As the curtain fell on Opera Australia’s Monday night performance of The Ring, a resounding “boo” was heard from the rear of the stalls, uttered with such stentorian vehemence that it was Wagnerian itself.
But conductor Pietari Inkinen, director Neil Armfield, and the wonderful ensemble of singers and musicians would have been unconcerned. There’s at least one in every audience, and the most fanatical Wagnerite can reach heights of exultation or depths of despair few others can ever understand.
For the rest of us, this was an entry into Wagner’s Ring Cycle which was not only wonderful in itself, but which held out the promise of a complete quartet of operas — all 16 hours’ worth — to truly celebrate.
This is only the third time in Australia’s history that a complete Ring has been staged here. The current production at the Arts Centre in Melbourne comes, fittingly, in the 100th anniversary year of our first staging in 1913. It has been done only twice since, in Adelaide in 1998 and 2004.
Curtain-rise was magical — a grouped mass of almost abstract marine-like figures on the floor of the stage, with their sinuous, shifting shapes projected onto a screen behind them. As the hushed tones from the orchestra pit strengthened, those shapes slowly became less abstract, resolving finally, in a wonderful coup-de-theatre. A crowded Australian beach scene, through which the scintillating Rhine Maidens, as beautiful in form as in voice, emerged.
This was just the first of many felicities that gave a vibrant colour to the production. The assured direction and lively designs stamped it as an authentic Australian production but without descending into tawdry references. The Giants who built Valhalla emerged straight from Melbourne’s construction industry; the Rainbow Bridge which leads to that citadel in the sky was formed from glittering showgirls carrying rich multi-hued ostrich-feather fans.
But for all its localised deconstruction of Wagner’s grim tale of crass waste and perversity, this was storytelling which stayed remarkably true to its original vision. This production illuminated rather than confounded the text. It respected the work.
The cast is a true ensemble. Remarkably for this opera — for any opera anywhere in the world — there were no weak links. And though it is invidious to single anybody out from such an ensemble, I thought the casting triumph of the evening was Warwick Fyfe as the dwarf Alberich, who lusts after the Rhine maidens who despise him, and who takes his revenge in the despoliation of their treasures. Warwick Fyfe took over this role after illness forced John Wegner to quit the production. It seemed a role he was destined to take, in a memorable display of pathetic greed and malice.
Terje Stensvold’s Wotan was an absolute depiction of Wagner’s view of the Gods, towering over the rest of the cast with his too-human faults of venality, stupidity and pride writ large. And Richard Berkeley-Steele’s trickster Loge was like a column of quicksilver on the stage, fluid and expressive in his deviousness. We have all bought a car or home from this Loge.
But Wagner stands to rise or fall by its orchestra. The program tells us we are listening to the Melbourne Ring Orchestra, which is a 135-member orchestra with Orchestra Victoria at its heart, augmented by players from nine other national and international orchestras. Young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen on this hearing was an inspired find in a year when Wagner conductors are in desperately short supply. From the first hushed tones from the enlarged orchestra pit to the resplendent and beautifully burnished brass outpourings near the close, this is obviously a group of disparate players being forged into a Ring orchestra of great power.
On the strength of last night’s presentation, Opera Australia and all its partners have done themselves proud. And though it’s not usually the done thing to mention sponsors, the remarkable contribution of private patrons Maureen and Tony Wheeler, who donated millions of dollars to get this Cycle out and rolling, deserves at least these few meagre words.
The Ring is just the prelude to the three mighty operas which follow, with openings of Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung to follow. The full cycle will be performed three times, finishing on December 13. Is our national broadcaster filming this so that all Australians can share this wonder? I believe not, although it will be broadcast on radio. Well, maybe next time around.
* This article was originally published at Daily Review.