In mid-2019, as I hurried to book tickets to the just-announced Ring Cycle in Brisbane in late 2020, I had no inkling that in fact the next Ring opera performance I was to attend would be in Melbourne in 2021. The Brisbane season. my fourth cycle (fingers crossed), has been postponed until late 2021, and it is by no means certain it will be able to proceed.
I must say I was a little surprised by the announcement last year that Melbourne Opera was embarking on a Ring Cycle to be spread over several years, culminating in a complete cycle in 2023. While the company has been doing great things in recent years, the Ring is a very high mountain to climb indeed. The resources required in terms of singers, orchestra, sets, etc. are formidable, and many larger companies simply avoid the challenge. Still, the company has established quite a tradition of successful Wagner productions, so why not climb that final mountain too?
So, to last night’s opening of Das Rheingold at the Regent Theatre. While it is inevitable that if you are doing a complete Ring Cycle you start with Rheingold, in many ways it is not a particularly suitable work to perform in isolation. It is rather static and lacks much in the way of a narrative thread. It is really setting the scene for what is to follow, and there are no outstanding characters to give it a human focus; the big roles such as Sieglinde, Siegmund, Siegfried and Brünnhilde come later. For good reason Wagner called it a “preliminary evening” to the three operas following.
Did Melbourne Opera rise to the challenge? Most certainly it did. It was a very satisfactory production on every level, and bodes well for a highly successful complete cycle.
The performances of the principals were generally excellent. I can’t help being most impressed by the quality of the singers the company is able to attract and deploy in these productions. For me, the stand-outs were Simon Meadows as Alberich and James Egglestone as Loge. Both are major and demanding roles and were performed at a very high standard. Like many, I had been looking forward to Warwick Fyfe playing Wotan, however, I understand quarantine restrictions prevented him coming to Melbourne. His alternate, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i took the role last night and carried it off very well, although at times his presence seemed a little light, and towards the end I felt he was tiring. Of the others I must single out Roxane Hislop’s brief and spine-tingling appearance as Erda in the final scene.
The orchestral part in the Ring always presents a challenge, as Wagner requires both a big string sound and a vast array of wind and percussion. I wondered how the Regent would cope, and I still don’t understand how over 45 string players and all that wind managed to fit in the pit. As with the singing, the orchestra, under the direction of the seasoned Anthony Negus, was very good indeed. Perhaps the strings could have been a little stronger, and there were the inevitable occasional wobbles in the brass, but overall it was carried off most satisfactorily.
So to the production itself, and it is here the challenges are found as directors and designers try to stamp their styles and extract life from an essentially static scenario. There have been many approaches over the years, not the least Patrice Chéreau’s hydro-electric dam and prostitute Rhinemaidens in the 1976 Bayreuth production. Director Suzanne Chaundy and set designer Andrew Bailey have taken a more conservative, albeit contemporary, approach in this production. The first scene with the Rhinemaidens and Alberich was relatively straightforward and the addition of silent Rhinemaidens on sway-poles in the background was most effective. The third scene in a semi-subterranean Nibelheim was almost a bit too dark at times to make out what was happening. The second and fourth scenes, which Wagner notionally set on a mountaintop, were on a flat stage with a circular opening to things below, and largely relied on the principals to give a sense of location and purpose. For the most part it worked well, although the closing minutes of the last scene, from where Donner clears the air with his thunderstorm-summoning “Heda! Hedo! Zu mir, du Gedift!” (possibly the closest thing to an aria in the whole opera) to the forming of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, seemed a little aimless in spots. I suspect synchronising the music and set movements was a challenge. While the costuming was relatively subdued, I did wonder about the mixture of timeless robes for some of the cast and modern dress for others. Was having Loge dressed like someone from Guys and Dolls really that necessary to signal his role?
Minor quibbles aside, I felt this was a very satisfactory production of this major and quite challenging work. See it if you can, either in person or on the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall livestream. I’m certainly looking forward to the next three in the cycle.
Photo credit: Robin Halls
Jim Breen reviewed the production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” presented by Melbourne Opera at the Regent Theatre on Feb 3, 2021.