Melbourne Opera triumphantly presents the keenly anticipated second instalment of their ever-so-patiently crafted Ring Cycle, Die Walküre.
Staging an epic masterwork without government funding is miraculous enough, all the more miraculous at this seemingly never-ending time of much-needed but patience-frazzling health restrictions. For a third miracle, throw in an exceptionally talented all-Australian cast. The fact that the finished product is proudly world-class is the culmination of all of these miracles, with the stellar standard coming as no surprise to devoted operagoers who have steadfastly followed as Melbourne Opera has scaled the heights of the potentially indomitable Wagner canon with an ever increasing abundance of skill and flair.
Coming just over a year since Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (which is episode two of four, to use limited prestige series lingo) plays the sumptuous space of Her Majesty’s Theatre, a grand yet still relatively intimate operatic space with mostly excellent sight-lines and wonderful acoustics.
Seen at a size never even approached by the commercial musicals that usually play at the Maj, the capacious orchestra pit grandly holds some 80 members of the Melbourne Opera Orchestra. The musicians are heard at their best as they tirelessly bring out the luscious, highly expressive beauty of Wagner’s wondrous score.
At one with the music, Maestro Anthony Negus coaxes an excellent performance from the musicians. Generally keeping volumes at sympathetic levels to support the singers, Negus nonetheless lets loose for mighty moments of power. The sterling quality of instrumental and vocal music allows the audience to simply relax and thoroughly enjoy the whole experience.
Director Suzanne Chaundy oversees a clear conceptual continuum from Das Rheingold, again wisely giving key attention to the sheer scale of emotion required to capture and maintain audience engagement and for the climactic moments to land with full force. The impact of the drama can only be described as a success, the characters holding firm against the necessary focus on the music.
Andrew Bailey’s generously proportioned, solidly constructed settings begin by showcasing the tree of ash framed by a clear ring motif, all set beneath a sloping roof that conjures an underworld province. Rob Sowinski’s bold lighting conveys the gloom of bitter winter in act one without sacrificing sufficiently clear facial light for the singers.
Act two opens on the underground ash tree before an early coup de theatre sees the tree fly out and the ceiling tilt all the way down to the floor to reveal the gods in their radiant heavens.
Costume designer Harriet Oxley continues a glimmering metallic theme for the gods, a concept seen at its best in the glossy set of individual outfits for the Valkyries.
Lee Abrahmsen and Bradley Daley are a sweetly matched pair as long separated twin gods, Sieglinde and Siegmund.
Abrahmsen deftly balances vulnerability with burgeoning resilience, singing the role with tender focus and lush, silvery tone. In act three, as Sieglinde buffets from despair to blazing hope, Abrahmsen summons palpable emotion as she pours forth with what is arguably her greatest singing performance to date, and that is really saying something.
With apparent ease, Daley provides Siegmund’s clarion heldentenor vocals, his voice ringing forth with heroic notes that are never overly projected.
The most reliable of opera veterans, Steven Gallop delivers another neatly judged performance, bringing an odious sense of entitlement to Hunding with nary a hint of moustache-twirling villainy. His warmly burnished bass voice in strong, supple condition, Gallop’s fine control and nimble expression leave the audience wanting more.
A breakout star of Opera Australia’s 2013 Melbourne Ring Cycle, Warwick Fyfe graduates from the grasping Alberich to the mighty Wotan. Stymied by border restrictions last year, Fyfe’s appearance in Die Walküre is the jewel in the (very shiny) crown of this highly capable all-Australian cast. Winning the audience with a cheeky wink, so to speak, from Wotan’s one good eye, Fyfe swiftly goes on to establish the patriarchal god’s authority and wrath, along with his deep affection for his dear daughter, Brünnhilde. Fyfe commands attention as he sings with wonderfully sumptuous tone and compelling dynamics and expression.
Sporting Fricka’s snake-like headdress, Sarah Sweeting channels her inner Joan Collins to spit out Fricka’s jealous venom. A solid match for Fyfe, Sweeting sings up a veritable storm as the dysfunctional partners bicker and bitch.
As Brünnhilde, soprano Zara Barrett begins a little stridently before quickly settling into a lovely characterisation of the determined young woman. Barrett’s work is particularly alluring when Brünnhilde sings above the sleeping twin gods, going on to reach further heights as the centre of attention of the Valkyries and then of her angry yet loving father Wotan in act three.
In everyone’s favourite sequence, the act three entrance of the valiant Valkyries begins with Emily Ryan and Ashlee Grunberg on sway poles, giving the vivid appearance of galloping wildly on silvery steeds.
Of the nine excellent singers playing Valkyries, living legend Rosamund Illing, as Gerhilde, is first on stage, earning a warm round of entrance applause from the opening night audience. Harmonies are at a premium as the Valkyries build in number, each performer a leading lady in their own right. In the only ensemble scene of the night, Chaundy makes the most of the chance to dress the stage with dynamic divas.
With one more terrific effect up their sleeves, Bailey and Sowinski provide a spectacular climax, as Wotan leaves his beloved Brünnhilde asleep in a ring of fire. Thankfully, Melbourne Opera has set the dates for Siegfried, leaving us all with hope in our hearts for the eventual rescue of dear Brünnhilde.
In the meantime, attendance at Die Walküre is an absolute must for Melbourne’s legion opera lovers.
Approximate running times for Die Walküre are as follows:
Act One: 70 minutes
Interval: 45 minutes
Act Two: 95 minutes
Interval 30 minutes
Act Three: 60 minutes
Die Walküre plays at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo 2pm Sunday 27 February 2022. For tickets, click here.
Photos: Robin Halls