To non-enthusiasts, Wagner’s claims on one’s time are always excessive, but even devotees were not expecting the second part of the Melbourne Ring to unfold over seven hours. On this occasion the generous interval breaks were supplemented by an unforeseen technical hitch with the Act II set-up, which delayed the restart by the better part of an hour. The patient audience was rewarded by a highly elaborate set, by far the most impressive of the night: an enormous helix ramp spiralling into the flies, with Wotan’s taxidermy collection of lowered into the centre. Is this set designer Robert Cousin’s nod to Wagner’s anti-vivisectionist beliefs? Or is it just an expression of Wotan’s problematic status as the de facto ruler over all other forms of life?

James Johnson (Wotan) and Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) © Jeff Busby
James Johnson (Wotan) and Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde)
© Jeff Busby

By contrast with the rotating staircase, the rather rudimentary Act I stage design consisted of a tiny hut set on the revolve, and no ash tree (the sword was instead sticking up from the centre of the stage). The wintry season was represented by constant snowfall, replaced by green paper when Siegmund sang his famous ‘Spring song’ (falling leaves? the metaphor wasn’t entirely thought through). Act III mostly took place in a black box space (as did scene 4 in Rheingold), although with a visually thrilling start and finish: the Valkyries arrived by being lowered in on swings (and actors playing corpses were hoisted away in their stead), and at the end there was a circle of real flames surrounding Brünnhilde. On both occasions, the bare sets have been utilised in situations of intense dramatic conflict (Wotan-Alberich and Wotan-Brünnhilde respectively). The psychological drama was sufficiently intense in both that the lack of eye candy wasn’t much felt; however, the discrepancy to other scenes in both operas was notable.

The female cast was absolutely outstanding. First to appear – and first in terms of achievement – was the quite extraordinary Amber Wagner as Sieglinde. In a happy case of nominative determinism, she seems to have been born to sing this repertoire: she possesses enormous volume matched with perfect control (how rare a combination!), and her glorious creamy tone has to be heard to be believed. Practically every time she opened her mouth I felt tingles on the back of my neck. By her side, Bradley Daley sang gamely as Siegmund, but it felt rather ordinary. He impressed more in the ‘Annunication of Death’ scene in Act II, delivering the first part of question-and-answer session seated with a sleeping Sieglinde on his chest.

Amber Wagner (Sieglinde) and Bradley Daley (Siegmund) © Jeff Busby
Amber Wagner (Sieglinde) and Bradley Daley (Siegmund)
© Jeff Busby

Brünnhilde, Siegmund’s interlocutor in this scene, was played by Lise Lindstrom, making her role debut. Right from her opening war cry of “hoi-jo-to-ho” she demonstrated impressive vocal prowess: her voice has fabulous cut, which enabled her to be heard easily above the heavy orchestra. She was a convincing actress to boot, especially when she was pleading with Wotan in the final scene.

Jacqueline Dark continued to excel as Fricka: in her confrontation with Wotan she came off as the quintessentially strong woman, rather than as harridan or victim, and her dismissive kiss of her cowed husband at the end was a brilliant touch. The eight Valkyries (in army fatigues) were individually and corporately excellent, although unsurprisingly their voice types varied considerably.

Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) and James Johnson (Wotan) © Jeff Busby
Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) and James Johnson (Wotan)
© Jeff Busby

James Johnson’s voice may have become weathered with age – his low notes, in particular, tended to get swallowed by the richer orchestral textures – but he retains his strong stage presence. His lengthy Act II monologue was quietly gripping, and he definitely saved the best for the last act, not just glorious farewell at the end of the opera but also the angry confrontation with his Valkyrie daughters. His gradual softening as a result of Brünnhilde’s pleading was beautifully conveyed. In the role of Hunding, Jud Arthur was a strong-voiced and physically imposing villain.

Pietari Inkinen kept a tight handle on the Act I love duet: I would have welcomed a loosening up of the tempo a little earlier, but when he did let go (around “Siegmund heiss' ich”) it fairly flew. Aside from a few brief misalignments with the singers, there were remarkably few obvious hitches all night, and some particularly impressive solos from the clarinet and cello. The heavy brass revelled in one of their most rewarding scores, and the strings kept the energy levels up in the frantic flickering fire music at the end. There was only one curious moment in Barry Millington’s otherwise excellent surtitles: Wotan accused Alberich of “ravishing” a woman, when in fact the German indicates that it was his money that bent her to his will. Whether there is any moral difference between his using force and financial incentive to beget a son is debatable, but given that is Alberich widely recognised as symbolising ‘capital’, it is a distinction worth preserving.