By James L. Paulk
MELBOURNE – For years, the stream of news regarding Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle has been uniformly grim. It was originally planned as a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, and work began in 2010. A year ago, Houston withdrew, leaving a hole in the budget. Then the original Wotan dropped out, followed later by both the Siegfried and the Alberich. And last May, after investing two years in the project, the conductor, Richard Mills, a distinguished Australian musician, announced his departure.
Mills, who had never conducted a Ring, cited a lack of “unity of vision,” and there were reports of blow-ups with the Wagner veterans in the cast. But Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, told me in an interview that Mills’ departure was not related to cast relations. Whatever the reason, with only weeks to go before the start of rehearsals, Terracini found himself shopping for a conductor for a $20 million Ring, the most important project ever mounted by OA. (Although two Rings have been staged in Adelaide in recent years, the company there is not part of Opera Australia, which is the principal company for Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.)
At this point, Terracini said, he was approached by many conductors, including some of the most famous in the world, several with considerable experience with the Ring. But he’d been intrigued by a 33-year-old Finn, Pietari Inkinen. As music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2008, and with a full calendar of guest work in Europe, Inkinen is clearly on the rise. He conducted Das Rheingold and Die Walküre at Palermo, part of a planned Ring directed by Graham Vick. That cycle was axed in May because of financial difficulties.
Despite his rising star, Inkinen would seem to have been a huge gamble. But reports from Palermo were uniformly positive, Terracini said, and he “felt it crucial that the conductor be able to come, from day one right through to the end, here working on this Ring” – a commitment of four months that eliminated all the more famous prospects. Terracini flew to New Zealand to hear Inkinen conduct a Verdi Requiem, which turned out to be “fantastic, despite having no rehearsal with the chorus and all sorts of extraordinary things.” So he took him to lunch and offered him the job.
For the Wotan, the company turned to a 70-year-old Norwegian, Terje Stensvold, who’s sung the role in Europe. The Siegfried replacement was Stefan Vinke, a promising German. But for the role of Alberich, Terracini decided to stick with the cover, Warwick Fyfe, a local fellow new to the role and to singing at this level. The other principal roles had been cast with some of the best singers available, but the news of all these changes, and these lesser known principals, added to the perception of a doomed project. And then the curtain opened….
Neil Armfield, the director, has worked extensively in Australia and Europe, and he’s done a few things in the U.S. over the years. His Tristan und Isolde, originally done in Australia in the ’90s, opened Washington National Opera’s season in September and was severely pared-down, virtually semi-staged. But in Melbourne, Das Rheingold began with a mass of humanity in swimsuits, lying on a beach, their image reflected in a gigantic tilted mirror. The Rhine-maidens were dressed as showgirls, with skimpy outfits and head-dresses. Alberich, dumpy and awkward, wearing thick glasses, was a nerdy misfit. The crowd milled, opening paths for the principals as they chased around. The giants rode in on cherry-pickers. The gods were in suits. Erda was a blind woman with a cane. The gold was loosely symbolized by gold pom-poms, pulled from their swimsuits by the mob as they danced around.
Alberich’s theft of the gold was portrayed via his kidnapping of a small girl, an interesting idea designed both to switch the frivolity into shocking darkness and, perhaps, to present a metaphor for the oath: With love forsworn, Alberich becomes depraved and debauched, and the world loses its innocence.
As the days passed, however, it became clear that this was not the sort of allegory-filled production typical of Rings these days. Neither was it to be the kitschy sort of thing a few early scenes had suggested. Despite the number of extras and the obviously expensive sets, by Robert Cousins, this was a remarkably simple, straightforward production. When the mob re-appeared, as it did several times, its role was simply to clarify that the Ring is about all of humanity, a concept reinforced throughout the cycle. A menagerie of stuffed animals descended from the ceiling several times to represent Wotan’s conquests, suggesting both Wotan’s environmental sins (the branch he tore from the Sacred Ash Tree), as well as the modest, human scale of things, despite all his vanity. And “human” is the operative word for this production. Die Walküre took place on a multi-level set with plentiful stairs and, like all the operas, depended on the turntable for scene changes. Hunding’s hut was a tiny, crude hunting cabin, stashed with camping equipment. Mime’s cluttered camp was a messy worksite, with a teenager’s bedroom for Siegfried, decorated by his drawings of animals.
Costumes, by Alice Babidge, were simple and modern so that, for example, the Valkyries dressed in camouflage like regular soldiers, rather than in their usual absurd outfits. Siegmund and Sieglinde were plausible as twins, with similar eyes and red wigs. And Siegfried was dressed as a typical teenager, with a striped T-shirt and jeans, changing to a suit for the wedding to Gutrune, a parody of a cheesy wedding with a white banquet tent, bridesmaids in silly outfits, and other trappings.
As Siegfried approached the dragon’s cave, we saw Fafner sitting naked, looking into a lighted mirror and applying war-paint. A stage-filling live image of this was projected on a curtain, and the stage rotated to show Siegfried and Mime’s approach, with a hole in the curtain serving as the cave entrance. After he was struck, Fafner emerged bleeding massively, still naked, turning what is normally an awkward scene into one of the most moving in the entire cycle.
Brünnhilde’s rock was reached through a shimmering gold curtain – a fierier idea was abandoned after it generated so much smoke that the singers objected. Siegfried was slain with a rifle and, after his body was prepared (also with face paint), he stood upright next to Brünnhilde, as if atop a flaming wedding cake for the immolation scene, witnessed by the mob seated in the back of the stage.
Armfield is “a wonderful story-teller,” as Terracini put it, and this was a Ring that brought the characters down to earth in a way I’ve not seen before. There are those who feel the Ring, because of its sprawling nature, needs an over-arching concept, a giant metaphor, to bring it into focus. And, of course, there are still those who feel that the Ring must have “real” gods, mermaids, dragons, etc, even if they wind up looking completely ridiculous, as they always do. By avoiding both the concept and the “original intent” baggage, Armfield gave us a Ring that is very much about us: you and me.
It helped, to put it mildly, that this was as good a cast as any of the last decade or more. The great miracle here was Vinke, who honed his craft in Europe and made a stunning appearance in Seattle’s Ring in August. In glorious voice here, he owned the role of Siegfried like no one in decades, at least since Siegfried Jerusalem’s youth. With power to spare and a ringing top, his singing seems effortless. His character progressed over the cycle from a spoiled teenager to a wiser but still impulsive hero, always persuasive, always focused. Hearing him was easily worth the airfare.
We live in an age of imperfect Brünnhildes. Susan Bullock, the English dramatic soprano who sang the role here, is arguably as good as any around, and she is in her prime. She paced herself well through the cycle and delivered with wild abandon at the important moments, always hitting her notes. The voice might not be gigantic, but it never flagged.
Stensvold, a late-blooming artist if there ever was one, was a powerful, moving Wotan of great dignity. Much better as the Wanderer than as a young god, he has the charisma for the role, and an astonishingly reliable voice for a septuagenarian. It was impossible not to watch him on the stage.
But the most astonishing discovery here was the Alberich of Warwick Fyfe. Relatively unknown even here in Melbourne, Fyfe has only recently come into his own as a Rigoletto, Scarpia, and the Dutchman. But his Alberich was that of a master: the most sympathetic, anguished, and deeply moving I can recall. And the voice is strong and flexible, with perfect intonation.
Stuart Skelton sang the role of Siegmund with a strong, gleaming voice, richer and more powerful than what I remember from hearing him in the past. He was wonderfully matched to the Sieglinde of fellow Australian Miriam Gordon-Stewart. Still, their portrayal lacked the animal intensity needed to make this scene work best. Jud Arthur was suitably menacing as Hunding.
Mime must be sympathetic on some level for the character to work, and Graeme Macfarlane was one of the most persuasive, without the absurd nasal voice often heard in this role. In Act I of Siegfried, he was convincing as the stepfather of an out-of-control teenager, a perfectly reasonable way to approach the scene. Richard Berkeley-Steele’s Loge was a dancing, prancing huckster, almost veering too far into caricature.
Fricka was portrayed by Australian Jacqueline Dark, who turned in a tour de force dramatic performance, eating up the scenery whenever she appeared. Daniel Sumigi provided a nuanced Hagen, more sensitive than any I can recall. As for the Rhine-maidens, Norns, Gibichungs, and all the other characters that populate a Ring, this was a cast that could hold its own on any continent.
The crowd favorite, though, was Inkinen. Partly this was an appreciation for the way he pulled things together at the last minute. And perhaps, as my seatmate suggested, it was because he was everyone’s “sweet grandson,” with his chubby cheeks and modest smile. But the ovations were deserved. On some level, this is still a conductor learning his craft. His Das Rheingold was taken so slowly that the orchestra was a bit overexposed, with slight coordination issues and string tone problems. But when he got to Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, he was galloping along at a pace faster than almost anyone in recent years (note that these were the two operas in the cycle he had not previously conducted). His pacing was sometimes too steady, and he occasionally covered the singers. Still, he knows how to draw a sensuous, surging sound from the orchestra, his balances were superb, and there was an indefinable energy to it all. He has the potential to be one of the great Wagner conductors of this century.
As Terracini noted, “the audience for the Wagner operas, and especially the Ring, just has stronger opinions” about everything. Or, as former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said about politics: “Good gets better, and bad gets worse.” Here, the verdict was pretty much unanimous: This was one of the best Rings anywhere in a very long time. The plan is for it to return in 2016 and again in 2019, after which it will be replaced by a new production, all in Melbourne, the only one of the three OA cities with a sufficient pit (and even that required a $4 million expansion, completed just in time) or appropriate stage facilities. So far, there are no plans to film or record the production.
James L. Paulk is an Atlanta-based freelance critic, primarily writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the ArtsATL.com website. The owner of an insurance agency, he is a former member of the Georgia State Senate, where he co-chaired the state’s first-legislative committee dealing with arts funding. He has written about classical music for more than 25 years.