This is the third instalment in our review of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle. Read reviews of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre to catch up.
And then a hero comes along. It may have taken Wagner more than eight hours to introduce the central character in his Ring Cycle, but he makes up for it by naming the third opera after him. The child of the late incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) is initially something of a brat; he certainly makes life difficult for Mime (Graeme Macfarlane), the dwarf who has raised him and endures his contempt and constant rages. But with Wagner nothing is what it initially seems, and the audience’s view of these two characters will shift markedly as the plot deepens.
The opera opens, much like the previous one (Die Walküre), with a long exchange between two people; in fact, most of the entire Ring Cycle is made up of long exchanges between two people. That Wagner can employ this seemingly limited model to suggest entire world views, to mine the most profound impulses of humanity, is a mark of his genius. This exchange, however, couldn’t be further from the glorious love serenade that opens Die Walküre. Mime is, by all appearances, a hard-working pseudo-father to Siegried, toiling to forge the sword his charge will use to slay the current keeper of the ring, the dragon Fafner (Jud Arthur). What becomes clear pretty quickly is that this bogus father/son relationship is based on bitter resentment on the one hand and murderous falsehood on the other. While Siegfried may be a boorish man/child, Mime is the brother of the utterly debased Alberich (Warwick Fyfe) and proves equally as treacherous.
When king of the gods Wotan (James Johnson) turns up in the guise of a wanderer, he keeps some secrets from Mime but reveals others – that Siegfried, who knows no fear, is the only one who can forge the sword that will destroy Fafner. From here on, the scurrilous manipulations of the dwarves, not to mention the lofty but equally self-serving trickery of the gods, will buckle and pall under the naïve but noble heroism of Siegfried. When the dragon is destroyed, nothing is left but for our hero to conquer the final symbol of an old world in decline: the imprisoned, sublimated Valkyrie, Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom).
Director Neil Armfield has toyed with meta-theatrical devices already – the magic box that Alberich uses to transform into various creatures in Das Rheingold suggested vaudeville, for example – but it is only here that we can fully comprehend his vision for this Ring. Act II opens on Arthur’s face projected onto a proscenium arch as he sits naked on the stage applying the makeup that will transform him into the dragon, Fafner. This proscenium will figure massively throughout Siegfried, as a border between states of being, as a frame for the idea of performance itself. All the characters in this piece are playing a part: Mime plays the care-giver, Wotan the wanderer. Even Siegfried plays the part of the hero, until he meets Brünnhilde and must become one.
Not a single performance falters, not a moment is lost to confusion or superfluity. Johnson, whose dramatic performance has always been alive to the deep melancholy and ambivalence of Wotan but whose voice has sometimes lacked power, is majesty personified this time around. His sonorous, treacly bass-baritone finally transcends the orchestra, cementing the role at the very heart of the entire cycle. Liane Keegan as the Demeter-like figure of Erda and mother of Wotan’s Valkyries, is magnificent in her single scene, mournfully ineffectual but unforgettable nonetheless. As the representation of the exalted sphere, these two singers beautifully embody the weight that humans place on the shoulders of the gods.
As the representation of humanity in its most sublime state, Lindstrom is again a knockout. Her awakening is protracted, to say the least, but when she finally stands and delivers her first note it is thrilling beyond compare. Her subsequent doubts and vacillations – the natural response of a god stepping down into mortality, one would imagine – are fascinating and painful to watch. There is a whole section where the audience and Siegfried are willing her to accept his love, only vaguely aware that we are also asking her to accept her death.
As the man/child who becomes the new world’s epitome, Vinke is nothing short of perfection. That voice, high and clear like a bell but also capable of effortless, spectacular leaps and exhilarating runs, seems to embody the ideal of the heroic. He’s a Hamlet who can take action, a swashbuckling poet for a dawning age. It’s a performance of rare charisma and galvanises the entire work.
Wagner drew together all of his powers to produce Siegfried – he left the work just after the midway point to pen Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – and the effect is an expansion, as well as a deepening, of his earlier concerns. The questions he asks, about the nature of erotic love, about the responsibility we have to a godhead and the responsibility that godhead might have to us, are eternal and self-fulfilling. The lovers close the opera with their combined vision of the future, and it is rather disturbingly one of destruction. They foresee the end of Valhalla, the old world crumbling into a quintessence of dust. The final notes may be all about joyous awakening, but it is not for nothing that the final word is death.