Review: Melbourne Opera's 'Die Walküre': A Wagnerian Peak Conquered, 11 February 2022

'Die Walküre'

By Terence Watson

Warwick Fyfe - Wotan; Zara Barrett - Brünnhilde; Lee Abrahmsen - Sieglinde; Bradley Daley - Siegmund Sarah Sweeting - Fricka; Steven Gallop - Hunding; Rosamund Illing, Eleanor Greenwood, Jordan Kahler, Olivia Cranwell, Naomi Flatman, Caroline Vercoe, Sally-Anne Russell, and Dimity Shepherd as the Valkyries.

Anthony Negus - Conductor
Melbourne Opera Orchestra Production Team:
Suzanne Chaundy - Director; Andrew Bailey - Sets; Rob Sowinski - Lighting; Harriet Oxley - Costumes

As you might have read in a previous issue of the Wagner Quarterly, I left the Melbourne Opera’s production of Das Rheingold last year with some misgivings about the production (primarily the costumes, but also the interpretation of Alberich, and the suitability of some of the singers to their roles). I am very happy to say that the company’s production of the second of The Ring Cycle music-dramas leaves behind the somewhat jokey presentation of many of the Rheingold characters as Arthur Rackham caricatures, and focuses on a straightforward, mainly naturalistic interpretation, which reminded me strongly of the Otto Schenk production for the New York Metropolitan Opera during the 1980s. It was much loved for, among other things, its very adherence to Wagner’s stage directions—an oasis of sanity among excesses of European Regietheater or Eurotrash productions, many people felt.

With Melbourne Opera’s Die Walküre, the significance of Andrew Bailey’s conception of the major set elements of Das Rheingold became clearer. The platform that descended and rose as needed in the first work to distinguish between the upper and lower realms of the gods and Nibelheim, served again generally to separate the world of the gods from the world of Sieglinde, Siegmund, and Hunding. When raised, the platform, with its hole in the middle, served as part of the backdrop, within which Rob Sowinski’s lighting effects produced a variety of skyscapes from glorious dawn to threatening storm clouds, as well as effective changes of mood lighting on the stage, including a intensely bright light for Fricka’s interrogation of Wotan. Out of a hole in the stage of A1, the tree Wagner calls for at the centre of Hunding’s home stretches high into the flies, but it looks dead and wrecked, with all its branches broken off, as if Wotan had broken off most of the branches as he practised to make the spear that now has his runes of contract burned onto it. Sieglinde has a table and chairs, as well as a kitchen bench, that enable her to carry out her tasks of quenching Siegmund’s thirst, and feeding the three of them. These fitted comfortably into the pared-back naturalism of the whole approach. In her Director’s Notes in the program, though, Suzanne Chaundy describes the aesthetic of the set as “modernist/ brutalist,” which might simply indicate our different experiences of architecture and sets. I have described to others the sets of the recent Joel Cohen film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as brutalist nightmare, since they are shockingly intimidating and surreal, far more so than the sets of this opera.

Around the base of the tree are two large lumps, that remain after the tree is flown away for A2. They seemed to me quite anthropomorphic. One looked like a Salvatore Daliesque melting Pietà; the other seemed as if it could be Erda turned to stone waiting to be called to rise again by Wotan in Siegfried. The platform remains the same for A3.

I was particularly relieved to see that the costumes for the characters of Die Walküre matched their roles, without any overt jokiness. Fricka’s costume was the most elaborate, being a gorgeously exaggerated Kimono-style gown, with rich Japanese looking embroidery of gold on green fabric. Wotan’s costume, also including a Kimono-looking cloak, though, looked appropriately travel stained and worn. Sieglinde was dressed as any mediaeval Hausfrau might look in very sensible dress and apron. Siegmund was dressed in travel- and battle- worn clothes, befitting one who spent his life foraging in the forest and fighting predating Neidings. Hunding was dressed, as he often is in other productions, in leather-look fighting gear, sinister and inhuman, though he relied a little too much on exaggerated facial expressions to convey his brutality.

Brünnhilde’s battle dress looked rather more like the version that a Valkyrie, like a contemporary soldier, might wear to a formal social function, rather than to a battlefield. Her sisters, as well, were dressed in much the same kind of haute couture outfits, that seemed a little too elegant for their tasks, though I have no idea what a Valkyrie would wear for the task of collecting dead human warriors from a battlefield. I have seen productions in which they wear something closer to battle fatigues.

In all cases, the singing in this production was admirable, and easily comparable with the standard in many other productions of Die Walküre I have seen. I was impressed by the cast’s clear diction making it possible for me, with a smattering of German to follow their utterances quite well. The acting, the interaction between the characters, though, was an order of magnitude better than I have seen in many other productions. Chaundy is to be commended for eliciting such committed performances from her cast and having them move on the stage as if they really lived in the world of the music-drama. As the most immediately, emotionally arousing of the Ring Cycle operas, deliberately intended as such by Wagner, it can be easy to arouse superficial responses at particular moments during the drama, but it is much harder to craft a series of related actions and relationships that lead inexorably, it should feel, to each act’s climax, but Chaundy achieves this with great skill. It would be hard to find a better incarnation of Sieglinde and Siegmund than Daley and Abrahmsen, whose growing arousal of themselves and each other is revealed with a complex mixture of intensity and restraint. Their range of vocal delivery matched their emotional expression impeccably. The tenderness between them helped Chaundy achieve her aim “to portray this epic work in a truly affecting way.”

Since the confrontation of Wotan and Fricka at the beginning of Act II is, in part, an elevation of Richard and Minna’s domestic arguments to mythic status, we find the characters arguing about the much the same problems we know Minna had with Richard: marital fidelity, power, status, responsibility, guilt, rationality versus emotion, honesty, and obligations, among others. It is this domestic quality that gives this scene so much of its power, when delivered well. Sweeting and Fyfe persuaded me that this was just one more of a continuing series of such battles of wills, disguised as a defence of principles, as they both enact longstanding frustrations with the constraints of marriage.

Except that this confrontation suddenly takes a turn against Wotan’s usual defences and evasions when Fricka reveals she understands what Wotan is planning (to use Siegmund to retrieve the ring), but also objects to his condoning of the twins’ incest, since he believes it has nothing to do with his larger project. His attempt at a sentimental rationalisation—but, they love each other!—simply aggravates Fricka further. Chaundy rightly notes that the artwork “...starkly raises the question of what is ‘right’ according to law versus what is ‘right’ from the depths of feeling.” While Wagner clearly sides with the latter, through Wotan, Fricka presents the case for the former. The longstanding debate about the priority of the rule of law or the rule of emotion has no clear resolution in principle, but generally depends on the circumstances of each case. Wagner is not interested, of course, in such a philosophical discussion, but is very interested in persuading his audiences to his accept his/Wotan’s position, and devotes his considerable talents to skewing the debate in their favour. The success of the portrayal of this scene depends greatly on the commitment of the performers to their character’s stance, and Sweeting and Fyfe gave a passionate and intelligent account of an existential human dilemma, under Chaundy’s insightful direction.

Barrett’s presentation of Brünnhilde, though, was for me an unexpected highlight of the night. I have to confess to not being aware of her presence in Australian opera performances. Among many other roles, the one to compare with Brünnhilde in range and difficulty would have been her 2014 title role in Turandot for Opera Australia. She tackled this Wagnerian peak of western opera with assurance and great sensitivity. One of the tests for a singer of this role is her delivery of the Todesverkundigung, the Valkyrie’s announcement of a hero’s death. Siegmund’s refusal to accept the annunciation seems, though, to cast some doubt on Chaundy’s claim, in her Notes, that “Siegmund is not a hero with free will, he is a helpless (though heroic) extension of Wotan’s will.” In the artwork, Siegmund, like us in real life, hovers awkwardly and insolubly between believing he has free will and feeling controlled by forces, but he takes a stand and is prepared to accept the consequences—that is what makes him heroic, in my eyes.

The Todesverkundigung is another of the moments in which Wagner pulls the heartstrings almost to breaking point. Barrett and Daley wrought a great deal of genuine pathos out of this scene, while also persuading me that this was a discussion between two highly intelligent people about the best course of action for all three characters. I have always understood this scene as the beginning of Brünnhilde’s awakening into a subjectivity independent of her father, through the expansion of the compassion she has already shown Wotan after his demolition by Fricka, and which will eventually blossom into the self-realisation and self-overcoming of Götterdämmerung. In parallel with Brünnhilde’s emergence as an autonomous entity, Barrett’s singing grew in intensity and expressiveness. The conclusion of this scene was also reinforced by the striking scenic image created with the lovers in the well of the ring circle of the stage, and Brünnhilde standing statuesquely above and behind them as she promises to protect him against her father’s express command.

The swarming of the Valkyries at the beginning of A3 was very effective; their movements around the stage showed their agitation and increasing fear of Wotan’s anger as Brünnhilde reveals to them what she has done. Each of the Valkyries was nicely characterised by some gesture or movement and intonation. Their combined voices contributed marvellously to one of the most famous “bleeding chunks” of the Wagnerian canon.

Then Wotan storms in, bellowing anger, resentment, and betrayal. I have always admired Fyfe’s voice and wonder why Australian opera companies have not capitalised on its power. His voice, at least in this role, does not convey as much nuance and variation as some other Wotan’s I have heard, but I have rarely heard any Wotan who has reached the end of Die Walküre sounding as if he could start again, without stopping to draw breath. Fyfe’s power is something to witness. His skills in characterisation have grown with his vocal power, building on his chilling Alberich for Opera Australia’s Neil Armfield Ring Cycles in 2013 and 2016. Readers might not know, though, that Fyfe had a very successful “run through” of the role in Singapore on 5 January 2020, with Chan Tze Law, conductor, director Edith Podesta, and the Orchestra of the Music Makers who presented the artwork at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall. You can watch the very impressive semi-staged performance at: estraoftheMusicMakers.

You can also read an informative article about this unique and inspiring orchestra at: tze-law-orchestra-of-the-music-makers-wagner-die-walkure- singapore-november-2019.

We can hope that they will soon stage a full Ring Cycle. I would be very happy to make a trip on the strength of the performances in the video.

Returning from my detour promoting Fyfe’s career to his performance in Act III! As with his little shoulder shrug and moue when Fricka demands to know what her faithless husband is going to do about the twins’ alleged insult to her divinity in Act II, in the final scene of Act III Fyfe is able to use small gestures very effectively. Small moves to embrace Brünnhilde, then pulling back and sighing in frustration; waving his spear ineffectually; walking around in apparent aimlessness; then stabbing his spearpoint into the stage in impotence—all convey the impasse to which Wotan’s own ambition, lust, self-disgust, and laws have brought him. I have not seen any farewelling of Brünnhilde with so much physical contact and brokenness in the god, nor so much understanding and compassion as Brünnhilde bestows on the god who is falling to pieces before her eyes. Their hugs, and his kisses, reminded me again of the Otto Schenk production in which James Morris and Hildegard Behrens bring heart- wrenching intensity to the Farewell scene. The DVD recording of this production was only the second Ring Cycle I had seen, after the ABC’s broadcast of the Boulez-Chéreau centennial production at Bayreuth. It is perhaps the adherence of the Schenk production to Wagner’s stage directions that made it such an effective counter proposition to Chéreau’s innovative interpretation. The Chaundy production, in the spirit of the Schenk production, helped make it a very powerful experience for me. In addition, it was also very moving just to be in a theatre to see a production of the Wagnerian masterpiece after having so many performances pulled from under my feet over the last few years, as we all have.

As with the entry into Valhalla in last year’s Das Rheingold, the production team produced a memorable Magic Fire ending to Die Walküre, with Brünnhilde lying on a ledge among the basalt slabs of the mountain peak, with flames flickering menacingly around. Wotan leaves stage left, a broken figure, despite having delivered a resoundingly defiant farewell to his favourite daughter—perhaps it was also delivered to Fricka watching from Valhalla, but it rocked the rafters of Her Majesty’s Theatre and sent shivers down my spine.

A large part of the success of the production was due to the inspiring playing of the Melbourne Opera Orchestra who again put their hearts and souls into bringing the music to life. There were many goose-bumpy moments with the playing of the clarinettist and oboist in the solos in which they accompany many of the most touching moments in the work. All the players were guided by the experience of Anthony Negus, who has conducted many Wagner performances here and overseas. I found his tempi matched very satisfyingly the rises and falls of the emotional intensity of the drama. Negus and the orchestra players were also helped by the warm acoustics of the theatre and an orchestra pit that is reminiscent of Wagner’s own pit in Bayreuth, as it falls down and away from the conductor’s podium, enabling a sound that is both warmly blended, but also very clear, to be projected into the theatre.

From the Wagner Quarterly, March 2022