Having mightily impressed with the first two instalments of their ambitious Ring Cycle, Melbourne Opera whetted audience appetite for their full 2023 Bendigo Ring Cycle with a full complement of splendid musical performances in Siegfried in Concert.
With the primary focus on Wagner’s extraordinary music, the hard working musicians of the Melbourne Opera Orchestra deservedly took their place centre stage. In the very capable hands of maestro Anthony Negus, the instrumental performance brought out all manner of warmth, drama, colour, and spectacle in the score.
Acoustics of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall allowed the singers to be clearly heard in all but a few moments, such as the climactic forging of the sword Nothung by Siegfried. The final thrilling bars of act one were sensational, leaving the grateful audience eager for more as they went into the first interval.
Audience comprehension was very well supported by a large overhead screen displaying surtitles with impeccably precise timing. So large is the screen, in fact, that the German lyrics are included along with the English translations. The screen was also used to convey helpful background details during the prelude to each act.
In the absence of Andrew Bailey’s settings and Harriet Oxley’s costumes, the storytelling focus was squarely upon the singers. Rather than give a simple concert performance, director Suzanne Chaundy had the cast of eight give full acting interpretations of their roles. Singers stood in their own space, facing front, as with a traditional opera concert, but action and interaction were at a premium, bringing the characters and story to engaging life.
Tenor Robert Macfarlane followed this approach enthusiastically, entering in full character and taking Mime on a maniacal arc of desperation as the greedy dwarf plotted to use his young charge Siegfried with both avaricious and deadly intent. Macfarlane repurposed the anvil leitmotif into the beating of his head in frustration and rage, tearing his hair as Mime’s schemes met infuriating obstacles.
Macfarlane sang the role with nimble vocal expression, sturdily complementing his physical acting choices.
Bradley Daley brought out the innocent optimism of Siegfried, his sunny outlook providing an entertaining counterpoint to the storm clouds of Macfarlane’s maleficent Mime.
Daley’s ringing power impressed, his clarion heldentenor never flagging throughout the epic opera. He achieved lovely tenderness when Siegfried expressed his longing for the dear mother he never met. Daley additionally impressed by being off book, allowing his open facial expression to be shared directly with the audience at all times.
Returning as Wotan, Warwick Fyfe carried his character’s commanding authority in his powerful stance, backed by potent vocal power, a strength which surged ever voluminously in moments of Wotan’s rage.
Entering with the ominous rumbling timpani at the top of act two, Simon Meadows found strength in stillness, giving Alberich a steely, unflinching power. In commanding vocal form, Meadows’ gloriously rich baritone rang forth with darkly burnished majesty. Also off book, Meadow shone brightly despite the relatively thankless nature of his role.
Seen all too briefly, Steven Gallop nonetheless made an invaluable contribution, providing a dynamic pairing Meadow. An excellent singer actor, Gallop’s menacing tone vocalised the sinister dragon form that Fafner had adopted.
Instrumental highlights in the second act included amusing playing from the oboes as Siegfried fashioned his pipe to call the Forest Bird. A sprightly French horn solo followed, with Siegfried’s noble leitmotif played with nimble dexterity and lovely tone by Evgeny Chebkykin. So expressive was the orchestral playing in the final bars of act two that the Forest Bird could practically be seen flittering overhead.
The first female to grace the stage in the concert, soprano Rebecca Rashleigh gave a luscious rendition of the sweetly supportive encouragement from the Forest Bird.
Conveying the serene majesty of mother earth herself, Deborah Humble brought a calmly focused presence to earth goddess Erda. Humble’s dramatic mezzo soprano voice commanded attention in a finely calibrated performance. To watch highly experienced artists Humble and Fyfe share the stage was a key pleasure of Siegfried in Concert.
After more than four hours, not to mention a wait of many months since the February season of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde was finally rescued by Siegfried. In the final scene of Siegfried, the audience was treated to the very welcome appearance of golden soprano Lee Abrahmsen.
Revisiting their strong chemistry from Die Walküre, in which they played Sieglinde and Siegmund, Abrahmsen and Daley ended the opera on a glorious high as Brünnhilde awoke to new life and Siegfried finally met his mother and developed the emotion of fear.
Upon entry, an audience member was heard describing the attendees at Siegfried in Concert as “the cultural elite of Melbourne.” This might be just a little too rarefied, but the opera lovers lucky enough to attend the concert were certainly treated to an unforgettable cultural event. Bring on 2023 and the Bendigo Ring Cycle!
Siegfried in Concert played at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre at 2pm on Sunday 25 September 2022.
Melbourne Opera will present three cycles of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo 24 March – 1 May 2023. For tickets, click here.
Man in Chair reviewed Melbourne Opera: Das Rheingold: “Grandly conceived and splendidly realised, Das Rheingold sees Melbourne Opera scale new heights of grandeur.”
Man in Chair reviewed Melbourne Opera: Die Walküre: “Melbourne Opera triumphantly presents the keenly anticipated second instalment of their ever-so-patiently crafted Ring Cycle, Die Walküre.”
I agree with all that you have mentioned except for the comment about the balance between orchestra and vocalists. To me the orchestra was just too overpowering. While it was thrilling to listen to, the loudest sections almost totally overpowered the singers. Of course Wagner released this would happen which is why he designed the phenomenal orchestra pit at Bayreuth under the stage but with an astounding sound in the auditorium. I’ve been in the orchestra pit at Bayreuth and it is quite amazing experience and standing on the conductors podium even more so! Kind regards. CJH (ex SMGS!)
Thanks so much for leaving this comment. Glad to hear that you were there on Sunday afternoon among Melbourne’s “cultural elite.” I would expect nothing less!
I can see what you mean about the volume balance. I was centre row K if that makes any difference. At least if there is going to be a sound balance in favour of the orchestra, it helps if their playing is of a high standard.
Hopefully I will have a chance to visit Bayreuth one day. It is definitely on my bucket list.
Some recollections from 2008. Visiting Bayreuth in itself is a wonderful experience. It is a beautful provincial baroque Gernman city built under the auspices of Prussian King Frederick the Great’s sister, with the exotic title of Princess Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. Among other buildings, she oversaw is the extraordinary high baroque Margravial Opera House which Richard Wagner disliked intensely, leading to the creation and building of his world renowned Festspielhaus with it’s unrivalled acoustic, largely funded by the adoring (Mad) King Ludwig 2nd of Bavaria. A visit to Wagner’s residence Haus Wahnfried and the adjacent museum is a must. Wagner, his wife Cosima and their dog Marka are all buried at the rear of Wahnfried in simple unadorned graves. Tours through the Festspielhaus are avilable except when the annual festival is held in July/August/September. Hundreds come to ogle the audience outside just before each performance. Desperate people stand outside dressed to the nines holding cards reading ‘Suche Carte’ meaning ‘ticket wanted’, even during the intervals. Katharina Wagner, Richard’s great granddaughter directs the festival each year. Attendance rules and traditions are jaw dropping. No colognes or after shaves are worn, nor cushions more than 5cm deep for the hard timber seats allowed. There are no armrests between the seats and no applause takes place until the end of each act. The huge orchestra and conductor are in a deep pit and cannot be seen by the audience. Due to noise, there is no airconditioning meaning it can be stifling on hot nights. However every year about seven times the number of seats for the six weeks of performance are applied for, meaning you might wait years, although the allocation of tickets is a bit more simple now. Tickets and hotel accomodation are usually sold out a year ahead. There are some 140 Wagner Societies in the world including five in Australia. Dress is ultra formal, usually dinner suits or white tie and tailcoats for men, and long ballgowns for women. The jewellery worn by some of the women is dazzling. Every living Chancellor of Germany is invited and usually attends the opening night each year. Right on the dot of 4 pm (6 pm for Das Rheingold), the mighty doors all slam shut together and complete silence reigns for a few minutes. Late -comers are locked out until the first interval. A life changing experience.
Thanks so much for these comments, Roger. I have been lucky enough to attend operas in many of the world’s great houses (and visit their attached museums) but none of them have such particular requirements as you have described here. Locking out latecomers is a fairly regular practice, and one which I wholeheartedly support.
I often plan trips well in advance but the summer festival at Festspielhaus sounds particularly challenging.
Your comments have made me keener than ever to add Festspielhaus to the list of world opera houses I have visited. Hopefully I will post a review of an opera there before too long.
Thanks Stephen for your reply. I have always agreed with Latecomers not Admitted. Here is a review of what seems to be an appalling Ring at Bayreuth this year. Most others felt much the same way but with seven times the number of people wanting tickets as there are seats each year, the producers do exactly what they like. A number of years ago, the German government became a bit fed up with handing them e15 million each year and some changes were made to the ticket sales policies making far more seats available to Germans themselves.