★★★★½ Lise Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde crowns climax of Melbourne Ring.

Arts Centre Melbourne
November 28, 2016

Götterdämmerung may be the longest part of the Ring, but it’s also the fastest moving and musically most sweeping of Wagner’s epic tetralogy. As in the other parts of his cycle for Opera Australia, Neil Armfield views it as a stand alone drama, but also allows it to reintroduce themes and imagery from previous operas, leading to a visually sumptuous blazing finale that asks us to consider many of the great themes along the way, not least of which is what is our part in all this. The staging is also blessed with a fine cast of singing actors, crowned by the intensely moving Brünnhilde of Lise Lindstrom, and the magnificent playing of the Melbourne Ring Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen.

Jacqueline Dark as Second Norn, Anna-Louise Cole as Third Norn and Tania Ferris as First Norn. Photos by Jeff Busby

In the opening scene, Armfield’s three Norns, dressed as factory workers, are trying to repair what looks like Wotan’s romantic vista –the one the giants ripped their way through in Das Rheingold. There is no way back, of course, and as the curtain collapses Siegfried and Brünnhilde are discovered on a throw-down mattress, limbs entwined, clothing strewn across the floor, all within the framework of a rudimentary shack. That basic shape remains throughout the opera, becoming a hall for the Gibichungs and a marquee for the disastrous double wedding. This strong sense of the domestic and of temporary dwellings is reinforced by the mass of humanity who swarm on to wave off their great white hope as he sets off on his adventures. In a rare directorial misfire, the rather awkward dancing that follows seems out of kilter with Wagner’s glorious musical Rhine Journey.

The Gibichung scenes introduce a thoroughly modern clan, Gunther and Gutrune self-absorbed with their gym equipment and their mineral water. Simple revolves get us from rock to hall and back again, Robert Cousins’ clean-limbed set neatly absorbing Damien Cooper’s unobtrusive but effective lighting. Armfield’s direction at all times is focused on the characters and their considerable dilemmas. Siegfried’s return to win Brünnhilde for Gunther is chillingly done, the repossession of the ring feeling like an appalling act of rape. Its dénouement, as Siegfried lies down emotionless on the mattress, is borderline creepy.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, Taryn Fiebig as Gutrune and the Opera Australia Chorus

By this part of the cycle, the love versus power dynamic has clarified into one of love versus hate. Alberich, emerging Nosferatu-like from the shadows, is now a shrunken thing of pure hatred, his bloodless son nothing but a self-loathing tool. These two are pitted against the love of Brünnhilde, temporarily thrown off balance by the deceitful circumstances she struggles at first to comprehend. Poisoned by Hagen, Siegfried’s clumsy sexual advances towards Gutrune reveal just how far he has fallen from the heroic ideal (as does his zipping of his flies after his Rhinemaiden fantasy). No, it is Brünnhilde’s journey to reacquire wisdom and redeem the world that will be the thrust of the drama, and in this Armfield is aided and abetted by some stellar acting performances and world-class singing.

Top of the bill is American soprano Lise Lindstrom who has grown steadily throughout this cycle and now confirms herself as one of the finest Brünnhildes on current world stages. This is her first complete Ring Cycle, and although she will doubtless deepen her interpretation over coming years, this is already a powerful and moving performance. Lindstrom’s Valkyrie is supremely human, her progression from sexual awakening, her stern rejection of Waltraute, her subsequent fear and violation, her confusion, desperation, fury and final acceptance are each played out with every nerve-ending bravely exposed. The voice is never lost in the substantial orchestrations – this is Wagner at his most demanding – the crystalline top cutting like a knife through butter and the words coming across with concentration and understanding. The struggle with Siegfried is gripping, her cries of “Betrug!” and “Verrat!” thrilling and heartrending all at once.

Warwick Fyfe as Alberich Daniel Sumegi as Hagen

Stefan Vinke exhibits the same tireless enthusiasm that he did in Siegfried, his convincing portrayal of the ‘bull at a gate’ hero now incorporating the sense of bewilderment as he becomes increasingly ensnared in Hagen’s toils. His ringing top notes continue to thrill, though he can be a little blunt in his approach at times and the lower tessitura here plays slightly less well for him. Nevertheless, he’s always a model of vocal clarity, capturing the playfulness of his encounter with the Rhinemaidens and rising to a moving death scene.

The three Gibichungs are neatly differentiated, led by Daniel Sumegi’s tremendously powerful Hagen. The rich, dark tone is deployed brilliantly, from pitch-black conversational utterances in the subterranean nether regions of the voice up to the focussed foghorn (in the best sense of the word) required for a bravura Summoning of the Vassals. He slightly overdoes the villainy early on, but soon settles in to give an attractively nuanced account of this sad, poisoned child of an unloving father.

Jane Ede, Lorina Gore and Dominica Matthews as The Rhinemaidens and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried

Luke Gabbedy’s Gunther also rings out over the orchestra, his diction and projection well suited to the role. Right now, it feels like he needs a few more years of Wagner before he’s completely inside the fach, but it’s a promising start in what can be a tricky role. Taryn Fiebig’s Gutrune is something of a revelation. Not an obvious Wagnerian voice, it’s refreshing to hear a graceful, lithe singer in a role that can fox the more mature soprano. She’s nimble, well inside the text, and conveys the character’s complex journey from thoughtless wannabe bride through manipulated puppet to bereaved wife and sister.

No weak links in the Rhinemaidens either. Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Domenica Matthews are delicious as the trio of showgirls, literally banging their heads against the scenery as they wait for the world to revolve back again in their favour. Spot on with the harmonies, there’s not a wobble in sight. The Norns are nearly as successful. Jacqueline Dark is a lyrical Second Norn, her weary seamstress an object lesson in stagecraft. Anna-Louise Cole reveals a Wagnerian soprano to be reckoned with as Third Norn, while Tania Ferris is sympathetic, if a little unsteady on the bottom line.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and the Opera Australia Chorus

Completing the cast are Sian Pendry’s convincing Waltraute and Warwick Fyfe’s final turn as Alberich. Pendry has a lovely warm mezzo, but at this stage in her career the voice is a little low key for Wagner’s dramatic demands. Fyfe has been a compelling presence throughout this Ring, and this last hurrah – his wraithlike fingers as eerie as his supernatural refrain of “Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?” – confirms him as one of Australia’s finest singing actors.

Pietari Inkinen steers his excelent Melbourne Ring Orchestra home, his well-paced reading benefitting once again from some superb playing in the lower brass and woodwind – the clarinet duetting with Brünnhilde is a particular pleasure. The transitions are handled with great skill, especially the moody playout with Hagen on watch and the music for dawn on the Rhine. Siegfried’s Funeral March – with its moving onstage washing of the body – is the climax it should be thanks to Inkinen’s steady hand on the tiller. Götterdämmerung is the only opera in the Ring to call for a chorus, and the second act here is crowned by an earthshattering Vassals scene thanks the OA men’s voices singing with discipline, passion and wonderful technique, the tenors quite unfazed by a demanding top C or two.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, Lise Londstrom as Brünnhilde and the Opera Australia Chorus and ensemble

There have been many visually arresting images in Armfield’s Ring Cycle, from the fan-dancing Rainbow Bridge to the startling appearance of the wounded and naked Fafner, but none more so than his final picture of the mass of humanity mirroring the audience in the auditorium as we watch Brünnhilde symbolically wedded to the corpse of her murdered lover. As Wagner’s music pours conclusively over us, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the uncertain world in which we live. And if this Ring has any special object, it is perhaps to make us pause a moment and consider – as Wotan does in Act III of Siegfried – stopping the wheel before it’s too late to turn back.

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


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