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Neil Armfield's Das Rheingold is utterly human

Review from The Australian

Eamonn Kelly of The Australian reviewed the first performance of the RingDas Rheingold

For decades, the curse of Wagner's Ring has manifested as a directorial obsession with spectacular scenic transformations and crude, misguided attempts to enliven mythological metaphors by using contextual symbols that smack the audience into recognising the work's perpetual modernity.

In the opening instalment of Opera Australia's first production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, director Neil Armfield and his design team shatter the over-production curse, to reveal the deeply human core that pulses through the cycle's heart.

Of the four operas, Das Rheingold is the most susceptible to grand posturing at the expense of nuanced character development and realisation of the work's gripping polemics.

Most good productions reveal fresh character insights but it is rare to encounter a cast where each persona exceeds naive caricature to become a personality type we immediately recognise; in possession of desires, aspirations, strengths and foibles we ourselves harbour.

It is gratifying to experience a production in which character-driven, psychologically charged drama successfully trumps artifice, whether stagecraft, vocal technique or orchestral shock and awe.

Crucially, Armfield envisages the libretto's myriad mythical creatures as utterly human, revealing likeable and loathsome mortal character traits behind their exotic facades. While class forms part of this depiction - gods, factory workers and construction bosses - these divisions merely contextualise the individuals who inhabit them.

In the hands of a predominantly Australian cast, this detailed naturalistic dramaturgy is coupled with fine acting and an excellent standard of vocal production. Dramatic elements are superbly fused with expressive cues in Wagner's voluminous, intricately structured and infinitely nuanced score, here cleanly delivered by an extended orchestra under the direction of young Finn, Pietari Inkinen.

A last-minute replacement for an indisposed John Wegner, Warwick Fyfe is an astoundingly good Alberich, a dumpy nerd whose grubby motives are revealed as those of a pathetic, rather tragic little man, unfairly mocked by a world engrossed in its own gorgeous superficiality.

Terje Stensvold is a complex and pragmatic Wotan, a truly Aristotelian flawed hero fighting vainly against a doomed destiny of his own making, while Jacqueline Dark's Fricka and Deborah Humble's Erda reveal with pathos the prophetic voice of feminine, power-renouncing reason that resonates throughout the cycle.

While several of the cast's lighter voices are stretched, the only one to struggle is British tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, whose Loge is suitably oleaginous but in a one-dimensional, quasi-pantomime form.

Robert Cousins's scenographic features are symbolic rather than contextual, blending self-conscious theatrical devices - a reminder that this is a constructed morality tale not mindless epic - and immersive sensory experiences that provide visual counterpoint to the drama.

The primordial opening introduces an omnipresent, raked revolve and an angular mirrored backdrop, in which is reflected a slowly shifting mass of bodies clad in assorted, casual beach costumes. Beyond obvious Australian sun-worshipper references, the scene mimics the overwhelming humanity and gravitas of a Renaissance Last Judgment fresco: human form, soul and preoccupation are bared and scrutinised.

Similarly complex are overt theatrical references, from Vegas showgirl Rhinemaidens to a gaudy magician's disappearing box that does the work of the shape-shifting Tarnhelm, and a final rainbow ascent into Valhalla represented by a languid fan dancer chorus line straight from the Ziegfeld Follies.

In such moments, even as the eye is lured to the colour and opulence, and the inner child delights in the fantasy and spectacle, jarring juxtaposition with the drama's prescient undertow of gloom exposes the vanity and folly of revering transient beauty and frivolity: a distraction from the spectre of mortality.

Read more on The Australian website here


Image: An angular mirrored backdrop reflects a slowly shifting mass of bodies clad in assorted, casual costumes. Picture: Jeff Busby for Opera Australia