A reviewer would seldom draw attention to cast sheets, but Opera Australia’s decision to feature Jeff Busby’s splendid whole-page photographs deserves special attention since they highlight a pivotal aspect of each opera. For Das Rheingold James Johnson (Wotan) is a portrait of solemn, conflicted god-like power; for Die Walküre Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner personify human passion as incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde. The expression on Amber Wagner’s face encapsulates her suffering and the bliss of finding a soul mate. It might be the same production, but the emphasis on love in this remount of Die Walküre is so much stronger.
“First day, music drama in three acts” begins with the thrilling sounds of the chase as Siegmund is pursued by Sieglinde’s brutal husband, Hunding, a role sung with distinction by a forbidding and darkly sonorous Jud Arthur. With the orchestra again in spine-tingling form an exhausted Siegmund finds refuge at his enemy’s hearth – a small cabin at the centre of the revolving stage against the black background with flakes of paper snow turning to springtime pink and green as love blooms. Images are offered as suggestions or metaphors rather than literal visual truths. The lovers sit and lie in the “snow” and the sword is planted at the edge of the revolve with no sign of an ash tree. Where the essential truth lies is in the music, the singing and the interaction between the characters. And it could not have been more convincing.
The graduated interactions between the two lovers as they fought to take their eyes off each other and the heightened passion of their singing was enough to make you rush out and tell the world that you just had to come and hear this opera even if it meant paying off the price of the ticket for the next ten years. And there was more to come that reinforced this response. From the moment Amber Wagner started singing it was clear that this is a rare voice. Rich and full in the lower registers and powerful in the upper, it flowed in unforced splendour. She was totally immersed in the character and seemed to inspire Bradley Daley to give of his ringing Heldentenor best. Their heart-wrenching narratives of loss and isolation and the surging duets were about as emotionally charged as they could be while retaining vocal control. They were certainly tremendously affecting from an audience point of view and made subsequent scenes with Wotan and Brünnhilde all the more meaningful.
After an hour of such intense drama it may have been no bad thing that the scheduled seventy-five minute interval was extended by one hour due to a technical problem. Although it made for a very long evening indeed, anybody who decided that they needed to bail out would have missed something pretty special in the next Act. Lise Lindstrom was a lithe, ardent Brünnhilde, every bit the feisty, gleeful teenage warrior as she strode down the circular Valhalla ramp with a ringing “Hoyotoho!” Her bond with Wotan was immediately evident; they were kindred spirits in league against the disapproving Fricka.
This battle was marvelous to behold as Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka implacably asserted her rightful claims. Her well-projected voice encompassed strong, burnished high notes guaranteed to bend any man to her will. Her look of triumph as she faced down the illegitimate offspring of her husband and Erda was masterly. Even Julie Bishop could learn from her death stare. The encounter between Wotan and Fricka was charged with tension and animosity, but equally intense was way the love between Wotan and his child was portrayed by Johnson and Lindstrom. Wagner might have a reputation for demanding big stentorian sounds from his singers but, in fact, his scoring is very kind to singers most of the time, especially those who have a conductor as sensitive to their ongoing needs as Pietari Inkinin. Lindstrom’s voice is light and youthful in the lower reaches, but it was possible to hear everything and she gave the top notes plenty of oomph without sounding forced or blurring the trill of her battle cry.
Again, what was set up in this Act accentuated the weight of what followed when Brünnhilde had to face the consequences of defying her father’s orders. Of course, the most familiar moment of this opera, and possibly all operas, comes at the beginning of Act III as the Valkyries make their entry. Amidst a war-weary looking press of humanity trudging on the revolving stage Neil Armfield had fallen heroes laid low then Valkyries descend from trapezes to collect them. Of the eight Valkyries it is difficult to single out any for special mention since they all sang well and acted with fiery conviction. It was, however, particularly exciting to hear the next generation of Australian singers make such a favourable impression; Anna-Louise Cole for one is definitely a new talent to watch further.
It may have been partly the unresolved failure of Brünnhilde’s platform to rise at the centre of the ring of fire that had been the cause of the prolonged interval. Whatever the case, it was of no importance within the context of a farewell scene as moving as the one brought to us by James Johnson and Lise Lindstrom. The accumulation of emotion was, surely, just as Wagner intended.
The audience seemed even more enthusiastic after this very, very long night than they had on opening night. They adored Amber Wagner – such a shame that Sieglinde has to die. Lise Lindstrom received a particularly enthusiastic reception and the others had their share of cheers. Cast and audience alike showed their appreciation of Pietari Inkinin and the orchestra: that gorgeous soft (and loud) brass, the oboe, cor anglais, double basses, cellos… the list goes on. I heard things I have never noticed before, despite having heard this opera many times in the flesh and almost wearing out the grooves of my old RCA recording, treasured since I was a teenager. Go and see it!
Heather Leviston reviewed Opera Australia’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre on November 23.
Heather notes that the cast sheet featured a beautiful picture of the amorous twins, leaving no doubt about their passion for each other … but we have been unable to locate it in the files we were given!