It’s a wrap: The Melbourne Ring

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Published: 21st December, 2016

With selections from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen still shuffling away in my mind’s ear, I wondered whether my life really had changed when, two days after the final performance, the first song played on Andrew Ford’s Sunday program sounded like Brünnhilde’s Leitmotif. Could it possibly have been “borrowed”? Highly unlikely. It should have come as no surprise that, after the Dress Rehearsal Cycle, and Cycles One and Three, Wagner’s music had taken root so firmly that other music would be perceived through a Ring prism.

Melbourne’s 2013 commemoration of Richard Wagner’s birth was not more whole-hearted than it has been this year. Among the preludes to Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle were two illuminating presentations in the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon: “Wagner in Paris, A Story of Prison, Ambition & Song” and “Wagner – His Contemporaries & Followers”. In addition to some splendid musical items, particularly by Alex Raineri, both drew on letters by and about Wagner in which some of his less appealing characteristics were revealed.

Midstream came more Wagner with Simone Young conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from Parsifal. With Michelle DeYoung a striking Kundry and our own Stuart Skelton as Parsifal it was a highlight of the season. It also came as some consolation to Wagner tragics who had missed out on hearing Skelton and the glorious Nina Stemme sing the roles of Tristan and Isolde in Hobart with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. At least we had been able to see them in the Met filmed version a couple of months earlier. We could also tune in to the 3MBS broadcast of Skelton’s Siegmund for the concurrent Hong Kong Die Walküre, being recorded live for Naxos.

Brünnhilde Saves the World provided an introduction to Wagner’s world for children in an adaptation by David Kram. Although some of Leigh Ryan’s images of Sieglinde and Brünnhilde showed them semi-naked (a strange idea for children!), Nicole Wallace and Michael Lampard gave creditable performances in a variety of roles.

Heath Lees, musicologist and founder of the Wagner Society in New Zealand, gave a series of illustrated lectures before each opera. Although I only managed to hear his final lecture this time round, Ring virgin friends filled me in and were most impressed by Lees’ detailed knowledge and his skills as a pianist. Highly articulate and entertaining, he provided valuable insights and points of reference that added a great deal to the experience of the operas, even for those who had seen them several times.

Lees’ stamina was also impressive. The day after the final opera he fronted up to the Wheeler Centre for “Ring True: Music, Identity and Obsession”. The host, Casey Bennetto in ebullient form, entered singing in his best (but not the best) operatic form to have light shone on his admitted ignorance. Joining Lees in shedding that light was Jad Abumrad, host and creator of the US public radio program, Radiolab and a one-hour Ring Cycle summary, The Ring and I. It was a fascinating discussion that raised as well as answered questions. We were reminded that despite being a “despicable person – sponger, womaniser and anti-Semite” Wagner created works of genius that continue to yield unexpected gold. We were left wondering what a post-Trump director might have made of Trump Tower and the quest for wealth at the expense of the natural world.

As it was, a major focus of Neil Armfield’s production is man’s threat to ecological balance. Apparently, that is why the new management of Houston Opera, complete with oil magnates, decided not to proceed with a joint venture with Opera Australia. We are fortunate indeed that, thanks to the support of Maureen and Tony Wheeler, this production was able to go ahead. And second time round it was even better than before.

While the production was essentially the same, some aspects of the staging had been adjusted to accommodate new singers, mainly Liane Keegan who took on the persona of Earth Mother for Erda. The lighting had also been fine-tuned to intensify the drama. There were a couple of unscheduled variations for the Die Walküre; the first interval was extended by an hour because of technical difficulties for the first Cycle, and Dean Bassett rose to the occasion when he was obliged to sing the part of Siegmund from the side of the stage for Act 2 after a throat infection prevented Bradley Daley from continuing in the final performance. Rather than detracting from the momentum, both mishaps only seemed to add to the buzz of excitement. By the end of Cycle Three, any reservations lingering in my mind about the production were eclipsed by the commanding performances of the orchestra and singers.

Those who were reprising their roles had further consolidated their interpretations. Warwick Fyfe, a great success as Alberich in 2013, had the audiences in raptures. It would be difficult to find a more warmly received villain. His final Rheingold in particular was simply astonishing in its intensity and vocal power. As the other villain, Daniel Sumegi remained a fabulous Hagan and took the booing along with the cheers in very good part.

New Australian and American singers added both interest and their own personal strengths. For some, Amber Wagner as a passionate Sieglinde was the big revelation. Possessing a voice of surpassing beauty and amplitude, she had many of us in awe from her first note. Another star turn, Lise Lindstrom also had audiences marveling. It was almost impossible to believe that this was her first complete Brünnhilde. With a steady, soaring voice and total commitment to her role, she gave it her all. Strong as a true Valkyrie right to the end of an incredibly grueling schedule, she made her scenes with James Johnson’s Wotan and Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried electrifying. She had quite a few of us sobbing into our tissues by the end of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. The strong rapport between all principal singers was a key element of the emotional power wielded by this Ring.

The fact that Pietari Inkinen and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra joined the cast on stage for the prolonged standing ovation at the end of each Cycle acknowledged their vital importance. At the end of each Cycle Lindstrom would present the ring to Inkinen; throwing it into the pit at the final performance provided a highly satisfying sense of completion.

As this Ring came full circle the volunteers sat on the back steps for the curtain calls, a reminder of one of the most important aspects of the whole Ring phenomenon: a shared humanity. This was seen not only on stage, but also in a number of other ways. In addition to supporting Warwick Fyfe, Brad Daley and Liane Keegan, Victoria’s Richard Wagner Society organised Heath Lees’ presentations and a number of activities to welcome interstate and overseas visitors. Several members were part of the troupe of volunteers on stage and many attended the three extremely interesting interviews with cast principals hosted by OA’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, on successive Sunday mornings.

Arts Centre Melbourne’s management did their bit too by making it easier for audience members to purchase food and sit around various areas to chat and compare notes. Locals mingled with interstate and overseas visitors and Ring virgins mingled with seasoned Ring aficionados.

Most importantly, Opera Australia reduced the price of tickets for under-30s and students, and even provided some free tickets for school children for the Dress Rehearsal so that they too could be swept away by the concentrated power and intensity of an astonishing masterpiece. In addition to creating a new audience for opera, this promotion ensured that many more people could share in an unforgettable experience.