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2016 Melbourne Ring

State Theatre
11/23/2016 -  & December 2, 12, 2016
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Bradley Daley (Siegmund), Amber Wagner (Sieglinde), Jud Arthur (Hunding), James Johnson (Wotan), Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde), Jacqueline Dark (Fricka), Anna-Louise Cole (Gerhilde), Dominica Matthews (Schwertleite), Olivia Cranwell (Orlinde), Sian Pendry (Waltraute), Hyeseoung Kwon (Helmwige), Amanda Atlas (Siegrune), Nicole Youl (Grimgerde), Roxanne Hislop (Rossweisse)
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)

L. Lindstrom, J. Johnson (© Jeff Busby)

Unadorned, austere, at times desolate, this Die Walküre defies every expectation raised by Das Rheingold. Gone are the show-girls and sequins; gone too are the flashy-suited gods with the allure of gold and power; replaced with minimalist sets and modest costumes always dominated by the vast black void of the vacant stage; an element which becomes a part of the story in itself. Amongst the simplicity, there are certainly some moments of dazzling theatricality but director Neil Armfield and designer Robert Cousins have created here a complete world while focussing on the words and music to provide spell-binding drama.

A small wooden hut, alone in vast blackness, is dusted by gently falling snow. The stage revolves – a device much used in the first opera and featuring again in each act of this. The movement and the soothing fall of snow have a mesmeric effect which counters the building emotion and drama of the text in the first act. Against the bucolic scene, the implied violence and abuse of Sieglinde by Hunding is even more intimidating. Jud Arthur’s Hunding is intensely sung, marvellously acted and entirely convincing. Bradley Daley’s Siegmund is youthful, passionate and chivalrous. His clarion tenor voice is heroic and agile, leaping the demanding vocal line with ease and power. The first act and much of the later scenes of the opera are dominated by the prominence of Sieglinde. Wagner’s inspired score for his flawed heroine allows nowhere to rest and nowhere to hide blemishes. Amber Wagner is astonishing in this role. A convincing actress, she also possesses a soprano of laser-like precision and colossal power. Ms. Wagner held the audience spellbound in every appearance drawing vocal salutes amid thunderous applause at the curtain calls.

Act two revealed a massive, white, architectural helix spiralling up through the stage ceiling into the unknown darkness beyond. It too revolves and again the effect is hypnotic – a total antithesis to the intensity of emotion in the protracted ethical and moral debate which Wotan must negotiate. The centre of the helix is hung with a veritable zoo of taxidermy animals: this internal view of Walhalla lies somewhere between a male trophy room and Noah’s Ark. Certainly, this adornment of the set provokes intense conversation at the intervals – what does it all mean?

James Johnson sings Wotan beautifully. He has more power behind his voice than in Das Rheingold and tempers his gloriously sonorous bass-baritone to great effect. His acting is superb. He creates a character through whom we live and breathe every nuance of his flaws and failings, every atom of his essential humanity despite his status as a god. As Fricka, Jacqueline Dark is a formidable tower of strength and determination. She masters this Master of the Universe, spitting accusations and demanding his compliance. Gone is the trophy-wife, replaced by a fearsome co-conspirator in the perpetuation of the rule of the gods. Ms. Dark’s striking mezzo is regularly and justifiably featured by Opera Australia. She is an imperious stage presence.

As Brünnhilde, American soprano Lise Lindstrom commences her first full cycle in the role with this production. Statuesque, athletic and youthful, she commands attention as an actor but the second she begins to sing, the spell in amplified and the audience was transfixed. Her radiant soprano ranges every gamut in this role – lyric and gentle rising to fiercely powerful – and throughout she shows masterful control of stage actions. There is an instant father/daughter chemistry with James Johnson which leaves no doubt that this wild child is Wotan’s favourite. This is a triumphant performance not only in the sense of a superb performance but in attitude and demeanour. To say that the audience went wild is an understatement – some could not remain seated and the cheering went on and on.

The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act three was given on an entirely bare stage which was how the setting remained for the duration of the this final scene. The warrior sisters plunge through a gigantic hole in the ceiling to pluck fallen bodies from the masses swirling through the darkness of the stage floor. The lighting design by Damien Cooper deserves much credit for it is in this scene that we can appreciate the complexity and subtlety of his vision. Delicate shadows, blazing flood light and piercing spotlights fired into the void create urgency and infinite variety of moods.

Brünnhilde’s pleading with Wotan is gut-wrenching in its emotional impact. The audience is entirely convinced of the bond between this pair alone on the massive black stage where there is nothing left but the words, the music and the acting. We are gripped by the sheer volume of the singing and equally engrossed by the growing drama between the two characters. This scene was the pinnacle of the production: charged, hypnotising and visceral it struck home like a stab to the heart. Surrounded by live flames, the seemingly small body abandoned to the void was an indelible image.

As in Das Rheingold, Pietari Inkinen lead The Melbourne Ring Orchestra in a stirring and exciting ride through Wagner’s score. Suffice it to say that the acclamation reached football stadium proportions when he and they were acknowledged at the end of the performance.

This is a timeless Die Walküre, one of limitless interpretations and contemplation but at its centre rests the poignant relationship between a powerful father and his headstrong daughter. Opera Australia have successfully built upon the glamour and scintillating story-telling of the first instalment of their Ring with this expressive and visually stunning second chapter.

Gregory Pritchard



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