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Wagner's vision rings true as epic thunders to life

Review from the Sydney Morning Herald

Peter McCallum reviews opening night of Das Rheingold for the Sydney Morning Herald

The curtain rises, against the low E flat and awakening horns, to a grey-lit amorphous mass on the floor, reflected above in what might be the upper waters of the Rhine, but which turns out to be a huge cantilevered mirror. The tangled shapes stir and, by about bar 70 of the famous primeval chord, one becomes aware the stage is covered with bodies, deep it seems (as Wilfred Owen said) in thought or death.

However, as the shapes and ideas take form, one thinks surely, even in this Australian Ring, he wouldn't dare. But yes, the Rhine, like life, is a beach and the rainbow bridge to Valhalla at the close is a chorus line waving gorgeously feathered fans.

There are resonances with the tawdriness of director Neil Armfield's earlier production of the Brett Dean/Peter Carey Bliss. These are not big-banana cliches, though, but potent subversions of moments when emotions become puffed and pompous. Armfield uses boldness, swarming humanity and kitsch to populate Wagner's great epic, making it a parable of nature sacrificed to vanity.

Waiting outside Valhalla are crated, stuffed, extinct species, while the giants who built the palace are forklifted in demanding their fee.

Warwick Fyfe, as Alberich makes the transition from teased fat boy to tyrant, disturbingly rejecting love in favour of children, with convincing psychology that is self-absorbed and vulnerable to both insult and flattery. His curse after Wotan has stolen the ring was the evening's musical centrepoint and his voice resonated with the indignation of wounded dignity.

Terje Stensvold's Wotan was less complex, rising to little more than a fading grandee for the time being, his authority reduced to airy prevarication and bullying anger, like a battle-scarred politician.

Completely lost without the oleaginous Loge, his smoothly-dressed negotiator, he takes the ring with brutality approaching thuggery, his voice carrying with penetrating insistence.

Richard Berkeley-Smith sings Loge with deft persuasion, commanding the stage and his voice with subtle but clearly projected smoothness.

Daniel Sumegi as the giant Fasolt is nuanced, opening out with strength and warmth while Jud Arthur as Fafner has a firmer edge.

Meretricious in feathered headdress and skimpy sequins, the Rhinemaidens, Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews laughed the first scene away with bright vocal litheness.

Armfield's Valhalla is a place where men do shameful deals and women glitter like gold, in which context Hyeseoung Kwon sings Freia, custodian of the golden apples of youth, with a voice of fragile clarity.

Jacqueline Dark's Fricka is matronly while Deborah Humble's entry as Erda, the wise earth mother, was frumpy, singing with dark warmth (her cane makes a telling contrast to Wotan's staff).

Graeme Macfarlane's squeaky protests as Mime bode well for his major part in Siegfried, while Andrew Moran gives Donner blundering violence, his voice opening out impressively.

Conductor Pietari Inkinen led with calm precision, allowing each phrase to breathe unrushed, and each orchestral texture to glow. The uncovered pit, though contrary to Wagner's vision, brought wonderful transparency in which strings shone, and brass prevailed with warmth.

Musically rich, theatrically enthralling, conceptually provoking, and visually gorgeous, this is an auspicious start to Melbourne's first Ring since 1913.

Read more at Sydney Morning Herald.

 

Image: Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede and Lorina Gore as the Rhinemaidens in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby for Opera Australia