★★★★☆ The showgirls return as Ring revival kicks off in style.

Arts Centre Melbourne
November 21, 2016

Three years on from Opera Australia’s enthralling new staging of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, this important revival gives audiences and performers a welcome opportunity to deepen their understanding of one of music’s towering works of genius. Critical reaction was mixed the first time around – and when is it not where Ring Cycles are concerned? – but Neil Armfield’s Das Rheingold certainly manifests a cohesive overview of where he sees this 16-hour work heading, and thanks to a hard-working cast of first rate singers and actors it is two-and-a-half hours of compelling music drama.

James Johnson as Wotan, Jacqueline Dark as Fricka and the Rainbow Girls. Photos by Jeff Busby

Armfield’s vision revolves around questions of global resource and responsibility, while touching on modern issues of population movement and manipulation of the masses. Opening on a huge revolve, brilliantly reflected in Robert Cousins’ giant 45-degree segmented mirror, the bottom of the Rhine is given a peculiarly Aussie twist. This is a shallow, lethargic populace, idling its time away on beaches while the planet perhaps goes to hell in a hand-basket. These Rhinemaidens are a trio of feather-flaunting showgirls, giggling and a trifle vacuous, little aware of any responsibility beyond the present. Love, for them, is what seems attractive right here, right now.

One of the production’s coup de theatres (one of many masterstrokes from lighting designer Damien Cooper) is the reveal of the gold as a mass of tawdry pompoms, little-valued trinkets to catch the eye. Alberich is the awkward, creepy, saggy-Y-fronted outsider – just who you don’t want to find next to you on the beach. Rejected by the mob, he is able to renounce love because it seems to have renounced him. Unable to comprehend its value, he thinks he can more easily buy or compel happiness. When he snatches up a young child (the real future of humanity, of course) it carries all of today’s dark resonances of the paedophile lurking in the crowd.

Jane Ede, Dominica Matthews and Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens

Wotan, on the other hand, sees value in the world’s resources and intends to harvest them. In Armfield’s staging he is, among many other things, a misguided, fur-clad ‘conservationist’ – a plutocratic Noah hoarding endangered species as he plans to barricade himself inside a two-dimensional rural retreat. In his now passionless marriage, Wotan, like many in middle age, has lost sight of the value of love, devoting his energies to the pursuit of power. His wife may worry about the price to pay – in this case her attractive, younger sister, again clad in eye-catching gold. But when the giants – a pair of crass property developers in typical Aussie shades and sharp blue suits – literally tear their way into Wotan’s faux-idyll, you suspect Fricka’s disapproval is as much for social reasons as it is out of concern for Freia.

Wotan’s subsequent attempt to renege on his deal with Fasolt and Fafner and swap the gold for the goddess involves deceiving Alberich, now an industrialist with a whole army of faceless, intimidated workers. That the dwarf has used his authority to manufacture gold iPhones speaks volumes for what we as a society value most today. The final image of Fafner, sitting like one of Kubrick’s apes amidst a pile of mobiles and vainly taking a selfie, is frankly chilling.

Jud Arthur as Fafner, Daniel Sumegi as Fasolt, Michael Honeyman as Donner, Hyeseoung Kwon as Freia and Andreas Conrad as Loge

Magic, in Armfield’s universe, is smoke and mirrors, vaudeville tricks in which his characters are happy, even desperate to believe. That the audience buys in and loves it too is one of the production’s great strengths. The Tarnhelm is a classic magician’s box, allowing simple yet effective transformations that often fizzle in more ‘realistic’ productions. When the showgirls return to form the rainbow bridge we know they are merely for display, yet thanks to some breath-taking lights and movement, the procession up the ‘stairway to heaven’ is one of the most emotionally overwhelming climaxes to a production of Rheingold I can recall.

Among those reprising their roles this year are Finnish maestro Pietari Inkinen, a late addition last time following the unexpected departure of Richard Mills. Over three years Inkinen’s reading has deepened considerably. A conductor in the Furtwängler mold, he prefers musical matters to unfold at a stately pace. He can also be mercurial when needs be, and by allowing for plenty of heft at the dramatic highpoints his reading never seems to flag. Occasionally, certain singers seem to strain at the leash – both Wotan and Loge sometimes pull ahead of the beat – but generally his measured reading draws forth the maximum lyrical response from a cast well capable of embracing the long line. The Melbourne Ring Orchestra is unfailingly good, playing with rich, resonant tone and concentrated articulation. Inkinen is especially strong in the score’s darkest, most sinister corners, lower strings and bass clarinets writhing as malignant brass well up from the depths of the orchestra pit. His strings can also sing sweetly too – Roger Jonsson’s ‘love of woman’ leitmotiv is a special pleasure.

Andreas Conrad as Loge and Warwick Fyfe as Alberich

Rheingold is very much a man’s game, and Warwick Fyfe, reprising his Helpmann Award-winning turn as Alberich, leads the vocal and dramatic honours. His interpretation has matured; slightly less manic, rather more malevolent. Singing with an easy power through the whole range, his baleful lower register cuts through the heaviest orchestral texture, his top notes pinging with authority. His carefully finessed stagecraft creates a highly watchable mix of vengeance and vainglory, while his understanding and engagement with Wagner’s lyrics ensures a richly textured character.

His opponent, the American baritone James Johnson, fares less well. The Wotan we see in Das Rheingold is an awkward part to play. Everyone defers to his vaunted power and authority, yet the action is carried by his hyperactive henchman Loge, but also the giants, dwarves and younger gods. The chief god is often left either brooding or squirming. Johnson, a fine actor who is excellent in the filmed Copenhagen Ring, seems overly defeated here before he begins, an impression not helped by a lack of weight in the lower register. Higher up the range he is better off, his more confident statements ringing out with greater clarity. It doesn’t help that his characterful face is half immobilised by missing-eye makeup. It will be interesting to see how the more active god of Die Walküre fares.

James Johnson as Wotan and the Rainbow Girls

The tricksy Loge is in the safe hands of German tenor Andreas Conrad – a late cast change for Christopher Lincoln Bogg – whose sardonic half-smile captures the dramatic ambivalence in the role. A Lieder-like mastery of the text is allied to a classic German character-tenor tone, sufficiently easy on the ear and imbued with plenty of cut-through. The production isn’t strong on the fire god aspect of the character, reducing it to a few desultory flicks of a lighter, but Conrad eschews some of the business clumsily adopted by Richard Berkeley-Steele in the last outing and the reading is perhaps better for it. His final puff of contempt at the departing gods is an unnerving indictment of their self-serving pomposity.

Also reprising her role, Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka is beautifully sung, a reading of strength and understated frustration. Avoiding the harridan, she’s terrific at the long phrases, her diction and finely focused mezzo always true to the music. Daniel Sumegi and Jud Arthur are back too as a pair of impressive giants. Sumegi is ideal casting as Fasolt, his sepulchral tone capturing the pathos as well as the stentorian menace. Arthur matches him note for note as a maleficent Fafner, waiting his time and terrifying in his mindless assumption of power following a very nasty murder. Liane Keegan make a thrillingly sung Erda, her rich alto riding Wagner’s orchestral textures. With top-notch diction, Graeme Macfarlane’s wretched, oppressed Mime bodes well for his portrayal in Siegfried.

The Rhinemaidens are vocally and dramatically spot on, led by the radiant Woglinde of Lorina Gore. Combining with Jane Ede’s Wellgunde and Dominica Matthews’ Flosshilde the blend is perfect, and their sense of fun infectious. Hyeseoung Kwon is a great Freia, her clean soprano and fine diction making more of this character than is often the case. As her brothers, James Egglestone sings a lovely, lyrical Froh, but Michael Honeyman lacks the ideal tightness of focus to project Donner’s trigger-happy potency. His summoning of the storm to dispel the mists is one of the staging’s misfires, the few wisps of smoke underselling what Wagner clearly conceived of as a major ‘special effects’ moment.

With Armfield’s mythic yet modern aesthetic, and a commanding sense of stage placement – the Nibelheim scene with its bewildering reflected tunnels is a good example of the creative team’s ‘less is more’ approach – this was an excellent start to the cycle.

Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle runs three times in Melbourne from November 21-December 16