Melbourne Opera is a relatively new outfit, which debuted in 2004, with a steady flow since then of mostly core repertoire offerings (nothing earlier than Mozart); quite a few Wagner operas have been presented, including a rare Rienzi in concert. This year’s production of Das Rheingold, itself a bold move under the current conditions of Covid restrictions, heralds the initiation of a Ring cycle to be staged over the next four years. MO is to be further congratulated on relying on Australian based artists, contrasting with Opera Australia’s steady import of international soloists.

Eddie Muliaumaseali'I (Wotan)
© Robin Halls

It is true that Ring productions in Australia have had a patchy record, but MO’s claim that Suzanne Chaundy's staging represents “Australia’s first independent production of The Ring since 1913” is somewhat puzzling. Neil Armfield's at Opera Australia (2013) was not brought in from elsewhere, unless “independent” means independent of Opera Australia, but what then of the outstanding 2004 Ring of the State Opera of South Australia which was, as far as can to ascertained, an independent production directed by Elke Neidhardt? 

There is a sense in which Ring cycles are answers to a set of problems: where can we find the right voices, an appropriate conductor, how to pull off the special effects called for, especially if we’re not Covent Garden or The Met? The response here was to work hard at mining the local talent – which was practically a necessity in terms of not having to subject the performers to onerous quarantine requirements – while bringing in Anthony Negus, a British conductor with impeccable Wagnerian credentials who has worked with MO over the last several years. With respect to SFX, the answer was to work creatively with lighting and digital effects on some issues, and just let the music speak for itself in other instances.

Rebecca Rashleigh, Louise Keast, Karen van Spall (Rhinemaidens) and Simon Meadows (Alberich)
© Robin Halls

The opening scenes were lovely, a scrim with a rippling blue water projection for the prelude, which then rose to reveal two women in diaphanous silvery draperies zooming above the stage on sway-poles, with the actual singing Rhinemaidens thereafter visible below in similar outfits on circular glowing blue swings. All the costumes were apposite, Alberich a particularly grimy figure in grubby overalls, with a bald pate surrounded by stringy locks. Wotan wore an austere grey suit, Fricka a stylised ram’s horn headdress with pale blue tunic and glittering gold sleeves, Freia in floaty pink and an appropriate golden hairpiece, carrying her golden apples in a dainty basket. The giants were burly chaps in rustic outfits, the Nibelungs what you would get if you sent to central casting for five Nibelungs.

Eddie Muliaumaseali'I (Wotan) and Sarah Sweeting (Fricka)
© Robin Halls

After the opening scene, the action moved to a higher level, an elevated platform with an apparently marble floor and a central circular depression. For the descent to and ascension from Nibelheim, the stage remained dark with distant lights and here, the music left to paint the journey. Similarly with the entry into Valhalla – no actual Burg or rainbow bridge were on view. The actual Rhinegold seemed a bit paltry and never really enveloped Freia. On the other hand, the transformations of Alberich with the Tarnhelm were managed adroitly with digital smoke and mirrors. At the finale, the gods mounted to a large disc at the back of the stage which became a circular recess within which they were highlighted while Alberich remained below. Overall, the settings were always attractive and, in terms of addressing the aforementioned problems, varied from adequate to highly creative.

Adrian Tamburini (Fasolt) and Steven Gallop (Fafner)
© Robin Halls

Since this was a streaming performance, it is difficult if not unfair to confidently review the singing, and to a lesser extent, the orchestral playing; the orchestra – 100+ strong if you count all the anvils – was named as the Melbourne Opera Orchestra. As a broadcast, the sound was well balanced and sounded well-rehearsed, and there was no faulting the accuracy of either singing or playing. Most impressive in both vocal and dramatic terms were Simon Meadow’s grim Alberich, James Egglestone’s Loge and Adrian Tamburini’s Fasolt. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Wotan was a commanding figure and sang smoothly and confidently, as did Sarah Sweeting as Fricka. Roxane Hislop, a Melbourne favourite, made an impact as Erda. The rest of the cast were all up to their respective parts. This is a fine beginning to an ambitious project, and the enthusiastic audience reception suggests we all await the next episode with great anticipation.

This performance was reviewed from the Melbourne Opera live video stream