In the more than 15 hours of music making up opera’s greatest show on earth, Wagner’s epic Der Ring Des Nibelungen, one fragment has leapt into popular culture. Having made many appearances in cartoons of the 40s and 50s, Ride of the Valkyries became a musical icon after the release of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.
For Ring aficionados, it’s also a defining moment of production theatrics as the director’s navigation of the opening of Act 3 of The Ring’s second instalment, Die Walküre, is eagerly anticipated, when Wotan’s female warriors ride in on horseback carrying the bodies of fallen heroes.
Continuing Wagner’s 4-part musical drama after opening with Das Rheingold this time last year, Melbourne Opera and director Suzanne Chaundy nail it.
It worked a treat using two dancers on lengthy flexi poles to frolic in the waters of the Rhein. Why not use them to gallop across the skies mounted on poles with armoured horse heads as the Valkyrie sisters assemble below?
Chaundy reveals a logical extension of ideas nutted out in Das Rheingold and incorporates them with cleverly focused scenes characterised by symbolism and restraint. Chaundy populates them with an eagle eye on expressive weight and individual sensitivities.
The stage-width drawbridge with its great circular cut-out is back, demarcating worlds above and below as part of Andrew Bailey’s striking designs, Rob Sowinski’s fabulously artistic lighting and Harriet Oxley’s apposite and highly appealing costumes.
Raised and angled to provide the rustic shelter for Hunding and Sieglinde’s home in Act 1, the ring is pierced by the centred ash tree. The drawbridge lowers for Act 2’s marbled platform for the gods and encircles the ash tree’s exposed gnarled roots that take on a form I couldn’t help but see the rotting corpse of a horse and providing a superbly visionary and telling setting for Brünnhilde’s appearance atop before Siegmund and the sleeping Sieglinde.
For the finale, the outcrop acts as a splendid platform for the punished Brünnhilde on which she is surrounded by a ring of fire that protects her from anyone but the bravest who can defeat the flames. There is nothing about the staging that doesn’t assist in benefitting the work’s storytelling.
Das Rheingold’s broader landscape of power, greed and the renouncement of love are referred back to as Die Walküre hones in on the vicissitudes of love, nuanced psychological deliberations and speculations on power and divinity.
Across swathes of lavish and engaging musical storytelling, Wagner offers much to mull over. With great resplendency in roles requiring huge demands, an all Australian cast offered boundless reserves of quality singing on opening night over dynamic and full-bodied orchestral support from the 90-strong Melbourne Opera Orchestra, helmed by Wagner specialist Anthony Negus.
There were moments when the brass lacked confidence in sound but Negus’ attentive ears, eyes and timing made for a wonderfully woven continuum of balance, drama and poignancy.
Over recent years, soprano Lee Abrahmsen has been illuminating Wagnerian roles with Melbourne Opera, rising again to give her best performance yet as Sieglinde. Infusing an enigmatic spectrum of colour and emotion in her vocals, Abrahmsen stamps their impact and meaning impressively.
From subordinated wife of Hunding to the optimism that comes in her incestuous love with twin brother Siegmund and her agonising escape after his death, Abrahmsen magnifies Sieglinde’s plight and invites one into her character’s soul with seeming ease.
As Siegmund, Bradley Daley is the perfect match, employing his deeply penetrating and fleshy heldentenor with searing intensity as the courageous, passionate and enlightened but doomed hero he becomes. Together, Daley and Abrahmsen never fail to convince.
Steven Gallop lurks menacingly as the fearsome and abusive Hunding, his hauntingly low-lying bass permeating proceedings with keenly calculated effect.
Brandishing the role he was shut out from fulfilling when Covid restrictions prevented him from taking on Wotan in Das Rheingold, baritone Warwick Fyfe gives an indelibly monumental performance as the faithless king of the gods.
Fyfe marvellously evokes everything within to personify divinity wracked by human worry, his stentorian might parallelling the command he exudes and mellowing appropriately, making Wotan’s Act 2 monologue a powerful mirror on the god’s conflict over Siegmund’s fate and the ring’s curse.
Lush and eye-catching mezzo-soprano Sarah Sweeting leaves no stone unturned as defender of marriage and Wotan’s indomitable wife Fricka, gliding across the marble with poise and potency.
And with the weight of an iconic operatic role to lift, Zara Barrett gives a highly commendable performance as the headstrong and valiant Brünnhilde, her stamina-enduring exhibition and vocals painted with attractively contrasted upper range steeliness and lower range plumminess. In the service of and both loved and ostracised by her father, Brünnhilde’s journey is challenging.
Barrett is statuesque and compelling in Act 2’s Siegmund! Sieh aid mich!, as Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund to inform him that he will die at the hands of Hunding and be taken into Valhalla. In her final plea to Wotan for a dignified punishment Barrett is equally absorbing in voice but her movements often feel prescribed and clumsy.
Her Valkyrie sisters are a tour de force, voluptuously sung with unwavering authority and fearless to boot. Led out by the punchy splendorous soprano of celebrated veteran Rosamund Illing as Gerhilde, the remaining seven sisters take their places in a world class highlight – performed by singers of status, Eleanor Greenwood, Jordan Kahler, Olivia Cranwell, Naomi Flatman, Caroline Vercoe, Sally-Anne Russell and Dimity Shepherd.
Melbourne Opera’s riveting realisation of chapter two is a gold class ticket to another world. It makes waiting for chapter three, when Siegfried opens in September, feel all the more impatient.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 9 February 2022
Season continues to 16 February 2022
Ulumbarra Theatre, 10 Gaol Road, Bendigo
Performance: Sunday 27 February 2022
For more information, visit: www.melbourneopera.com for details.
Images: Warwick Fyfe as Wotan | The Valkyries | Bradley Daley as Siegmund, Zara Barrett as Brünnhilde and Lee Abrahmsen as Sieglinde – all photos by Robin Halls
Review: Paul Selar