Classic Melbourne was fortunate in being able to present perspectives of the Ring from both audience and stage, thanks to Melbourne reviewer Heather Leviston and Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, who sang the roles of Waltraute and Erda, to great acclaim.
Deborah Humble’s “insider” stories and Heather’s full reviews of all four operas can be found on the News and Views pages of this site.
Here Heather Leviston gives an overview of the Ring Festival, Melbourne’s greatest musical event of 2013.
Der Ring des Nibelungen is a very particular Wagner experience with a number of factors combining to distinguish it from other Wagner works. The mystique that surrounds it and accounts for the creation of so many “Wagner tragics” around the world is not merely the result of clever marketing. Wagner’s search for deep truths in the complexities of Norse myth, coupled with an extraordinary musical imagination, has resulted in a work of great spiritual resonance. In Wagner we hear the Song of the Siren.
Opera Australia has answered the Siren’s call and mounted what it is hoped will be the first of many Rings. With Melbourne’s State Theatre as the venue of choice it would seem that the enterprise has not foundered on the rocks of economic ruin but paid dividends for generous sponsors and investors in terms of a first rate product with sufficient cache to make the World’s Most Livable City an even more attractive tourist destination.
Unable to attend either of the highly praised Adelaide Rings, I was determined to redress the balance by purchasing tickets for two cycles of the Melbourne production. As it transpired, I was also able to add the Dress Rehearsal ‘Cycle’ to Cycles 1 and 3. Any reviewers in the audience for the dress rehearsals were prohibited from writing about them – fair enough, even though the performers were certainly not saving themselves for opening night.
As they led to a better understanding of the overall production concept, the rehearsals turned out to be an excellent basis for assessing each of the four evenings of Cycle 1. Many of my initial misgivings had dissolved by the end of Gotterdammerung and I found the final scene incredibly moving. The suspension of disbelief that I had struggled so valiantly to maintain for the first three operas relaxed into a more ready acceptance and appreciation of the many thought-provoking ideas that were on offer. The vehicle of “poor theatre” promoted a clearer focus on character development and interactions. Man’s relationship to nature and to the theatre itself emerged as continuous threads within a metaphysical framework.
By the end of Cycle 3, I still had difficulty with some details of this production, but its many virtues far outweighed any reservations. Musically speaking, there were so many wonderful elements that it is impossible to acknowledge them all. The orchestra became more assured with every performance and, despite Pietari Inkinen’s illness in the final week, it was obvious that his skill and enormous emotional and intellectual investment in drawing out the best from everybody was paying off splendidly. He is obviously an inspiring conductor with an important career ahead of him. Players spoke about him in the most respectful terms, relishing the opportunity to be involved in such a significant venture under his baton.
The singers were something to treasure. Now that I am suffering withdrawal symptoms it is tempting to go back to the old Solti recording for consolation, but I hesitate to do so because it might blur the sound of the voices that echo in my imagination. What a privilege it was to witness Terje Stensvold’s final stage performances as Wotan – in fact final stage performances full stop. At the height of his powers, with his wonderful bass-baritone voice still firm, strong and beautiful, it really was ‘Wotan’s Farewell’ and a truly memorable occasion.
Susan Bullock’s intensely focused singing of Brünnhilde’s protest against Wotan’s threats in Die Walküre – ‘Was it so shameful what I did wrong?’ will remain a definitive interpretation for me. It crossed my mind more than once that, in terms of acting, she is the Judy Dench of the operatic stage, although Dame Judy certainly would not be able to run up that ramp as nimbly as Susan Bullock.
Stefan Vinke, dressed in a kind of Where’s Wally? rugby shirt, made an indelible impression as the epitome of defiant adolescence. Other productions have faltered for lack of a first rate Siegfried and we were most fortunate to have a heldentenor with unflagging vocal stamina and a lively, appealing stage presence. To have two internationally renowned heldentenors who combined tonal beauty with exceptional power was tremendously exciting.
Having heard Stuart Skelton with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra sing the role of Siegmund in a concert performance of Act I of Die Walküre last August, it came as no surprise that he was vocally superb every night, his sustained cries of ‘Wälse! Wälse!’ filling the theatre. He appeared to engage with the role more deeply each time, making his scenes with Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s lovely Sieglinde very moving.
Jud Arthur as a menacing Hunding and an arresting Fasolt/dragon will be remembered as a singer of considerable ability and courage. The sight of him and Graeme Macfarlane as Mime, propped up against the wall like a couple of marionettes whose strings have been cut, is one of the many vivid images from this production that will be remembered for decades to come. I was pleased to see, however, that by Cycle 3 the decision to arrange his hands on his lap reduced the element of distraction caused by nudity.
Daniel Sumegi had sung the role of Hunding in the MSO performance but found more scope for his talents as Hagan. It is his distinctive voice summoning the men of Gibich that still has a special place in my memory.
Initially, I had found Deborah Humble’s emotional performance as Waltraute more dramatically engaging, but it was her Erda that really grew on me. Certainly the nature of the production was an important factor, but it was mainly the quality of her singing, with those long dark phrases that drew us into her mysterious world, that became so compelling.
To see Warwick Fyfe go from strength to strength was perhaps the greatest thrill for many of us. Apart from his impressive vocal performance, it was fascinating to see how an essentially handsome man could completely transform himself into the ugliness that is Alberich each night with increasing conviction.
So, despite all the controversy and uncertainty that surrounded this Ring, from Houston’s withdrawal to changes of conductor and some members of the cast, the Melbourne Ring can be considered a huge success. It has been the catalyst for a wide array of related activities, beginning with the ‘Arrival of the Valkyries!’ street parade with brass bands, goblins, paupers, nineteenth century ladies and gentlemen and Valkyries on horseback.
The Ring Festival has also encompassed dinners, lectures, concerts of Wagner’s music, including the first Australian airing of Rienzi, and music of his contemporaries. This festival has not just been for a privileged few, who have the time and money to indulge their passion for Wagner; it has been a community event. Our ABC even made it possible for those who had access to FM radio to hear the complete Cycle 3 as well as interviews and related music during the intervals.
Now we can put our signed programs and other sacred memorabilia away in a safe place, bless Tony and Maureen Wheeler and others who made all of this possible and look forward to 2015, when we will see Lohengrin or Parsifal, and 2016 when we will have the Return of The Ring. I can hardly wait.