Breathing as one, the Melbourne Ring Orchestra brass introduced the third and final day of Wagner’s music drama with another of the composer’s masterstrokes: a dramatic stricken chord that resolved into ascending waves of arpeggios from upper strings and winds. From the first two chords marking “Brünnhilde’s Awakening” to watery undulations and birdsong, the scene was set for Fate to take its course in Götterdämmerung.
Continuing in the vein of his surprisingly domestic, down-to-earth conception of Mime’s dwelling, Neil Armfield’s Norns were a trio of ordinary-looking seamstresses plying their needles and thread on the torn, inverted Valhalla backdrop featured in Das Rheingold. Tania Ferris, Jacqueline Dark and Anna-Louise Cole sang expressively and, for the most part, with full even tone as they recalled Wotan’s days of power. Their trio predicting Valhalla’s imminent downfall after the thread snapped was sung with considerable power and intensity.
After the Norns had exited carrying the ruined cloth, a large frame dominated the stage for the remainder of the opera and became, in turn, the mattress-decked rocky height sheltering Brünnhilde, the Gibichung hall and the hunting arenas. It was a bare frame for most of the opera, but in Act II a handsome white cover turned it into a wedding marquee. As it revolved, the cast entered and exited to provide slick, almost magical, transformations that echoed those of Hunding’s hut and the magician’s box. The setting for Brünnhilde’s ring of fire finally became the scene of her immolation as the frame was set ablaze, to dazzling effect. This was another daring technical move that appeared to go without a hitch. Even the fiery wedding bouquet that presented ongoing problems in 2013 worked beautifully. There was nothing to detract from the sight of the doomed lovers and the Rhinemaidens’ retrieval of the ring from Brünnhilde – and Hagen’s demise.
From the first scene where she celebrates her love for Siegfried and sends him off to perform heroic deeds, Lise Lindstrom sang passionately and intelligently, never forcing her voice for the lower notes. An outstanding actress, she inhabited the role and invested it with meaningful subtlety. Her changes in mood as she was confronted with Siegfried’s betrayal were sharply focused without ever being overdrawn. Her final scene with its soaring top notes could not have been more emotionally charged and cathartic as she joined the figure of her dead husband in an act of self-sacrifice. With no horse in sight, Lindstrom’s riveting description of Brünnhilde’s ride into the flames on her beloved Grane was undoubtedly more thrilling than a more literal staging would have been.
Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried was sung with his customary smooth, ringing tone, ample reserves of breath and, in Act III, a rousing top C. As an acting role Siegfried poses certain problems. Even though Brünnhilde has tried to impart her wisdom during their time on the rock, Hagen’s drug causes him to forget her. His shabby act of winning a bride for Gunther by subterfuge is yet another alienating dimension of his personality. His reaction to Brünnhilde’s outrage and Gutrune’s distress calls for the singer to strike a balance between innocence, idiocy and something more gallant. It is a tall order, one that Vinke seemed to be in the process of refining. For all Siegfried’s more appealing qualities of affability, love of heroic deeds and connection with nature, he still presented as a weak man easily lured by the charms of pretty females such as the Rhinemaidens. Armfield emphasised the less ideal aspects of his nature when Siegfried unzipped his pants after his encounter with them.
Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews once again made a splendid trio. Amusing in their head-banging, feather-plucking misery at having lost their gold, they were in especially finely blended voice when warning Siegfried to give back the ring or face disaster. Sian Pendry was an urgent, rich voiced Waltraute as she pleaded with Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens.
The Gibichung siblings are an ill-assorted bunch of wealthy aristocrats. As half-brother Hagen, Daniel Sumegi may not have looked like the son of the dwarf Alberich, but his sonorous dark bass was charged with menace. His ferocious summoning of the Gibichung men with a commanding “Hoiho!” forbade hesitation. Entering from the wings and the auditorium the men’s chorus responded to what sounded like a call to arms with virile enthusiasm. It is not until the Götterdämmerung that the chorus makes its appearance in the Ring Cycle and they seemed eager to make their mark. With basses on one side of the stage and tenors on the other, the solid blast of splendid stereophonic singing was tremendously thrilling. Quieter moments later on were equally effective.
At the beginning of Act I the unmarried Gunther and Gutrune were seen sweating it out on exercise machines. Easily manipulated by a flattering Hagen, who is under instructions from Alberich to seize the ring, they are persuaded to secure Brünnhilde and Siegfried as spouses. In 2013 Taryn Fiebig sang the role of the Woodbird and has made a successful transition to the role of Gutrune. Her voice was reasonably light, but had a lovely golden, resonant clarity that projected well. Physically, she suited the ultra feminine, Paris Hilton-type conception and played the role with emotional conviction. Luke Gabbedy’s strong baritone and commitment to the role gave substance to the character of Gunther, eliciting some sympathy for this weak, unprincipled man, killed by Hagen when he denounced him for Siegfried’s murder.
Warwick Fyfe made the most of Alberich’s relatively short appearances in Götterdämmerung. At the beginning of Act II he crept slowly across the front of a gloomy stage with Nosferatu-like hands extended. Standing behind the sleeping Hagen, the continuous running of his pale boney hands over Hagen’s body as he urged him to seize the ring may have been a little excessive, but the evil, persuasive intensity of his voice was chilling. Daniel Sumegi’s ghastly face as he contemplated suicide and slept on his watch added to the power of a scene underpinned by sinister orchestral colour.
A more cheerful picture was created when Siegfried left his rapturous time with Brünnhilde to sail down the Rhine. Armfield connected us to the drama by having members of the cast dance to the glorious music of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. In a festive mood of streamers and dancing young volunteers were placed at the front to perform appealing simple dance steps, but the more balletic movements of the professional dancers seemed a little out of place. What was most exhilarating was the wide sweep of the rowing motion as the stage revolved.
Armfield’s treatment of the Death of Siegfried with its solemn funeral march resulted in a particularly moving sequence as Siegfried’s body was washed and prepared for “burial”. The gentle application of white paint to Siegfried’s face signalled his transformation to another state of being and set the stage for Brünnhilde’s ultimate transformation.
As the back curtain was raised to reveal representatives of all four episodes of the Ring Cycle seated on the rainbow staircase behind the flames, we were reminded that we too are actors in the drama of life. We had been warned of the follies of hubris and the fragility of our world that could end in a similar twilight.
Before the beginning of the final Act, Pietari Inkinen and the orchestra had been given an enthusiastic, partly standing ovation. By the end of this long and complex music drama, culminating in glorious singing, inspired playing and extraordinary visual effects, virtually the whole audience was on its collective feet, cheering away. It seemed singularly appropriate when the ring was bestowed on the indefatigable conductor whose powerful baton had conjured up the magic of Wagner’s masterpiece.
Heather Leviston reviewed Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the final opera in the Ring Cycle on November 28, 2016. Opera Australia’s production of Götterdämmerung is at the Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre.