The applause at the end was long and well deserved. Opera Australia’s Ring has been a triumph of singing and storytelling, and Götterdämmerung was perhaps the most impressive part. Not the most innovative – that would have to be Rheingold. Not the most emotionally touching – that was, unsurprisingly, Walküre. Not the one with the highest standard of singing throughout – that was unquestionably Siegfried. However, the final night did reference several visual themes from the earlier parts, thus providing a satisfying, even thrilling denouement.
While each part of the cycle utilised a crucial piece of set (the mirror in Rheingold, the spiral staircase in Walküre, the proscenium arch in Siegfried), the house frame in Götterdämmerung was the most prominent and stable of these. The norns, played here as seamstresses working on large tapestry, exposed it in the prologue when the thread of fate snapped and the concealing curtain fell down. Initially empty, save for a mattress, the frame was kitted out with treadmill and elliptical machines as the Gibichung’s gym in Act I, transformed into a glossy wedding marquee in Act II, and reverted to empty gables for Act III. The regular rotations of the set suggested the inexorable revolution of the earth. In particular the achingly slow change from Hagen’s watch song to the Brünnhilde-Waltraute scene perfectly complemented Pietari Inkinen’s measured approach to the transition music.
Taken as a whole, Neil Armfield’s Ring doesn’t offer an interventionist ‘reading’, but neither does it succumb to pure nostalgia. The staging mixed the traditional and the modern. One example: while TS Eliot felt the world would end with a whimper, there were bangs aplenty here, since guns replaced traditional spears (the repeated invocations in the text of the “Speeres Spitze”, the spear-point, were replaced by “weapon” in the surtitles). No real attempt was made to avoid anachronisms of armaments throughout the cycle. Hunding brandished a rifle early on, but reverted to a spear for the fight with Siegmund, while Hagen used a pistol on the sword-wielding Siegfried.
For the first two acts, Stefan Vinke was a couple of notches below the superlative level he had reached in Siegfried, but was stunning later, whether flirting with the Rhinemaidens (grabbing one of them in the Trump-endorsed manner), joshing with the huntsmen, or yearning for Brünnhilde in his death agony. The final scene was the excellent Lise Lindstrom’s finest hour as Brünnhilde: her moving Immolation Scene and resonant top notes provided a satisfying seal on the drama.
The role of Hagen is a gift to the singer with the appropriate vocal and dramatic chops, and Daniel Sumegi gratefully seized upon it. He was adept as a schemer, and still more effective when he dropped the mask and appeared openly as the brutal villain. The sheer volume he conjured up in the call to the vassals was thrilling, but his rendition of the brooding watch song was also potent.
Luke Gabbedy was a fine Gunther, matching Vinke oath for oath in the blood brotherhood scene, and later vividly conveying his character’s conflicted feelings. Taryn Fiebig captured Gutrune’s essential superficiality brilliantly (her meringue wedding dress was the perfect costume counterpart). Warwick Fyfe was a marvel of splay-fingered creepiness when he appeared in Hagen’s dream. The three Norns were good, the three Rhinemaidens even better. Particularly worthy of praise was the laser-focused tone of Sian Pendry as Waltraute.
But it wasn’t all about the soloists. At the outset of the cycle, the Rhine was represented by actors, and these again entered with streamers at the end of the Brünnhilde-Siegfried scene, rowing, swaying and dancing during the music of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. Wagner relaxed his theoretical strictures against the chorus here, and the sheer power of the men singing as Guther’s vassals made us realise what we had been missing.
A prominent theme throughout Armfield’s Ring was the notion of spectacle, evident in the showbiz elements of Rheingold and Wotan’s museum of stuffed animals. The end of the cycle was particularly spectacular: the dead Siegfried stood amid a circle of flowers, and his bride Brünnhilde joined him with a flaming bouquet, like macabre wedding cake ornaments, as the frame structure burned around them. In the last minutes, the backwall was raised to reveal another audience. Here seated on the same steps that led to Valhalla at the end of Rheingold were representatives of all the different communities we had encountered throughout the cycle: bathers, Nibelungs, Rainbow-bridge Marilyns, Gibichungs. The new world order replacing the corrupted, power-shaped universe of the soloists was one populated by the chorus members, actors and dancers.
At the end, another overlooked group had their moment in the lights, when the hard-working pit musicians came on stage to a well-deserved ovation. Wagner was hardly an egalitarian, but for a moment, he lets us believe in this possibility.
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