Die Walküre

Pietari Inkinen
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
9 December 2013
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundStuart Skelton
HundingJud Arthur
WotanTerje Stensvold
SieglindeMiriam Gordon-Stewart
BrünnhildeSusan Bullock
FrickaJacqueline Dark
HelmwigeHyeseoung Kwon
GerhildeAnke Höppner
OrtlindeMerlyn Quaife
WaltrauteDeborah Humble
SiegruneSian Pendry
GrimgerdeElizabeth Campell
SchwertleiteDominica Matthews
RoßweißeRoxane Hislop
The Guardian

The first evening of Opera Australia’s Ring cycle raised more questions than it answered. Had director Neil Armfield and designer Robert Cousins treated Das Rheingold the way Wagner himself envisaged it, as a “preliminary evening” before the three main days, a tragicomic satyr play – in the terms of Greek drama – before the weightier tragedies to come? Or had they seen it as part of an integrated whole in which the main dramatic and visual ideas of everything that would follow were revealed for the first time?

After Die Walküre the answers to both questions might, it seems, be yes. The variety-show allusions of Rheingold may be nowhere to be seen, but some visual ideas are common to both – the mass of humanity that represents the Rhine in the very first scene of the tetralogy returns briefly at the beginning of the third act of Walküre as the Valkyries descend to harvest their latest crop of fallen heroes, while the collection of stuffed animals that accompanies Wotan’s first appearance and apparently symbolises Armfield’s idea of the Ring as an eco-parable, hangs in the air throughout the second act, while the action takes place on a helical roadway around it.

Other elements, though, are quite new. There’s a naturalistic hut for Hunding and Sieglinde in the first act that is straight out of Little House on the Prairie, and a snowstorm to go with it, while, at the other extreme, a bare, raked stage for the opera’s final scene with a ring of magic fire like a giant gas-cooker could have come from an abstract Wieland Wagner production half a century ago. Once again, though, the ideas seem piecemeal, disconnected responses to individual dramatic situations rather than elements in a coherent vision of the cycle as a whole.

When the performances are involving much of that hardly matters, and through the first act of Walküre the protagonists do make it all hang together. Stuart Skelton’s thrillingly ardent, impulsive Siegmund is nicely contrasted with Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s smaller scale but touchingly vulnerable Sieglinde, while the pair are sharply counterpointed with Jud Arthur’s menacingly controlled Hunding. Elsewhere, though, that sense of involvement is more fleeting, and the response of singers to each other far more approximate. During the second act it does snap into focus as Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka unloads a marriage’s-worth of furious resentment and infidelity onto Terje Stensvold’s still stolid Wotan, but as Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde delivers it, the Annunciation of Death hardly seems to faze Skelton’s Siegmund at all. Here and elsewhere conductor Pietari Inkinen’s slow tempi and calculated detachment hardly help matters either.

It’s virtually impossible for Wotan’s farewell not to raise the emotional temperature at least a few degrees, however. Bullock and Stensvold certainly do make something involving out of those final pages, even if the orchestral sound ideally needs more radiance, and the distracting echo caused by the theatre’s electronic enhancement that affects all the singers when they stand in a particular spot downstage surely should have been ironed out before now.

Andrew Clements | 20 Nov 2013


Down to Earth

After the somewhat coy Rheingold of Opera Australia’s current Ring Cycle in Melbourne, director Neil Armfield’s Walküre delivered a focused and powerful evening of theatre. Though lacking in spectacle (weak points included the drab Valkyries and a predictable, sputtering gas ring of fire), the dramatic tension overall was thrillingly sustained over the six hour evening through detailed, disciplined direction, and with fresh, specific, and vocally impressive performances given by the leads.

The opera opens with the stark image of a tiny, nearly windowless cabin being pelted with snow on an otherwise blank stage. The resemblance to the Unabomber’s cabin may have been deliberate, as its hoarded contents and alienated inhabitants spoke of end-of-times survivalism (Jud Arthur’s Hunding, of booming voice and shaved head, hit the right note of paranoid aggression).

Wagner’s progression from this frozen place of fear and hopelessness to the thawing spring waters of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love unfolded here with perfectly-paced inevitability. This scene, sometimes mocked for its implausibility (or the ick factor of sibling romance) succeeded by telling a tale less of love-at-first-sight, and more of destiny and belonging. What we saw were a Siegmund and Sieglinde slowly coming to life, coming into their lives, finding redemption for their suffering in each other.

This is a testament to Armfield’s direction, which allowed the singers to progress from tightly-controlled tension to giddy abandon, and to the extraordinary performances of those singers. Stuart Skelton, singing with warmth and ease, was a heavy-hearted Siegmund with a boyish, Oliver-Twist-like need. Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglinde gave a phenomenally complex performance of feminine vulnerability and strength, her voice capable of both the contained hopefulness at the opening and the unsheathed power needed towards the end of the act. Her Sieglinde was less abused-housewife and more cosmic sleeper agent.

Act II opens on an enormous spiralling ramp, its bulky, banistered self reminiscent of such modern horrors as cruise ships or parking garages. Wotan’s exotic stuffed animal collection hangs suspended in the center of the spiral, a tragic menagerie. This spiral, though overly large and unwieldy as a set piece, did create a pathway between the godly and mortal realms that was occasionally used to nice effect, such as when Brünnhilde descends to lure Siegmund to Valhalla. A glowing light strip followed her down the spiral, where she then stood hovering above Siegmund, both of them bathed in an altered, unearthly light. This scene was one of the most powerful in the opera, with the compassionate tenderness of Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde and the moral certainty and simplicity of Skelton’s Siegmund, who chooses love over heroism.

Ms. Bullock is a fascinating Brünnhilde, a little spark plug of a soprano whose commitment to text and character propels a voice that is perhaps not ideally suited to the grandeur of the role. The fighting spirit and large heart of this miniature virago delivered a convincing and conflicted heroine.

Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyries were the weak link of the opera, directorially as well as musically. Costumed in olive-colored sportswear (not actually martial; not actually anything definable), loosely milling about the stage, they seemed as scattered and vague as their singing was, with some sloppy pitches and dynamics. Some of the voices were not quite up to the task, although Dominica Matthews as Schwertleite was one of the standouts, with a gleaming vocal presence cutting through all the murk.

It was never clear who or what the Valkyries were supposed to be, Brünnhilde included; and although the relationship between die Walküre herself and her father was believably intimate, what the link might be between the titan of industry and this spunky woman in cheap cotton drab, hair spiked with gel, was anyone’s guess.

Terje Stensvold brought a profound lyricism and pathos to his Wotan, as well as astonishing vocal ease. Jacqueline Dark, though more of a lyric than dramatic voice as far as Frickas go, was compelling as the wounded and spiteful wife.

Maestro Pietari Inkinen offered subtle and assured leadership from the pit: the orchestra never over-balanced the singers, and the momentum ebbed and flowed organically. The overall sound was warm and soft-edged, with gorgeous moments of ethereal Mahlerian colour in the quieter passages, as well as the necessary force in the more dramatic sections. Bass clarinettist Andrew Mitchell deserves mention for his beautifully mournful solos.

The score and the singers were allowed breathing room (rare in such a young Maestro), and the director, too, had the courage to let the music speak for itself. And although Armfield at times pushed the edge of operatic staging minimalism (as in the final long Brünnhilde/ Wotan scene, with just the two actors on a big blank stage for a very long time), the bleak stillness and the resulting investment it demanded of the audience was both appropriate and satisfying, if exhausting.

This is a Walküre that, like Brünnhilde, gets brought down to Earth. And like Brünnhilde, it seemed no less heroic for its being so human.

Bottom line: the real deal.

Evelyn Winthrop | 20th November, 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 526 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classic)
A production by Neil Armfield (2013)
This recording is part of a complete Ring.