Die Walküre

Pietari Inkinen
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra
2 December 2016
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundBradley Daley
HundingJud Arthur
WotanJames Johnson
SieglindeAmber Wagner
BrünnhildeLise Lindstrom
FrickaJacqueline Dark
HelmwigeHyeseoung Kwon
GerhildeAnna-Louise Cole
OrtlindeOlivia Cranwell
WaltrauteSian Pendry
SiegruneAmanda Atlas
GrimgerdeNicole Youl
SchwertleiteDominica Matthews
RoßweißeRoxane Hislop

Spirals out of control: extraordinary singing in Die Walküre in Melbourne

To non-enthusiasts, Wagner’s claims on one’s time are always excessive, but even devotees were not expecting the second part of the Melbourne Ring to unfold over seven hours. On this occasion the generous interval breaks were supplemented by an unforeseen technical hitch with the Act II set-up, which delayed the restart by the better part of an hour. The patient audience was rewarded by a highly elaborate set, by far the most impressive of the night: an enormous helix ramp spiralling into the flies, with Wotan’s taxidermy collection of lowered into the centre. Is this set designer Robert Cousin’s nod to Wagner’s anti-vivisectionist beliefs? Or is it just an expression of Wotan’s problematic status as the de facto ruler over all other forms of life?

By contrast with the rotating staircase, the rather rudimentary Act I stage design consisted of a tiny hut set on the revolve, and no ash tree (the sword was instead sticking up from the centre of the stage). The wintry season was represented by constant snowfall, replaced by green paper when Siegmund sang his famous ‘Spring song’ (falling leaves? the metaphor wasn’t entirely thought through). Act III mostly took place in a black box space (as did scene 4 in Rheingold), although with a visually thrilling start and finish: the Valkyries arrived by being lowered in on swings (and actors playing corpses were hoisted away in their stead), and at the end there was a circle of real flames surrounding Brünnhilde. On both occasions, the bare sets have been utilised in situations of intense dramatic conflict (Wotan-Alberich and Wotan-Brünnhilde respectively). The psychological drama was sufficiently intense in both that the lack of eye candy wasn’t much felt; however, the discrepancy to other scenes in both operas was notable.

The female cast was absolutely outstanding. First to appear – and first in terms of achievement – was the quite extraordinary Amber Wagner as Sieglinde. In a happy case of nominative determinism, she seems to have been born to sing this repertoire: she possesses enormous volume matched with perfect control (how rare a combination!), and her glorious creamy tone has to be heard to be believed. Practically every time she opened her mouth I felt tingles on the back of my neck. By her side, Bradley Daley sang gamely as Siegmund, but it felt rather ordinary. He impressed more in the ‘Annunication of Death’ scene in Act II, delivering the first part of question-and-answer session seated with a sleeping Sieglinde on his chest.

Brünnhilde, Siegmund’s interlocutor in this scene, was played by Lise Lindstrom, making her role debut. Right from her opening war cry of “hoi-jo-to-ho” she demonstrated impressive vocal prowess: her voice has fabulous cut, which enabled her to be heard easily above the heavy orchestra. She was a convincing actress to boot, especially when she was pleading with Wotan in the final scene.

Jacqueline Dark continued to excel as Fricka: in her confrontation with Wotan she came off as the quintessentially strong woman, rather than as harridan or victim, and her dismissive kiss of her cowed husband at the end was a brilliant touch. The eight Valkyries (in army fatigues) were individually and corporately excellent, although unsurprisingly their voice types varied considerably.

James Johnson’s voice may have become weathered with age – his low notes, in particular, tended to get swallowed by the richer orchestral textures – but he retains his strong stage presence. His lengthy Act II monologue was quietly gripping, and he definitely saved the best for the last act, not just glorious farewell at the end of the opera but also the angry confrontation with his Valkyrie daughters. His gradual softening as a result of Brünnhilde’s pleading was beautifully conveyed. In the role of Hunding, Jud Arthur was a strong-voiced and physically imposing villain.

Pietari Inkinen kept a tight handle on the Act I love duet: I would have welcomed a loosening up of the tempo a little earlier, but when he did let go (around “Siegmund heiss’ ich”) it fairly flew. Aside from a few brief misalignments with the singers, there were remarkably few obvious hitches all night, and some particularly impressive solos from the clarinet and cello. The heavy brass revelled in one of their most rewarding scores, and the strings kept the energy levels up in the frantic flickering fire music at the end. There was only one curious moment in Barry Millington’s otherwise excellent surtitles: Wotan accused Alberich of “ravishing” a woman, when in fact the German indicates that it was his money that bent her to his will. Whether there is any moral difference between his using force and financial incentive to beget a son is debatable, but given that is Alberich widely recognised as symbolising ‘capital’, it is a distinction worth preserving.

David Larkin | 25 November 2016


Unadorned, austere, at times desolate, this Die Walküre defies every expectation raised by Das Rheingold. Gone are the show-girls and sequins; gone too are the flashy-suited gods with the allure of gold and power; replaced with minimalist sets and modest costumes always dominated by the vast black void of the vacant stage; an element which becomes a part of the story in itself. Amongst the simplicity, there are certainly some moments of dazzling theatricality but director Neil Armfield and designer Robert Cousins have created here a complete world while focussing on the words and music to provide spell-binding drama.

A small wooden hut, alone in vast blackness, is dusted by gently falling snow. The stage revolves – a device much used in the first opera and featuring again in each act of this. The movement and the soothing fall of snow have a mesmeric effect which counters the building emotion and drama of the text in the first act. Against the bucolic scene, the implied violence and abuse of Sieglinde by Hunding is even more intimidating. Jud Arthur’s Hunding is intensely sung, marvellously acted and entirely convincing. Bradley Daley’s Siegmund is youthful, passionate and chivalrous. His clarion tenor voice is heroic and agile, leaping the demanding vocal line with ease and power. The first act and much of the later scenes of the opera are dominated by the prominence of Sieglinde. Wagner’s inspired score for his flawed heroine allows nowhere to rest and nowhere to hide blemishes. Amber Wagner is astonishing in this role. A convincing actress, she also possesses a soprano of laser-like precision and colossal power. Ms. Wagner held the audience spellbound in every appearance drawing vocal salutes amid thunderous applause at the curtain calls.

Act two revealed a massive, white, architectural helix spiralling up through the stage ceiling into the unknown darkness beyond. It too revolves and again the effect is hypnotic – a total antithesis to the intensity of emotion in the protracted ethical and moral debate which Wotan must negotiate. The centre of the helix is hung with a veritable zoo of taxidermy animals: this internal view of Walhalla lies somewhere between a male trophy room and Noah’s Ark. Certainly, this adornment of the set provokes intense conversation at the intervals – what does it all mean?

James Johnson sings Wotan beautifully. He has more power behind his voice than in Das Rheingold and tempers his gloriously sonorous bass-baritone to great effect. His acting is superb. He creates a character through whom we live and breathe every nuance of his flaws and failings, every atom of his essential humanity despite his status as a god. As Fricka, Jacqueline Dark is a formidable tower of strength and determination. She masters this Master of the Universe, spitting accusations and demanding his compliance. Gone is the trophy-wife, replaced by a fearsome co-conspirator in the perpetuation of the rule of the gods. Ms. Dark’s striking mezzo is regularly and justifiably featured by Opera Australia. She is an imperious stage presence.

As Brünnhilde, American soprano Lise Lindstrom commences her first full cycle in the role with this production. Statuesque, athletic and youthful, she commands attention as an actor but the second she begins to sing, the spell in amplified and the audience was transfixed. Her radiant soprano ranges every gamut in this role – lyric and gentle rising to fiercely powerful – and throughout she shows masterful control of stage actions. There is an instant father/daughter chemistry with James Johnson which leaves no doubt that this wild child is Wotan’s favourite. This is a triumphant performance not only in the sense of a superb performance but in attitude and demeanour. To say that the audience went wild is an understatement – some could not remain seated and the cheering went on and on.

The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act three was given on an entirely bare stage which was how the setting remained for the duration of the this final scene. The warrior sisters plunge through a gigantic hole in the ceiling to pluck fallen bodies from the masses swirling through the darkness of the stage floor. The lighting design by Damien Cooper deserves much credit for it is in this scene that we can appreciate the complexity and subtlety of his vision. Delicate shadows, blazing flood light and piercing spotlights fired into the void create urgency and infinite variety of moods.

Brünnhilde’s pleading with Wotan is gut-wrenching in its emotional impact. The audience is entirely convinced of the bond between this pair alone on the massive black stage where there is nothing left but the words, the music and the acting. We are gripped by the sheer volume of the singing and equally engrossed by the growing drama between the two characters. This scene was the pinnacle of the production: charged, hypnotising and visceral it struck home like a stab to the heart. Surrounded by live flames, the seemingly small body abandoned to the void was an indelible image.

As in Das Rheingold, Pietari Inkinen lead The Melbourne Ring Orchestra in a stirring and exciting ride through Wagner’s score. Suffice it to say that the acclamation reached football stadium proportions when he and they were acknowledged at the end of the performance.

This is a timeless Die Walküre, one of limitless interpretations and contemplation but at its centre rests the poignant relationship between a powerful father and his headstrong daughter. Opera Australia have successfully built upon the glamour and scintillating story-telling of the first instalment of their Ring with this expressive and visually stunning second chapter.

Gregory Pritchard | Melbourne State Theatre 11/23/2016


Die Walküre, the first part proper of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, is the most romantic of the four Ring operas and the one where the composer first overtly states his purpose. That love is his theme – between siblings, between father and daughter, even marital love (or the absence of it) – is set out loud and clear, not just in the passionate intensity of the many long scenes, but in the number of new musical leitmotivs devised to accompany each character and their feelings for their fellows.

In Neil Armfield’s production for Opera Australia, things shift a gear. It may be cold and isolated in Hunding’s claustrophobic hut, but far from the madding crowd frolicking on beaches or pressed into labour by Alberich, love may in fact blossom. Armfield’s Walküre symbolically begins with ice and ends with fire. Living in a wasteland of inhospitality and snow, Sieglinde’s marriage may be barren, but the capacity for love burns bright. In this eco-conscious staging, even the trees have been culled. There’s nothing growing in the middle of Hunding’s dwelling, just a sword haft sticking starkly out of the earth like a solitary gravemarker.

By the second act, Wotan’s sterile Valhalla is laid bare. His Gugenheim-inspired spiral ramp encases the menagerie we saw in Das Rheingold, now clearly deceased exhibits in a mausoleum of planet earth. Armfield draws his parallels clearly. As Alberich foreswore love to gain power, Wotan must now foreswear power and come to understand the potency of love. In a neat dramatic stroke, following his nihilistic cry of “Das Ende!” the god divests himself of coat and shirt to stand a mirror image of Alberich on the beach in Rheingold. We see Alberich clearly as Wotan’s dark-side (or vice-versa when later Wotan describes himself as “licht-Alberich”).

In Act III, there’s more harvesting going on. This time it’s the Valkyries culling victims from a faceless mass of people and hoiking them up to Valhalla like so many sides of beef. With the global migration crisis more desperate than ever, this is a powerful and unsettling image. It’s in this long scene that love and the many ways it can be forfeited assumes a painful prominence. Sieglinde has just lost her love; Wotan has killed one of his loves in Siegmund, and now must renounce his daughter; Brünnhilde, awkward and unsure of how to comfort the bereaved Sieglinde, learns something of the complexities of love. Each takes a crucial step forward, though none of them as yet know it.

Although the Act II Valhalla set is complex – the extended intervals to deal with technical hiccups saw the opening night audience leave the theatre just after midnight – Armfield and his design team (Robert Cousins’ neat minimalist sets, Alice Babidge’s plain, contemporary costumes and Damien Cooper’s stellar lighting) are working on mostly bare stages. It’s an approach that pays dividends in the hands of smart actors, though it can flummox the unwary when physical energy levels don’t quite fill the space. It’s the very absence of forest though that creates the powerful sense of loneliness in Act I, while the magic fire is extra-arresting when presented in total simplicity.

Dramatic and vocal honours go to the two beautifully contrasted sopranos (both American) of the Brünnhilde and Sieglinde. Lise Lindstrom makes a highly believable Valkyrie, her natural youth and vigour capturing the character’s emotional naivety and slight gaucheness. Vocally she has a steely top allied to a steady, penetrating middle register, and thanks to her remarkable diction, every nuance of the role comes over loud and clear. From the opening hojotohos – top Cs cleanly and thrillingly taken – to the enthusiasm of her prediction of the birth of Siegfried, this is an exciting reading, yet one that finds room for a thoughtful and moving Todesverkündigung (Annunciation of death). Lindstrom is at all times a consumate actor adding much to the audience’s understanding of Brünnhilde’s complex journey.

The production has scored bigtime in Amber Wagner (pronounced the US way), who is blessed with a rich, smooth soprano of considerable amplitude. Full and potent in the lower register, she reminded me more than once of another great Sieglinde, Jessye Norman. At the top she’s radiant, sailing effortlessly through one of the finest renditions of Der Männer Sippe I can recall. Like Lindstrom, with whom she builds a fine releationship, she too has superb diction and uses it to great effect, especially when conveying Sieglinde’s desperation and madness. Dramatically she’s right on the money. A convincing woods-woman, you really feel her shame at her oppressive marriage, while her dawning love and recognition of Siegmund is plotted carefully and persuasively.

As her brother and lover, Bradley Daley has many fine moments, both vocal and dramatic: his long narration in Act I is especially effective and his Act II scene with Brünnhilde is genuinely telling. A powerful middle register is ideal for Siegmund, and Daley essentially has all the top notes, but he lacks the ideal flexibility higher up. Zauberfest suits him better than Winterstürme, a drawback when called upon to combine lyricism with the more challenging tessitura towards the end of Act I.

Reprising his role as Hunding, Jud Arthur is in his element. Refreshingly, he doesn’t play the vicious wife-beater as can often be the case. His granite menace is rooted in the brutality of his bleak environment and a whopping great bass voice that would put the frighteners on any one. Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka is also imbued with all the necessary decibels. Her thrilling, spitfire top is deployed in brilliant tandem with the text to call up a barrel-load of vocal and dramatic tricks aimed at getting her way with an obdurate husband. Facing off with Lindstrom’s convincingly juvenile Brünnhilde, the sense of confrontation here was multi-layered and palpable.

American baritone James Johnson’s Wotan is somewhat freer to act in this opera, although he’s no less thwarted in his intent than he is in Rheingold. The voice itself is occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestral sound, especially lower down, but he invariably sings lyrically and rises to the dramatic challenges of the crucial central narration and the final scene with Brünnhilde. His love for his daughter comes over loud and clear – the chemistry with Lindstrom is tangible – even if the sense of anger is never quite as convincing.

As the eight Valkyries, Anna-Louise Cole, Dominica Matthews, Olivia Cranwell, Sian pendry, Hyeseoung Kwon, Amanda Atlas, Nicole Youl and Roxane Hislop are very special. Kwon is razor-sharp on Helmwige’s killer top Cs, but each is equipped with a fine solo voice and make the most of their individual lines. Horsing around like a bunch of ladettes on the lash, their Ride is a real highlight, but their relationship with Brünnhilde is touching and their complex ensemble singing too is outstanding.

In the pit, Pietari Inkinen builds on his steady-as-she-goes Rheingold with a reading of considerable power and grace. He’s especially good in the romantic ebb and flow of Act I, but his pacing of the big dramatic scenes involving Wotan’s wrath is also electrifying. There’s a great bite to the lower strings, and some fine solos from cello in Act I and bass clarinet in Act II. The brass is also excellent, playing consistently well and with enormous reserves of power.

Armfield, Inkinen and their excellent cast deliver a thoughful and intelligent reading of this complex work – modern, yet happily free of gimmickry – boding well for the dramatic and musical developments ahead.

Clive Paget | November 23, 2016

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 528 MByte (MP3)
The last minute of act 1 Die Walküre was not transmitted.
Broadcast (ABC Classic)
A production by Neil Armfield (2013)
This recording is part of a complete Ring.