A stunning, if far from fairytale, ending to OA’s Ring.

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 25, 2013

As originally conceived, Wagner’s foray into the world of Teutonic myth was to be confined to a single opera, Siegfried’s Death that roughly traversed the scenario of what we now know as Götterdämmerung. How peculiar and unsatisfying a piece that would have been. It’s a truism to say that the composer and musical polemicist effectively dropped his bundle in the final installment of the cycle, at least when it came to his theories on how the music-drama of the future must behave.

It doesn’t especially worry me that he resorts back to all the old Meyerbeerian conventions (trios, ‘oath duets’, spectacular choral set-pieces and the like) that he had publically ridiculed. What’s more disappointing is the diminishing of the level of allegory (deep enough to allow one to insert an interpretation of choice, be it Marxist, Nietzschian, Jungian, Freudian or, in this production, Ecological) that has been so persuasively sustained up to this point. It gets tangled and temporarily submerged in the operatically stock and almost petty web of betrayal and revenge plotting that seems to occupy the bulk of the evening.

Of course there’s a huge amount to enjoy nevertheless. The production begins strongly with the Norns (Elizabeth Campbell, Jacqueline Dark and Anke Höppner) weaving their tapestry of the world (here another Bayreuth backdrop). I found that their three very distinct but equally regal voices gave great intensity to their riveting tales of past present and future woe. Superb sounds from the strings in the dawn sequence and from the orchestra as a whole in the Rhine Journey followed (although the blazing horn section must claim the hero’s laurel). In the latter, the river of humanity from Das Rheingold returned in a similar display of uncomplicated joy, Kate Champion’s choreography bringing to mind that of New York’s Mark Morris. Perhaps the memory of the start of the cycle was too distant, but, as beautiful as was the mass display of oarsmanship, I wasn’t entirely convinced by this transition.

The scene in the Gibichung Hall of nouveau-riche splendor, with the king and his royal sister half -heartedly working out on gym treadmills against a wall full of old masters, managed to be funny and chilling at the same time. Sharon Prero’s blonde bimbo Gutrune is a terrific creation. Awash with feigned maidenly blushes when the beefcake man of her dreams goes the grope before he’s even been formally introduced, she still manages to throw herself at him with similar abandon (the sashes of her extensive collection of skimpy silk night gowns always seeming to come adrift at opportune moments) during their brief but torrid engagement. If her soprano is a touch too small at times it has a vibrant colour that she uses to fine effect; even movingly so in Act 3.

Barry Ryan’s ringing-toned Gunther likewise makes us feel for this unfortunate fool/king who can’t seem to put a foot right. But it’s to Daniel Sumegi’s Hagen that you are unwaveringly drawn. Handsome, even dapper in his naval officer attire, he is cold as ice and, as we soon glean, wracked by inner conflict: his sense of entitled superiority over his half brother (whose blood is weak but ‘unstained’ by Nibelung heritage) wavers between arrogant conviction and self-loathing infused doubt. Surpassing his excellent Fasolt, Sumegi’s characterization is detailed and free of cliché, while his gigantic dark bass baritone never flags, almost seeming to function at times as the leader of the orchestra’s brass section.

For me, probably the most memorable scene in the opera, aside from the spectacular finale, was the nightmarish encounter between Hagen and his wretched father, now so eaten away by his greed and envy that he has become some kind of distillation of evil, shuffling across the stage like Max Schreck’s Nosferatu to feed his son’s hate-filled resolve with poison. (How central to this production is Warwick Fyfe’s remarkable Alberich! In musical and dramatic terms, it’s a towering achievement.) As the vision fades we see Hagen in his half sleep point a gun first at his departing father, then at his own head in a powerful reminder that the curse of the ring corrupts those that covet it as much as those that possess it.

At the sound of Sumegi’s mighty summons the good burghers of the Rhineland appear from all corners of the theatre, many in their tuxedos looking like they’ve literally stumbled from the ranks of the audience (although, armed to the teeth with hand guns as they are, perhaps an audience in Bogota rather than Melbourne). The gentlemen of the OA chorus, finally getting a chance to sing, let fly in splendid form and as they raise the roof Robert Cousins’ multi-purpose barn-like frame, now encased in white wedding-marquee plastic, revolves to reveal a sumptuously catered piss-elegant setting for a hundred or so guests.

Brünnhilde, a magnificent steed turned hobbled nag, squeezed into her crippling gown, hating her stilettos, at first seems a cowed figure but she soon unleashes a terrifying rage, upending the wedding cake table in Incredible Hulk style. Gutrune in her frou-frou frock and her six bridesmaids in watermelon pink (Babidge’s costumes are especially brilliant here) can only look on in horror as her day of days crumbles into anarchy.

Susan Bullock is extraordinary here, almost animalistically guttural at the peak of her despair, straddling a plastic rented chair in a most un-bridelike manner as befits the wild horsewoman that she is.

The first scene of Act 3 contains the Ring’s least interesting music, sometimes sounding like a string of rehashed leitmotifs tacked loosely together, or, in the Rhinemaiden scene, almost like Lehár. The staging here has a tawdry quality to it as the bored showgirls pace their dressing room in smudged eye-liner and head stockings before nearly succeeding in their efforts to seduce the randy and empty-headed Siegfried, still hung over from his own wedding reception.

From the hero’s dying reprise of the awakening music (magnificently sung by the once again outstanding Stefan Vinke) through to the opera’s close, however is a sustained feat of inspired composition that more than redeems the score, even if in Armfield’s vision there is little offered in the way of human redemption.

Bullock delivered the finest Immolation Scene I’ve ever heard. Looking radiantly beautiful in her stripped down and slightly soiled wedding dress she made us witness the coming together of all her incarnations; dazzling and eager larrikin, shy but ardent lover, demonic shrew and now calm and resigned martyr. The quiet simple lyricism that she achieved in her forgiving farewell to Wotan (“Alles! Alles! Alles weiss ich”) was utterly transporting and as she rose to the opera’s penultimate heights it was as if she was going to literally take wing.

As Cousins’ vast barn alarmingly bursts into real flames she and Siegfried, surrounded by floral tributes reminiscent of those piled high at Princess Diana’s funeral, stand frozen like scarecrows or Guy Fawkes dummies at its centre. This then is the way the world ends. Even its potential saviors can do nothing to fend off this bonfire of the vanities, or to prevent the climate-change deniers from squabbling over who is going to be lord of the ashes. The sight of Hagen, physically overpowered and water-boarded to death by three refugees from Les Girls is ugly and depressing. Surely this is no way to partner the ravishing sounds that Inkinen and the MRO are summoning from the pit? Then a secret back curtain rises for the only time in the cycle and the crowd returns in an image that leaves you gaping in disbelief.

The curtain call with over 200 souls on stage (including the orchestra bearing their weird and wonderful noise-makers aloft) was deeply moving in itself, partly due to the afterglow of the closing bars, but also because of the sense of vast collective effort in this most massive of all live artistic endeavors.

Finally Opera Australia have a Ring, and this production by the country’s finest theatre director with his brilliant creative team, and superb young maestro Pietari Inkinen with his equally remarkable band, is one of which opera patrons and all Australians can be very proud.