★★★★☆ Thoughtful second part to Armfield’s Ring transports us to soprano heaven.

Arts Centre Melbourne
November 23, 2016

Die Walküre, the first part proper of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, is the most romantic of the four Ring operas and the one where the composer first overtly states his purpose. That love is his theme – between siblings, between father and daughter, even marital love (or the absence of it) – is set out loud and clear, not just in the passionate intensity of the many long scenes, but in the number of new musical leitmotivs devised to accompany each character and their feelings for their fellows.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and James Johnson as Wotan. Photos by Jeff Busby

In Neil Armfield’s production for Opera Australia, things shift a gear. It may be cold and isolated in Hunding’s claustrophobic hut, but far from the madding crowd frolicking on beaches or pressed into labour by Alberich, love may in fact blossom. Armfield’s Walküre symbolically begins with ice and ends with fire. Living in a wasteland of inhospitality and snow, Sieglinde’s marriage may be barren, but the capacity for love burns bright. In this eco-conscious staging, even the trees have been culled. There’s nothing growing in the middle of Hunding’s dwelling, just a sword haft sticking starkly out of the earth like a solitary gravemarker.

By the second act, Wotan’s sterile Valhalla is laid bare. His Gugenheim-inspired spiral ramp encases the menagerie we saw in Das Rheingold, now clearly deceased exhibits in a mausoleum of planet earth. Armfield draws his parallels clearly. As Alberich foreswore love to gain power, Wotan must now foreswear power and come to understand the potency of love. In a neat dramatic stroke, following his nihilistic cry of “Das Ende!” the god divests himself of coat and shirt to stand a mirror image of Alberich on the beach in Rheingold. We see Alberich clearly as Wotan’s dark-side (or vice-versa when later Wotan describes himself as “licht-Alberich”).

In Act III, there’s more harvesting going on. This time it’s the Valkyries culling victims from a faceless mass of people and hoiking them up to Valhalla like so many sides of beef. With the global migration crisis more desperate than ever, this is a powerful and unsettling image. It’s in this long scene that love and the many ways it can be forfeited assumes a painful prominence. Sieglinde has just lost her love; Wotan has killed one of his loves in Siegmund, and now must renounce his daughter; Brünnhilde, awkward and unsure of how to comfort the bereaved Sieglinde, learns something of the complexities of love. Each takes a crucial step forward, though none of them as yet know it.

Although the Act II Valhalla set is complex – the extended intervals to deal with technical hiccups saw the opening night audience leave the theatre just after midnight – Armfield and his design team (Robert Cousins’ neat minimalist sets, Alice Babidge’s plain, contemporary costumes and Damien Cooper’s stellar lighting) are working on mostly bare stages. It’s an approach that pays dividends in the hands of smart actors, though it can flummox the unwary when physical energy levels don’t quite fill the space. It’s the very absence of forest though that creates the powerful sense of loneliness in Act I, while the magic fire is extra-arresting when presented in total simplicity.

Amber Wagner as Sieglinde and Bradley Daley as Siegmund

Dramatic and vocal honours go to the two beautifully contrasted sopranos (both American) of the Brünnhilde and Sieglinde. Lise Lindstrom makes a highly believable Valkyrie, her natural youth and vigour capturing the character’s emotional naivety and slight gaucheness. Vocally she has a steely top allied to a steady, penetrating middle register, and thanks to her remarkable diction, every nuance of the role comes over loud and clear. From the opening hojotohos – top Cs cleanly and thrillingly taken – to the enthusiasm of her prediction of the birth of Siegfried, this is an exciting reading, yet one that finds room for a thoughtful and moving Todesverkündigung (Annunciation of death). Lindstrom is at all times a consumate actor adding much to the audience’s understanding of Brünnhilde’s complex journey.

The production has scored bigtime in Amber Wagner (pronounced the US way), who is blessed with a rich, smooth soprano of considerable amplitude. Full and potent in the lower register, she reminded me more than once of another great Sieglinde, Jessye Norman. At the top she’s radiant, sailing effortlessly through one of the finest renditions of Der Männer Sippe I can recall. Like Lindstrom, with whom she builds a fine releationship, she too has superb diction and uses it to great effect, especially when conveying Sieglinde’s desperation and madness. Dramatically she’s right on the money. A convincing woods-woman, you really feel her shame at her oppressive marriage, while her dawning love and recognition of Siegmund is plotted carefully and persuasively.

James Johnson as Wotan and Jacqueline Dark as Fricka

As her brother and lover, Bradley Daley has many fine moments, both vocal and dramatic: his long narration in Act I is especially effective and his Act II scene with Brünnhilde is genuinely telling. A powerful middle register is ideal for Siegmund, and Daley essentially has all the top notes, but he lacks the ideal flexibility higher up. Zauberfest suits him better than Winterstürme, a drawback when called upon to combine lyricism with the more challenging tessitura towards the end of Act I.

Reprising his role as Hunding, Jud Arthur is in his element. Refreshingly, he doesn’t play the vicious wife-beater as can often be the case. His granite menace is rooted in the brutality of his bleak environment and a whopping great bass voice that would put the frighteners on any one. Jacqueline Dark’s Fricka is also imbued with all the necessary decibels. Her thrilling, spitfire top is deployed in brilliant tandem with the text to call up a barrel-load of vocal and dramatic tricks aimed at getting her way with an obdurate husband. Facing off with Lindstrom’s convincingly juvenile Brünnhilde, the sense of confrontation here was multi-layered and palpable.

Anna-Louise Cole as Gerhilde, Hyeseoung Kwon as Helmwige, Dominica Matthews as Schwertleite, Roxane Hislop as Rossweisse, Lise Lindstron as Brünnhilde, Nicole Youl as Grimgerde, Amanda Atlas as Siegrune, Olivia Cranwell as Ortlinde and Sian Pendry as Waltraute

American baritone James Johnson’s Wotan is somewhat freer to act in this opera, although he’s no less thwarted in his intent than he is in Rheingold. The voice itself is occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestral sound, especially lower down, but he invariably sings lyrically and rises to the dramatic challenges of the crucial central narration and the final scene with Brünnhilde. His love for his daughter comes over loud and clear – the chemistry with Lindstrom is tangible – even if the sense of anger is never quite as convincing.

As the eight Valkyries, Anna-Louise Cole, Dominica Matthews, Olivia Cranwell, Sian pendry, Hyeseoung Kwon, Amanda Atlas, Nicole Youl and Roxane Hislop are very special. Kwon is razor-sharp on Helmwige’s killer top Cs, but each is equipped with a fine solo voice and make the most of their individual lines. Horsing around like a bunch of ladettes on the lash, their Ride is a real highlight, but their relationship with Brünnhilde is touching and their complex ensemble singing too is outstanding.

In the pit, Pietari Inkinen builds on his steady-as-she-goes Rheingold with a reading of considerable power and grace. He’s especially good in the romantic ebb and flow of Act I, but his pacing of the big dramatic scenes involving Wotan’s wrath is also electrifying. There’s a great bite to the lower strings, and some fine solos from cello in Act I and bass clarinet in Act II. The brass is also excellent, playing consistently well and with enormous reserves of power.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and James Johnson as Wotan

Armfield, Inkinen and their excellent cast deliver a thoughful and intelligent reading of this complex work – modern, yet happily free of gimmickry – boding well for the dramatic and musical developments ahead.

Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle runs three times in Melbourne from November 21-December 16



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