Tacky stage design of the Ring disappointed audiences and would have benefited from a single artist’s vision, writes critic and historian Ian Britain.
In most theatres the audience changes every night while the show remains the same for the season. When a full Ring cycle’s on, the reverse is the case. Among the punters at the Melbourne Ring, there were only a few new faces on each of the four successive evenings. It was pretty much the same bums on the same seats night after night.
The audience’s responses from night to night remained fairly uniform, too, at least on the surface: generous, sustained applause at the end of each act and then again at the final curtain calls — with slight variations according to the particular singer taking a bow, but no boos or catcalls that I could discern. At the same time, there was no rapturous foot-stomping, little whooping, and (until the last night at least) only the odd cry of bravo here and there. Compared to the eruptions of excitement — or disapproval — that can overtake European opera houses, it was all a bit subdued.
You could put this down to Melbourne middle-class sedateness. Or to some kind of reverential awe at what was achieved given the hitches and tensions that had threatened to derail it in the preparatory stages. Probably it was a mixture of these things: no audience, however uniform, is a monolith. You might also want to give the audience credit for a measure of critical reserve and discrimination. You could gauge this best from the snatches of conversation in the foyer during the intervals or as people filed out into the night at the end of each performance. It was clear from these there was general satisfaction with the orchestra and with most of the singers most of the time.
But the staging — sets and costumes in particular — divided audience opinion much more with pervasive murmurings of unease or scepticism or disappointment or plain hostility. Why was it all such a “patchwork”? Why did so much of it look “on the cheap”? The budget could stretch to those clunky cranes that hoisted the giants up and down or to that shiny gym equipment in the hall of the Gibichungs. None of this technology was prescribed by Wagner, so why did we have to do without any but the barest suggestion of some of his most potent visual motifs: the ash tree, the rock, the dragon, the doomed towers of Valhalla?
I didn’t concur with all these objections: bringing out the Brighton yuppies in Gunther and Gutrune, pacesetters of the Gibichung crowd, was a suitably witty touch, I thought. But I baulked with virtually everyone else at the bogan Mime in his fluorescently blazing back shed, when Wagner (in the music if not the text) insists on a darkened cave. In the glare it was difficult to feel any mystery, any sense of menace. Siegfried’s K-mart sweatshirt fitted with Brünnhilde’s Target-tomboy look, but again this seemed perversely disennobling. Siegfried may be a tearaway teenager to start with, but his heroism proves to be of the world-historical, not the local, Ramsey Street variety.
If allowed to proliferate, such incongruities and trivialisations can end up not challenging but grating on an audience, and it wasn’t surprising that amid the well-deserved ovations at the end of the last evening, the only voluble boos were reserved for the design team when they filed out on stage. Maybe this won’t bother or deter them, but they are never going to carry those sections of the audience who crave for some cohesiveness of vision, especially in such a vast and sprawling and heterogeneous opus as the Ring.
Cohesiveness doesn’t have to mean conformity across the board, or lack of daring, and director Neil Armfield may have had more of a chance of achieving it if he’d worked with a single, and singular, artist. The stage designs for opera that have lingered most in my memory are those of David Hockney for Die Frau ohne Schatten and of Sidney Nolan for Samson et Dalila. Nolan’s dead. There are artists of comparable talents and brio in our midst. Juan Davila is no stranger to daring and possesses a sure sense of the poetic logic behind the Ring’s kaleidoscopic dazzle, an intimate and erudite appreciation of its interlocking psychological, spiritual and mythological symbolism, and a keen empathy with its transnational, transhistorical applications. Who knows if he’d have been any more biddable, but it might have been worth a phone call to find out.