A preliminary opera has set the stage, key characters have been introduced and events have unfolded which prefigure the remaining three operas. Gold, stolen from the maidens of the Rhine and forged into a ring would blight the future of everyone who handled it, until it eventually found its way back to the Rhine. The story of its return commences in Die Walküre, beginning on a dark and stormy night in a forest somewhere to the east, in a hut with a large ash tree as its centrepiece, and ends with a child conceived and a Valkyrie emerging who will return the ring to the Rhine.

Warwick Fyfe (Wotan)
© Robin Halls

Suzanne Chaundy's production of this saga for Melbourne Opera is outstanding. Magnificent singers, effective sets by Andrew Bailey and some thrilling moments from the 90-piece Melbourne Opera Orchestra brilliantly conducted by experienced Wagnerian Anthony Negus.

It all started with a glass of water. At once a chemistry of voice and body became evident as Brad Daley (battle wearied Siegmund) and Lee Abrahmsen (desperate housewife Sieglinde) begin the discovery they are twin children of Wotan, and whose love for each other becomes incestuous. But they do it so gloriously, Abrahmsen with a beautifully sweet soprano voice, clear diction and great control, Daly a rich colourful tenor with baritonal overtones conveying his emotion by his timbre. As they warmed to each other, their body language and Wagner’s evocative music expressively underscored the silences as they gazed into each others eyes, conveying magical intimacy. Light pouring down through the circle above (a signature part of Bailey’s unifying design for the tetralogy) focused on them, enhancing the richness of Daley’s Spring Song. They contrasted with the rich bass of Steven Gallop the bold Hunding (the lower the note, the richer he sounded), offering a night of accommodation to Siegmund before a threatened showdown in the morning. Cleverly he had placed his spear on the ash tree (the biggest tree I have ever seen) in close proximity to the sword Nothung.

Zara Barrett (Brünnhilde), Lee Abrahmsen (Sieglinde) and Valkyries
© Robin Halls

As the orchestra summoned our attention and the ash tree lifted through the circle above, Act 2 introduced us to three more key characters. The mighty Wotan was brilliantly portrayed by Warwick Fyfe, a baritone with many Wagnerian roles under his belt, capable of showing gentle tenderness and forceful anger with his favourite Brünnhilde, humiliating defeat to his wife Fricka’s defence of marriage and resignation to a diminished future. Fyfe was always in control of his voice, and is an accomplished actor. A clever little act was to remove his eyepatch as he reminisced on all that had been lost, leaving his damaged eye socket exposed.

Sarah Sweeting, equally commanding as the Fricka she first sang in last year’s Rheingold, had a clear, strong mezzo which forcefully conveyed her arguments – even the sky darkened with storm clouds as she entered – and demanded to be heard. Poor Wotan really had no chance! As Brünnhilde, Zara Barrett was remarkable. Her closeness to her father Wotan, her confidence then surprise when rejected by Siegmund, her tenderness towards Sieglinde, her pain at Wotan’s anger and her persuasiveness to bargain for a ring of fire were all told through the versatility of her voice. The vibrato of her initial “Hojotohos” thrilled me, and assured us that we were on to a good thing.

Zara Barrett (Brünnhilde), Bradley Daley (Siegmund) and Lee Abrahmsen (Sieglinde)
© Robin Halls

In Rheingold two Rhinemaidens opened the action by swinging above the stage on inverted pendulums; here, two Valkyries on horses repeat that act. Quality Valkyries, fronted by renowned soprano Rosamund Illing then took over, their enthralling, chilling greeting cries filling the 1700-seat theatre with excitement – Covid times clearly allow for a better class of Valkyrie voices to become available. It was here that Fyfe let vent his voracious anger, the Valkyries cowered under its venom, and Brünnhilde meekly submitted... but not before some of the tenderest singing I have heard in a long time. The act was set among grey geometrical rocks, over which the returning Valkyries threw bodies of heroes destined for Valhalla with a central platform on which Wotan raged forth as he listed Brünnhilde’s sins. It ultimately became Brünnhilde's resting place, Wotan folding her hands over her chest and left her lying at rest, as if in a cathedral chapel. Red lighting and smoke then rose up, a reasonable substitute for fire, while the orchestra gently, reflectively, calmingly, brought the opera to an end.

I would be surprised if this production hasn’t exceeded even Melbourne Opera expectations. They had even persuaded the theatre to remove the back wall of the pit to allow for the full orchestra to fit. They had brought Anthony Negus out from the UK to conduct. They had assembled a cast of some the best Australian singers. It has resulted in a remarkable success.