By Opera Australia at Arts Centre, Melbourne

Reviewed by Paul Bushnell for Upbeat, Wednesday 11 December 2013

Video extract from Opera Australia's production of Die Walküre. Footage courtesy of Opera Australia.

The shackles are off.

The first instalment of Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle was visually striking, convincingly acted, and competently sung. Das Rheingold was coherent and its performances intelligent, but that production had not one spark of emotion or moment of musical frisson.

So what of Die Walküre?

In the first act, the coming of Spring is heralded by the breeze which gusts in through the door to Hunding’s hall, indicating not only the change in season, but the emotional awakening of Sieglinde and Siegmund. It’s a pivotal moment in the opera, marking a change from victimhood to action.

The transformation of the Ring Cycle wrought by this second opera is every bit as remarkable. The same orchestra, and some of the same singers, deliver a moving and extraordinary performance which culminates in the most effective staging I’ve ever seen of Wotan’s farewell to his errant daughter.

Constraint is replaced by animation, chilliness by warmth, and the result is a radiant production in which action and setting cohere with extraordinary effect. And if that’s true of the stage business, it’s also true of the music.

Last night, the singers seemed louder than in Das Rheingold – the orchestra, too: not in a bombastic way, but just scaled up from its tentative opening night presence to fully communicate Wagner’s score.

How can it be that Terje Stensvold, who was such a mechanical presence in Das Rheingold, invests this Walküre Wotan with such psychological realism? In a performance of astonishing power, he’s in superb voice throughout, and Wotan’s encounters with Fricka and the final act with Brunnhilde are production highlights.

But then there are so many others. This is not a case of one singer dominating proceedings, but instead of a true ensemble working from inside the music to give life to the director’s ideas while also delivering some exceptional musical fare.

Susan Bullock – a leading Brünnhilde of our age – is in thrilling form throughout. Dressed in the partisan fatigues worn by all of the Valkyries, she grows from tomboyishness to maturity during the opera, and is completely convincing as Wotan’s daughter. This is a heroine in waiting to take her place in Götterdammerung as the agent of the downfall of the gods.

She’s matched by Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s heartfelt Sieglinde, all containment and fear at the beginning of the first act, illuminated with love at its conclusion. This Sieglinde is capably supported by a sweet-toned Stuart Skelton in youthful voice as Siegmund.

Although Jacqueline Dark’s voice isn’t much to write home about, she invests her short scene as Wotan’s aggrieved wife Fricka with tremendous force. Jud Arthur misses some of the menace of Hunding, but still contributes powerfully to the tension of the first act.

Neil Armfield’s directorial touch – so secure in Das Rheingold – is equally impressive here. Although I’m not entirely sure about the idea of relocating the second act from a mountaintop to the atrium of Valhalla Mansions, it did provide for some inventive staging (and put the singers gratifyingly close to the audience without a sense of strain or artificiality).

By contrast, Hunding’s Hall has dwindled in this production from a huge interior to a little house on the mountainside the size of a tramping hut, surrounded by snow which keeps falling throughout the scene. The idea of isolation and containment expressed by this novel setting was a very deliberate choice, though, as it made the awakening and eventual escape of Siegmund and Sieglinde all the more effective.

At the opening of Siegmund’s Winterstürme aria marking the herald of Spring, the snow turns green, indicating falling leaves, and the little hut rotates as the two lovers leave their prison forever. It’s quite magical.

I’m not so sure about the success of the Ride of the Valkyries, as a clever staging idea seems a bit awkward in reality. Valkyries are lowered from a circle of lights (the Valhalla mothership?) on swings, picking out the warriors to die on the battlefield. The trouble is, there’s no battlefield, only a trudging crowd of refugees walking in a circle, stepping aside to avoid standing on the bodies of their dead companions as they emerge on the swirl of the revolve.

Once on the ground, the Valkryies hoist these bodies onto the swings to be borne up to Valhalla. It’s quite a clever idea, being resolutely anti-heroic, but its execution still comes off a bit clumsily as the cast fusses (understandably) over the attachment of the safety harnesses which connect the fallen to their aerial cables. Occupational safety and health is critical, but it’s not what comes to mind first when thinking of Valhalla’s warrior hordes.

No reservations about the rest of Act III, though.

On a bare black stage, the argument between Wotan and Brünnhilde is played out with complete conviction, and the human touches in the final farewell are deeply affecting. Putting his daughter to sleep, Wotan lies down behind her as if trying to soothe a distressed toddler. And once the (real) flames encircle Brünnhilde, he can barely force himself to leave, pausing without looking at the best-loved daughter whom he will never see again.

It’s a bravura climax to a dazzling production. If the rest of this Opera Australia Ring Cycle can get any better than this, it’s going to be a remarkable thing.

If only the surtitles could be seen, it would make the experience perfect. Why the company did not hang supplementary screens to either side of the stage to allow everyone to see the translation is beyond me. Given the subtlety of the acting, and the significance of the words to the action (as well as to the music) it seems like a staggering miscalculation. If the Metropolitan Opera can ensure everyone can understand what’s going on in every one of its productions, couldn’t Opera Australia do the same?

Video extract from Opera Australia's production of Die Walküre. Footage courtesy of Opera Australia.

G tterd mmerung
Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the Immolation scene. Photograph by Jeff Busby.

Opera Australia's Ring Cycle reviewed by Paul Bushnell for Upbeat.

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