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2016 Melbourne Ring

State Theatre
11/25/2016 -  & December 5, 14, 2016
Richard Wagner: Siegfried
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde), Graeme Macfarlane (Mime), James Johnson (The Wanderer), Warwick Fyfe (Alberich), Jud Arthur (Fafner), Liane Keegan (Erda), Julie Lee Goodwin (Woodbird)
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)

S. Vinke, L. Lindstrom (© Jeff Busby)

If The Ring is story-telling on a grand scale, then Siegfried is perhaps the most plot-driven of the operas. With the exception of Wotan’s musings on the fate of the gods and Brünnhilde’s lamentation for the loss of her god-status, the opera prepares the way for the end of the mythical world. As in earlier episodes, director and designer have collaborated to accentuate the text through stark, open spaces contrasted with endearingly human interaction. Again, the animals of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre appear. This time however, they are childish posters pinned above a teenager’s bed, models of dragons and soft toys. The message continues: the world is being plundered, its resources hoarded by a privileged few and time is finite for this regime.

Mime’s cave and forge are under the proscenium of a “golden age of cinema” picture palace. A cramped bunk bedroom, a sofa and a kitchen from which Mime draws a rewarding can of beer and heats food in a microwave, are squeezed into the narrow apron of the stage, backed by a vast white screen. Continuing his portrayal of Mime, Graeme Macfarlane wheedles, connives, teases and pleads with an unruly teenager in Siegfried. Mr. Macfarlane creates a complete character portrait with effective use of his fine acting skills as much as through his accurate and expressive singing. The unmanageable youth throws food, bullies and torments his keeper but is drawn back to the forge despite his expressed desire to escape its confines.

German tenor Stefan Vinke returns to Melbourne to reprise his role as the title character. He plays the petulant adolescent convincingly and transforms into the everyman-hero through subtle shifts in characterisation and gesture. His voice has a youthful quality perfect for this role. Its agility and amplitude coupled with flawless diction craft a truly valiant impression. The “Forging Song” from Act One was enthralling – powerful, rhythmic and energetic – the “Forest Murmurs” of Act Two delicate and restrained while full of vitality and passion; and the thrilling extended duet of Act Three a radiant beacon of heroism. Mr. Vinke’s performance was monumental in every sense.

As The Wanderer, James Johnson developed the authority and imperious façade he built during the two earlier pieces. Until now, we have only seen glimpses of the humanity of the character but in this opera, we see a transformation, an acceptance of the denouement of his story and his succumbing to the inevitability of change. These are subtle shifts of voice, of acting and of gesture which Mr. Johnson carries off with consummate ease.

Act Two brings the staging challenge of the dragon’s cave and this production realises this scene in a series of memorable and terrifying visions. In the darkness and rumbling introductory music, we see a projected male face thousands of times life-size. Grimacing, contorting and snarling, Jud Arthur as Fafner paints his face white, red and black at a make-up desk surrounded by the lights and the proscenium of the first scene. This will become his cave too as his colossally powerful voice echoes through the darkness. The death of Fafner is achieved by a simple step inside the cave by the fearless hero and a flurry of red streamers and confetti – a seeming anti-climax until Jud Arthur staggers onto the stage, naked, dripping with gore where he has been slashed from shoulder to groin.

Warwick Fyfe continues his Alberich as unrelenting, bitter and avaricious as before. His on-going contest with his brother is like a festering family feud as he and Mime clash. As the Woodbird, Julie Lee Goodwin is a fragile and tenuous creature flitting about, pecking at crumbs. Her voice is deceptively powerful and radiantly clear.

The final act commences with Wotan tormented by raging storms. He is alone on the immense stage, under the proscenium which revolves rapidly swirling light and shadows. In the upheaval of his mind, the vision of the approaching finale becomes clear to him as it does to the audience. From a small door in the blackness, Liane Keegan enters as Erda whose blindness to the world is the source of her visions. Ms. Keegan’s voice is regal and comforting in this role as the Earth Mother. Yet Wotan rages against the swagger and confidence of Siegfried his beloved creation. The shattering of his spear crushes him and we see him stagger into the enveloping darkness a broken shadow of the all-powerful Lord of the Gods. This is robust story-telling with both direction and design working seamlessly to convey the narrative.

The proscenium pulsates with a row of bare light bulbs. A tissue-fine curtain of gold lamé becomes the flame guarding Brünnhilde and the Valkyrie herself is held captive in one of the crates used to contain the taxidermy animals of preceding episodes – a favourite or not, she is still a part of Wotan’s collection. In the extended duet which ends the opera, Lise Lindstrom is ravishing of voice. Her instrument is searing and radiant, riding the huge demands of the score while she persuasively plays the role of the anguished, reflecting the distress of her beloved father.

The extended symphonic passages of this opera are sublimely played by the Melbourne Ring Orchestra. It is difficult to imagine vocal out-pouring of admiration from an audience reaching greater heights but the commencement of each act hears increased applause, cheers and stamping; the final curtain calls of the night a standing ovation for the conductor and his band.

This instalment drives the characters and story forward towards inevitable downfall. There is much to be admired about the complexity achieved through the simplicity of the production’s story-telling.

Gregory Pritchard



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