|Adelaide Festival Theatre
Wagner's Ring Cycle
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Judgment of the four performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle will resonate internationally for State Opera of SA. Our critics offer their views.
SIEGFRIED By Michael Morley
|The State Opera of South Australia's rendition of Wagner's masterpiece deserves ringing praise.
THE Adelaide production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen began marvellously with Das Rheingold, soared to magnificence with Die Walküre and held much of that high ground during Siegfried. Praise for the management, singers, orchestra and production team respectively could overflow this page, without exhausting the superlatives.
At the pivot of these achievements has been the general director of the State Opera of South Australia, Stephen Phillips, who, across eight years, nurtured this first local production to give his company an identity unrivalled in Australia, a model for pursuing the impossible in all the arts, and beyond.
So much of the singing was so spellbinding that each entrant tended to erase the excitement of earlier excellence. The giants Fasolt (Andrew Collis) and Fafner (David Hibbard) were at once as rock solid vocally as the Valhalla they built, yet emotionally vulnerable. At the core of Das Rheingold stands Alberich, who renounces love in order to steal the gold and forge it into the ring. John Wegner rang true in every fibre of his being to establish the nobility for Alberich to be Wotan’s doppelgänger. Their grand designs are brought into sharp relief by the pettiness of Alberich’s brother, Mime, etched to perfection by Richard Greager. As Siegmund, Stuart Skelton proved every bit as convincing from his first ample note, all swagger against the chill of Hunding (Richard Green). Liane Keegan’s Erda remained as rich as her habitat deep in the Earth.
Other principals revealed more of their qualities as the unfolding of their roles required. Amusing as Elizabeth Campbell had been as Fricka done out as a young Mary Fairfax, her strengths emerged to break Wotan’s will. That humbling gave John Bröcheler the key to the greatness of his Wotan. His Act II narration provided one of those theatrical experiences that happens once in seven years. Wotan’s anguish at having to allow his son to be killed because of his own crimes convinces Brünnhilde to defy her father’s command. Bröcheler’s torment left the audience drained yet overflowing with emotion. Act III brought the audience to its feet in a rapture of amazement. The tumult that Bröcheler unleashed left me tossing between the sublime and the serene until the start of Siegfried, nearly 48 hours later.
The appeal of Deborah Riedel’s account advanced as Sieglinde’s character shifted from battered wife to impassioned fugitive, her voice swelling as if with the love child of her incestuous union. In a grander expansion, Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde supported Wotan’s anguish then stood against his rage with a steeliness which demonstrated the strengths that made her appearance most eagerly awaited. Over those stark qualities, she painted warmer tones upon being woken by the kiss of a hero so stupid as not to know fear. This tenderness found scope against a stand-in Siegfried (Gary Rideout).
Wagner conceived The Ring as a bringing together of all the arts, a vision realisable only on screen. On stage, he had to revert to pantomime. A director who followed his instructions today would be laughed out of court. The trick is to retain multiple layers of meaning while remaining true to Wagner’s revolutionary impetus in life and the theatre. Director Elke Neidhardt and her team achieved all this and more. Their respect for the storyline sharpened the moral dilemmas between love and power in a world where nature had already been ravaged. Foregrounding the humour in Wagner’s score intensified the heart-wrenching of his Orestian tragedy, nowhere more so than after the Ride of the Valkyrie with its octet of entrancing voices as differentiated as each note of the scale.
Through working together over so many years, the production team have achieved a coherent vision. Michael Scott-Mitchell as set designer delivered heart-in-the-mouth effects while the lighting of Nick Schlieper supplied a metaphysical dimension. Costume designer Stephen Curtis echoed several generations of Wagnerian drag.
Adelaide’s augmented Symphony Orchestra built on its years of Wagnerian experience to delight and thrill with a fresh conductor, Asher Fisch, drawing forth the delicacies and never forcing the energies.
The Adelaide Ring, playing until December 12, demonstrates how very much Wagner is our contemporary in grappling with what remains of the civilisation and natural environment that he had hoped art could redeem from their subjugation to gold as money.
|BBQs, balloons and paper flowers for Wagner's Ring
by Jeremy Eccles
Lisa Gasteen and John Bröcheler
State Opera of South Australia
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Adelaide Festival Centre
16-22 November 2004
"What's unique is that we found we weren't just doing four individual operas but four massive and inter-related operas. It meant that issues unresolved in Das Rheingold couldn't be sorted out until we got through Götterdämmerung six months later".
Michael Scott-Mitchell, the set designer of Australia's first ever local version of Wagner's Ring Cycle, reveals two things in that comment about its more than three year production process. The first is the brash, Aussie innocence with which the whole design team approached a work none of them had even seen before. And that's reflected refreshingly on stage in just about every scene - BBQs, balloons and paper flowers all make perfect sense. The second is a complexity in the work that's unrelated to sheer length. And it's a complexity that the 'Perfect Wagnerite' audience, in GB Shaw's phrase, can mull over too as it goes through the 16 hours of music and a week in time that the experience lasts.
Let's compare the middle two operas, Die Walküre and Siegfried. Both contain about 4 hours of music, much of it consisting of moral debate between just two people. For example, in the first, Wotan, King of the Gods, has to explain to his daughter Brünnhilde why her instinct to do what he really wants done has to be compromised by changing realities. Not exactly laugh a minute. So you'd expect that the second opera, ending with the hero saving the heroine from decades of sleep surrounded by fire, then falling in love, would be the one to get the spirits up and enjoy a standing ovation.
Instead, it was Die Walküre, which finishes with a failing Wotan (John Bröcheler) stripping Lisa Gasteen's Brünnhilde of her godhead, then stumbling together like doomed lovers to imprison "his glorious child" in the fire, that impelled us all to our feet.
Why? Well, for one thing we'd had director Elke Neidhardt's most gloriously Aussie scene at the WunderBar with assembled punk Valkyries swigging steins and singing their heads off. But more importantly for me, I'd had tears in my eyes as father and daughter stumbled to the end. Both performers were near-perfect - Bröcheler daringly playing the weaknesses in the god usually tackled at that stage as almighty; and Gasteen, the Briso girl about to take on the world as Brünnhilde in London and Vienna, a marvellous blend of hoof-kicking filly, passionate lover, implacable righter of wrongs and stainless steel singer.
On the other hand, in Siegfried there's Wagner's Nazification issue bubbling under the long scene where the Nibelung, Mime (Richard Greagher) is abused by the foot-stamping shouting boy Siegfried (Gary Rideout). And the suspicion of Aryan ubermensch dominating the Jew hangs uncomfortably in the air. For Mime has only evil intent to get Siegfried to kill the dragon that's guarding The Ring and then snatch it for himself. So even the drama of Siegfried's subsequent dispatch of an outsize, crushing dragon's claw, doesn't quite expunge the discomfort.
Then there's the singing factor. Siegfried is one hell of a long opera for its hero. Gary Rideout is a young Siegfried who convincingly gave us the boy and the dragon-slayer. But three hours later he awakens Brunnhilde from 18 years sleep, and she's in full cry. The will-he/won't-he make it to the end factor is inevitably a distraction from the will-they/won't they fall in love.
Rideout did just make it - even though he was stand-in for an uncertain principal Timothy Mussard, who, incidentally, came back, but didn't quite hit the high spots in Götterdämmerung.
Generally, the singing has more than matched Olympic-quality settings like Scott-Mitchell's magical balloon forest, his mix of water and fire and the rising rings that were surely descended from his iconic Sydney Games cauldron. Jonathan Summers was another (as a George W-like Gunther) who, matching Bröcheler's Wotan, sang strongly while playing weak. Liane Keegan's bodhisattva, Erda found her mellow tones enhanced by Neidhardt's emphasis on her part as Wotan's former lover. Their joint recognition of the Twilight of the Gods found them both clinging sadly to his once-invinceable spear. And Lisa Gasteen is already being mentioned by international critics in the same breath as Kirsten Flagstadt.
What a shame that the ABC couldn't get its act together to record this for television, and an audience larger than Adelaide's maximum of 6000. There will be only an exorbitant Melba Recordings audio set at $495.
But that can't hope to capture the strength of this team's production. The complexities I noted were only apparent because of the sheer clarity of the basic staging and related surtitles. Story and motive were preferred to wacky concept. So arguably, in Götterdämmerung, when we get down to the dirty earth and away from gods and heroes, we really didn't need the heavy hints we got about contemporary Iraq and the US Neo-Cons. Wagner's rich sub-text is always capable of throwing up contemporary thoughts, such as the case for the Kyoto Treaty to be carved on to Wotan's United Nations of a spear. But then you could just wallow in the enhanced Adelaide Symphony Ochestra's performance under Maestro Asher Fisch, which went the gamut from blazingly foot-tapping to tear-jerkingly lyrical.
Cycle 3 of the State Opera of SA's Ring Cycle runs 6th to 12th December at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Only a handful of tickets is left
Reprinted by courtesy of The Canberra Times