Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, otherwise known as The Ring Cycle, is without doubt Opera’s Everest; four operas, over a hundred musicians, sixteen hours in total, it’s a feat of endurance for some, and a total obsession for others. People who travel the world to see the cycle are affectionately referred to as “Ring nuts”. After a single performance of the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold – at two and a half hours without an interval it’s really only an amuse-bouche for the lengthy meals to follow – you’ll be tempted to join the club.
Neil Armfield’s production premiered in Melbourne in 2013 and is back to close the year for Opera Australia with a tweaked design and the majority of the original cast and crew. The buzz has hardly diminished. Armfield was not exactly an obvious choice, even if it feels like it in retrospect; his best work for this company was with the Janáček operas in the ’90s – pared back, small budget productions that emphasised the emotional interactions of the characters over lavish spectacle. This production has plenty of lavish spectacle, but it’s the emotional interactions that anchor and drive the piece. The result is pretty much triumphant.
The plot is tricky to explain, even in sketch form. Wotan (James Johnson) – a kind of Nordic/Germanic Zeus, and king of the gods – has commissioned the giants Fasolt (Daniel Sumegi) and Fafner (Jud Arthur) to build him a house, Valhalla. When they do, he reneges on the deal to pay them with his sister-in-law Freia (Hyeseoung Kwon) as collateral; not surprisingly, the rest of the family aren’t too keen to give her up. Loge (Andreas Conrad), god of fire and also a bit of a trickster in the mode of the Greek god Hermes, comes up with a cunning plan: give them a truck load of treasure instead.
The treasure comes from the Rhine in the form of gold, guarded by the Rhinemaidens (Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews). The only problem is that it’s been stolen in the opening scene by the dwarf Alberich (Warwick Fyfe), who has forged a ring of power from it – not to mention a nifty helmet called the Tarnhelm, which lets him transmogrify and become invisible – and he’s unwilling to relinquish a thing. He’s a despot with sudden means, and the contemporary resonances with a certain president-elect are, while clearly accidental, hard to miss.
Wagner’s genius in this opera is to humanise and complicate the motivations of these otherworldly figures, and weave dramatic gold from the consequences of their actions. Nobody is simplistic or purely functional, and the symbolism at play serves to deepen character rather than flatten it out. Wotan in particular is an enormously complex and nuanced person, his responsibility and his ambition vying dangerously for supremacy but also merging in profound ways. The whole world is changed by his actions, and Johnson manages to convey the weight of this beautifully. It’s a pity his voice lacks the sheer power and volume required of the role; otherwise he’d be magnificent.
Fyfe is magnificent as the loathsome Alberich; it’s as if Shylock ate Gollum and keeps coughing him up mid-conversation. There’s a pathetic internalised malignancy to him, but then he turns outward and becomes truly terrifying. He was a late addition to the role in 2013, to much acclaim, but he has by now become one of the leading international exemplars of this part. Conrad’s Loge is almost as good, gloriously sung and bitterly played. These two singers virtually walk off with the whole show.
The design is actually rather restrained for the most part, but delivers some stunning theatrical wonders when required. Alice Babidge’s costumes are sometimes confusing – the gods dressed in beige suits seems quotidian, at best – but also gloriously witty and colourful. The use of feathers to convey the rainbow bridge is nothing short of miraculous. Robert Cousins’ set is ingenious. The stage floor that becomes a mirrored ceiling is consistently surprising, and the sheer guts of a simple black box for large chunks of the running time is admirable. The final ten minutes is design as theatrical revelation: a staircase opening up, Damien Cooper’s brilliant lighting casting a shimmering gold over everything, characters ascending to an uncertain future.
With Pietari Inkinen’s sublime conducting, and the orchestra’s intense and supple playing, the effect is almost uncanny. Wagner intended his masterpiece to function on the level of creation myth, and there is the unmistakeable sense when watching Armfield’s production – which opens on a teeming mass of bodies that represents the primal waters of the Rhine – that we are witnessing the birth of humanity. If you were looking to argue that art has supplanted the traditional role of religion in modern society, you’d start with Das Rheingold.
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