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Opera Australia Ring preview: part IV

R. Berkeley-Steele & S. Bullock (© Jeff Busby)

In this final instalment of the Melbourne Ring (seen at the 16 November dress rehearsal ahead of its 25 November opening), the Norns who tell of the fate of the world are not weaving the thread of destiny but repairing the theatrical backdrop depicting Valhalla which was torn by the giants of Das Rheingold. They are 1950’s housewives and this theme is reinforced throughout the production. When they foretell the end of the gods, the backdrop collapses to reveal in the vast black space the architectural skeleton of a huge barn. Its bare beams catch the light and serve to suggest intimate spaces or the huge Gibichung Hall.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde are in bed; their bliss and love played out on a mattress on the floor. The stark simplicity of the set demands absolute attention to the words and music and this has been the aim of director Neil Armfield throughout this Ring but nowhere more so than now as the story comes to its final stages. He said in interview that it was his intention to strip back the layers of theatrical spectacle which have built up around the Ring and to tell it as a story of love won and lost, good versus evil, and greed and power versus redemption. The spareness of the design and his economy of direction push the story to the fore and the audience are held captive by the plot rather than the theatrics of the event. Asked whether he had ever seen the complete Ring in performance, Armfield commented that, having seen only two of the operas, he felt able to bring a fresh and original interpretation to this massive tale and to relate it to the lives of real people. This he has achieved in magnificent form.

Siegfried remains the youthful hero. Perhaps he is a character out of a mid-twentieth century “Boys’ Own Annual”, certainly his boyish antics combined with the jeans and sneakers (costuming by Alice Babidge) captures this feeling. The minimalism of the revolving set allows for quick changes of scene while Armfield employs the “members of the public” to dance, sway and become part of the action. They were present at the beginning of the story, have featured in each opera so far, and will reappear at the conclusion of the tale. This grounds the story in the here and now by relating to real people, real love and real issues for the world.

In contrast, Gunther (Barry Ryan) and Gutrune (Sharon Prero) are sophisticates in their palace of old master paintings and ultra-modern gym equipment. They are hedonists who pamper themselves and use their wealth and power to accumulate possessions and symbols of superiority; they are “the beautiful people”. Hagen (Daniel Sumegi), like Gunther, is a naval officer and his depiction in dress uniform throughout suggests he has already achieved the success for which he has striven but that it would never be enough until total control was in his grasp.

Amid the splendour so evocatively captured, Siegfried is a stumbling bumpkin wooed only for the advantages he might bring. Gutrune changes costume to flirt with him in a loud orange little suit with “killer” heels. She is the celebrity-in-waiting, every centimetre a siren.

In another contrast, Brünnhilde is a simple girl albeit one who has immense knowledge and she is devastated when, disguised as Gunther in uniform, Siegfried claims her as Gunther’s bride and wrests from her the ring she holds as the symbol of their marriage.

In Act Two, we return to the Gibichung Hall. The huge barn skeleton now supports a wedding marquee through the plastic window of which we can see guests assembled. It revolves, as all sets in these four operas have, to reveal a darker side where Hagen waits for the delivery of his prize.

Brünnhilde is dressed as a bride but cowers and shies away from Gunther who drags her into the wedding feast while Siegfried and Gutrune enter opposite. Gutrune is dressed as a trophy wife. Her wedding dress is a monstrous toile construction and she is ablaze with fake tan and masses of jewellery. Her platinum-blonde hair is held by a tiara and her retinue of bridesmaids in garish pink are the epitome of poor taste. Against this celebrity façade, Brünnhilde’s anger and despair boil over and she upends a table, smashing the bridal cake which features the ubiquitous decoration of bride and groom. Against this everyday wedding, the plot to murder Siegfried is hatched and she is lured into giving her assent.

For the final act, the marquee is stripped away and we again see the skeletal frame. It catches the blue light of the river as the Rhinemaidens call on Siegfried to give them the ring for safekeeping. He is all bravado now and rejects them. Dressed in hunting vests, all the men gather for a boys’ weekend of sports and shooting. Field targets depicting animals are used for firing practice and a supermarket trolley filled with beers is shared among them. When Hagen eventually makes his move, he draws his silver hand-gun and unhesitatingly shoots Siegfried in the back, casually leaving the stage now that his business is done. Siegfried is re-dressed in his wedding suit and his face whitened before the men carry him to the centre of the stage, stand the body upright draped in a transparent shroud.

Gutrune is hysterical at the murder and it takes little time to extract the truth from Hagen and Gunther. The death of Gunther at his half-brother’s hand reflects the death of Fasolt in Das Rheingold. Brünnhilde’s call to build Siegfried’s funeral pyre is answered by the supernumeraries who surround his upright body with masses of flowers while the Rhinemaidens circle, awaiting the return of their gold.

The “Immolation Scene” is as pared-back and understated as the rest of this production. Brünnhilde is alone on the front of the stage crying her anguish, bidding farewell to the world and the love she has found while the bare stage has nowhere for her to hide. Susan Bullock galvanized the audience as she delivered this immense scene. Finally, having taken the ring onto her own hand, she takes up a bunch of white flowers and joins Siegfried as a grotesque parody of the bridal cake decoration. Their arms linked, the frame over the stage catches light and in her hand the white flowers too burst into flame.

The set revolves slowly as the flames spread and behind this the rear wall rises to reveal the witnesses from the real world who have been so much a part of this provocative realisation of the Ring.

It is a rare experience to be in a theatre where the production has worked so completely that the audience is left in stunned silence but this is exactly what happened as Pietari Inkinen and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra played the final phrases of the Redemption Theme. Spontaneously, we all rose to our feet and gave a deafening, euphoric reception.

This Ring is a triumph for Opera Australia which plans to bring it back to Melbourne’s State Theatre in three years.

Gregory Pritchard



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