Pietari Inkinen and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra created an unearthly atmosphere of mythic dominions as muted dark woodwinds, a wonderfully yawning tuba and ominous Wagner tubas/horns introduced the “Second day” of Wagner’s music drama. Progressing from the weighty evocation of the dragon Fafner in his cave the music gathered momentum to depict the labours of the dwarves and Mime’s forge with its metallic hammerings.
Neil Armfield’s direction and Robert Cousins’ set juxtaposed incongruous elements in this opening scene. An ordinary modern kitchen and bedroom were framed by a huge structure referencing the double proscenium arch of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus. In keeping with the domestic context, Graeme Macfarlane’s Mime was more cranky fusspot than evil dwarf, so much so that we tended to feel a bit sorry for him when Siegfried’s petulant taunts and brattish behaviour made life harder for him. The amusing business where he sniffed the milk and ran around with brush and shovel added to the feeling that he was essentially harmless. Even when he concocted the fatal brew, pouring RATSACK into the thermos, his glee was more comical than alarming. Nevertheless, Macfarlane’s voice had a suitably biting edge that not only projected well, but also made his ill intent quite clear. He was a sharp portrait of frustrated ambition as he tried to forge the sword and get the better of the Wanderer.
With long, grey unkempt hair but still wearing his fur coat (a favourite item of clothing for Wagner himself), James Johnson’s Wanderer was an older, more world-weary version of the Wotan of the first two Ring operas. His confrontation with Mime was relaxed but full of assured authority. His even, unforced vocal production was eminently suited to all episodes of the narrative. There was amusement at Mime’s pitiful arrogance and easy confidence when facing the hatred of a much more wary Alberich. His cries of “Wache, Wale!” rang powerfully as he summoned the “eternal woman… primevally wise” Erda from her sleep but there was also tenderness in the exchange as certain realities were made clear. Liane Keegan’s charismatic tone and her portrayal of a wisdom that knows its limits were, one again, compelling. The final confrontation with Siegfried, where the Wanderer/Wotan cedes power to a new, self-reliant order was a persuasive mixture of acceptance and determined test of his brash grandson’s resolve.
In all these battles of wills, Johnson had worthy opponents. Although Stefan Vinke no longer wore the “Where’s Wally?” type jersey of the 2013 production, he was still a picture of ignorant, immature, youth. His frustration and anger were the overwhelming force of Act I as he turned on Mime with disgust and competed with the din of his own hammering, forging his sword with gusto while singing above the clangour with impressive Heldentenor power. Vinke sang with much more gentle lyricism in Act 2 as Siegfried communed with nature, free of his bondage to Mime, and endeared himself to the audience at last.
As the Woodbird Julie Lea Goodwin was a shimmer of balletic flight and a dainty complement to Vinke’s naïve, nature-loving Siegfried. Her bright, attractive tone with its fluttering top notes was well suited to the role. Vinke was all fearless defiance as he challenged the Wanderer, killed Mime and entered Fafner’s cave to fulfill Alberich’s curse.
The slaying of the dragon was in keeping with the theatrical element of this production with streamers of “blood” shooting from the mouth of the cave and a naked Judd Arthur stumbling out clothed only in gore. A theatrical context had been established during the orchestral Prelude to Act II, again featuring the tuba growl, as Judd Arthur slowly transformed himself beneath the proscenium arch. As if in a theatre dressing room he sat naked before a mirror while a giant projection of his face provided a magnified view. Jud Arthur’s powerful, resonant bass, whether amplified or not, was once again very impressive.
When Siegfried parted the glittering curtain of fire to find Brünnhilde we were confronted with another of Armfield’s visual leitmotifs. Instead of the platform surrounded by the ring of fire Brünnhilde had been placed in a crate, just like the animals that had appeared in Wotan’s Valhalla of Das Rheingold. The collection of animals for museums was in full swing in Wagner’s day and Armfield and Cousins have referenced New York’s Guggenheim museum in Valhalla’s long spiral ramp and its chandelier of stuffed animals suspended in the middle.
Along with the animals, it would seem that Wotan has also sought to preserve Brünnhilde until a hero braves the flames and rescues her. In the end we know that she is destined to die along with her hero – a species as doomed as her saviour and the gods themselves. Anybody reading the surtitles had to suspend disbelief as Siegfried removed the plastic wrapping and awakened the woman he had been seeking – a woman who bore a striking resemblance to a young Catherine Deneuve. “Das ist kein Mann!” (That is no man!) usually provokes an audience chuckle and it was inevitable that it would here.
Lise Lindstrom’s portrayal of Brünnhilde’s gradual awakening was beautifully paced. The final extended duet as Brünnhilde embraced her destiny and Siegfried claimed his bride was a rapturous climax to the opera with both Lindstrom and Vinke riding the waves of passion in soaring form. The demands of this duet following the amount of singing allotted to Siegfried in this opera was a reminder of how difficult it is to find a Heldentenor who can manage the role as splendidly as Stefan Vinke.
Singers, conductor and orchestra were all given another tremendously enthusiastic reception by an appreciative audience.
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of Opera Australia’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Siegfried at the Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on November 25, 2016.