Das Rheingold

Pietari Inkinen
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
30 November 2016
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanJames Johnson
DonnerMichael Honeyman
FrohJames Egglestone
LogeAndreas Conrad
FasoltDaniel Sumegi
FafnerJud Arthur
AlberichWarwick Fyfe
MimeKanen Breen
FrickaJacqueline Dark
FreiaHyeseoung Kwon
ErdaLiane Keegan
WoglindeLorina Gore
WellgundeJane Ede
FloßhildeDominica Matthews

Bring on the dancing girls: Rheingold redux in Melbourne

In the program booklet, conductor Pietari Inkinen enigmatically remarked “What a fascinating challenge it is to perform Wagner’s music in a country unburdened by the cultural habits that have become attached to this great work!” While performances of Wagner’s music dramas are indeed far from routine events in Australia, Wagner-enthusiasm here is of long origin: commenting on the response to the national première of Tristan und Isolde in 1912, musicologist Kerry Murphy wrote: “Australian audiences, in particular Melbourne audiences, were rabid Wagnerites”. With this revival of the bicentenary Ring, a concert version of Parsifal next year and rumours of other productions in the offing, Opera Australia is beginning to tap into this repertoire more regularly. Thankfully, home-grown singers seem to have a good feeling for the style, as do the instrumentalists.

What does one expect of a Ring production nowadays? A glib answer might be “anything but horned helmets”. Traditional, quasi-naturalistic stagings are now deeply untraditional. Wagner’s tetralogy has proved robust enough to support a panoply of different stagings in the post-War era: minimalist-symbolic (Wieland Wagner), anti-capitalist (Chereau), futuristic (Kupfer), feminist (Holten), or technological-realist (Lepage), to name but some of the better known.

Any attempt to characterise Neil Armfield’s vision of the work after only seeing the ‘preliminary evening’ would be premature, but traditional it certainly was not. The only sop towards a quasi-realist aesthetic was the painted backcloth during Scene 2 (based on an 1896 Bayreuth design), a pastoral vista with a temple-like building in the distance. This turned out to be a classic misdirection: the entry of the giants, bursting through the backcloth on cranes, undeceived those who might reasonably have thought it to represent Valhalla.

In terms of design, Robert Cousins and Alice Babbidge have made old-school show-business visuals particularly prominent. The Rhinemaidens are cabaret dancers, all abbreviated costumes, sheer stockings and gaudy headdresses; a magician’s disappearing cabinet and glamorous assistant were brought on for the Tarnhelm transformation scenes; and the final rainbow bridge was a phalanx of Marilyn Monroes with variously coloured feathered ‘wings’. Busby Berkeley meets Bayreuth.

If there was any specifically Australian accent, it was in the opening scene, where actors clad in bathing costumes represented the Rhine. As could be seen in the vast sloping mirror above the stage, they gradually moved from supine to standing positions as the famous four-minute opening E flat major chord grew progressively more agitated.

Inkinen’s approach produced the antithesis of the full-blooded, bellowing cliché it can be in other hands. He was highly sensitive to the singers and kept the orchestra in check to ensure that the voices almost always came through, only opening the throttle in the purely instrumental sections. His tempi were fairly brisk too, the whole clocking in at around two and half hours. The effect was to humanise the music drama: the lengthy dialogues in Scene 2, for instance, felt pleasingly streamlined. There might be some who missed a certain epic quality from the production, but the compensations outweighed this.

Among the singers, the palm has to go to Warwick Fyfe, who was simply mesmerising as Alberich. Stripping to his underwear for his failed attempt to seduce the Rhinemaidens, he was by turns peevish, pathetic and terrifying; and still more effective in Scene 3 as the tyrannical overlord of the Nibelungs, insecure enough to be tricked by Loge. Fyfe’s stentorian delivery of Alberich’s despairing “O Schmerz” and still more the famous curse in Scene 4 showed him to be an echt-Wagnerian.

His opposite, James Johnson as Wotan, came off second best, both in terms of dramatic energy and vocal heft. Johnson, a late draft into the Melbourne cast, played Wotan a decade ago in the celebrated Copenhagen Ring. His Wotan here was already world-weary, complemented by a gritty tone. The true test of his mettle is yet to come in Walküre.

Virtually all the other performers were commendable. After a slightly nervous start, Andreas Conrad was impressive as Loge; more urbane than impish, but vocally pleasing. Where others have resorted to vocal caricature, Graeme Macfarlane actually sang the part of Mime, which augurs well for his bigger role in Siegfried. James Egglestone made the most of his cameo moments as Froh, while Michael Honeyman was a dignified Donner (although his “Heda” solo might have had a little more macho edge).Jacqueline Dark was a resplendent and assured Fricka, and Hyeseoung Kwon emoted convincingly as the nearly-bartered Freia. Liane Keegan’s entry as Erda wasn’t as arresting as it can be, but she had lovely top notes. The trio of Rhinemaidens (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede, and Dominica Matthews) gave us attractive solos and tight ensemble singing. Both Daniel Sumegi (Fasolt) and Jud Arthur (Fafner) impressed as the giants. A good beginning in Wagner’s Ring is less than a quarter of the battle, but it has been a big win so far.

David Larkin | 22 November 2016


“All that glisters…” is indeed gold in this revival of Opera Australia’s vision of Wagner’s monumental music drama. In fact, it is gold, sequins, ostrich feathers, corporate high-flyers, trophy wives, mafia stand-over men, spin doctors and Alberich, a villain we love to hate.

For the 2013 run of this production, there was a palpable excitement afoot; a nervous energy wondering whether they could or would pull off this massive undertaking – a Ring mounted as a finished work. In 2016, the exhilaration is just as tangible: in fact, there is a certain swagger to this polished and refined show which speaks volumes about the maturity of this opera company in its 60th anniversary year.

The depths of the Rhine are suggested by an iconic Australian beach scene; bathed in glorious sunshine, the Rhine maidens and their acolytes (all imaginable shapes of the human form) in swimming trunks, guard their gold. Imagining Walhalla, Wotan has collected all manner of species in glass boxes as museum specimens (including the extinct and much sought Australian Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger). His fabled fortress is an unsophisticated museum diorama akin to those adorning examples of the taxidermist’s art seen on school excursions to the museum. Wotan himself is a fur-coated corporate boss with his bejewelled trophy wife, the impossibly flashy house and associated flunkies acceding to his every demand. Sung by American baritone James Johnson, Wotan is often overshadowed by the showiness of Loge. Mr. Johnson is a wonderful actor who brings great skill to the role and whose vocal abilities we expect to see expanded in the coming operas.

The giants are mafia types: dark suit, dark glasses and flashy pink ties. The demi-god Loge is a corporate “fixer”, a spin-doctor always ready to cover Wotan’s indiscretions; never above stooping lower than his rivals to ensure that his plans bear fruit. Mime is a snivelling factory supervisor, down-trodden and driving his staff through bullying and violence. And against all this, Alberich is a Shylock-inspired wheedler who abducts a child from the beach to steal the gold, tricks the tricksters to accumulate his hoard, and is in turn cheated by the next-biggest bully on the corporate ladder. He becomes not only the loathsome catalyst of the process of destruction and betrayal, but ironically a character for who we have some empathy as he becomes a pawn in a bigger game of corporate greed and human acquisitiveness.

In 2013, Baritone Warwick Fyfe took on the role of Alberich with only a few weeks’ preparation. He is back with a towering performance, a nuanced and subtle characterisation which was powerfully lauded at the curtain calls. Mr. Fyfe has wonderful fun with the role. His dynamic vocal capability mixed with a vast repertoire of acting skills, truly lends veracity to Wagner’s description of the piece as “music drama”. The words and music are all important; his stagecraft seems effortlessly to bring them to life. The curse scene was riveting: the ‘little’ man of the plot becoming a terror of even greater magnitude than the giants. Mr. Fyfe is spell-binding in this role.

Those flirting, giggling soubrettes the Rhine maidens are a gorgeous vocal ensemble. Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominican Matthews are balanced and well-matched. Their vaudeville style romps are reflected in the chorus girls who transform into the “Rainbow Bridge” to Walhalla in a theatrical coup which exultantly ends the opera.

Jacqueline Dark is deeply troubling as Fricka. At once the victim of her husband’s corporate megalomania she is not above contemplating the gold for herself as another bauble to flaunt. Her voice is a commanding instrument bringing power and authority to the role. As Freia, Korean-Australian soprano Hyeseoung Kwon is another fraught female character at the mercy of men; uncertain how to use them to advantage as her siblings do. Liane Keegan sings Erda with authority. Her rich voice gliding over the vocal lines and her stage presence commanding.

Jud Arthur’s Fafner is as threatening as having a knife held to the throat. His demands for Freia and later transformation to gold-hungry thug are as villainous and menacing as could be imagined. The scene in which Freia is encased in the gold to hide her from his brother Fasolt, sung by Daniel Sumegi, is a disquieting exercise in humiliation and female subjugation.

As Loge, German tenor Andreas Conrad is first-rate. Not only is the role brilliantly conceived by director Neil Armfield as the shiny-suited corporate “go-to man”, but Mr. Conrad’s resonating voice slices through every line, delivering every phrase with a varied palette and superior acting skills. James Egglestone’s Froh and Michael Honeyman’s Donner are handled with assurance and strong vocal presence. Like Alberich, Mime is at once a creature to be reviled and pitied. Graeme Macfarlane owns this character bringing poise and composure as a stalwart of the company into the role.

Returning to the podium, Finnish Maestro Pietari Inkinen leads the Melbourne Ring Orchestra in this exuberant and triumphant performance. He sets a wild pace for this ride through Heaven and Hell. The quality of the sound from the pit is sumptuously rich and full. Every detail of the score is there for the appreciation, layered, textured and patterned but with a subtle hand and delicate understanding.

Whether Mr. Armfield wants the audience to query corporates pillaging the planet, to deride collectors festooning themselves with symbols of wealth and power or to pity those on the sidelines caught in the affairs of tycoons and moguls, is unclear. What is certain is that he has conjured a pertinent and topical interpretation of Wagner’s masterwork, provoking a great deal of thought.

Gregory Pritchard | Melbourne State Theatre 11/21/2016


The showgirls return as Ring revival kicks off in style

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Clive Paget | November 22, 2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 347 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classic)
A production by Neil Armfield (2013)
This recording is part of a complete Ring.