The heroism of Siegfried plays out in a highly theatrical setting as Opera Australia’s addictively compelling Melbourne Ring Cycle continues.
With over four hours of music shared between just eight singers, the stamina of the cast is a wonder to behold. Wagner begins with the men, before gradually introducing female voices, and saving the best for last with a glorious extended love duet.
Returning to the theme of show business seen in Das Rheingold, director Neil Armfield stages each of the various locations of Siegfried in a gleaming white proscenium arch. Set designer Robert Cousins has conceived and crafted the multipurpose space so that it smoothly transitions from scene to scene.
The poisonous dwarf Mime has raised Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, in a makeshift space with microwave, bar fridge and bunk beds. A stout, tousled haired youth, Siegfried’s dreams of fighting dragons and bears are seen in the crayon drawings on his wall. Having re-forged the sword Nothung, Siegfried aggressively cuts through the rear wall.
In act two, this hole has been smoothed to a large circle, which eerily forms the mouth when Fafner’s face is projected onto the white wall as he applies garish makeup and practices his most terrifying faces. The set revolves, and the hole becomes the entrance to the cave where Fafner, now guarding the Nibelung gold as a dragon, resides.
Finally, a glittering gold ruched curtain fills the false proscenium, representing the wall of flames around Brünnhilde. Like the other species he has preserved and put on display at Valhalla, Wotan has left Brünnhilde the company of her horse Grane in taxidermied form.
With basically a single set for the entire evening, the work of lighting designer Damien Cooper comes to the fore in terms of sustaining visual interest. Creating as much, if not more, intrigue with shadow than with light, Cooper provides hiding places for the fringe dwellers and basks the heroes in glowing warmth.
At the beginning of each act, the audience’s appreciation for maestro Pietari Inkinen and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra is growing in frenzied volume to rock star status. Clearly having a profound knowledge of the score, and a deep love for it, Inkinen’s passionate yet calmly measured focus is the foundation on which this entire Ring Cycle is built. Highlights in Siegfried include lovely playing from woodwind representing the Woodbird, humorous trumpet blats as Siegfried attempts to call the Woodbird on his horn, and the superb sequence when Siegfried’s noble leitmotif does musical battle with the ominous rumbling leitmotif of the dragon.
Perfect casting continues Armfield’s vision of these mythical characters in human form. Next to the lofty height of Wotan and Siegfried, “dwarves” Mime and Alberich are seen as small men.
Often providing invaluable support in minor featured roles, Graeme Macfarlane rises more than capably to the task of playing the significant role of Mime. Singing the role comfortably and precisely, Macfarlane’s acting is superb as he creates sympathy and understanding for a man prepared to kill the son he has raised just to acquire material wealth.
Mighty baritone Warwick Fyfe returns to the Ring spotlight, as Alberich’s all-consuming avarice continues apace. Fyfe’s voice rings out with unwavering intensity and delicious richness of tone. Such is the level of Fyfe’s talent, he practically creates an ethical dilemma for the audience in that they are so greatly enjoying such a loathsome, self-serving character.
Liane Keegan returns as ominous Erda, again dressed vulnerably in sheer nude-coloured fabric. The quality of Keegan’s work is the sheer musicality of her voice, which floats effortlessly over the orchestra. Keegan uses her finely honed vocal expression to create an entire performance with very little facial or physical movement. The portrayal of Erda as an ethereal spirit at this point is a departure from the 2013 season, in which the character of Erda was seen an elderly woman in a wheelchair pushed by the performer who was actually singing the role.
Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin is delightfully winsome as the Woodbird, singing with tender sweetness and delivering a frolicsome physical performance that is a pleasure to watch.
His face projected to movie screen size, Jud Arthur’s intense facial expression creates one of the strongest musical interludes of this Cycle. The camera positioned so that his projected eyes peer directly at the audience, Arthur’s unflinching stare creates a deliberately uncomfortable vibe. In one of Armfield’s most audacious moves, after Siegfried has stabbed the dragon Arthur staggers onstage naked and bloodied. While it cannot be denied that Arthur is in great shape, this is still a bold move and Arthur performs with unflinching fortitude to make the interpretation as natural as possible.
As his epic performance across the Cycle continues, James Johnson is in excellent form as Wotan, known in Siegfried as the Wanderer. Johnson’s supreme talent for legato phrasing is a feature of his singing in this installment. Obviously seeing the Cycle as a marathon and not a sprint, Johnson is showing an exacting level of control on his singing and acting performance. The result is fully realised characterisation that earns the audience’s admiration and affection in gentle degrees.
German heldentenor Stefan Vinke takes on the mammoth role of Siegfried with unflustered composure and superbly measured endurance. Successfully embodying the wide-eyed, playful aspects of the initially innocent young man, Vinke adds layers as Siegfried goes on to kill and then to love. Vinke sings with requisite strength, and particularly impresses in quieter moments, such as Siegfried’s sensitive contemplations on his mother. Vinke plays the hero without overplaying the heroics, creating a grounded realism to what can be a larger than life figure.
With the sneaky benefit of joining the opera in its last leg at full freshness, Lise Lindstrom is in blisteringly good form as Brünnhilde awakens from her enforced slumber. Form her first soaring notes, the sumptuous colour in Lindstrom’s extraordinary soprano thrill and invigorate the audience. Having preserved plenty of power for the finale, Vinke also seems refreshed opposite Lindstrom, and the pair makes deliriously beautiful music together.
The stage is set for a thrilling climax to the Melbourne Ring Cycle with Monday’s performance of Götterdämmerung.
Cycle One of The Melbourne Ring Cycle continues over the coming week at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne. Cycle Two commences 30 November 2016, and Cycle Three commences 9 December 2016.
There are various Ring Events occurring around Melbourne during The Ring Cycle.
Arts Centre Melbourne has a series of interval dining options inspired by the world of The Ring Cycle.
See 11 photos from the 2013 Melbourne Ring Cycle: Siegfried.
Read Man in Chair’s 2016 review of Das Rheingold.
Read Man in Chair’s 2016 review of Die Walküre.
Read Man in Chair’s 2016 review of Götterdämmerung.
Read Man in Chair’s 2012 review of the Metropolitan Opera Ring Cycle.
Photos: Jeff Busby