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2016 Melbourne Ring

State Theatre
11/21/2016 -  & November 30, December 9, 2016
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Lorina Gore (Woglinde), Jane Ede (Wellgunde), Dominica Matthews (Flosshilde), Warwick Fyfe (Alberich), James Johnson (Wotan), Jacqueline Dark (Fricka), Hyeseoung Kwon (Freia), Daniel Sumegi (Fasolt), Jud Arthur (Fafner), James Egglestone (Froh), Michael Honeyman (Donner), Andreas Conrad (Loge), Graeme Macfarlane (Mime), Liane Keegan (Erda)
Melbourne Ring Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen (Conductor), Anthony Legge (Associate Conductor)
Neil Armfield (Director), Robert Cousins (Set Designer), Alice Babidge (Costume Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting Designer), Jim Atkins (Sound Designer), Kate Champion, Roger Press (Associate Directors)

(© Jeff Busby)

“All that glisters...” is indeed gold in this revival of Opera Australia’s vision of Wagner’s monumental music drama. In fact, it is gold, sequins, ostrich feathers, corporate high-flyers, trophy wives, mafia stand-over men, spin doctors and Alberich, a villain we love to hate.

For the 2013 run of this production, there was a palpable excitement afoot; a nervous energy wondering whether they could or would pull off this massive undertaking – a Ring mounted as a finished work. In 2016, the exhilaration is just as tangible: in fact, there is a certain swagger to this polished and refined show which speaks volumes about the maturity of this opera company in its 60th anniversary year.

The depths of the Rhine are suggested by an iconic Australian beach scene; bathed in glorious sunshine, the Rhine maidens and their acolytes (all imaginable shapes of the human form) in swimming trunks, guard their gold. Imagining Walhalla, Wotan has collected all manner of species in glass boxes as museum specimens (including the extinct and much sought Australian Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger). His fabled fortress is an unsophisticated museum diorama akin to those adorning examples of the taxidermist’s art seen on school excursions to the museum. Wotan himself is a fur-coated corporate boss with his bejewelled trophy wife, the impossibly flashy house and associated flunkies acceding to his every demand. Sung by American baritone James Johnson, Wotan is often overshadowed by the showiness of Loge. Mr. Johnson is a wonderful actor who brings great skill to the role and whose vocal abilities we expect to see expanded in the coming operas.

The giants are mafia types: dark suit, dark glasses and flashy pink ties. The demi-god Loge is a corporate “fixer”, a spin-doctor always ready to cover Wotan’s indiscretions; never above stooping lower than his rivals to ensure that his plans bear fruit. Mime is a snivelling factory supervisor, down-trodden and driving his staff through bullying and violence. And against all this, Alberich is a Shylock-inspired wheedler who abducts a child from the beach to steal the gold, tricks the tricksters to accumulate his hoard, and is in turn cheated by the next-biggest bully on the corporate ladder. He becomes not only the loathsome catalyst of the process of destruction and betrayal, but ironically a character for who we have some empathy as he becomes a pawn in a bigger game of corporate greed and human acquisitiveness.

In 2013, Baritone Warwick Fyfe took on the role of Alberich with only a few weeks’ preparation. He is back with a towering performance, a nuanced and subtle characterisation which was powerfully lauded at the curtain calls. Mr. Fyfe has wonderful fun with the role. His dynamic vocal capability mixed with a vast repertoire of acting skills, truly lends veracity to Wagner’s description of the piece as “music drama”. The words and music are all important; his stagecraft seems effortlessly to bring them to life. The curse scene was riveting: the ‘little’ man of the plot becoming a terror of even greater magnitude than the giants. Mr. Fyfe is spell-binding in this role.

Those flirting, giggling soubrettes the Rhine maidens are a gorgeous vocal ensemble. Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominican Matthews are balanced and well-matched. Their vaudeville style romps are reflected in the chorus girls who transform into the “Rainbow Bridge” to Walhalla in a theatrical coup which exultantly ends the opera.

Jacqueline Dark is deeply troubling as Fricka. At once the victim of her husband’s corporate megalomania she is not above contemplating the gold for herself as another bauble to flaunt. Her voice is a commanding instrument bringing power and authority to the role. As Freia, Korean-Australian soprano Hyeseoung Kwon is another fraught female character at the mercy of men; uncertain how to use them to advantage as her siblings do. Liane Keegan sings Erda with authority. Her rich voice gliding over the vocal lines and her stage presence commanding.

Jud Arthur’s Fafner is as threatening as having a knife held to the throat. His demands for Freia and later transformation to gold-hungry thug are as villainous and menacing as could be imagined. The scene in which Freia is encased in the gold to hide her from his brother Fasolt, sung by Daniel Sumegi, is a disquieting exercise in humiliation and female subjugation.

As Loge, German tenor Andreas Conrad is first-rate. Not only is the role brilliantly conceived by director Neil Armfield as the shiny-suited corporate “go-to man”, but Mr. Conrad’s resonating voice slices through every line, delivering every phrase with a varied palette and superior acting skills. James Egglestone’s Froh and Michael Honeyman’s Donner are handled with assurance and strong vocal presence. Like Alberich, Mime is at once a creature to be reviled and pitied. Graeme Macfarlane owns this character bringing poise and composure as a stalwart of the company into the role.

Returning to the podium, Finnish Maestro Pietari Inkinen leads the Melbourne Ring Orchestra in this exuberant and triumphant performance. He sets a wild pace for this ride through Heaven and Hell. The quality of the sound from the pit is sumptuously rich and full. Every detail of the score is there for the appreciation, layered, textured and patterned but with a subtle hand and delicate understanding.

Whether Mr. Armfield wants the audience to query corporates pillaging the planet, to deride collectors festooning themselves with symbols of wealth and power or to pity those on the sidelines caught in the affairs of tycoons and moguls, is unclear. What is certain is that he has conjured a pertinent and topical interpretation of Wagner’s masterwork, provoking a great deal of thought.

Gregory Pritchard



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