Opera is back in Melbourne – in a big way, with this fully staged Das Rheingold at one of the city’s largest theatres. The new Melbourne Opera production begins a Ring cycle that will continue over the next few years, culminating in the entire cycle’s presentation in 2023. It’s an audacious pandemic project for the independent company, which has taken many significant steps forward on the stage in recent years.

Das Rheingold is more a bold leap. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who has led Melbourne Opera’s move into big-stage Wagnerian works over the past five years, this production is ambitious without overreaching. Before an 80-strong orchestra, the accomplished all-Australian cast inhabits a set of monumental simplicity, starting Wagner’s complex, symbolic four-part saga with musical and narrative clarity.

Melbourne Opera Das RheingoldJames Egglestone, Lee Abrahmsen, Jason Wasley, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Sarah Sweeting and Darcy Carroll in Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo © Robin Halls

After excerpts were performed in Vienna in 1862, Das Rheingold premiered in Munich in 1869. The Ring’s preliminary one-act (150-minute) work opens with the Niebelung dwarf Alberich renouncing love so he can steal the water nymph Rhinemaidens’ gold and forge a magical ring. Through a further series of dishonourable deeds overseen by the demigod Loge, this treasure is taken by king of the gods Wotan, who then reluctantly gives it to the giants who built his fortress, Valhalla.

Das Rheingold’s approach of continuous musical-dramatic dialogue offers little in the way of conventional operatic showstoppers to the cast. Nevertheless, Simon Meadows shines thanks to a warm, agile, confident baritone, and the unrelenting grimness of his Alberich. James Egglestone is also excellent as Loge, another principal role that demands stamina and presence that he’s well able to deliver with a strong, clear tenor.

Melbourne Opera's Das RheingoldAdrian Tamburini, James Egglestone and Steven Gallop in Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo © Robin Halls

Melbourne Opera stalwart Eddie Muliaumaseali’i’s bass is under-powered, to the point of being overwhelmed by the orchestra several times, yet his spear-wielding Wotan evokes a sense of dark might and majesty throughout. As the goddess Freia, Lee Abrahmsen has limited opportunity to show off the lovely soprano heard lately in the company’s Tristan und Isolde and Flying Dutchman, spending much of her time on stage pushed and pulled about in silence.

Mezzo Roxane Hislop makes a welcome cameo as ancient goddess Erda, while Michael Lapiña as Alberich’s cowed brother Mime, and Adrian Tamburini and Steven Gallop as the giants Fasolt and Fafner are also notable among this fairly solid cast.

Spilling into the stalls, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra is conducted by veteran Wagner specialist Anthony Negus. They produce a robust, dramatic sound, but are sometimes less convincing in quieter, evocative passages – pianissimo massed strings are more shaky than shimmering.

Simon Meadows, Rebecca Rashleigh, Louise Keast and Karen van Spall in Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo © Robin Halls

Melbourne Opera’s limited budgets require designers to embrace the less-is-more approach, which Andrew Bailey does to impressive effect for his Das Rheingold set. A modest circular platform in the centre of the stage represents the Rhine River. It mirrors the negative central space of a much larger square platform above where the gods dwell. The latter is lowered and raised, drawbridge-like, creating these two distinct realms, as well as the gloomy, almost industrial netherworld where the Nibelung mine for gold when the platform is suspended at 45 degrees.

This simple, almost spartan set is enlivened by Rob Sowinski’s lighting, and Tobias Edwards’ occasional video imagery, including nicely conjured mist, serpent and toad for Alberich’s theatrically challenging magical transformations.

Rheinmaidens in Melbourne Opera's Das RheingoldThe Rhinemaidens: Rebecca Rashleigh, Louise Keast, Karen van Spall and sway pole performers Emily Ryan and Lily Paskas Goodfellow in Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold. Photo © Robin Halls

The physical special effects for Loge seemed to misfire on opening night, while the opening scene’s bonus pair of Rhinemaidens are a striking visual element declaring Melbourne Opera’s daring step up. In floaty, translucent, silver-white costumes, the two performers sweep and swirl high above the stage on sway-poles, lending a little of their ethereal quality to their three singing sisters below. Harriet Oxley’s costumes are fairly practical, with some glitz and gauzy grace among the gods, and an overall suggestion of some indeterminate past. As with Bailey’s set, she does more with less.

While this Das Rheingold isn’t extraordinary, it’s rarely less than very accomplished, and is at times genuinely impressive. Warmly received by opening night’s opera-starved audience, it leaves us eagerly anticipating the rest of Melbourne Opera’s Ring cycle.

Das Rheingold is at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, until 7 February, and Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on 21 February


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