You could hardly ask for a more exorbitant return to mainstage theatre than a production of the first part, the dazzling and unearthly prelude, of Wagner’s Ring. This Melbourne Opera resumption of life after Daniel Andrews’ longest shutdown in the world seemed like a fitting rejoinder even if the actual experience for an out of practice theatre critic was not helped by being seated up a flight of arthritis-challenging steps ––six rows back in the severely recessed circle (an instantiation of the gods if ever there was one) where a reviewer is placed only at a production’s peril and from which it was difficult for this Wagnerian with failing sight to read the surtitles. Well, perils had abounded for everyone. The conductor, Anthony Negus, had to speed from Wales to Heathrow to meet his plane and Lady Potter, Melbourne Opera’s patron, remarked with some wonderment in the programme that Dan Andrews, the lord of the lockdown, provided no funding for Das Rheingold unlike his federal sharer in the national cabinet.
He should have. This most shimmering movement of Der Ring des Nibelungen is a dazzling sketch of a preamble to what is to come and it shows guts as well as overreaching ambition for a smallish, underfunded company to initiate a Ring Cycle for no better reason than that its audience lusts for the glory and darkness of this drama which carried the Victorian dream of gothic and national romance to some vertiginous peak and also cast it into every possible pit while effectively inventing a new idiom for late romantic modern music ––everything through Bruckner, all of Mahler, modernist Richard Strauss and mellow Richard Strauss, everything as far as, and encompassing, Shostakovich.
And, of course, The Ring is the great gesamtkunstwerk comprising the totality of the spectacularism Wagner could envisage. Rheingold begins with these unearthly notes as if from the bowels of the earth, passes rapidly to the lyrical raptures of the Rhinemaidens and Alberich that crypto-Nazi denouncing love when they reject him, and then the drama of the giants claiming possession of Freia, and the journey of the lord of the gods in Valhallla, Wotan, to Nibelheim in company with the glimmering god of fire and cynicism, Loge. The ultimate reluctance of Wotan to surrender the ring until Erda, the goddess who knows all, tells him to give it up, that all things draw to their end, Loge’s resurgent spiel about folly then the recurrent ravishing lilt of the Rhinemaidens.
Suzanne Chaundy’s production is basic but workable with Rhinemaidens on stilts as if in water and blue neon rings, followed by ring dips and craters that keep the audience in a loop of expectation.
Everyone is dressed with the vibrancy of some op shop in the eye of the gods. Some of the singing is a bit ordinary with Eddie Muliaumaseali’i a bit wooly sounding as Wotan: the role doesn’t require the cavernous Hans Hotter or John Tomlinson depth of Walküre or Siegfried, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded it for Karajan but this is too much of a grey flannel voice.
The outstanding performances both vocally and dramatically are Simon Meadows all snarls and power as Alberich and James Egglestone a nimble and scathing Loge. Though it’s with Roxanne Hislop’s Erda that you had the absolute authority of an upper-level singer.
Fortunately there is Anthony Negus’ conducting which has that rough thunderous rhythmical quality, that sense of a drama that clamours its way to clarity, that characterised the great Knappertsbusch performances.
The more or less stupendous difficulty with Wagner is that he compels visualisation but the play of the leitmotifs and the constant shape-changing is intensely filmic in its fantasia and this coexists with the monumentality of the action.
The dream run of The Ring for this country, the great ‘might have been’, was the one Elijah Moshinsky ––who died the other week–– wanted to do with an Uluru setting designed by Sidney Nolan.
But this heartfelt Victorian Ring, born of a wish and a prayer, is certainly worth supporting. Wagner wrote for the greatest voices and musicians on earth and under the earth. The Flagstads, the Nilssons, the Furtwanglers and Barenboims. But we do him because he’s there. The last performance of Das Rheingold is at the Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo, on 21 February.
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