I have just spent several wonderful days watching the unfolding of a magnificent drama about dragons, crazy sisters, narcissists, misfits, egomaniacs, backstabbers, dungeons, giants, dwarfs, earthlings, Balmain weavers and sacrificial suicides. No, it was not Kevin and Julia: the Musical. It was not even Game of Drones: Fireside Chats With Paul Keating and Frederick the Great. It was, of course, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle or, more correctly Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Nibelungen being a particularly evil sort of Sussex Street hit squad who live underground in smoke-filled caverns, hand out gold mining licences to their mates without tenders and lie and cheat their way towards their one ambition in life which is to overthrow the gods and rule the universe by drawing on the power of a golden ring they have fashioned from a hoard of gold stolen from the Rhine mermaids who… well, there is a lot more and it does tend to go on and on.
The Cycle is four full operas that run for 21 hours with time off for good behaviour to snatch a meal and, as Opera Australia is performing three cycles in its current Melbourne season, that’s a lot of spells, curses, magic mushrooms, poisoned chalices, vanishing tricks, hobgoblins and things that go bump in the night. Since its first performance in 1876, The Cycle has become the Mount Everest of the operatic repertoire, the most difficult and complicated of all artistic productions and the only show apart from Aida that consistently draws international audiences. It has always generated controversy, not the least because A. Hitler admired Wagner’s work and was a regular attendee at the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth where the mad King Ludwig built Wagner a custom-made theatre in which to present his operas. The work is so majestic, so expansive, so wide in the sweep and analysis of the whole human condition and so long, that it always invites an examination of just what was the symbolic message of this year’s offering.
You might remember that The Spectator Australia was the first publication to put the spotlight on how difficult, risky and expensive it is to stage this opera and to raise the question of just what would be the theme of the Melbourne Ring. We have had all sorts of Rings internationally, the industrial revolution Ring, the feminist one, the American history version and various progressive environmental efforts; every producer seems to have had a go at it in every form from Bugs Bunny to The Rinse Cycle (by someone who obviously had a laundry fetish). So I was half-expecting that Melbourne’s would be the Climate Change Ring where Brunhilde would be singing ‘There will be no carbon tax on any flight of Valkyries that I lead’ and Wotan wailing ‘Your promises are not worth two bob’. But no. I am happy to report that Melbourne has resisted the temptation to give the world a left-wing slant through opera. The Melbourne Ring does not depict the evils of capitalism, the creeping tide of carbon dioxide, the decay of the Great Barrier Reef, the rising sea levels in St Kilda or even how the Coalition has unleashed the seven plagues of Egypt on the people.
No; it has modern touches, of course, with the cast in various Country Road outfits, Busby Berkeley dancing girls, a kit house out in the forest with a fully imported Meile kitchen, the odd pistol instead of a sword and Brunhilde condemned to sleep in what appears to be a DIY bubble-wrapped box (prompting my companion to whisper, ‘This could be the Ikea Ring.’) But by and large it is a conservative version; the production is faithful to the original and insofar as any operatic plot is believable (few are), it passes the plausibility test. The symbolism is there for you to make of it whatever you will. The theme is the timeless one of greed destroying the avaricious and love purifying our treachery.
The whole performance is simply very impressive indeed. This is partly so because the locally grown Melbourne Ring Orchestra is so good, its steady and unflashy but dazzlingly brilliant Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen is so accomplished (thank heavens for a conductor who apparently does not have St Vitus’ dance), its singers are such knockouts in the highly competitive Wagnerian world and the whole production is so smooth and professional. If we can do a repeat every few years, this magnificent production will not need to be known by any other name among opera.
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