Wagner’s Ring, Melbourne Opera, March 24-April 2, 2023

It should come as a surprise to no one that Melburnians saw the first complete Der Ring des Nibelungen in Australia. The city has always had something of a yen for Wagner. The year was 1913, just 12 months after the Quinlan Opera Company had made its Melbourne debut with a season that included Tannhäuser and Tristan and Isolde (all the Quinlan operas were sung in English). Those 1912 and 1913 seasons fed Melbourne’s passion for Wagner, a taste developed by earlier imported opera companies. Irish impresario Thomas Quinlan didn’t stint on his forces. In 1913 he brought an orchestra of 65 and chorus of 70 to Australia along with principal artists; sitting alongside the Ring were the first Australian performances of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

Warwick Fyfe as Wotan in Melbourne Opera’s Ring cycle. Photo Robin Halls

Of the Ring operas, only The Valkyrie had previously been seen in Melbourne. It was performed as Die Walküre – with a real horse for Brünnhilde at the end – in 1907 by George Musgrove’s Royal Grand Opera. Further proof of the Melburnian thirst for Wagner, if any were needed, is that the Royal Grand Opera was formed, so the invaluable Entertaining Australia: an illustrated history (Currency Press) tells us, at the request of Melbourne backers who wanted to hear Wagner in German. Musgrove selected the singers with the help of his conductor, an old colleague with the unimprovable name of Gustav Slapoffski. Also in that 1907 season were performances of Der fliegende Holländer.

Melbourne Opera is in many ways the admirable successor to these early ventures. MO too goes on without government subsidy and with private backing from enthusiasts. It too finds an audience hungry for Wagner, and, after presenting German operas in English, MO has found patrons prefer them to be sung in their original language. 

And so to MO’s first full Der Ring des Nibelungen, 110 years after the monumental music-drama first touched down in this country. MO is usually seen in Melbourne, naturally, but for the Ring has decamped to the lovely regional centre of Bendigo, a city just a couple of hours from the Victorian capital. The fact that Bendigo grew out of the goldrush years in the mid 19th-century is a bonus. An inspired ancillary event (it’s repeated for cycles 2 and 3 and I can heartily recommend it) is a concert 60m underground in the Central Deborah Mine. You don’t get that in the big smoke.

The gods enter Valhalla in Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo by Robin Halls

This is the first time a Ring has been presented outside an Australian capital city so there was a sense of adventure and, it must be said, risk. The gamble has paid off artistically, that much is clear. (You can read my reviews of RheingoldWälkureSiegfried and Götterdämmerung in Limelight magazine.)

To the approbation of many in the audience (about half from Melbourne, 30 per cent from interstate, 11 per cent international visitors and 9 per cent locals), the production had no tricks up its sleeve. It took the Ring at face value and let the music and narrative speak for themselves. There was no outlandish Regietheater(director’s theatre) here thank you very much: the anywhere, anytime setting was handsome and useful but its role was to support the abundance of fine music-making, not to take a position on the saga. 

It’s worth mentioning that recent history has seen only a handful of full Ring cycles in Australia. Neil Armfield created a Ring for Opera Australia (2013, revived 2016) and in December OA finally gets its much-delayed new Ring to the stage in Brisbane in a mainly digital production directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. In 1998 gutsy little State Opera South Australia imported Pierre Strosser’s 1994 version then raised the stakes by commissioning a new staging from Elke Neidhardt in 2004. And what a wonder that turned out to be. Will anyone present ever forget the sight of hard-living Valkyries fronting up to the Wunderbar at the top of the third act of their eponymous opera?

Antoinette Halloran (centre) as Brünnhilde and Lee Abrahmsen (right) as Sieglinde in Die Wälkure. Photo Robin Halls

Most companies work up to a full Ring by staging one opera each year for four years. They then put them together in a grand festival. MO planned to do that but the pandemic had other ideas. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre made it to full productions in 2021 and last year respectively and Siegfried received a concert staging later in 2022. Götterdämmerung had its premiere in Bendigo on April 2. (OA and SOSA dispensed with the build-up and staged the full Ring in one go.) 

Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre is a pleasing venue. It is less than a decade old but comes drenched in history, having been sensitively fashioned from the city’s mid-19th-century Sandhurst Gaol. It boasts a large stage, an auditorium seating about 950 and great sightlines. 

The Ulumbarra wasn’t, however, made for a Ring-sized orchestra, which meant creative thinking was needed. Some players in the 90-strong Melbourne Opera Orchestra were placed behind conductor Anthony Negus and tucked under the seating area. It inevitably created some balance issues but the orchestra nevertheless acquitted itself with honour over the length of Wagner’s four Ringinstalments.

It is a part-time ensemble for which rehearsal scheduling must be a nightmare. At its best the orchestra gave a stirring account of the music while at other times – and it was only occasionally – the strain showed. The UK-based Negus is widely revered as a great Wagner conductor and MO’s best decision was to have him at the helm. The Ring’s narrative is embedded in the music, constantly defining and summoning characters, ideas and actions; in Negus’s hands all this sounded clear, purposeful and dramatically engaging. Moments as brief as the snuffling and shifting of Brünnhilde’s horse Grane in Götterdämmerung were as legible as the lumbering of the giants in Rheingold, the airy forest music in Siegfried and the thundering of the Valkyries’ arrival in Wälkure

Deborah Humble as Erda in Das Rheingold. Photo by Robin Halls

One gets the sense that Negus has great humility in the face of the music. That he lets it do the job Wagner took so many decades to complete, that he understands it intimately and doesn’t impose himself upon it. Negus has worked with MO for a few years now on this and other projects and I suspect has had a profound effect on players and singers alike.  

Only Negus was imported. Otherwise this was a 100 per cent Australian venture. Antoinette Halloran sang her first full Brünnhilde with ferocious passion, Bradley Daley’s Siegfried developed in stature as he travelled the path from man-child in his eponymous opera to man of destiny in Götterdämmerung and mezzo Deborah Humble thrilled the audience as earth-mother Erda and the Valkyrie Waltraute.

Simon Meadows had a triumph as Alberich and James Egglestone was a powerful Siegmund to the touchingly vulnerable Sieglinde of Lee Abrahmsen only two nights after he had thoroughly enlivened Rheingold as Loge. Above all, Warwick Fyfe as Wotan wielded a gorgeously burnished heldenbariton with seemingly endless reserves of power.

James Egglestone (centre) as Loge with Darren Jeffrey (Fasolt) and Steven Gallop (Fafner). Photo by Robin Halls

Others to impress greatly were Steven Gallop as Fafner and Hagen, Darren Jeffrey’s Fasolt, Christopher Hillier as Gunther, Adrian Tamburini’s Hunding and Sarah Sweeting’s imperious Fricka in Wälkure. MO’s commitment to Australian singers is praiseworthy, certainly, but good intentions alone can’t produce a memorable Ring. That can be achieved only witAh formidable artists, and this Ring has them in all the roles that really matter.

There are various cast changes for cycles two and three. Zara Barrett and Bradley Cooper take over from Halloran and Daley for cycle three and excitingly, Eleanor Greenwood, the first cycle’s outstanding Third Norn, gets the opportunity to sing Sieglinde in the final cycle. Formerly singing as a mezzo, Greenwood has a sumptuous, gleaming soprano seemingly made for this repertoire. I was reminded of first hearing Anna-Louise Cole as Third Norn for OA in 2016. This year she sings Brünnhilde in Brisbane. Also sounding most promising is  Jordan Kahler, Second Norn in cycles one and three. 

Long-time MO associate Suzanne Chaundy directed a straightforward account of the work in which gods were gods and giants were giants. Overheard conversations and a standing ovation at the end of Götterdämmerung indicated that the first-cycle audience was on board with the approach. It was a sensible decision for a production that couldn’t afford to throw money around (it was brought in for $5 million). Andrew Bailey’s set worked effectively for each of the four operas, particularly in its ability to shift from upper to lower levels with a drawbridge-like platform. There were times when the cut-out circle in the centre of the platform forced the singers into awkward positions but it mostly worked. A huge disc hanging at the back was cleverly used as an ever-changing backdrop to create mood and establish place. The effect was often extraordinarily beautiful.  

Chaundy’s careful, understated approach bore fruit time and again in her direction of singers even if moments of theatrical surprise were rationed. The stunning reveal of Brünnhilde and Gunther when Brünnilde is forced to be his bride, the large projection of Erda’s face on her appearances and Chaundy’s use of dancers on sway poles to accompany scenes with the Rhinemaidens and Valkyrie were inspired and made one hunger for a just a few more such coups. That’s a quibble though. MO has delivered an elegant, coherent and engrossing Ring with a wealth of fine singing and playing. 

Cycle two is underway. Siegfried and Gotterdammerung are performed on April 14 and 16.

Cycle three opens on April 21.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Geoffrey Appleton says:

    Thanks Deborah.
    I look forward even more now to Brisbane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s