Chesterton said – and the poet Peter Porter loved to repeat – that if a thing was worth doing it was worth doing badly. It’s a truth that bad Shakespeare can sometimes defy and the prospect of Melbourne Opera undertaking Die Walküre, the very core of Wagner’s Ring cycle, raised fears that only a dutiful mediocrity could result but this is not the case. No, you’re not seeing Jon Vickers as Siegmund or Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, let alone a genius of directorial illumination or a conductor to rival Furtwängler but you do feel that you are seeing Walküre. Anthony Negus’s conducting creates a powerful density of sound as well as a very coherent syntactical logic. Suzanne Chaundy’s production is classical and watchable and would have been intelligible to Wagner. And, on top of that, transfiguring everything, Warwick Fyfe is a distinguished Wotan who is not only secure of voice but creates a powerful and moving sense of the conflicts that ravage the Lord of Valhalla.
It was a packed house at Her Majesty’s on first night and you could glimpse a great troupe of Australians who had come out to defy the virus in order to honour and cherish the grandeur of one of the supreme works of drama in any medium as well as what is arguably the greatest work of later nineteenth century Gothic: the Ring as a whole –and Walküre in particular– is the instantiation of the Victorian dream of a primeval medievalism, a mythic whirlwind of mighty and terrible forces. This is the work of art that dwarfs all those pallid idylls of kings and it also shatters them because of the power of what is, beyond all the grandeur, a tragic vision.
And it is also, for all the pictorial lushness of its late romanticism, the music out of which Mahler and Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich come.
If you want the beginning of the end of traditional ‘classical music’ Wagner is it. But he represents it with Shakespearean amplitude however Miltonic his vertiginous sublimities can seem. In any case, the theatre which had housed Joan Sutherland and the young Pavarotti back in the early Sixties before we had a national opera was full of familiar faces. Kate Durham (though not her QC husband, Julian Burnside), Mary-Ruth Sindrey, minus her husband Peter McLennan, Geoffrey Robertson, that very lordly lawyer was there, and so apparently was Speccie columnist Bruce Beresford – not an enthusiast for Wagner though he directed Verdi’s Macbeth for Melbourne Opera last year and many years ago in Adelaide did Richard Strauss’s Elektra – one of those quasi-modernist works that comes out of the shadows of Wagner – with a breathtaking elan. All the metropolitan theatre critics were there and so was a large slice of arts-hungry Melbourne.
Does Wagner inevitably provoke the invocation of curses? Die Walküre seemed like a brave choice for a world where Omicron is a spectral possibility for people old enough to have drunk deep of Wagner.
The Ring is, of course, the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, in which spectacle and sound come together and it’s a pity – even if it’s a pipe dream – that someone like Kubrick (or even Spielberg who’s been busy re-animating West Side Story) didn’t film it. There are transcriptions of productions such as the one Patrice Chéreau did at Bayreuth with Boulez conducting and Donald McIntyre, the New Zealander as Wotan, the first Anglo-Saxon to do it there. And there’s the Met Ring by Lepage with the extraordinary water machine and a cast led by Deborah Voigt and Bryn Terfel.
Die Walküre is a work that pushes at its own limits. The first act where Siegmund meets and becomes enraptured with his twin Sieglinde would almost be self-contained though it leads to everything else. It’s followed by the extraordinary ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (it was Karajan’s version with its soaring sound which Coppola used in Apocalypse Now.) Brünnhilde disobeys her father for the sake of Siegmund. The opera ends with him stripping her of her goddess immortality and placing her under the spell from which some comer can awaken her.
Anthony Negus’s conducting is considered and very fine. He clearly belongs to the Furtwängler/Knappertsbusch tradition – practised by his mentor Reginald Goodall – in the famous ENO Ring. He believes in the coherence of the longer paragraph rather than the fireworks of the Soltian local effect and this works richly and with a consistent tempered grandeur in the Melbourne Opera Die Walküre.
Bradley Daley’s Siegmund is bold and masculine with a baritonal depth to his tenor and Lee Abrahmsen has a lovely beauty of line as Sieglinde. Was Stephen Gallop’s Hunding a bit bug-eyed and conventional? Well, the voice was rich and growling enough. Sarah Sweeting’s Fricka had a natural authority. Zara Barrett is neither a stupendous force of nature as Brünnhilde in the manner of Flagstad and Nilsson nor a many-shaded actress/singer like Astrid Varnay, but she has vibrancy and beauty of tone and dramatically she is perfectly credible.
The highlight of the evening however is Warwick Fyfe. He brought Alberich to flaming life in the Opera Australia Ring and he is a better Wotan than the Melbourne Opera has any right to dream of. He has a surging authority which is inseparable from his capacity to convey tension and self-division, so that his ‘Leb wohl’ is full of a subtle minimalist movement as the mist of flames surrounds the hushed body of his beloved daughter.
There are times in Suzanne Chaundy’s production where it is positively statuesque as the singers gaze out motionless at the audience but this is refreshing in a world of newfangled nonsense. Andrew Bailey’s set, with an aperture like a ring, has its own quiet coherence and thematic insinuation.
It’s true that we sometimes hunger to see the kind of co-ordination of movement and dramatic rhythms the music itself might dictate in the manner of a director like Peter Stein who directs with the score in one hand but the traditionalism of this production has its own power and in a world of fads as well as visual furies its own novelty.
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