Das Rheingold

Pietari Inkinen
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
6 December 2013
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanTerje Stenvold
DonnerAndrew Moran
FrohAndrew Brunsdon
LogeRichard Berkley-Steele
FasoltDaniel Sumegi
FafnerJud Arthur
AlberichWarwick Fyfe
MimeGraeme MacFarlane
FrickaJacqueline Dark
FreiaHyeseoung Kwon
ErdaDeborah Humble
WoglindeLorina Gore
WellgundeJane Ede
FloßhildeDominica Matthews

There was certainly a buzz of excited anticipation as opera lovers mingled with the glitterati for the unveiling of Opera Australia’s first Ring Cycle – the monumental work that is said to mark the coming of age of an opera company.

Any images of the staging of this production have been kept as closely guarded as Fafner’s golden hoard with one exception: the Rhine maidens. Sparkling with rhinestones and sporting Tivoli showgirl plumage, they would even outdo the bling worn by the audience. Although looking more fowl than fish, the physical charms of Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews made totally credible objects of desire. In the flesh, they proved to be equally persuasive as vocally gorgeous, playful temptresses.

What was not expected was the opening vision of humanity lying on a slowly revolving stage, with a giant overhanging mirror providing a bird’s eye (or perhaps god’s eye) view. Dressed in bathing costumes and coming in all shapes, sizes and ages the movements of this skillfully choreographed sea of humanity grew in intensity with Wagner’s music. From the sombre opening low E flat a rapt audience was transported into a surging Rhine. Dancers lifted the Rhine maidens joyously over the waves. Light gleamed on the gold as the bathers waved shimmering handfuls of golden tinsel, mesmerizing the Nibelung dwarf Alberich and audience alike.

Taking on the role of Alberich at short notice, Warwick Fyfe impressed both vocally and dramatically. If the honours went to any one performer on the opening night then they were his and the audience acknowledged his outstanding contributions enthusiastically. His voice has gathered power and focus over the years to become a formidable instrument, which he is able to colour to great effect. His fury at the Rhine maidens’ mockery and his eagerness to renounce love in order to forge the ring that will give him mastery over the world dripped with malevolence. His transformation from would be lover to violent despot enslaving the inhabitants of Niebelheim was remarkably convincing.

Neil Armfield’s reputation as one of Australia’s foremost theatre directors was very much in evidence in this recreation of Albrecht and in the work of the other singers. His ability to nuance the interaction between the characters and reveal their inner motivations reflected an imaginative appreciation of Wagner’s dramatic and musical intentions.

Along with an emphasis on the human dimension, Armfield’s collaboration with set designer Robert Cousins explored further parallels between Wagner’s world and a more contemporary setting. The giants Fafner and Fasolt, who had built Valhalla for Wotan, made their appearance on cherry pickers, crashing through a replica of the backdrop used for the first production of Rheingold. They are giants of the construction industry in their suits, pink ties and dark glasses. With strong, dark voices and strutting gait, Daniel Sumegi and Jud Arthur made an imposing pair. Wagner’s rejection of the excesses of the industrial revolution with its emphasis on power and wealth at the expense of nature finds expression in the giants’ acceptance of Albrecht’s hoard of gold, including the ring and the tarnhelm, as an alternative to the feminine comforts of the goddess Freia. In this production the hoard takes the form of shiny gold boxes with the inscription 4G PHONE. This turned out to be a tellingly prescient conception as the gold iPhone was coincidentally launched soon after.

In the pivotal role of Wotan, Terje Stensvold was outstanding. He has a commanding presence and a voice of great richness, power and beauty. It was immediately evident that his qualities would make the next two operas in the cycle experiences that should not be missed. Other strong performances added to the success of this production. Graeme Macfarlane’s portrayal of Mime was more vibrant and less servile and whining than is sometimes the case and Richard Berkeley-Steele gave Loge the edgy wit and vitality needed for this trickster. Deborah Humble was a rich-voiced, compelling Erda, wearing a Chanel suit and wielding a cane for the blind, whilst Jacqueline Dark was suitably forceful as Fricka.

Of course, the crucial ingredient for artistic success was the orchestra. Despite the off-stage drama surrounding the change of conductor, the choice of Pietari Inkinen has proved to be a most happy one. It has been well worth the considerable expense involved in taking out those rows of seats to accommodate the expanded orchestra, which excelled itself on opening night. Attention to fine detail and the shaping of the dynamics from barely audible to full orchestral splendour brought Wagner’s score to thrilling life.

The final scene, with its array of rainbow-coloured showgirls leading the way to Valhalla with their highly disciplined fan waving, married effectively with the depiction of the Rhine maidens. A further echo of the showgirl motif was the way the tarnhelm transformations were executed. In fact, the audience will still be pondering the mysteries of that conjuror’s trick. While there were moments when the staging was fairly minimal and others that verged on the gimmicky, ultimately the choices made by Armfield, Cousins and costume designer Alice Babidge worked.

At the end of the dress rehearsal, I had wondered whether a second viewing of this production would be less satisfying with the surprise element lacking. In fact, the reverse was the case and I was not alone in wanting to be transported yet again. The standing ovation that greeted the almost three hours of unbroken magic was richly deserved.

Heather Leviston | Arts Centre Melbourne/18 November 2013


All That Glitters

The opening image of this “Melbourne Ring” is at once beautiful and disturbing: a chorus of almost-naked bodies arranged within a circle, gently moving, like bacteria in a petri dish. It is appropriate that director Neil Armfield opens his production with an image of so much anonymous flesh, for he has strained the spiritual out of this Rheingold and reduced it to a fable for our current, “godless” era, an age of humanity drowning in itself.

The gods in Armfield’s production are familiar human types: Wotan (sung with effortless elegance and resignation by Terje Stensvold) sports a Donald Trump blonde combover and pink tie (with a fur coat; his collection of extinct/ exotic taxidermied animals brought Mr. Burns’s “See my vest!” number from The Simpsons to mind); the Giants appear as bullying contractor-types riding in on their Komatsus (deliciously brutal: Daniel Sumegi); Freia is the perfect image of modern male desire, a beautiful young Korean woman with tousled hair in a sequinned mini-dress.

Armfield makes a point of our susceptibility to that which is directly in front of us, whether it be the superficial stimuli that our eyes crave, or the power of our own projections. The set (by Robert Cousins) is spare and dark, as far as Wagner sets go, and so the glitter of the showgirl-Rhinemaidens and their golden pom-poms draws our eye all the more (the pom-poms’ incessant rustling also draws our ear, regrettably; the violin section was inaudible for extended periods during the first scene). The thrills are deliberately cheap, skin-deep: the magic helmet of Alberich (sung with impressively creepy, bingeing abandon by Warwick Fyfe) is in fact a low-rent sideshow magic box, his hoard of gold made of shiny golden paper boxes. Those glitzy Rhinemaidens re-emerge in a later scene in their wigcaps, high heels in hand. Wotan is not an actual creator of anything, but a possessor (and destroyer) only, who fills his home with the aforementioned stuffed animals and painterly canvasses of his Edenic Valhalla.

The other gods and goddesses are likewise reduced to mere human types: Loge, Donner and Froh seem like a Rat Pack of wise guys, all shiny suits, quick on the draw. Fricka is the predictable shrewish housewife, Erda some kind of socialite matriarch with impaired vision in a Chanel suit.

It may be too generous to attribute these somewhat limited conceptions of character to Armfield’s belief that our current culture offers no more expansive archetypes than these, but perhaps he is making a point similar to Sofia Coppola’s in her rather Gothic recent film, The Bling Ring. In that (true!) story, a group of teenagers aspire to nothing more than becoming like the images that obsess them of celebrities, whose homes they then rob. They break into Paris Hilton’s own gilded Nibelheim in the Hollywood Hills, and sneak around as the image of her airbrushed face observes them from every surface . . . This narcissistic loop of our Internet age and its desires seemed to be a point Armfield was striving to make, though his argument was at times presented rather feebly, as in the underlit afterthought of Fafner pulling a smartphone out of the golden hoard at the end, taking a selfie with his spoils.

Ultimately, Armfield’s take on Rheingold felt somewhat cynical in not allowing the operatic art form to reach beyond the limitations of literal, mundane experience. Magic, power, and beauty exist here only as projections of a kind of magpie desire, superficial and distractible. This may be “modern society’s” reality, but it is not the full story of human reality as we know it, and as we come to the opera to experience.

The most moving moment of the whole evening for me came early on, near the end of the overture, when the swimsuit-clad chorus began to rise, individually, faces uplifted. Their nakedness was transformed from flesh to that of naked being, of spirit, and they seemed surprised by their own rapture.

This is what Wagner should be allowed to do, to surprise us with rapture, and I only hope that the rest of the Melbourne Ring will offer more of such moments.

Bottom line: promising, but only dips a toe in the deep end

Evelyn Winthrop | 19th November, 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 341 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classic)
A production by Neil Armfield (2013)
This recording is part of a complete Ring.