As I wrote last year in my review of Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold, I was hoping my next attendance at a performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle would be in Brisbane in late 2021. That season has been postponed again until late 2023, so the continuation of Melbourne Opera’s cycle with a production of Die Walküre is particularly welcome.
If staging Das Rheingold was a major challenge for a small company, moving on to Die Walküre is a far greater one. While it is not a big opera physically – there is no chorus, there are rarely more than a few people on stage at once, no triumphal marches or auto-da-fé – the dramatic, emotional and musical challenges over its almost four hours of running time are immense.
The current production at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre continued with what director Suzanne Chaundy calls the “modernist/brutalist scenic design” we were given in Das Rheingold, so effectively executed again by Andrew Bailey. That said, it had a quite traditional feel to it, far more than was the case in other Australian productions of the Ring. It was mercifully free of extraneous stage business, and if this resulted in some relatively static stretches, it also provided the opportunity for the music and text to be explored without distraction.
Staging this opera at Her Majesty’s was an interesting move. It is not a particularly big theatre, and while the demands of the stage itself are not great, it is usually seen in a much more spaced-out setting. The limited sight-lines in the stalls meant that multiple subtitle screens were deployed to the sides which at times was a bit distracting. How the pit and associated areas coped with the large orchestra, with its extended wind and brass sections, is quite beyond me. Given the constraints of a pickup orchestra with limited rehearsal time, the orchestral support and sound was generally very good. Conductor Anthony Negus’s direction was firm, sympathetic and highly effective.
The first act, set in the loveless house of Sieglinde and Hunding, depends entirely on the three soloists to establish the musical and emotional foundation of the opera. In this production we were fortunate to have three excellent artists to perform these roles. Steven Gallop, last year’s Fafner, was a solid and sinister Hunding; Bradley Daley most satisfactory as the conflicted and doomed Siegmund, and Lee Abrahmsen quite outstanding as Sieglinde. She is the only character who appears in all three acts, growing in stature as the drama develops, and this aspect was very well handled,
The second act was in a mountain setting reprising the scenery of Das Rheingold, complete with the ring-like opening in the stage, which this time encompassed an echo of the ash tree from the first act. Here we meet the two central characters of the opera: Wotan, sung brilliantly by Warwick Fyfe, and his favourite daughter and eponymous valkyrie Brünnhilde, sung by Zara Barrett. Here too is the unravelling of Wotan’s plans for his incestuous children to lead to the recovery of the Ring itself, under the assault of his wife Fricka, the Goddess of marriage. The extended scene between Fricka and Wotan has the potential to be flat and boring, and it is a tribute to Sarah Sweeting that she was able to carry it off so effectively. From then on the tragedy of the tale is inevitable, with Brünnhilde’s defiance of Wotan and the deaths of Siegmund and Hunding setting the path to the final act.
The third act, bookended by the Ride of the Valkyries, and Wotan’s Farewell and the Magic Fire Music, was also staged in a direct and unadorned manner which allowed the music and text to carry the drama. The opening scene with the Valkyries in full flight was most effective, as it should have been as it was performed by some of the most well-known opera singers in Australia: Rosamund Illing, Sally-Anne Russell, Dimity Shepherd, to name a few. It was free of gimmicks such as the truly awful “Wunderbar” of the 2004 Adelaide Ring, but I really wondered why the slain heroes being brought to Valhalla by the Valkyries were being cast unceremoniously into pits. The central scene, with Brünnhilde arriving with Sieglinde and the latter’s discovery that she is pregnant was particularly effective.
The final scene, with Wotan’s condemnation of Brünnhilde to mortality, and his partial relenting to restrict her future ownership to a hero, is inevitably the high point of the opera. And so it was in this production, but I couldn’t help feeling it was just a little bit flat, despite the excellence of the setting and the effectiveness of the ring of fire. Looking back at it I may be comparing it too much with memorable past performances such as Lisa Gasteen and John Brocheler in Adelaide in 2004. Throughout both the latter acts I felt that Zara Barrett’s portrayal of Brünnhilde was somewhat restrained and this perhaps led to my overall impression.
Once again Melbourne Opera has shown us that it is capable of scaling the heights which few small and local companies would attempt, and that it can do so with memorable success. While I had a few doubts after last year’s Rheingold, this production of Die Walküre has demonstrated that the complete cycle is within its capabilities. Not that the next two operas are plain sailing: Siegfried has significant challenges and Götterdämmerung is quite a horror to bring together. I’m very much looking forward to the complete cycle. Perhaps 2023 will be the year of two Australian Rings.
Photo credit: Robin Hall
Jim Breen reviewed Melbourne Opera’s production of “Die Walküre”, presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre on February 9, 2022.