Theatre

Neil Armfield’s stark but powerful Ring delivers Wagner’s masterpiece as a triumph of the Australian stage, as good as could be imagined anywhere. By Peter Craven.

Opera Australia’s Ring cycle

Stefan Vinke and Lise Lindstrom in Götterdämmerung
Credit: JEFF BUSBY

Wagner’s Ring cycle is a consistently astonishing work that exhibits such heights of sublimity and gulfs of feeling that the listener/spectator is left, over and over, just gaping. And the first thing to be said about this second showing of the Melbourne Ring des Nibelungen for Opera Australia, directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Pietari Inkinen, is that it does this unambiguously and magnificently, whatever else it does.

The Melbourne Ring, bankrolled by the marvellous Maureen Wheeler, first seen in 2013 but significantly improved here in its second restaging – of which the third cycle completes next week – makes a very fair fist of the most challenging and ambitious, not to say daunting, work in the operatic repertoire. It has a Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) who is a consummate singer-actress, a Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) of breathtakingly heroic voice and a Sieglinde (Amber Wagner) who ravished the audience with the beauty of her tone. And if James Johnson as Wotan has a voice that’s past its prime, this does not stop his “Leb wohl”, his farewell to his “herrliches Kind” and beloved daughter, from being a heartbreaking moment. Pietari Inkinen conducts with a spectacular sense of drama, capturing all the ferocious majesty and emotional range of Wagner’s music, but with an apprehension of the surging coherence of those immense paragraphs.

And Neil Armfield holds the entirety of this massive work – the operatic equivalent of a Miltonic, if not Homeric, epic with all the overwhelming barbarous beauty and highfalutin rhetoric that implies – within the embrace of his absolute artistic seriousness. This is not a flawless Ring – the idea is virtually a contradiction in terms – but it is a major attempt by the greatest director working in Australia and it left the spectator breathless with gratitude and exhilaration.

That said, there’s no denying that Armfield’s approach can look like a gilded version of poor theatre – as if a strategy designed to maximise the impact of slender resources was being presented as a form of dramatic constraint and the logic of impoverishment was being extroverted with all the riches of the earth.

It’s probably true that Armfield’s minimalism with Wagner was at its zenith of achievement in the 1990 production of Tristan und Isolde, originally conducted by Stuart Challender and with Marilyn Richardson, later Lisa Gasteen, as Isolde. It had a vast backdrop of white silk, it was garbed in flowing and flattering mediaeval clobber, and the dramatic action was naturalised and psychologised. It was never abstruse or symbolic.

In this Ring re-run he has his Robert Cousins sets, which tend towards the skeletal and schematic, and Alice Babidge’s costumes, which range from the Busby Berkeley Rhinemaidens and myriad Aussies in beach gear on the banks of a Bondi-esque but invisible Rhine to suburban tat for Mime (Graeme Macfarlane) and Siegfried or black tie and naval full dress for roistering Gibichungs.

At times you wish the direction was more in tune with the constant drive towards visualisation in Wagner’s music. This tendency to perform around rather than through the music is noticeable throughout though it is probably most pronounced at the outset in Das Rheingold. Yes, we get the giants splendidly sung by Jud Arthur (Fafner) and Daniel Sumegi (Fasolt), looking terrific on their mechanical elevations, but there is the risk with this operatic preamble and its eerie and magnificent E-flat sense of the music of the creation of the world of too much of an effect of stasis if the direction does not tally with the frenetic action – all those descents into Nibelheim, those battles between the big guys, the apparitional warnings from the all-seeing Erda (Liane Keegan).

The upshot in Armfield’s hands is impressive but not as sure of touch as Inkinen’s conducting. Rheingold introduces us to the token of this Ring, the beauteous stuffed animals that the Lord of the Slain, Wotan, defines himself against as if – and there’s a program note to indicate this – the director thinks that the dwindling of animal species is a sign of a world on the wane, a tristful cosmic topology.

None of this stops Armfield’s Rheingold from being impressive but you wonder if the world of the Rhinemaidens, who somehow suggest the gaudiness and fleshiness of beach culture, is not symbolic of a residual uncertainty with this work. It doesn’t stop Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich from being a charismatic crowd-pleasing success as he curses love and opts for power like a Hitler before the letter.

Die Walküre is in contrast with this, with its vista of a recognisable hut and snow coming down as the Wälsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde fall into each other’s arms and into fatality and Amber Wagner’s “Der Männer Sippe” makes the audience feel that the work is being sung at the highest level.

Walküre is the centrepiece of the Ring. There is the self-contained operatic tragedy of the twins, the defiance of the doomed hero (“Hella, halte mich fest” – “let Hell hold me fast”) and the way Brünnhilde’s complicity with him in defiance of her father Wotan’s order, against his own desire, sparks her own tragedy. It is a work of dazzling naked emotion. It not only comes with the exhibition of the Ride of the Valkyries but ends with the ravishing Feuerzauber, the god Loge’s magic fire with which Wotan encircles the daughter he loves but forsakes.

Armfield does it with Valkyries on swings looking hot in combat fatigues and with a great spiralling staircase that looks – a bit weirdly – like some platonic idea of one of the newer sections of the MCG but does function as a more or less coherent abstract space.

Lise Lindstrom – making her first appearance as Brünnhilde in a complete Ring cycle – is all striking girlish impetuosity, then defiance, then a shattered young woman. And the great scene of farewell between father and daughter – rivalled only by Shakespeare in its dramatic intensity – is performed with heart-stopping gravity and poignancy. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day that James Johnson’s voice has been in better nick because he can still act superbly and the minimalism of the staging here works with a wonderful bare starkness. The audience had that unearthly stillness that only comes when great music becomes great drama.

Armfield’s Siegfried may defy a lot of imaginings of the whirling duets of hate between Siegfried and Mime. It’s not hard to hunger for a more eerie and outdoor environment for what leads up to the ringing heroism of Siegfried hammering out his “Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert” (his trusty sword Notung… “sword of my need”). But the acting is fine and the singing is superb, even if we baulk at the bunks and the old sofa and the indoor tools.

Then – as if to confound us – the apparition of Fafner the giant turned dragon in Act 2 is done with a dazzling theatrical dynamism as Jud Arthur sits at a mirror – filmically transmitted in huge close-up to the audience – and applies the most sinister possible layering of clown’s make-up.

The duel with Siegfried through a black torn gap in a paper curtain is a staggering coup de théâtre and the bloodied body of the defeated dragon is the most restrained and powerful use of the naked male form I have ever seen in the theatre.

It’s interesting too that James Johnson’s Wotan (in his Wanderer aspect) is powerful vocally as well as dramatically, perhaps because the darkness of the music is more within his contemporary range. Stefan Vinke sings like an archangel as Siegfried and Lise Lindstrom rises to meet him in the ecstatic duet.

With Götterdämmerung there is the everyday sinister magnificence of Daniel Sumegi’s Hagen, which works potently and with great virtuosity. And then there is the astonishing uncanny quality of the last movement, which makes you think of great opera as a thing of wonder.

When Siegfried is killed by Hagen – and Inkinen has the Melbourne Ring Orchestra play the funeral march with an elegiac intensity that has such sonority it sounds the death of the very idea of Germany – Vinke’s face is covered with white and he stands upright, an embodied ghost in his stillness.

When Lindstrom enters as Brünnhilde, she does so like an enthralling Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking. Her steps are utterly measured and as disciplined as a dancer’s and then, when she comes up to him in a blaze of spotlighting, she contorts with grief. It is fabulous theatre beyond the size of dreaming and it is clear that Lindstrom is a great actress-singer, a miraculous performer in this miracle of a work. A Brünnhilde in the tradition not of Flagstad or Nilsson but one of Furtwängler’s Brünnhildes, the great Martha Mödl.

From this point, grief melds into the voice of the tragic goddess who spells the end of all days – “Fliegt heim, ihr Raben” (“Fly home, you ravens”) she sings – and the greatest role for a woman in all of opera receives its incarnation in the soaring of a great singer who is also a great actress. The twilight of the gods is come.

You can say Neil Armfield should make the drowning of Hagen by the Rhinemaidens clearer; you can say he should be more graphic, more intricate in his sense of the drama; but these are quibbles. A director who can elicit a performance like this from a singer like Lindstrom deserves not just the respect but the reverence of the world.

The end of the second cycle of the Melbourne Ring left the audience full of tears and exultant at the wonder of what it had experienced. Armfield’s production is an example of what we see so rarely in this country – an attempt to take a huge, difficult and ungainsayably major work, and to do it the fullest possible justice, using the best performers that can be found anywhere in the world, while adhering to a vision and a passion for dramatic and musical truth that is very much now, very much ours.

Thirty years ago there was the tantalising dream of Elijah Moshinsky doing an Uluru Ring designed by Sidney Nolan and perhaps conducted by Charles Mackerras. If that’s the sketch of a once-upon-a-time dream, this is the actualisation of another.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Ring of fire". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.

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