Since leaving the punished Brünnhilde in a deep sleep surrounded by a ring of fire after the emotive final farewell to her father in Die Walküre, four days passed in our world as an audience eagerly awaited the third and final instalments of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
As part of Melbourne Opera’s landmark undertaking in regional historic Bendigo, Siegfried opened on Friday followed by Götterdämmerung on Sunday.
Now, with the first of three cycles under their belt, there comes the sense that the company have confidently embedded a worthy place for themselves amongst the country’s crown of culturally significant institutions.
In the mysterious, brooding world of Wagner’s Ring as Brünnhilde slept, time moved on to another realm. The young Siegfried – fruit of Sieglinde and Siegmund’s love and destined to be Brünnhilde’s – has been raised under the scheming Mime and questions his circumstances and upbringing.
Over almost 4 hours of drama in which a powering Bradley Daley as the young mortal journeyed from naive ingrate to Brünnhilde’s love-enlightened rescuer, Siegfried’s was a captivating, purposeful adventure of the free and independent hero on a quest to learn fear.
Outside this lens, a gathering layer of forces which fate kept a hand on continued at work through these final two instalments. The old order was withering as greed for power continued to encircle it.
Siegfried may well be the less dramatically undulating than the two parts either side of it, but it has a unique place and wide-reaching effect in its development. Is there a figure in opera whose life is so completely witnessed as is Siegfried’s?
And just as is found in Siegmund and Sieglinde’s immoral incestuous relationship a reason to challenge ideas of the rules of love, similarly in Siegfried and Mime’s the challenge arises in facing psychological abuse under its guise.
The list goes on. Wagner’s ability to build a meaningful engagement with his characters’ psychological nature is a vital component in the Ring’s eternal appeal. The buzz of related conversations among the Bendigo audience during the enjoyable lengthy intervals reflected that plainly.
On Friday evening, there was the unbridled energy of youth, the brooding evocation of the forest, the slaughter of dragon/giant Fafner – and the touching humanity that comes with it – the stabbing of foster father Mime, the crushing defeat of Wotan, the conquest of fire and final awakening of Brünnhilde.
Finally, on Sunday in Götterdämmerung, there was Siegfried’s love and shock betrayal of Brünnhilde and his cultivated links to the nefarious world of the manipulative Gibichung ending in his own death, Brünnhilde’s ultimate enlightenment, the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens and the destruction of the old order.
The weekend didn’t play out without little question marks but director Suzanne Chaundy extended her distinctively straightforward, text-driven perspective on the work. Chaundy presented her audience with the essence of the story, avoiding the risk of hurling it into a critique on contemporary global issues or divergent conceptual underlays. That proved to be a winning approach judging by audience reaction.
Whilst many scenes bristled with unbroken detail and character interaction – Act 1 of Siegfried in Mime’s abode and workshop where Robert Macfarlane’s vocally animated and shuffling Mime, Daley’s brattish Siegfried and Warwick Fyfe’s authoritatively tempered The Wanderer set a fine example of that – other pivotal encounters, however, felt hampered by too great a distance between communicating parties with lack of eye contact and several ineffective choices in stage entrances and exits.
Nonetheless, overall Chaundy’s storytelling washed over time with effortless flow, aided by a progression of handsomely and quite wondrously achieved atmospheric settings culminating in a clever mix of fire and water in Götterdämmerung, giving a visual reminder of where the epic started.
There was no tiring of set designer Andrew Bailey’s signature stage-width drawbridge device and circular cut-outs, Harriet Oxley’s excellent, character-tuned costumes, (Gurtrune’s introductory unflattering matronly outfit aside) and Rob Sowinski’s intelligently applied lighting design.
Great effect was made of Chris Hocking’s often sublime video designs of the world outside – the only quibble being a zooming out to a clumsily digitised dragon after what was an artistically suggested close up of the scaly beast.
The dark enshrouded fate-weaving Norns in their elegantly roped costumes – lusciously sung by Dimity Shepherd, Jordan Kahler and Eleanor Greenwood – got Götterdämmerung off to superb start.
Draped in gold and carpeted in red, the Hall of the Gibichungs looked impressively stylish, too. But there was no raised-curtain scene change throughout the two hours of the Prologue and Act 1 such as those created numerous times earlier during orchestral interludes which Wagner composed for dramatic purpose to continue narrating the story.
Examples including the wonderful scenic transformation for the forest of ribbons in Siegfried and lowering of the drawbridge with ring cutout over Siegfried’s dead body in Götterdämmerung proved how binding those changes could be.
Continuing the rewarding experience of the previous weekend, musically and vocally the highlights were plentiful and poignant. Maestro Anthony Negus’ deftness at colouring mood and texture imparted overall and deeply felt awe across the long but enlightened hours.
From the malign opening with its eerie bassoons to the simmering strings and woodwind as Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde in Siegfried and the signalling ominous brass and ethereal strings opening Götterdämmerung to the glistening majestic finale, a wealth of beautifully contoured and expressive music emanated from the heroes in the pit – the more than 90 committed musicians united in name and spirit as the Melbourne Opera Orchestra.
Despite the musical tightness sagging sporadically, the score’s intoxicating chiaroscuro and outpourings resonated large with a particularly confident soundscape realised for the closing two acts of Götterdämmerung.
Siegfried the fearless, engagingly depicted by Daley, was surrounded by a firmly planted cast who knew no fear in tackling their roles with thorough commitment and vocal depth.
Daley missed the opportunity to sail over the orchestral furnace of Siegfried‘s Act 1 Forging Song but he traversed the demands of the role most commendably. Importantly, Daley’s richly burnished and nuanced account provided the requisite window into Siegfried’s soul, with an especially moving account of his past in the final act of Götterdämmerung when the betrayal of his blood-brotherhood in front of Gunther and his men precipitated his death.
Apart from the frequent hand-raising in the fashion of a glamourised silver screen actress, Antoinette Halloran brought the potency and appeal of her Brünnhilde from Die Walküre to surging heights in her portrayal of the complexities of a loved, betrayed, vengeful and finally redeemed and self-sacrificing woman.
Whilst the dramatic qualities of Halloran’s densely emotive and plush instrument took effortlessly to the role’s predominantly middle register and its demands for solid low notes, the same results were not as refined at the top end.
Nevertheless, Halloran performed with affecting beauty – certainly at her most striking in presenting a devastating tirade of vengefulness building up to the death-plotting Act 2 final trio of Götterdämmerung alongside Steven Gallop’s Hagen and Christopher Hillier’s Gunther.
After giving his cavernous and haunting best as the dragon/giant Fafner in Siegfried, Gallop extended his resume with a formidable showing as the evil-diseased and implacable Hagen, son of Alberich, to near-on steal The Ring’s limelight.
At its most powerful, Gallop’s brilliant casting, alongside Simon Meadows’ continued compelling turn and vocal muscularity as the unrelenting avaricious Alberich, was seen when Hagen sits sleeping on night watch and Alberich slithers in, urging him to obtain the ring in what was a theatrical tour de force.
Completing a devastatingly impactful hat-trick over the course of The Ring’s narrative with Wotan roaming the earth as the The Wanderer, Warwick Fyfe brought a striking newness of calmed vocal colours amongst the great heft to match the increasingly introspective and worn god in his Siegfried departure.
Hillier put in a mighty performance as a stiff-shouldered Gunther, marvellously presenting a fragile leader whose demise looked spelled out.
The deep velvety expanse of vocals that Deborah Humble brought to a wavering and confused Erda in Siegfried became a luxury addition to Götterdämmerung in the role of Brünnhilde’s imploring sister Waltraute and, with it, creating one of the great highlights of the cycle.
When the immense chorus finally made their appearance as fighting men and obedient women of the Gibichung, they did so in splendid, expressive unity and Rhinemaidens Naomi Flatman, Karen Van Spall and Rebecca Rashleigh, who also flitted as an endearing Woodbird – returned to frolic in mellifluous and harmonised voice.
Safely bound to the text, this Bendigo Ring will be remembered for many fine reasons. Kudos to the huge committed team involved. In the meantime, there is still time to make a trip to Bendigo to experience Wagner’s greatest show on earth.
When Melbourne Opera finally take a deep breath and ponder over their accomplishment, natural expectations will no doubt turn to the completion of Wagner’s Bayreuth canon with only Parsifal and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg remaining. Many will already be looking forward to that.
Bendigo Ring Cycle: Siegfried | Götterdämmerung
Ulumbarra Theatre, Gaol Road, Bendigo
Performances: Siegfried – Friday 31 March | Götterdämmerung – Sunday 2 April
Season continues to 30 April 2023
Information and Bookings: www.melbourneopera.com
Images: Antoinette Halloran (Brunnhilde) in Siegfried | Robert Macfarlane (Mime) and Bradley Daley (Siegfried) in Siegfried | Bradley Daley (Siegfried), Chris Hillier (Gunther) and Company in Götterdämmerung | Deborah Humble (Waltraute) and Antoinette Halloran (Brunnhilde) in Götterdämmerung – all photos by Robin Halls
Review: Paul Selar
Read: Paul Selar’s review of the Opening Weekend of Melbourne Opera’s Bendigo Ring Cycle: Das Rheingold | Die Walkure