Feathers and speedos in the first part of Neil Armfield’s Wagnerian vision gets this Ring off to a great start.

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 18, 2013

One of those rare, electrically charged pin-drop silences preceded the opening bars of the new Inkinen-Armfield Ring cycle for Opera Australia at the Arts Centre in Melbourne last night. Then the low E flat almost imperceptibly reached our ears and the curtain rose to those velvety brass textures that enfold you like a womb revealing what? An image of the slowly rotating earth achieved through projection? No, it’s a sea of densely packed human bodies on a revolving stage reflected in a vast suspended mirror. Like a Spencer Tunick photograph. But hang on, they’re not naked, they are in bathing suits and it’s starting to look for all the world like a horizontal version of Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern, that idyll of classless carefree humanity united by their love of sun and water and natural beauty that is part of every Australian’s view of what they are (or were). As the famous drone gathers momentum so does the crowd; surging and developing its own internal energy through subtle choreography ( the first example of  what is to be a crucial feature of this production: outstanding choric movement work by associate director Kate Champion).

By the time the white water starts to foam in the strings the crowd rises and parts for three leggy Tivoli showgirls in scanty aquamarine (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Mathews as vocally and physically gorgeous Rhinemaidens). We’re only five minutes in and I’m starting to wonder how all this Aussie iconography is going to sit with such an elemental and quintessentially European epic. Three hours of continuously unfolding music drama later (is there a more remarkable feat of single-minded through-composition in history?) the answer is: surprisingly well. And I can still assert that after taking in the jaw-droppingly beautiful and outrageous finale dominated by 30 odd of the Rhinemaidens’ airy cousins; feather fan dancers in literally all the colours of the rainbow.

I’m sure many international critics will cite Baz Luhrmann or dub this the Priscilla Ring but if they do, they are missing the point. This is not some irreverent kitsched-up classic for the sake of it. Director Neil Armfield’s signature mix of the everyday and the universal, of the playful and the profound, is at work here. It is a principle at the heart of the work of designer Robert Cousins (who worked on the same director’s Cloudstreet) and Costume designer Alice Babidge too.

Not that there’s any shortage of Australian references here. Shonky property developers Fasolt and Fafner in their sunnies and pink ties are all too reminiscent of the characters that people the front pages of Sydney newspapers; there’s a touch of the pratfalling old vaudevillian George Wallace in Graeme Macfarlane’s hapless Mime ( superbly sung, too; refreshingly free of the whiney mannerisms that traditionally define this role), and it’s hard for an Australian audience not to see a certain larger than life public figure in Alberich’s incarnation as self-made and self-taught mining magnate.There’s even our most celebrated extinct species (surely the first of many to come), the Tassie tiger, in a glass case as a reminder that us Aussie nature lovers are not averse to treating her rough if there’s a buck to be made. But such details are far from the sum total of the vision of this Rheingold (and, I’m presuming, of this whole tetralogy).

Yes, the natural world is dazzling. The “show” it puts on for us provokes a child-like response: when the gold in its natural state is revealed – a sea of hand held tinsel – it’s as if all our Christmases have come at once. But this gold breathes and bubbles and innocently revels in its own beauty. It teems with chaotic, uncontrollable life as opposed to its value-added, post Nibelheim version in Scene 4: stylish, tasteful and sterile ingots (actually gold iPhone boxes!) piled up like a fetishistic display of must-have status toys in a Dubai duty free. In the hands of this creative team, it’s crystal clear what Wagner’s massive rambling poem is all about.

It’s a vision of the fall of mankind. Indiscriminate exploitation and violation of natural resources in deadly combination with the renunciation of empathy and cooperation (the triumph of self-love) will lead to corruption, contempt for life and ultimately catastrophe: in the James Lovelock scenario, the revenge of Gaia.

Alberich’s original sin – the theft of the Rhine's gold – is here symbolized by the haunting and nightmarish image of him abducting a terrified little girl from the beach and the theme of defilement of innocence is directly carried through to the next scene where we witness the consequences of Wotan’s casual pact with the giants to effectively use sexual favours with his youngest sister to pay for his new mansion. Rape is always just around the corner in this world and the only thing standing in the way of free-for-all pillage is the blokey rules of fair dealing engraved in runes on Wotan’s spear (here more like Prospero’s staff).

In the penultimate scene, Armfield’s melding of deep metaphor and human-scale drama is at it’s startling best when Wotan, having just used the peacemaker’s staff to hobble Alberich’s shins, unceremoniously throws it on the ground in order to give himself two hands to wrest the ring of power from the dwarf’s finger in an act of crude and naked brutality. Alberich then picks it up to deliver his parting rewrite of the rulebook: in the new world order, there will be nothing but endless terror of loss by the strong and boundless lust for gain by the weak. Sounds like a recipe for the next cataclysmic GFC.

Our new Ring then, is rich in ideas but no less so in vocal prowess and characterisation. At its centre is the wonderful Wotan of Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold. His glorious singing promises much for the coming operas but so too does his commanding, complex presence. From his first brooding entry, in Wagner’s velvet gown, as a troubled soul already dreaming of his own demise, to his exit as towering megalomaniac, leading the elite into their ivory tower, he is magnetic on stage.

So too is his nemesis, Deborah Humble as Erda the earth goddess in her one brief yet unforgettable scene of warning (or is it threat?). Hers is a magnificent wine dark mezzo that can effortlessly hold its own with huge orchestral forces even in its lowest register.

Richard Berkeley-Steele’s lends his Loge a penetrating and true tenor with impeccable diction. His physical energy and expressive eyes are helped along by Babbage’s superb platinum zoot suit and skivvy to give a Weimar-like cynicism to this slippery character: as much a backstabber as a yes man.

Where to stop? Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka, Daniel Sumegi’s Fasolt, Andrew Moran’s Donner; the cast is uniformly very strong. But, let’s face it, it is Warwick Fyfe’s show. Shambling on as the anoraked fat boy from school, hopelessly in lust with the showgirls who prick-tease him then mercilessly mock him, he grows in vocal stature as the scene progresses until we are in no doubt that this nerd’s revenge will be terrifying and vast. The loopy, all-powerful, psychopathic lord of the Nibelungs that he gives us in scene 3 and its chilling, down-but-far-from-out flipside in scene 4 are among the great characterisations of the Australian operatic stage and the powerful, multi-coloured, if at times wild voice is a dominating force in the production.

What of the musical direction by Finnish wunderkind Pietari Inkinen? (Do they have some kind of special wunderkind school up there?). There’s no question he was up to the herculean task of finding and sustaining the single trajectory of the composer’s great arc. The longest symphonic movement in history. The apotheosis of the Transition. From my seat, the words intelligent and restrained came to mind. The performance was impeccably balanced in favour of the text, as it should be, but I look forward to more moments when the obviously fine Melbourne Ring Orchestra is let off its leash. Musical highlights for me were the huge statement of the “woe” motif as Alberich dismisses his herd of workers in Scene 4 and the strange and lovely lifting of the mist sequence on Freia’s return, in which a genuinely beautiful string tone was achieved.

Cousins’ set and Damien Cooper’s lighting design also deserve special mention. I don’t wish to spoil the magical surprise of the transformation to scene 2 but the simultaneously beautiful and grotesque Victoriana, combined with a replica ( soon to be rudely defaced) of one of the original Bayreuth backdrops perfectly capture the anal and life-denying side of Wotan’s split persona. Cooper is at his best in the stark swordlike slashes of silver and gold that characterise Scene 4, and for the stunning final tableaux.

Off to a great start is an understatement.

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