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Torment of the Gods

Her Majesty’s Theatre
02/09/2022 -  & February 11, 13, 16 (Melbourne), 27 (Bendigo), 2022
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Bradley Daley (Siegmund), Lee Abrahmsen (Sieglinde), Steve Gallop (Hunding), Warwick Fyfe (Wotan), Zara Barrett (Brünnhilde), Sarah Sweeting (Fricka), Rosamund Illing (Gerhilde), Eleanor Greenwood (Ortlinde), Jordan Kahler (Waltraute), Olivia Cranwell (Helmwige), Naomi Flatman (Siegrune), Caroline Vercoe (Grimgerde), Sally-Anne Russell (Rossweise), Dimity Shepherd (Schwertleite)
Melbourne Opera Orchestra, Anthony Negus (Conductor)
Suzanne Chaundy (Director), Greg Hocking (Producer), Andrew Bailey (Set Designer), Rob Sowinski (Lighting Designer), Harriet Oxley (Costume Designer), Chris Hocking (Video Designer)

Z. Barrett, L. Abrahmsen, B. Daley (© Courtesy Melbourne Opera)

Melbourne Opera (MO) continue their triumphant return to the stage with the second instalment of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Building on the success of Das Rheingold in 2021, they are buoyant with self-assurance and dedication to the realisation of this ambitious plan for delivering a complete Wagner tetralogy in little over two years. Siegfried will be given in concert format later in 2022, with full Ring Cycles in early 2023. This is an opera company in no doubt about its ambitions and with skills to match.

In the cavernous Art déco splendour of Her Majesty’s Theatre, we are transported from the depths and privations of the primordial forest to the swirling summit clouds of Walhalla with its all-pervasive view of the world and the minutiae of human endeavour. The stage is dominated by skyscapes of clouds, thunderheads and dazzling bursts of sunlight as the gods play out their self-indulgent amusements toying with the mortals below. Andrew Bailey and his team have placed the ring itself at the centre of the design for the opera. The brutal architecture of the first opera returns as does the ocular, now hovering over the ancient tree and reflected in a circular dais surrounding its base. Through the ocular, we mortals have a limited view of the world beyond our immediate surroundings. The gods however, view all from the opulence of their eyrie and license themselves to intercede and interfere in the lives of the ostensibly free-born on the Earth below.

Director Suzanne Chaundy has an extensive history of experience in staging Wagner’s operas. She drew out the rejection of love in Das Rheingold as a central theme and now offers another facet to our understanding of humanity’s driving force when we see the power of love to motivate our actions. Again, it is the text and the music which are foremost. Her unfussy staging allows focus on the clarity of the text and the implications each has for the propulsion of the drama. The heat of physical attraction is juxtaposed against imperious, distanced manipulation by the gods in a way almost reflective of classical Greek tragedy. Ms Chaundy’s control and pacing of the massive text brings to light many minute nuances and encourages the performers to respond to each other in ways which contrast the enormity of life and death decisions they are taking.

Continuing his collaboration with MO, British conductor Anthony Negus returns to Australia, to build upon the success of Das Rheingold. The enormity of Die Walküre becomes clear even considering only the orchestra: Wagner’s extravagant demands for four harps and his self-designed tubas add to the sheer size of the band, requiring alterations to the pit and stalls. Maestro Negus brings all this magnitude into a controllable and disciplined team. At no time in the more than four hours of score, was there a sense of the orchestra dominating the singing cast. Yet, there are so many instances where the orchestra carries the drama and emotions and this ensemble delivered a memorable performance which drew immense appreciation from the audience.

Warwick Fyfe’s professional biography reads like a definitive list of opera performance in this country. His repertoire extends from Wagner to Rossini and encompasses appearances in Australia, Asia and Europe. From the moment of his vocal entry, Mr Fyfe commands the stage. Yes, Wotan is written to dominate, it is his purpose, but here we have glimpses into the mind of the man, snatches of “humanity” where he tears himself apart coming to terms with the loves and losses of his eternal life. Wotan under Mr Fyfe’s interpretation becomes a tired and care-worn father, husband, creator who can foresee the end for all of the gods and is almost accepting of the fact that his creations have spiralled out of his control. This is a resonant and compelling performance.

Lee Abrahmsen’s performance as Sieglinde was a stellar achievement. She grew and nurtured this character throughout the opera so we witnessed the belittled and beaten wife to tormentor Hunding from Act 1 grow into the powerful and decisive mother of humanity even when fleeing the wrath of Wotan at the conclusion of Act 3. Ms Abrahmsen’s formidable soprano had no difficulty in conquering the vastness of the auditorium and drew rapt attention in the pianissimo passages. In the final Act however, the full beauty of her voice and stage power was unleashed and she soared over the vigorous chorus of Valkyries and mighty forces of the orchestra.

Bradley Daley has great experience as Siegmund both in Australia and abroad. His heroic tenor was a glorious foil to Sieglinde and striking contrast to the threatening bass of Hunding. He is an agile performer who brings an endearing quality to Siegmund as he struggles to come to terms with his imminent death and his commitment to his sister/wife.

Zara Barrett’s Brünnhilde is a tortured and tormented creature. She feels deeply the power and influence of being Wotan’s will and is simultaneously an emotional and dutiful daughter who cannot help but be touched by the sincerity of conviction and the power of love. Ms Barrett gave a robust performance of this character culminating as it must in the divided loyalties and broken promises of the final Act.

As Fricka, Sarah Sweeting was immensely potent. Her mezzo-soprano is a volatile instrument which commands the stage and accepted no excuses from her husband. She portrayed the all-knowing, imperious goddess superbly, matching Warwick Fyfe’s power and energy to make a magical vocal duo.

This production is a rewarding and worthy contributor to the realisation of the complete Ring Cycle. It bodes well for the forth-coming shows and helps cement Melbourne Opera’s place as a major performance company.

Gregory Pritchard



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