Pietari Inkinen
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
5 December 2016
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedStefan Vinke
MimeGraeme MacFarlane
WotanJames Johnson
AlberichWarwick Fyfe
FafnerJud Arthur
ErdaLiane Keegan
BrünnhildeLise Lindstrom
WaldvogelJulie Lea Goodwin

Vinke’s heroics ensure a memorable Siegfried in Melbourne

If one were to ask a random sample of ten opera-goers which part of the Ring was their favourite, approximately none of them would respond “Siegfried”. The third part of the tetralogy is somewhat hard to like: the eponymous hero is at best something of a bully, at worst a covert expression of the composer’s anti-Semitism, and his naïve transports can be hard to take. Even the love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the end of the opera is far inferior to the fervent exchanges between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. So the fact that I found Siegfried the most uniformly enjoyable part of the Melbourne Ring so far is testimony to the production, singers and musicians. If the crescendo of pleasure continues on Monday, then Götterdämmerung will be very special indeed.

The set for Act I was very shallow, with the back wall only a few metres from the footlights, a factor which considerably aided the projection of the singers’ voices. The apartment shared by Mime and Siegfried was laid out linearly: kitchen, workspace, sitting room and bunk beds. Both the modern domesticity of the set, and Siegfried dressing in a bear costume to tease Mime (rather than lugging on a captured bear) suggested the influence of the Copenhagen Ring.

A toy dragon and hand-drawn paintings of animals by Siegfried’s bed emphasised the youthfulness of the title character, and Stefan Vinke played him as a boisterous teenager, thoughtless in his strength. Vinke brought enormous physical vitality to the role and sang tirelessly throughout, seemingly unaffected by one of the longest and hardest Heldentenor roles in the repertory. An especial highlight was the Act I forging song, in which he coped admirably with a rather slow tempo and delivered testosterone-filled top notes.

Graeme Macfarlane also excelled as Mime, avoiding excessive caricature and yet capturing the comedy and the vulnerability of the dwarf. His recitation of Sieglinde’s death was a surprisingly moving moment in a mainly comic act. James Johnson was a revelation here: after sounding somewhat underpowered early in the tetralogy, he was vocally commanding as the majestic Wanderer (aka Wotan) throughout, and his final confrontation with Siegfried in Act III was profound and gripping.

Act II began with an enormous projection of Jud Arthur’s face, snarling and grimacing as he slowly applied clownish make-up. As Fafner, Arthur sounded appropriately sepulchral through the modern equivalent of the speaking trumpet. His death was conveyed by spurting red ribbons as Siegfried stabbed through the hole at the back of the set; a tasteful interpretation that set up the shock of a stark naked and bloody Arthur stepping into view for his final utterances.

Yet again Warwick Fyfe shone as Alberich, switching easily between tense melodrama as he confronted Wotan and a more quirkily comic register in his exchanges with Mime. Another delight in this act was Julie Lea Goodwin as a graceful woodbird, making the most of her extended stage time to steal food from Siegfried’s satchel, and watch enthralled as Siegfried put the scheming Mime to death.

For Act III, the proscenium arch which had framed Mime’s house and Fafner’s cave was repurposed as a free-standing frame, spinning portentously during the marvellous Prelude, and later serving as the curtain of fire through which Siegfried penetrated to arrive at Brünnhilde’s rock. Touches of the showbiz feel to Rheingold resurfaced here in the shiny gold curtain representing the flames, which earlier in Mime’s hallucination had been suggested by flashing lights. Another throwback to Monday was the sight of the heroine in the sort of packing case previously used to house Wotan’s collection of animals. Brünnhilde’s awakening was beautifully choreographed, and her dilemma at losing her independence before succumbing to Siegfried was convincingly portrayed.

Liane Keegan was in fine form here as Erda; she was positioned a little further downstage than in Rheingold, and her sound benefited considerably. As Brünnhilde, Lise Lindstrom continued where she left off in Walküre, with finely gradated emotions expressed in her ringing soprano, and a triumphant top C at the end of the duet.

Aside from the occasional imperfection in tuning, the orchestra once again turned in a sterling performance, although the horn player split a liberal handful of notes in the infamous solo passage when Siegfried awakens the dragon with his horn call. One of the only places where Inkinen let the orchestra dominate was the culmination of Mime’s hallucinations, where the fiery music drowned Macfarlane’s cries of “Fafner”, but this was not dramatically unwarranted. The open pit may throw up challenges in terms of balance, but it has also allowed the perception of fine details of Wagner’s colouristic orchestration: particularly gorgeous was the delicate sound beginning the “Ewig war ich” section of the duet, the tune famously repurposed for the Siegfried Idyll.

David Larkin | 27 November 2016

If The Ring is story-telling on a grand scale, then Siegfried is perhaps the most plot-driven of the operas. With the exception of Wotan’s musings on the fate of the gods and Brünnhilde’s lamentation for the loss of her god-status, the opera prepares the way for the end of the mythical world. As in earlier episodes, director and designer have collaborated to accentuate the text through stark, open spaces contrasted with endearingly human interaction. Again, the animals of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre appear. This time however, they are childish posters pinned above a teenager’s bed, models of dragons and soft toys. The message continues: the world is being plundered, its resources hoarded by a privileged few and time is finite for this regime.

Mime’s cave and forge are under the proscenium of a “golden age of cinema” picture palace. A cramped bunk bedroom, a sofa and a kitchen from which Mime draws a rewarding can of beer and heats food in a microwave, are squeezed into the narrow apron of the stage, backed by a vast white screen. Continuing his portrayal of Mime, Graeme Macfarlane wheedles, connives, teases and pleads with an unruly teenager in Siegfried. Mr. Macfarlane creates a complete character portrait with effective use of his fine acting skills as much as through his accurate and expressive singing. The unmanageable youth throws food, bullies and torments his keeper but is drawn back to the forge despite his expressed desire to escape its confines.

German tenor Stefan Vinke returns to Melbourne to reprise his role as the title character. He plays the petulant adolescent convincingly and transforms into the everyman-hero through subtle shifts in characterisation and gesture. His voice has a youthful quality perfect for this role. Its agility and amplitude coupled with flawless diction craft a truly valiant impression. The “Forging Song” from Act One was enthralling – powerful, rhythmic and energetic – the “Forest Murmurs” of Act Two delicate and restrained while full of vitality and passion; and the thrilling extended duet of Act Three a radiant beacon of heroism. Mr. Vinke’s performance was monumental in every sense.

As The Wanderer, James Johnson developed the authority and imperious façade he built during the two earlier pieces. Until now, we have only seen glimpses of the humanity of the character but in this opera, we see a transformation, an acceptance of the denouement of his story and his succumbing to the inevitability of change. These are subtle shifts of voice, of acting and of gesture which Mr. Johnson carries off with consummate ease.

Act Two brings the staging challenge of the dragon’s cave and this production realises this scene in a series of memorable and terrifying visions. In the darkness and rumbling introductory music, we see a projected male face thousands of times life-size. Grimacing, contorting and snarling, Jud Arthur as Fafner paints his face white, red and black at a make-up desk surrounded by the lights and the proscenium of the first scene. This will become his cave too as his colossally powerful voice echoes through the darkness. The death of Fafner is achieved by a simple step inside the cave by the fearless hero and a flurry of red streamers and confetti – a seeming anti-climax until Jud Arthur staggers onto the stage, naked, dripping with gore where he has been slashed from shoulder to groin.

Warwick Fyfe continues his Alberich as unrelenting, bitter and avaricious as before. His on-going contest with his brother is like a festering family feud as he and Mime clash. As the Woodbird, Julie Lee Goodwin is a fragile and tenuous creature flitting about, pecking at crumbs. Her voice is deceptively powerful and radiantly clear.

The final act commences with Wotan tormented by raging storms. He is alone on the immense stage, under the proscenium which revolves rapidly swirling light and shadows. In the upheaval of his mind, the vision of the approaching finale becomes clear to him as it does to the audience. From a small door in the blackness, Liane Keegan enters as Erda whose blindness to the world is the source of her visions. Ms. Keegan’s voice is regal and comforting in this role as the Earth Mother. Yet Wotan rages against the swagger and confidence of Siegfried his beloved creation. The shattering of his spear crushes him and we see him stagger into the enveloping darkness a broken shadow of the all-powerful Lord of the Gods. This is robust story-telling with both direction and design working seamlessly to convey the narrative.

The proscenium pulsates with a row of bare light bulbs. A tissue-fine curtain of gold lamé becomes the flame guarding Brünnhilde and the Valkyrie herself is held captive in one of the crates used to contain the taxidermy animals of preceding episodes – a favourite or not, she is still a part of Wotan’s collection. In the extended duet which ends the opera, Lise Lindstrom is ravishing of voice. Her instrument is searing and radiant, riding the huge demands of the score while she persuasively plays the role of the anguished, reflecting the distress of her beloved father.

The extended symphonic passages of this opera are sublimely played by the Melbourne Ring Orchestra. It is difficult to imagine vocal out-pouring of admiration from an audience reaching greater heights but the commencement of each act hears increased applause, cheers and stamping; the final curtain calls of the night a standing ovation for the conductor and his band.

This instalment drives the characters and story forward towards inevitable downfall. There is much to be admired about the complexity achieved through the simplicity of the production’s story-telling.

Gregory Pritchard | Melbourne State Theatre 11/25/2016

Ever heard the tenor join Brünnhilde on her top C at the end of Siegfried? Stefan Vinke’s superhuman final fling was just one of many miraculous moments in Neil Armfield’s hyper-theatrical staging of the most magical opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Throughout his Ring, Armfield has used theatrical smoke and mirrors to represent the magic in the Germanic mythological tale. Show girls and cheap vaudeville tricks, he seems to be saying, are all that this fag end of humanity have left to buy into. In Siegfried, he goes the whole hog, setting each act within a proscenium arch to emphasise the theatricality of the situations. In Robert Cousin’s clean-limbed set design, Mime’s cave (here, a dilapidated modern man-cave) is seen as a place of playacting where Siegfried has been brought up on tall tales and make-believe. Fafner is shown as a fading actor applying the motley and practising unconvincing snarls in a mirror. His tired circus show is near the end of its tether, his reputation all that nowadays keeps the world at bay. And all this is leading up to Wotan’s very own coup de theatre, Brünnhilde’s artfully staged rock with its golden ruched curtains and model horse.

It’s a playful conceit and one that puts a spring in the step of what for some can feel a long night at the opera. Mime sets the tone, sniffing the milk to check its sell-by, his glutinous soup done in a microwave – domestic goddess he is not! Siegfried meanwhile sits on a bunk, surrounded by crayoned pictures of forest beasts and dragons. People come and go by breaking the fourth wall, while the restless lad yearns for “the world”, a place beyond the proscenium to which he literally hacks his way through at the end of Act I. A simple theatrical device – long hair and shades – is all it takes for Wotan to fool Mime.

Of course, there’s darkness as well. The opening of Act II (has there ever been a more sinister piece of music?) finds Wotan and Alberich still trying to sort out who has the power – the former trying, not always convincingly, to show he’s letting go, the latter more pent up and venomous than ever. Love is still a vital component, though frequently equated here with fear. Realising he’s failed at making Siegfried love him, Mime wishes he’d made him fear him instead. Wotan really does love Siegfried, but ultimately age can’t hand over power to youth. Siegfried and Brünnhilde are most conflicted, the one confusing sexual passion for fear, the other clearly in love, but afraid that without her immortal gifts she will be a powerless marriage partner.

In playing out these complex relationships Armfield and his creative team place few obstacles in the path of the actors – there are no dragons, flying birds or magic fires – ensuring that character development trumps technical gimmickry. Alice Babidge’s costumes are simple, as is Damien Cooper’s theatrically-inspired lighting. Result – considerable clarity.

Leading the charge are the aforementioned tireless vocals of German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke in the title role. It’s perhaps an unusual voice for the part. Many Siegfrieds are pushed at the top, especially in the stamina-crushing final act when required to sing off against a fresh-as-a-daisy Brünnhilde. Vinke it seems just keeps getting better and stronger the higher it gets and the longer it goes on. Best above the stave where surprisingly his diction begins to shine, his heroic – and highly authentic – forging scene is the first miracle. He’s quite unfazed by Pietari Inkinen’s demanding and appropriately measured pace, and he sails across the heaviest orchestrations loud and clear. He’s a fine actor as well, capturing the naughty boy who deliberately messes up the cave just to annoy the hell out of Mime. By never resorting to the hectoring bullyboy tactics that can lose an audience’s sympathy, he wins hearts and minds from the start and his visible joy in singing is infectious. In short, this Siegfried is a personable if troubled fellow whose path from innocence to some level of experience is convincingly traced.

As his nemesis, Graeme Macfarlane’s Mime is more believable as exhausted exasperated parent than scheming killer. His relationship with Siegfried is almost touching, if a little out of kilter when later he’s mixing a potion for the “I’ve always hated you” dénouement. Vocally he sounds his age – not out of the question in the role – but he has all the notes and the top is refreshingly intact. On the minus side, his words – and generally he has a lot of them – are sometimes lost beneath the orchestra and his German is sometimes questionable. However, he acts well through the text, manages the comedic moments with style, and builds a believable character where others risk caricature.

In this, his third opera, James Johnson’s Wanderer really comes into its own. The role seems to sit slightly higher and he projects strongly and clearly with impeccable diction. By now, Wotan is a richly complex character, and Johnson runs the whole gamut of emotions, from playfulness to menace, from hubris to despair. He delivers a fine riddle game, spars engagingly with Alberich (his dark shadow), and by the final scene he believably captures the ambiguities of the god who wants to stop a turning wheel, yet genuinely thinks he is now capable of handing over his power to the young Siegfried.

Lise Lindstom too delves deeply into the conflicted side of Brünnhilde, charting the path from radiant awakening through the dawning realisation of the challenges of her new world in great detail. Vocally she’s ideal – secure and always exciting at the top, yet able to caress a line to bring out the character’s vulnerability. Her Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich is gorgeous, her final ecstatic cries of Leuchtende Liebe! Lachender Tod! thrilling. Playing nicely off Vinke, the two ensure the final scene is the magnificent climax that Wagner intended.

As Alberich, Warwick Fyfe continues to build a fascinating portrait of a vengeful monomaniac consumed by bitterness and malice. The quicksilver mood changes and nervous tension are beautifully played, a painful sense of authority lost always hanging about his ears. Vocally he’s perfect in the role: words clear, text used, top notes ringing, bottom notes slicing through. Jud Arthur’s Fafner is equally masterful, his resonant voice spot on for the baleful dragon. Revealed first in projected close-up, he proves a nicely detailed actor, his bloodied and naked emergence from the cave mouth a powerful moment of theatre. Liane Keegan’s blind Erda, impassive as a piece of Cycladic statuary, continued the good work of Rheingold. It’s a dark, luscious voice, and steady as a rock across the full range. Julie Lee Goodwin’s chipper woodbird appears here in a glittering dress, a bit like a magician’s glamorous assistant. She’s in great voice too, her text coming over more easily than when woodbirds are confined to the wings.

The Ring Orchestra goes from strength to strength. It’s a glorious sound and the power and sense of togetherness grows with each opera. Pietari Inkinen continues his thoughtful reading, providing terrific contrasts here between weighty and delicate, mercurial and ponderous. The sinister mix of giant, hoard, ring and curse Leitmotivs in the preludes to Acts I and II are nicely finessed, the forging scene crackles with energy. There are a couple of moments where the string sound is overpowered by the brass – the prelude to Act III and Siegfried’s passage through the fire – but generally this is a thoroughly consistent reading with a strong sense of the dramatic line from beginning to end.

A big, bold, visually stunning production, this is Armfield at his most theatrically cohesive. The appetite, it must be said, is well and truly whetted for Götterdämmerung.

Clive Paget | November 25, 2016

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 578 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classic)
A production by Neil Armfield (2013)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.