is for.

The curtain descended for the transition to the Valhalla scene and rose to reveal a platform descending from the back of the stage to rest some feet above the bottom of the Rhine, creating a suitably elevated dais for the gods to inhabit. The platform has a large hole in the centre, which immediately aroused OH&S concerns for me. I trust that all the cast had appropriate training. The gods assemble, the male ones in their suits and the female ones in their godly versions of the Rhinedaughters’ diaphanous gowns. I’m not sure what Wotan’s chairman Mao collar would be intended to convey, especially in the context of today’s tensions over the behaviour of the People’s Republic of China. I have to confess, though, that I almost burst out laughing when Freia ran onto the stage. I found myself thinking, oh no, here comes the easter bunny with a little basket of easter eggs!! Then I admonished myself as I realised that it was a basket of golden apples. But then her headband, from my seat, really seemed like a pair of bunny ears. I discovered, in watching the livestream, that the headband was adorned with golden flowers. Sadly, she was followed by two escapees from the Rackham illustrations. Why were they dressed so? Where was the imaginative inspiration to give us something frightening or awe-inspiring, instead of something so hackneyed? Or was I missing some meta-textual significance in making the Giants objects of ridicule, rather than creatures of such power that they terrified Wotan?

And then, thank goodness, Loge arrives, resplendent in a flame red suit with black pinstripes, a yellow T-shirt, and a cheeky porkpie hat with a red riband. Now, the costuming seemed to make both a political and a character point. As well as being dressed like a Mafia spiv, Loge, or rather James Egglestone, behaved like a Mafia heavy as well. Indeed, Egglestone was the only performer, in my opinion, who confidently and completely inhabited his character, filling his every moment on the stage with meaningful stances, gestures, and expressions. I hope that Melbourne Opera can fit him into the remaining operas of the Cycle.

Chaundy addresses the matter of the costuming as fitting within Wagner’s characterisation of this opera as “a prologue, a kind of a Satyr play, a ‘joking tragedy,’” adding that it was for her a way to draw on “traditional mythical tales” for her interpretation of the work. On this basis, then:

This production’s mythical past refers to the heady and hedonistic times of the sixties and seventies when the rich had seemingly endless wealth (approaching the ‘greed is good’ era of the eighties), where many of the seeds were planted for our current malaise of the environment and democracy.

For me this is confusing. On the one hand, we have the gods dressed in styles that could be understood as representing the era of “greed is good,” but how do the giants’ or Alberich’s or the Rhinedaughters’ costumes fit into either that era, or the “mythical past,” since none of those costumes has any foothold in any authentic folk mythology, just Arthur Rackham’s strange imagination? Settling on a consistent allegory might help.

The descent into Nibelheim was effected by raising the god’s dais a little to reveal that the underside was fitted out with pipes and lights suitable for an underground gold smelting operation, all made indistinct through much stage smoke, of which more anon. The Nibelungs seemed to be a mixture of dancers (and moonlighting Rhinedaughters), with many executing awkward tumbles and leaps; some seemed to have disabilities. I wondered whether this feature was because Alberich’s barbaric rule had already caused injuries in his enslaved workers. The entrance of Mime, Michael Lapina, marked another moment of relief since his presentation was relatively straightforward, dressed as a worker, and able to act. Lapina’s performance was, for me, the only other one in which I felt that the performer inhabited the character, limited though it is, and which called up spontaneous sympathy for his plight.

The confrontation between Wotan, Loge, and Alberich was effectively dramatic, primarily because of the interaction between Loge and Alberich. Alberich had dressed up for his new role as king of the Nibelungs with a coat, with much gold trim, over the still muddy boilersuit. His transformations into the serpent and the toad were effected by means of a scrim at the rear of the stage and more stage smoke. The serpent was well done with a writhing, snarling creature appearing through the smoke. I couldn’t tell whether it was a projection or mechanical, but it was more effective than others I’ve seen.

Rather than clambering up through the hole in the divine dais, as I thought might happen, the trio exited to the wings and then reappeared from the wings when the dais had settled to its perpendicular level again. Loge was provocatively and dashingly wearing the Tarnhelm over his porkpie. With the gods assembled, and the giants returning Freia, Loge, with considerable deviousness and charm, connives the trade-off of Freia for all Alberich’s gold. In this case, the gold came in the shape of 15 blocks, I think, with such emblems as hammers, apples, and bars of gold embossed on them, which were enough to hide Freia from anyone standing in front of her. After Alberich has the ring ripped from his finger, and delivers his curse on the ring, he descends to Nibelheim through the hole.

To warn Wotan to also surrender the ring to the giants, Erda arrives rather unceremoniously from stage rear right and semi-circumnavigates the hole as she sings her way to Wotan on the far side of the stage. She is also dressed in the diaphanous, opalescent style of the age. More impressively, her face is projected onto the scrim at the rear of the stage where she appears rather like a cross between Medusa without serpentine hair and a portrait on an ancient platter with crazed glaze. This face slowly mouths something, but I couldn’t tell whether she was saying any or some of Erda’s actual words. The image, though, added some of the unheimlich to the scene.

The death of Fasolt was achieved by Fafner bashing him with one of the half-tree-trunks that each giant carried to emphasise their size. Fafner then callously rolls Fasolt off the side of the dais, I hoped onto a large mattress below. Fafner then trundles the gold offstage in a mining trolley the brothers had sensibly brought with them earlier.

Having arrived at the whole point of Wotan’s original plan—to move into a brand-new fortress, the gods prepare to enter Valhalla. It is at this point that I realised that the strange, sharp angular shapes around the sides of the stage were the outer battlements of Valhalla, with the gods’ new home apparently the large tower now projected onto the scrim at the rear of the stage. The razor-edges of the battlements contrasted effectively with the effeteness of the gods; they would need something as vicious as them to protect themselves not only from giants, but also from Alberich’s fury.

The final moments of the production contained some of the most effective images. As the gods process up three small stairs at the back of the set, onto the base of an enormous three-quarter circle cut into the backdrop, through which we can still see the tower, the dais rises up to frame them, as if in a family portrait. Under the dais, and right at the back of the Nibelheim-space, a row a white-blue lights appears, with stage smoke drifting through them, suggesting the Rhine river again. Next, a row of rainbow-coloured lights appears behind. From the flies above, more rainbow lights bathe the stage and the stage smoke that is, by now, drifting up to the stage and into the auditorium—altogether a lovely image.

For the last 5 or so minutes of Wotan’s dismissal of the Rhinedaughters’ call for the return of the ring, and Loge’s sardonic contemplation of starting the world-ending conflagration three operas too early, we are treated to the counterpoint of the fire-alarms that the smoke has set off. Commendably, no one on stage, in the orchestra, or in the audience, leapt up to flee, since it was clear what was happening. Fortunately, too, no firies rushed in to rescue us from our fiery fate. After a number of curtain calls, the audience filed out to discover two fire tenders parked out the front, just in case—perhaps an unintentional nod to the practice at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus of having fire engines outside of every performance?

I was glad to see, during the livestream, images of the orchestra playing their hearts out under the energetic and focussed Anthony Negus. The images matched my experience of the orchestra’s performance during the premiere, when I was sitting quite close to the players. Musically, this was a fine performance of which the orchestra can be very proud. Negus’s direction resulted in a finely nuanced performance, with none of the voices drowned by some of Wagner’s more exuberant dynamics. I don’t know how many of the orchestra’s members have played for Melbourne Opera’s previous Wagner productions, but the orchestra is building up that impalpable quality that shines through when Wagner’s style seeps into the performers’ own relationship to the music to create what is often called a Wagner tradition of playing.

My response to the singing and acting, though, is more qualified. I have already commended James Egglestone for his embodiment of Loge, but I wish also to praise his voice, which again seemed to me to be one of the few of the cast to fit the character’s Fach like a glove. Michael Lapina’s voice also seemed to me to be almost flawlessly fitted to his character, without slipping into the dubious whining and cartoonish, anti-Semitic overtones that are sometimes deployed in presenting Mime. Despite their oddly cartoonish presentation, Adrian Tamburini and Steven Gallop as Fasolt and Fafner, were also impressive in their vocal quality and range, and also took as much opportunity as they could to interact with each other and the gods. I look forward to hearing Gallop again in Siegfried.

The gods in general, though, failed to persuade me that their voices were ideal for their roles. While Eddie Muliaumaseali’i had the physical stature for a Wotan, and a pleasing voice for most of the demands of Das Rheingold, I suspect that he will find it difficult to meet the vocal challenges of the Wotan of Die Walküre, both its length and the range required. I had heard with much pleasure both Sarah Sweeting and Lee Abrahmsen in previous Melbourne Opera productions. Both their voices are subtle and strong, but here they seemed to be holding back, or perhaps the vocal range demanded by their roles was not quite within their comfort range? The two characters have very little to say or do, so it is perhaps not fair to judge them on the strength of this opera.

The Rhinedaughters, Rebecca Rashleigh, Louise Keast, and Karen Van Spall, sang well, even as they danced. They brought some necessary joie de vivre to the artwork, which usually disappears with the arrival of the rather self-important gods. The other male gods, Jason Wasley and Darcy Carroll, were generally adequate to the demands, though, again, they each have only one chance to lift the rafters. Sadly, Wagner did not give Erda, Roxane Hislop, much to do, apart from seeming eerie and ancient, nor much to sing, though her music is distinctive and arresting. Hislop sang the role well with a rich mezzo-soprano voice that carried well over the orchestra.

I have saved Alberich, Simon Meadows, to the end because I found the characterisation bizarre. I cannot imagine why he was asked, or chose?, to perform as a cross between a chimpanzee, the village idiot, and a zombie, when he is supposed to be a credible threat to Wotan. From his first appearance, loping across the stage like a chimpanzee, to the somewhat demented facial expressions, to the exaggerated leering, this characterisation seems deliberately intended to demean the character before he is given the chance to reveal himself to us as a complex, challenging figure.

How are we then to make sense of his curse on love of scene 1? This surely cannot come from the village idiot? How are we to make sense of his curse on the ring of scene 3? Is it the effect of the magic of the ring that turns him into the figure who Wotan fears? If this is the case, then we have returned Wagner’s allegory to the level of a fairytale. Wagner’s Alberich seems to me to clearly contain within him from the start the desires and capacities that will transform him into the fury and cunning of the later figure. How is a modern audience to find in this cartoon a psychologically credible exposition of the dark side of human nature? Does a comparison with “a petulant man-child” really take us to the central ethical dilemmas that confront us in artwork? How does a zombie enable us to understand the choice Wagner presents us in Das Rheingold between authentic human relationships and a desire for power over others, let alone the kind of community in which political choice can be seriously debated and humane choices made?

That said, I must praise Meadows’ voice. When he rose to his full height, freed briefly of the silly mannerisms of his characterisation, he thundered his curses in a thrilling, chilling voice that I could believe belonged to a character of great malevolence and power, who was also intelligent enough to conceive plans that would challenge the putative all-powerful god of the universe. Nevertheless, I await with some trepidation how Alberich will be presented in the other operas of The Ring Cycle in which he appears.

I will, despite my reservations, be booking my ticket for Die Walküre as soon as they are on sale and the sooner the better, to keep up the momentum generated by a successful start to one of western art’s greatest challenges. “Kinder, schafft Neues!”

From the Wagner Quarterly, March 2021