Australia has its own Wagnerian history. Europeans may scoff, but as Europe geared up to destroy itself in the first world war, the people of Melbourne and Sydney were happily consuming Wagner’s Ring cycle. British entrepreneur Thomas Quinlan brought the piece – sung in English, with cuts and a reduced orchestra – Down Under, and Australians adored it.
Exactly a century later, Melbourne is hosting its second ever Ring cycle, this time Australian-made, uncut and in German. Australia is no longer the place Quinlan visited, cut off from European debate and unaccustomed to live Wagner. There have been two Rings since, both in Adelaide. In 1998, the city imported Pierre Strosser’s Paris production. It was received so well that in 2004, the same house hosted Australia’s first-ever home-made Ring cycle. Director Elke Neidhardt, who died on Monday, created a brash, upbeat, unashamedly comic Ring for the State Opera of South Australia. Her production deserved a longer life, but Adelaide’s political decision makers lost their faith in German high culture.
Enter Opera Australia. The Sydney Opera House might seem the obvious place to stage a Ring, but the orchestra pit is too small and the acoustics are dodgy. Melbourne, on the other hand, where the national company plays for two seasons every year, is home to the 2,000-seat Arts Centre, which was happy to fork out Aus$4m ($3.7m) to expand the state theatre’s orchestra pit to Wagnerian dimensions for the occasion. Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia since 2009, set his sights on producing his company’s first-ever Ring, to be staged by Australian director Neil Armfield and conducted by Australian composer Richard Mills.
The last decision proved ill-judged. Mills withdrew from the production during June rehearsals, citing “a lack of unity, chemistry and vision”, and Opera Australia was able to secure young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, unexpectedly free after the crisis-fuelled implosion of the Palermo Ring.
Together, Inkinen and Armfield have created an inward-looking Ring, low on gimmicks and as darkly still as Neidhardt’s was brightly energetic. Armfield’s premise is to tell the Ring as a tale of the human race today, steadily destroying its own environment while failing tragically at the business of love. Wagner’s magic is translated as showbusiness sleight of hand. The Tarnhelm is a magician’s box, the rainbow bridge a line-up of showgirls with plumed fans, Fafner’s lair is a dressing-room table on an empty stage. But there it ends. Notung is a sword, Wotan carries a spear, and despite the addition of a puff of red confetti, when Fafner dies, he bleeds. Though the stage metaphor recurs, its use remains inconsistent.
A writhing mass of humanity – supernumeraries in dun-coloured swimwear – forms the Rhine as this Ring opens, returning fleetingly to deposit the Valkyries’ dead heroes, wave Siegfried on his way down the Rhine, and watch Valhalla go up in flames. Stuffed animals (zebra, thylacine, aardvark, etc) provide a nod to endangered species, but prove just one of many threads that are dropped in the course of this slow journey through Nibelung history.
And it is slow. Inkinen strives for, and achieves, both richness and clarity with the specially formed Melbourne Ring Orchestra, but it comes at a high price. Both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are so slow that at times they almost seem to be going backwards, and while the pace picks up for the remaining two operas, Inkinen never manages to communicate a sense of forward drive or internal architecture.
He supports his singers to the point of self-abnegation, which ensures audibility at all times, but results in some lapses of taste and a tendency to drag. Fortunately, good orchestral playing and a great deal of excellent singing prove considerable consolation.
As Wotan/Wanderer, Terje Stensvold gives a performance that is imposing, powerful and moving. Stuart Skelton produces glorious sounds as Siegmund, Jud Arthur makes a terrifying Hunding and a believably psychotic Fafner, and Susan Bullock brings experience, intelligence and much-needed passion to the role of Brünnhilde. Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried is everything you could wish for in the role, unflagging in strength and lyricism, perfectly paced and genuinely heroic. Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich is a mild schemer, Deborah Humble’s Erda improves as the Ring wears on, Norns and Rhinemaidens acquit their tasks with flair.
With singers of this calibre, this Ring should thrill more than it does. Armfield frequently abandons them to freeze in the footlights and stare at the conductor, most culpably in Die Walküre, and all too often they fall back on standard gestures or movements borrowed from earlier productions.
The Melbourne Ring cost Aus$20m to stage, and tickets for all three cycles were sold out within 24 hours of going on sale. Australians love their Wagner, and Opera Australia hopes that the Melbourne Ring can win enough support to become a regular event. A euphoric audience response proved that Armfield and Inkinen, as well as their cast, had the enthusiastic approval of their public. If this Ring is to return, perhaps the production will gain maturity, depth and meaning. That would make the Wagneroos (as Australian Wagnerians call themselves) and visitors very happy.