Adelaide Festival Theatre
Adelaide, Australia
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.

DAS RHEINGOLD By Michael Morley
WHEN THE GREAT designer and theorist Adolphe noted the discrepancies between conventional 19th century stagings of Wagner and what the music conveys, he went on to suggest that each work calls for an individual style of staging – what nowadays in either its persuasive or soi-disant version is known as a “concept”. Recently, however, Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, drama and text combine, has often been replaced by stagings in which music, design and narrative turn into yet another trip on the pomo/decon railway to nowhere. Elke Neidhardt’s and her design team’s take on Das Rheingold sets out to embrace this approach, with varying degrees of success. The Gods seem marooned in a white space, dressed in white/cream costumes from some high-class op shop; Donner sports one white boxing glove and an under-size cricket bat; giants Fafner and Fasolt are dressed in luminous green road workmen’s oufits; and Fricka and Freya flounce around in teased-up blonde wigs, 1950s cocktail frocks and tops that echo the cover of The Female Eunuch. Such a medley of sign systems speaks not so much of coherent contrast with the music and narrative as a latter-day Autolycus snapping up unconsidered trifles. Far better, then, to concentrate on the music and individual performances. And here John Wegener’s richly characterised and superbly sung Alberich carried all before him. His 1998 performance as Wotan stood out in a strong cast: if anything, his riveting, three-dimensional depiction of this frustrated, malevolent yet human figure is even more memorable – part Richard III, part Rigoletto, and wholly compelling. Similarly impressive is Richard Greager’s spirited Mime, avoiding false histrionics and despatching the often cruel vocal line with ease and style. In the key role of Wotan, John Bröcheler seemed a touch underpowered at times, the voice focussed and true, the characterisation a work in progress (though it is clear from the dress of Walküre that the character gains significantly in stature and vocal presence). On the other hand, Christopher Doig as Loge is, alas, over-parted: the character’s mercurial shifts and raisonneur insights go for little, and the voice is too often ragged and inflexible. No trace of inflexibility in the performances and singing of the Rhine Maidens, whose teasing and toying with Alberich was seductive and droll enough to (almost) offset their rather rum outfits (blue wetsuits, with identification down their thighs.) At this stage the goddesses, (Liane Keegan’s imposing Erda aside), seem somewhat peripheral – vocally secure but occupying no real place in the work’s power dynamics. The other hero(es) of the afternoon are conductor Asher Fisch and the ASO. Fisch’s view of the work affords an interesting contrast with conductor Tate’s from the 1998 Ring Cycle. He favours long lines and clear textures, with a sure sense of how to pace both paragraphs and longer sections, and is always attentive to his singers. This is not Richard of the Heavy Hand, but the Wagner admired by Fauré and Chabrier, and whose seductive influence Debussy sought to exploit and exorcise in Pelléas.

DIE WALKÜRE By Roger Knight
SUPERLATIVES LAVISHED ON this new Ring Cycle have entered the history books. And deservedly so: the sets by David Scott Mitchell for Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second of the four Ring operas, were indeed resplendent and the audience’s reaction almost unprecedentedly ecstatic. The famous 15-minute standing ovations will pass into the stuff of legends, along with the Wunder Bar set, with its cast of punk Valkyries, that served as backdrop for the famous “Ride”. And in Lisa Gasteen, this Adelaide Ring found a leading woman in a thousand; a figure that multiplied by 10 and turned into dollars would give you some idea of the nightly fee that this vocally and dramatically fabulous Brünnhilde henceforth commands on the world’s opera-house stages. In the circumstances, even with its $15 million price tag, Adelaide still got its Ring fairly cheap – and it can always hire out the Wunder Bar for parties to recoup any shortfalls. But there’s the odd thing – and it’s a tribute both to Elke Neidhardt as producer and the singers involved – that the truly great sections of this sometimes infuriatingly uneven work were when little or no stage spectacle was involved. Neidhardt has done some very questionable things on the Australian operatic stage in the past, and signing her seemed a quixotic gesture on the part of Stephen Phillips, State Opera’s general director. Yet she has matured and he was vindicated. Her handling of quieter, more inward scenes of Walküre was simple (concealing a wealth of finely-honed professional experience), singularly un-quirky and deeply moving. Take the incestuous brother and sister, whose encounter and mutual recognition dominates the first Act. On previous experience, Stuart Skelton might be presumed to make an eloquent Siegmund, but Neidhardt succeeded quite beyond expectation in drawing a dramatic, deeply affecting and “right” performance from the vocally radiant Deborah Reidel. The same applies to the great duets and solos for Brünnhilde and Wotan (John Brocheler, vocally secure and dramatically more interesting as the night wore on) that brought Act III to a properly anguished close. Neidhardt is on record saying that she feared her production of The Ring would get a poor reception in Germany – where the style dubbed “Eurotrash”, complete with knickers-dropping Brünnhildes, is still the tacky fashion. The international audience gathered in Adelaide obviously thought differently. The Wunder Bar may have had them in fits of laughter but what got them on their feet was a production of Walküre true to the essentials of Wagner.

SIEGFRIED By Michael Morley
OVER THE YEARS, commentators have devoted much effort to the question of whether Siegfried is a genuine hero, a holy fool or a slightly dimwitted equivalent of Monty Python’s “naughty boy” Brian. There can be no question, however, that the Siegfried of State Opera SA’s third opera of Wagner’s tetralogy displayed heroism and real valour under fire – in this case, singer Gary Rideout had the unenviable task of stepping in at six days’ notice to take on this demanding role and perform it without the opportunity of a full stage rehearsal with the orchestra. Though perceptibly tiring at the end of a long evening, Rideout displayed musicianship, real steel in the voice when called for, and a fine understanding of the character’s journey. Equally commendable was that he managed to negotiate the moves and blocking while hampered by a frankly ridiculous outfit – floppy T-shirt, baggy shorts and equally baggy trousers – that looked like some hand-me-down from an amateur beach blanket musical. While there can undoubtedly be productive debate over some of the design elements and the direction of this Ring, it is hard to know what to make of the confused array of costumes and often screaming colours. Why, for instance, the Woodbird sports green shorts and a screaming pink fright wig, while she cartwheels on to the stage, and intermittently waves around a large balloon set of pink lips might be a question best left to connoisseurs of unco-ordinated colours. And what to make of the glaring contrast between the austere, elegantly burnished walls of the design for Act III and Wotan’s off-white, seemingly all-in-one outfit (complete with unmatching pink plastic visor), that might not have seemed out of place in a D-Grade, sci-fi horror film? Is a puzzlement, as Oscar Hammerstein observed. Although the design for Act I suggested nothing so much as a backyard badly in need of one of those TV blitzes, the sets for Acts II and III offered – along with Nick Schlieper’s glowing and superbly atmospheric lighting – the most memorable and unfussy images of the production thus far. The use of dozens of green/dark green balloons floating above the stage, like so many airy stalagmites, to suggest both a spreading tree and a forest is an inspired touch: shimmering, floating and providing a wonderful visual correlative to Wagner’s musical scenic suggestions. And the image that opens Act III – the spear set in a shaft of light in the middle of a bare stage, with Wotan and Erda positioned beside it, is a genuine coup de theatre, which found its equivalent in John Bröcheler’s powerful and moving exchange with Liane Keegan’s equally impressive Erda. This scene featured some of the finest singing in the production, along with Richard Greager’s outstanding (both vocally and dramatically) Mime in Acts I and II. Inevitably, (given what had already been heard earlier in the cycle) Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde carried all before her in the love scene with Siegfried: this is a towering performance, especially in vocal terms. While the orchestra sounded a little unsettled in Act I, it dispelled all sense of this in Act II, with some sensuous, beautifully measured playing. If Rideout was the actual hero of the evening, he could not have done it without support offered by the orchestra under Ascher Fisch’s responsive direction.

THE GIBICHUNG’S PLACE is somewhere scenic on the Rhine. German war-lords built big in those days. The huge stage of the Festival Theatre is opened up right to the back. Much of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Wagner’s cycle, is either set there or in close proximity, which is where the famous immolation scene, complete in Adelaide with water-curtain and fire, takes place at the very end of the opera. Any producer worth their wage can make something of this, particularly if they’ve got a dramatic soprano even half as good as Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde) – in absolutely radiant voice despite a wretchedly damaged ankle. The crowning achievement of Elke Neidhardt’s Ring, however, lay earlier in evening, in the scenes that culminate in double marriage chez Gibichung at the end of Act II. Musically speaking, much of the act is second-rate Wagner, but what Neidhardt did was to turn a dramatic farrago into an electrifying piece of theatre that held the audience riveted from end to end of this act’s 60-odd minutes. She was aided by a cast that included, along with the serviceable Siegfried of Timothy Massard, not only Gasteen – singing at times with almost total abandon – but also the awesome Hagen of Duccio dal Monte, marvellously apt performances from the Gibichung head honcho Jonathan Summers and his hapless sister Joanna Cole, and a gloriously full-throated male chorus of Adelaide’s finest. The outcome was one of the most convincing operatic rescue operations that I have ever experienced. Then, of course, there was that final scene of flames and water. For this, I’d found a seat at the back of the theatre, seated quite literally between two Valkyries. Götterdämmerung is their night off, and what better way to spend it than to check on big sister’s attempts to burn the house down when she sets alight to Siegfied’s corpse and rides off into the fire? Gasteen’s performance hereabouts simply took the house by storm. And so did Wagner’s music, music that from Hagen’s murder of Siegfried onward takes on an dimension that makes you realise yet again why the old monster was such a spell-binder. Yet it’s a spell so effective in musical terms that all the heavily hyped high-tech, as elsewhere in this production, seemed largely an irrelevance to an imaginative world so well served not only by Gasteen but also by an ASO playing at Götterdämmerung’s end like angels incarnate under Maesto Fisch’s inspired direction. Nothing more was needed. Perhaps, however, I’ve missed something in State Opera’s clever market strategy: a Ring not only for those who have imagination but also for those who haven’t. No wonder they’re playing to packed houses.

THE MUSIC By Graham Strahle
IN THE SAME WAY that Elke Neidhardt’s production is outstanding for its story-telling clarity, conductor Asher Fisch imparts to this Ring Cycle a most supple, responsive clarity to the orchestral playing. The ASO sounds surprising small and chamber-like in his hands, and it would appear that he is at great pains to allow the singers to come through clearly. At times he goes a little too far, for although there is hardly a moment when the singers are not completely audible, the orchestral tone sometimes lacks solidity and sheer visceral weight. But what Fisch and the ASO achieve is an unusually beautiful, breathing lyricism: particularly from the strings, the playing is distinguished by a gently pulsing, floating quality. The feeling early on is that here are two Rings – one the bold, freely interpretative version of Neidhardt, who sees the work as primarily a piece of theatre (which, according to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork” concept, it is not), and Fisch’s more sympathetic version. Certainly the humour and irreverent cheek are entirely hers, not his, and Fisch is clearly more concerned with adjusting to the individual needs of the singers, working in with their different approaches to tempo, than to responding to Neidhardt’s stage ideas. The visual kitsch, for example, that so spectacularly transforms the Ride of the Valkyries in this production, might have been correspondingly souped up musically, but it isn’t. In the end though, a unity is achieved, and this is because Neidhardt does not attempt to upstage the music with theatrical invention but rather allows it full space to play its full and ample part. Notably in Götterdämmerung, in which music becomes the main transportative ingredient, she dispenses with complexities of set design and rather presents a purified human drama of character and chorus, allowing Wagner’s richly embroidered score to do the communicating. While the ASO sounds overly soft and restrained in Das Rheingold and the early part of Die Walküre, its playing gathers warmth by the close of the first act of the latter opera, and sounds magnificent by Act II. By the time of Hunding’s slaying of Siegmund, it acquires a satisfying, brute-nosed power. The playing is finest in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, reaching a full lyrical flowering in those operas. The key is Fisch’s ability to lengthen out string sound while keeping pace to phrases: the result is a delicate pliancy that enables the orchestra to perfectly partner the singers. Tempos are fast in places – even Siegfried’s funeral music has uncommon push – but Fisch varies the speed considerably in his handling of individual scenes, and sometimes he drops the pace right back, most notably in Das Rheingold. Throughout, tempos feel alive and keenly responsive to the drama. Fisch superbly accommodates the production’s three star singers, Duccio Dal Monte (Hagen), John Wegner (Alberich) and Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde). The only casting problem concerns the central figure of Siegfried, as neither Timothy Mussard nor substitute Gary Rideout quite hold the role convincingly. Even so, strengths abound everywhere in this Ring, both visually and musically. It is a magnificent triumph.

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