Opera Returns to Melbourne with Panache
02/03/2021 - & February 5, 7 (Melbourne), 21 (Bendigo), 2021
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Wotan), Simon Meadows (Alberich), James Egglestone (Loge), Sarah Sweeting (Fricka), Lee Abrahmsen (Freia), Jason Wasley (Froh), Darcy Caroll (Donner), Roxane Hislop (Erda), Michael Lapina (Mime), Adrian Tamburini (Fasolt), Steven Gallop (Fafner), Rebecca Rashleigh (Woglinde), Louise Keast (Wellgunde), Karen Van Spall (Flosshilde)
Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Anthony Negus (Conductor)
Suzanne Chaundy (Director), Greg Hocking (Producer), Andrew Bailey (Set Designer), Harriet Oxley (Costume Designer), Rob Sowinski (Lighting Designer), Tobias Edwards (Video Designer)
(© Robin Halls)
You may have heard of the children’s tale The Little Train Who Thought He Could. Well, this is a grown-up’s tale of “The little opera company who knew they could. Not only has Melbourne Opera lead the way for Melbourne to return to the theatre after the privations of 2020’s harshest lockdown of any major city, but they lead with the first instalment of a massive new undertaking: the first independent, unsubsidised production in Australia of The Ring for more than a century. To call this courageous is an understatement and to top it by announcing a full 2021 season of 5 operas, touring performances and concerts is an astonishing testament to the self-assurance and maturity of this much-loved company.
Staging the production in the gloriously ornate Regent Theatre is a dramatic coup in itself. Originally an extravagant 1920’s picture palace, the restoration and transformation into a live venue is a hymn to the luxuries of by-gone eras. Surrounding this high-tech production with colonnades, frescos and chandeliers adds to the sense of occasion and grandeur of the opera.
Internationally renowned conductor and Wagner specialist Anthony Negus returns to Melbourne Opera following his previously acclaimed performances. MO prides itself on being a busy company which specializes in Wagner and the works of the Bel-canto period. On this occasion, Maestro Negus has triumphed leading his massively enlarged orchestra through the minefield of Wagner’s complexities and nuances. Expanded into the stalls of the theatre and raised to floor level, the sound quality is superb. From the pulsating rhythms of the opening to the exuberance of the tubas in the Giant’s leitmotif, the orchestra exhibited the benefit of his authoritative reading and delicacy of touch.
Accomplished Wagner director and frequent MO collaborator Suzanne Chaundy and her design team have created an entire world on this stage. Fittingly, she sees Das Rheingold as a “prequel” to the main story which will be told through the subsequent operas. We are hypnotically plunged into the depths of the Rhine using drapery, gauze curtain, sway-poles with acrobats flying throughout the entire first scene and a multitude of lighting and projection effects. This natural world contrasts dramatically with the marble-floored luxury in which the indolent Gods reside, aspiring to even more aloof opulence in Valhalla. Contrasting again, is the industrial underworld of the Nibelungs in which darkness is penetrated by flashes of firelight and the cracking of Alberich’s merciless whip. Ms Chaundy has emphasised the text and it is clear that the themes of greed, power, domination and inequality are the driving forces behind her telling of this story.
Set, costumes and lighting are equally stunning throughout. The contrasts Ms Chaundy has envisaged are reflected in a vastness of scale. Set Designer Andrew Bailey has made use of an extensive array of techniques to realise the world of The Ring: billowing drapery and a central rostrum give way to a false stage floor pierced by a massive hole which is the entrance to the underworld. It rises converting into the roof of Nibelheim; becomes a platform for glimpses to the far-off fortress the Giants built and ultimately is transformed into a high-tech Rainbow Bridge through ingenious lighting effects by Rob Sowinski. As multi-coloured lights dazzle by firing directly into the audience, the gods retreat towards a pink-hued sky and are obscured in an enveloping mist. This instant of great theatricality captures the sunrise of Valhalla but equally alludes to the sunset of the gods which Loge foresees. This was a clever and memorable depiction of this striking moment in the Ring Cycle.
The singing was consistently fine throughout the show. Strong leadership by bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Wotan overcame the massive forces of the orchestra to deliver a powerful portrait of an obsessed despot. Sarah Sweeting’s Fricka was poised and imposing, juxtaposing the frantic struggles of her sister Freia sung by Lee Abramsen. Both women gave riveting performances. Adrian Tamburini’s Fasolt towered over the stage as he and Steven Gallop threatened the very existence of the Gods, finally proving that gold will buy anything and everything. Simon Meadows’ Alberich was a brilliant rendition of the mindless pursuit of riches and power. His muscular baritone perfectly depicted the subtle changes from wheedling suitor to detestable tyrant.
The singing performance of the night was given by James Egglestone as Loge. In designer Harriet Oxley’s fire red suit replete with pork pie hat, he is the ultimate salesman. Conniving and scheming but ultimately still pleading the cause of the bereft Rhine Maidens, Mr Egglestone drew us on through a thoroughly plausible characterisation to see how we lesser beings than Gods might easily seek their undoing. A beautiful voice with suppleness of line and a wide ranging palette of emotions, this performance earned massive audience response at the final curtain.
What a delight it was to be back in the theatre amid excitement and exhilaration as the audience spilled out after colossal and lengthy applause. As a first instalment, this production promises much and delivers in spades! Melbourne Opera are indeed a little company who CAN; managing without government subsidies to stage impressive productions and draw the enthusiastic support of a young and expanding audience.