★★★★½ Vocal heroics and visual magic in Armfield’s theatrical Siegfried.

Arts Centre Melbourne
November 25, 2016

Ever heard the tenor join Brünnhilde on her top C at the end of Siegfried? Stefan Vinke’s superhuman final fling was just one of many miraculous moments in Neil Armfield’s hyper-theatrical staging of the most magical opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Jud Arthur as Fafner. Photos by Jeff Busby

Throughout his Ring, Armfield has used theatrical smoke and mirrors to represent the magic in the Germanic mythological tale. Show girls and cheap vaudeville tricks, he seems to be saying, are all that this fag end of humanity have left to buy into. In Siegfried, he goes the whole hog, setting each act within a proscenium arch to emphasise the theatricality of the situations. In Robert Cousin’s clean-limbed set design, Mime’s cave (here, a dilapidated modern man-cave) is seen as a place of playacting where Siegfried has been brought up on tall tales and make-believe. Fafner is shown as a fading actor applying the motley and practising unconvincing snarls in a mirror. His tired circus show is near the end of its tether, his reputation all that nowadays keeps the world at bay. And all this is leading up to Wotan’s very own coup de theatre, Brünnhilde’s artfully staged rock with its golden ruched curtains and model horse.

It’s a playful conceit and one that puts a spring in the step of what for some can feel a long night at the opera. Mime sets the tone, sniffing the milk to check its sell-by, his glutinous soup done in a microwave – domestic goddess he is not! Siegfried meanwhile sits on a bunk, surrounded by crayoned pictures of forest beasts and dragons. People come and go by breaking the fourth wall, while the restless lad yearns for “the world”, a place beyond the proscenium to which he literally hacks his way through at the end of Act I. A simple theatrical device – long hair and shades – is all it takes for Wotan to fool Mime.

James Johnson as The Wanderer

Of course, there’s darkness as well. The opening of Act II (has there ever been a more sinister piece of music?) finds Wotan and Alberich still trying to sort out who has the power – the former trying, not always convincingly, to show he’s letting go, the latter more pent up and venomous than ever. Love is still a vital component, though frequently equated here with fear. Realising he’s failed at making Siegfried love him, Mime wishes he’d made him fear him instead. Wotan really does love Siegfried, but ultimately age can’t hand over power to youth. Siegfried and Brünnhilde are most conflicted, the one confusing sexual passion for fear, the other clearly in love, but afraid that without her immortal gifts she will be a powerless marriage partner.

In playing out these complex relationships Armfield and his creative team place few obstacles in the path of the actors – there are no dragons, flying birds or magic fires – ensuring that character development trumps technical gimmickry. Alice Babidge’s costumes are simple, as is Damien Cooper’s theatrically-inspired lighting. Result – considerable clarity.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried

Leading the charge are the aforementioned tireless vocals of German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke in the title role. It’s perhaps an unusual voice for the part. Many Siegfrieds are pushed at the top, especially in the stamina-crushing final act when required to sing off against a fresh-as-a-daisy Brünnhilde. Vinke it seems just keeps getting better and stronger the higher it gets and the longer it goes on. Best above the stave where surprisingly his diction begins to shine, his heroic – and highly authentic – forging scene is the first miracle. He’s quite unfazed by Pietari Inkinen’s demanding and appropriately measured pace, and he sails across the heaviest orchestrations loud and clear. He’s a fine actor as well, capturing the naughty boy who deliberately messes up the cave just to annoy the hell out of Mime. By never resorting to the hectoring bullyboy tactics that can lose an audience’s sympathy, he wins hearts and minds from the start and his visible joy in singing is infectious. In short, this Siegfried is a personable if troubled fellow whose path from innocence to some level of experience is convincingly traced.

As his nemesis, Graeme Macfarlane’s Mime is more believable as exhausted exasperated parent than scheming killer. His relationship with Siegfried is almost touching, if a little out of kilter when later he’s mixing a potion for the “I’ve always hated you” dénouement. Vocally he sounds his age – not out of the question in the role – but he has all the notes and the top is refreshingly intact. On the minus side, his words – and generally he has a lot of them – are sometimes lost beneath the orchestra and his German is sometimes questionable. However, he acts well through the text, manages the comedic moments with style, and builds a believable character where others risk caricature.

Jud Arthur as Fafner, Graeme Macfarlane as Mime and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried

In this, his third opera, James Johnson’s Wanderer really comes into its own. The role seems to sit slightly higher and he projects strongly and clearly with impeccable diction. By now, Wotan is a richly complex character, and Johnson runs the whole gamut of emotions, from playfulness to menace, from hubris to despair. He delivers a fine riddle game, spars engagingly with Alberich (his dark shadow), and by the final scene he believably captures the ambiguities of the god who wants to stop a turning wheel, yet genuinely thinks he is now capable of handing over his power to the young Siegfried.

Lise Lindstom too delves deeply into the conflicted side of Brünnhilde, charting the path from radiant awakening through the dawning realisation of the challenges of her new world in great detail. Vocally she’s ideal – secure and always exciting at the top, yet able to caress a line to bring out the character’s vulnerability. Her Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich is gorgeous, her final ecstatic cries of Leuchtende Liebe! Lachender Tod! thrilling. Playing nicely off Vinke, the two ensure the final scene is the magnificent climax that Wagner intended.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried

As Alberich, Warwick Fyfe continues to build a fascinating portrait of a vengeful monomaniac consumed by bitterness and malice. The quicksilver mood changes and nervous tension are beautifully played, a painful sense of authority lost always hanging about his ears. Vocally he’s perfect in the role: words clear, text used, top notes ringing, bottom notes slicing through. Jud Arthur’s Fafner is equally masterful, his resonant voice spot on for the baleful dragon. Revealed first in projected close-up, he proves a nicely detailed actor, his bloodied and naked emergence from the cave mouth a powerful moment of theatre. Liane Keegan’s blind Erda, impassive as a piece of Cycladic statuary, continued the good work of Rheingold. It’s a dark, luscious voice, and steady as a rock across the full range. Julie Lee Goodwin’s chipper woodbird appears here in a glittering dress, a bit like a magician’s glamorous assistant. She’s in great voice too, her text coming over more easily than when woodbirds are confined to the wings.

The Ring Orchestra goes from strength to strength. It’s a glorious sound and the power and sense of togetherness grows with each opera. Pietari Inkinen continues his thoughtful reading, providing terrific contrasts here between weighty and delicate, mercurial and ponderous. The sinister mix of giant, hoard, ring and curse Leitmotivs in the preludes to Acts I and II are nicely finessed, the forging scene crackles with energy. There are a couple of moments where the string sound is overpowered by the brass – the prelude to Act III and Siegfried’s passage through the fire – but generally this is a thoroughly consistent reading with a strong sense of the dramatic line from beginning to end.

A big, bold, visually stunning production, this is Armfield at his most theatrically cohesive. The appetite, it must be said, is well and truly whetted for Götterdämmerung.

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


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