DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN
DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, Opera Australia at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC to 21 December 2023
Surrounded by RingNuts (27 and counting) one of the truisms that becomes apparent is that any Ring Cycle anywhere is likely to be a mix of the sublime and the silly. And this one – first planned for Brisbane pre-Covid – is finally happening and is no exception. Trumpeted as “the first ever digital Ring”, the digital content design by Leigh Sachwitz, Sebastian Grebing, Milena Mayer and flora&faunavisions, to an overall design concept by director Chen Shi-Zheng, is frequently astonishing, at the very least interesting and in many instances awe-inspiring and thrilling.
Nevertheless, as befits Der Ring des Nibelungen – the world’s longest, greatest, most notorious, most loved, most misunderstood, etc etc opera – it has to be the singers who finally carry the day(s). In this instance, Opera Australia made sure to secure two of the world’s best in Lise Lindstrom (Brünnhilde) and Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) after they set Melbourne alight in Neil Armfield’s Rings of 2013 and 2016. They do the same here: Lindstrom reminds us at every turn that she’s one of the finest Wagnerian soprano-actresses of her generation. And Vinke has the energy and fire of a man who’s just discovered his powers as hero, not one who’s performed the role more than 20 times.
Even more exciting, for Australia, is the rise and rise of Anna-Louise Cole. Still a baby in operatic years, her voice is lushly powerful and commanding – as Sieglinde – while lucky/astute patrons of the 3rd Cycle will have her share Brünnhilde with Lindstrom. It’s difficult not to see Cole as a soon-to-be international star of this most demanding role.
The same can be said of Daniel Sumegi whose debut as Wotan is everything that could be hoped for. His range and power and sumptuous tone are magnificent, his presence is as dominant as a mean daddy God should be and, again, an international Wotan career is his for the taking.
In vocal terms, there are no weak links in the company: Rosario La Spina is the gloriously convincing lover-brother Siegmunde to Siegelinde. Warwick Fyfe is hilariously evil as the vile Alberich. Deborah Humble is a dignified presence as Wotan’s long-suffering wife Fricka and later, in Götterdämmerung, as the Valkyrie Waltraute, while Liane Keegan’s Erda brings similar weight to her role. Although represented on stage by a dancer, the ethereal forest-life of Woodbird is beautifully captured in song by Celeste Lazarenko.
The Ring is a mass of trials and troubles. Tragedy and cruelty stalk the women at every turn and none escape Wagner’s gloom-girt storylines. Gods are as badly behaved as humans, while the curious hybrids who lurk around every corner are similarly degenerate. Even our hero Siegfried has all the basic decency of a drunken footie player, so it’s little wonder that beasts and bullies and seekers of vengeance such as Hunding, Fafner, and Hagen (all a magnificent malevolent Andrea Silvestrelli) and Mime (Andreas Conrad) are among the most striking and animated creations.
The Ring is a mammoth undertaking for all however, and the resources lavished upon it by Opera Australia have paid dividends where it counts. Unfortunately, OA has no control over Australia’s domestic airlines and dozens of Sydney patrons missed most of the first Das Rheingold “due to air traffic control.” Whatever that meant, it entailed a plan to leave Sydney by 10am for a 90-minute flight that had many sitting in the airport all day as flights were canceled, finally arriving in Brisbane after eight o’clock with Das Rheingold more than half over.
Happily, no airline was involved in Die Walküre – when the supersonically-charged Valkyries arrive out of the heavens aboard a vast, gleaming metal bird. The fabled music (Queensland Symphony, conductor Philippe Auguin) is enough to raise the dead anyway, but when combined with a roiling, larger-than-Godlife stormscape, the whole seemed to herald the approach off the Queensland coast of just-announced Cyclone Jasper. It’s one of the most spectacularly thrilling entrances in all opera-theatre and in this instance, did not disappoint.
As the week progressed (day/night off between each opera) it became apparent that the most effective elements of the Cycle were those that combined the old-fashioned and the new-fangled. First of all – missed by the stranded and caught up with during the Gôtterdämmerung reprise – were the corporeal trio of Rhinemaidens (electrifying Dominica Matthews, Lorina Gore, and Jane Ede), seemingly afloat in the aqua depths of the river. Represented in mesmerising ripples of blues and greens on the old-style physical flats AKA digital panels and backdrop, the digitally conjured “water” sprang even more astonishingly to life as, high above the stage, three more “Rhinemaidens” shadowed those below by twirling, swimming and diving through sparkling ripples and eddies as trapeze artists. Again, a form as old as circus itself, choreographed by Akasia Ruth Inchaustegui, alongside the 21C digital visuals.
The costumes too, designed by Anita Yavich, ran from classic – liquid mercury armour for the Valkyries, lots of bearskins and leather for the creeping Gibichung warriors and other males – to electronic wizardry with LED effects either lending visual frissons or frightful distractions. Weird distractions too in much of the non-setpiece visuals with some resembling Christmas wrapping paper, other elements apparently borrowed from oriental rug designs and some nothing so much as an afterthought because so much time and effort had been expended elsewhere. When Siegfried and Siegelinde are singing of Springtime, for instance, they are showered with endless flutterings of gold and red autumn leaves. One also has a lot of time to wonder at the Norns (Celeste Haworth, Angela Hogan, and Olivia Cranwell) and how they not only sing like angels but cope with outfits that make them look like giant sewing machine bobbins as they rise out of the floor.
Nonetheless, sublime moments are plenty: Lise Lindstrom’s so slow march towards the wrong man’s hand in marriage is agonising. The playing of Siegfried’s Funeral March, by the QSO, is heart-rending and the spectacle upon spectacle of each realisation of a legend and its (usually fatal) culmination is without parallel. Does it live up to the hype? Mostly, and that’s mainly because the performers pay Wagner’s music and drama every iota of attention and respect. They are spectacular.
Still time to catch the second and third Cycles and enjoy Brisbane!