Opera Australia: The Ring Cycle 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelung is spectacular and deeply moving. Watching a great production of this masterpiece is a life-changing experience.

 

At its heart the Ring cycle is a compelling drama, arcing through a mythological landscape. Immortals and humans fall in love and fight over power and wealth. Their destinies are determined by the fate of the ring.

 

The Melbourne Ring Cycle will be distinctly Australian in spirit and outlook – respectful of the work’s historical importance yet boldly responding to it with antipodean freshness. It will honour the great triumph of the Ring cycle - that the ideas it embodies are at once eternal and contemporary.

Opera Australia: The Ring Cycle 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelung is spectacular and deeply moving. Watching a great production of this masterpiece is a life-changing experience.

 

At its heart the Ring cycle is a compelling drama, arcing through a mythological landscape. Immortals and humans fall in love and fight over power and wealth. Their destinies are determined by the fate of the ring.

 

The Melbourne Ring Cycle will be distinctly Australian in spirit and outlook – respectful of the work’s historical importance yet boldly responding to it with antipodean freshness. It will honour the great triumph of the Ring cycle - that the ideas it embodies are at once eternal and contemporary.

CREDITS

 

Opera Australia: The Ring Cycle

The Arts Centre Melbourne

18 November - 13 December 2013

 

Conductor: Pietari Inkinen

Director: Neil Armfield

Assiociate Director: Kate Champion

Set Designer: Robert Cousins

Costume Designer: Alice Babidge

Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper

Associate Conductor: Anthony Legge

Sound designer: Jim Atkins

WRITING

 

"The verdict was pretty much unanimous: this was one of the best Rings anywhere in a long time."

Bedeviled Ring Seemed Doomed, Then Curtain Rose

James L. Paulk Classical Voice North America 2013

 

 

"EMBARKING on a Ring cycle is like boarding a long-distance train. You know you are in for an exhilarating ride - in this case, 16 hours of German opera - and you know what you are likely to see and hear. But if the destination is predetermined, the journey is not.

 

Every four-act Ring is different from the next and Opera Australia's first-ever production of Richard Wagner's monumental "music drama" (known formally as Der Ring Des Nibelungen) takes audiences on a journey that is surprising, thrilling and profound.

 

Director Neil Armfield made his intentions clear from the very start, stating that he wanted to "render a world that connects to our own'' and not surrender to "seductions of effect". True to his word, the Ring he has devised is not overly flamboyant, despite the early appearance of showgirl Rhinemaidens in the first opera, Das Rheingold . Yes, there is a giant carpark ramp in act two of Die Walkure (the second opera) with taxidermied animals thrust through its hollowed centre. But more often than not, Armfield and set designer Robert Cousins clear the decks and foreground character ahead of razzle dazzle.

 

Not wanting to literally depict events described in Wagner's fable, the creative team here also come up with ingenious Australian answers. In this Ring, "the depths of the Rhine" feels more like an afternoon by the beach, a "forest cave" in Siegfried (the third opera) resembles a shabby bedsit and the Gibichung Hall in Gotterdammerung (the fourth opera) resembles a plastic-sided wedding marquee.

 

Were traditionalists appalled? Possibly. The sight of that bedsit, with its saggy couch and microwave oven, must have had a few of them choking on their Minties. My reservations were more to do with changes of tone that occasionally jarred and worked against a gathering sense of dramatic unity.

The Ring - first performed in the 1870s - is essentially about power and the price we pay for blindly pursuing it. Armfield never loses sight of this, in my view, and succeeds brilliantly in humanising the gods and monsters of Wagner's imagination. In this, he is superbly served his performers.

 

Susan Bullock's brooding Brunnhilde and Terje Stensvold's towering Wotan/Wanderer are pillars of vocal and dramatic strength. So is Stefan Vinke, as Siegfried, whose glowing tenor never once faltered across four hours of singing. Vinke's ecstatic duet with Bullock in the third act of Siegfried is one of the high points of this Ring, but standout performances emerge from quieter corners as well.

 

I will not quickly forget Deborah Humble's deeply affecting Erda, or Jud Arthur's bloodied dragon, or Warwick Fyfe's Golem-like Alberich. Fyfe is a revelation, scuttling across the stage like a spider and embodying the greed which animates Wagner's moral tale.

 

The Melbourne Ring Orchestra, under the baton of Pietari Inkinen, is simply marvellous and drew out a multitude of colours across the four nights.

No opera is complete, of course, without an audience and, by the time we reached Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, there was almost a party atmosphere in the stalls. You get to know your neighbours in the course of a Ring. You get to chat and share a drink, just as you do on a train.

 

And when this giant locomotive finally grinds to a halt, you breathe a sigh of relief ... and think about starting the journey all over again."

Opera review: The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013, Opera Australia

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/5

 Simon Plant Herald Sun November 26, 2013

 

Images: Jeff Busby

VIDEO

Opera Australia

 

Opera Australia is Australia’s national opera company, presenting more than 700 performances and playing to more than half a million people each year.

 

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CREDITS

 

Opera Australia: The Ring Cycle

The Arts Centre Melbourne

21 November - 16 December 2016

 

Conductor: Pietari Inkinen

Director: Neil Armfield

Associate Director: Kate Champion

Movement Revival Assistant: Frankie Snowdon

Set Designer: Robert Cousins

Costume Designer: Alice Babidge

Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper

Associate Conductor: Anthony Legge

Sound designer: Jim Atkins

VIDEO

WRITING

"What am I supposed to do with myself now that it’s over?

That was my immediate thought as I stumbled out of the State Theatre at the conclusion of my first ever Ring Cycle, clutching an archival print of the original Bayreuth scenic design backdrop I had bought at the Ring Cycle pop-up shop.

When Opera Australia and Neil Armfield’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen first premiered in Melbourne in 2013, I had just returned from two years overseas seeking fortune and inspiration – bringing back much of the latter and a severe deficit of the former. My mother and I, poor as church mice, crowded around a tiny radio in her forest cottage and listened, enthralled, as ABC Classic FM broadcast the entire cycle: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – four operas which amount to around 16 hours of music in all.

Summarising the story of Wagner’s epic takes some doing – though it may remind the casual reader of that other famous tale of a magical ring. It begins in prelude, when the scheming dwarf Alberich denounces love in order to steal the precious “Rheingold” – a treasure that can be forged into a ring of great power – from its guardians, the Rhinemaidens. The gods, led by Wotan, are struggling to repay the giants Fasolt and Fafner for building their godly castle, Valhalla.

Word gets out about the existence of the ring, and the fate of the gods – and humankind – is set in motion.

Throughout the coverage of that earlier production, I saw a few photos of Armfield’s interpretation – particularly the rainbow bridge that closes Das Rheingold – and was sad that I wouldn’t get to see such a magnificent staging in real life. So, when Opera Australia announced a return season in 2016, it was one of a handful of “dreams come true” moments in my life (the other being when Steven Spielberg replied to my fan letter in 1994).

Many present at the opening night of the revival had witnessed the 2013 production as well, and seemed more muted in their excitement than I. But as the lights dimmed before Das Rheingold, and maestro Pietari Inkinen emerged, a woman near me instructed her friend: “Listen for the first sound.”

I have never heard a theatre so silent in anticipation.

And then, there it was: 136 bars in E flat major, a drone set to create the universe before us. Buoyed by Wagner’s Vorspiel (prelude), Armfield’s vision of the waters of the Rhine as represented by hundreds of lazy bathers – like a lost, full colour Max Dupain photograph come to life – was almost overwhelming.

When the Rheingold appeared as bunches of bright golden tinsel rustled above the bathers’ heads, it was as though Armfield had returned us all to the Christmas mornings of our childhood.

Whether or not one “bought” this opening – with the Rhinemaidens in seafoam sparkles, like Tivoli Lovelies en route from a beachfront spectacular – seemed to set the tone for one’s reaction to the rest of the Cycle’s staging, which is contemporary – if not occasionally experimental.

In collaboration with set designer Robert Cousins, costume designer Alice Babidge and lighting designer Damien Cooper, Armfield favours a “poor theatre” approach (a performance style that focuses on the actor’s voice and body rather than theatrical excess). Nowhere is this more compelling than in the “black box” presentation of Die Walküre’s third act, the bare stage amplifying the magnitude of both father and daughter’s sorrow, as Wotan kisses Brünnhilde’s eyes with sleep. This approach also makes this Ring’s occasional moments of spectacle all the more arresting.

In Das Rheingold, the giants Fasolt and Fafner tear through a replica of the original Bayreuth backdrop in twin cherry-pickers, like brutish property developers; in Die Walküre, Wotan, Fricka and Brünnhilde spar upon a Jeffrey Smart-esque spiral exit ramp filled with suspended taxidermied animals; and in Siegfried, a lightbulb-ringed false proscenium with a blazing gold curtain represents the flames that separates the eponymous hero from the sleeping Brünnhilde.

And of course there’s that rainbow bridge: a stairway to the heavens populated with dancers reverently waving feathered fans in every colour of the rainbow as they usher the gods to Valhalla. It is mirrored in Götterdämmerung’s final image, as humanity gathers upon the steps to watch as Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s funeral pyre, built upon a carpet of cheap bouquets like those laid after the Lindt siege, ushers in the fall of the gods.

Given global political developments during the intervening years since the first presentation of this production and now, Armfield’s interpretation of Wagner’s cautionary tale about the pursuit of wealth and power feels even more urgent. For much of this we have the cast to thank – many of them new to the production.

Lise Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde, her first full Cycle in the role, should install her as one of the greats. Her tears at the standing ovation of her Götterdämmerung curtain call suggested a mix of relief and surprise at having conquered one of opera’s most punishing challenges.

James Johnston, compelling but lacking in power throughout Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, emerged in heartbreaking full voice as Wotan became the Wanderer in Siegfried. And as the doomed twin lovers, Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner are revelatory.

Returning as Siegfried, Stefan Vinke makes the headstrong man-child – a difficult role, and often one that can make Brünnhilde’s love of him seem baffling – more innocent than infantile. (His attempt to converse with the Woodbird, a spritely Julie Lea Goodwin, is delightful.)

Even though I was well aware of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s fate, through Vinke and Lindstrom’s raw, generous expressions of their love I found myself clinging to the same false hope that a great performance of Romeo and Juliet stirs in me: maybe this time it will be different! Maybe the magic potions and disguises and interferences will all just be a big misunderstanding!

They are supported by an ensemble so towering in its talent that listing individual highlights becomes a Wagnerian task in and of itself. It is an expertly cast collection of performers, among them some of the country’s finest “singing actors”, that further deepens the vision that Armfield first laid out three years ago.

Though not a Wagnerian by any stretch of the imagination, I already appreciated the music of Der Ring before I saw it, but was unprepared for the magnitude of its live power. To watch the entire cycle, presented in the manner Wagner intended (complete with dinner breaks), is to go on a mammoth journey with the people around you. You don’t just experience a Ring Cycle, you survive it.

Under Inkinen’s watch, the Melbourne Ring Orchestra is in superb form, in particular the lower brass that is the Ring’s thrilling engine (and shout out once more to the Ring feature that so delighted me back in 2013, the “anvil orchestra”: an offstage room full of, well, playable “anvils” that soundtrack Das Rheingold’s descent into Nibelheim).

I was also reminded what it was like to watch something beautiful that you can never see again except in memory. We have become so used to accessing what we want when we want it – the movie you enjoy will end up on a streaming service; the concert or play will be filmed and released on DVD – that true one-offs are rare.

One of the great sorrows of any Ring Cycle is that the ticket prices typically reflect the monumental undertaking of the production. (A considerable irony, given the anticapitalist themes Wagner presents.) Could there ever be an egalitarian Ring Cycle, one that exists outside of profit margins and presents this godly masterpiece for the mortals? Perhaps one day, though the recent news that an anonymous donor had subsidised the remaining C-reserve seats for this Ring, halving the price, was thrilling; now that’s what I call philanthropy!

As for this former Ring virgin: over the past week the coupling of Wagner’s music with Armfield’s vision have inspired, thrilled and saddened me all at once. It’s easy to see how a “Ring-nut” is born.

Before the lights dimmed to herald Das Rheingold, a lady two seats away from me leaned across, her seatmate having told her this was my first Ring Cycle. “How wonderful,” she said, nodding solemnly. “This is an adventure that will last the rest of your lifetime.”

Sixteen hours later, I hope she’s right.

thrilling spectacle matched by talent, over 16 hours of unforgettable opera

Clem Bastow The Gaurdian 2016