Jim Pritchard, Seen and Heard International

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH) is the brainchild of co-directors Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt and has been ‘created by musicians, for musicians, to support our fragile industry and connect communities everywhere through live music’. Apparently MDCH generated $1,000,000 in 2020 for Australian musicians and arts sector workers. It is thanks to this very worthy enterprise that there was an opportunity to see the first instalment of the hugely anticipated Melbourne Opera Ring cycle which will culminate in 2023. It is described as the ‘first independent’ one in Australia since 1913. Das Rheingold marked the long-awaited return of live opera to Melbourne in their newly renovated Regent Theatre, though with ongoing coronavirus precautions, I understand, such as social distancing.

The livestream was not without its issues, though I believe the singing and music survived intact as a testament to Melbourne Opera’s achievement. I was reminded of past Rings I have been fortunate to see right from the opening scene, and there is nothing wrong in that of course. The imaginative circus skills of the Rhinemaidens involved two aerial artists ‘swimming’ on tall vertical and bendy poles with the three singers lower down sitting in large trapeze-like hoops of neon lighting. All were in billowing diaphanous costumes and wearing shiny wigs. There was a judicious use of video throughout this Rheingold beginning with a blue rippling Rhine and certain moments here recalled Glen Byam Shaw and John Blatchley’s famous The Rhinegold at the London Coliseum in the 1970s. Alberich was a rather lanky disreputable looking long-haired character in dungarees though he was bald on top. He was something of a clown himself; though stumbling around was no real reason why he could not catch one of the Rhinemaidens, but let’s not worry about that. He steals the Rhinegold by smearing himself in gold paint.

For the second scene – after more rippling waves – a large ring impressively appears to descend and create a platform that will later move and lift. I was thinking here of Götz Friedrich’s Ring at Covent Garden (with Josef Svoboda’s set design) also in the 1970s. Behind it is a large circular disc representing Valhalla. Wotan has a greyish (military?) uniform, and Freia and Fricka look like old Roman goddesses. Freia is in white and silver with a golden apple blossom wreath on her head and Fricka in turquoise and gold lamé with a headpiece incorporating snakes, perhaps suggesting she is something of a ‘gorgon’? To complete the ‘dysfunctional’ family Froh wears a pink suit and Donner is in silver and carries a small hammer. On their first appearance I though Fasolt and Fafner looked like hulking Afghani herdsmen! Loge is a bit of a wide boy in his red stripey suit and trilby.

The platform lifts for the descent to Nibelheim’s shadowy, smoky, and chaotic underworld. Alberich is now a blowhard in a gold trimmed jacket who relishes the whip he is holding. Video is well used to conjure up a fearsome dragon but the subsequent change to a toad, as well as Alberich’s capture, isn’t quite as good. Back on the mountaintop of the gods, his hoard is recovered in an eclectic mix of gold boxes and when they are piled up Freia just hides behind them which is a little at odds with the suggestion she is completely covered. (Incidentally Erda here looks a lot like New York’s Lady Liberty.) As good as Suzanne Chaundy’s Personenregie is there is clearly room for improvement as it undoubtably will be reworked when revived. Perhaps there was an overall lack of rehearsal time? Fasolt’s murder clearly needs second thoughts but the ending was impressive – and particularly colourful – with its impression of a rainbow bridge. It is left to the disillusioned Loge to conjures a brief flash of flame to anticipate the ending of the Ring cycle.

Chaundy has told a familiar opera tale lucidly and without too many head-scratching moments and I hope a ‘new normal’ of streaming performances will allow me to follow how this Ring evolves in the next couple of years. Nevertheless, I do believe the production, singers, conductor, and musicians thoroughly deserved the jubilant reaction from an audience which sounded somewhat younger than usual. There was an accomplished cast of local singers who – if what I heard through my loudspeakers was the same as in the theatre – were only occasionally swamped by the sound from (I read somewhere) a 90-piece orchestra with seven harps and a full set of Wagner tubas! They could only benefit from the involvement of the legendary Wagner coach and conductor Anthony Negus who is now in his mid-70s. The cast sang as if they had studied and imbued themselves with each and every word of the libretto to create vocally compelling and dramatically credible performances. Some of the singers were better than others though nobody let anybody down.

The voices of the Rhinemaidens (Rebecca Rashleigh, Louise Keast, and Karen van Spall) blended attractively and as Flosshilde, Van Spall’s rich expressive mezzo sounded worthy of bigger roles. Lee Abrahmsen was occasionally a little shrill as the naïve Freia but hers was an appealing soprano sound. Jason Wasley (Froh) and Darcy Carroll (Donner) made the best of their limited opportunities with Carroll notably effective in conjuring up the storm with ‘Heda! Heda! Hedo!’. As the giants Fasolt and Fafner, Adrian Tamburini and Steven Gallop were a well-matched pairing; Tamburini coming into his own as he plaintively expressed his true feelings for Freia before his brother brutally murdered him. Michael Lapina elicited sympathy as Mime, the much put-upon brother of Alberich, though struggled a little vocally. I suspect Roxane Hislop is an experienced singer but Erda’s portentous pronouncements lacked a little in resonance and security.

There was some stylish singing from James Egglestone as the cynical, arch-manipulator, fire god Loge who reminded me – from an earlier generation – of the late Robert Tear. The outstanding Simon Meadows was an odious Alberich who was especially riveting in his wounded fury and vengeful cursing as Wotan wrenched the ring from his finger. Last but not least, the bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i was Wotan, the authoritative lynchpin of this Das Rheingold, and he believably personified the ruler of the gods’ conflicted nature as well as his compulsive lust for power. Attempting to cut through the wall of sound from the large orchestral forces of Melbourne Opera, Muliaumaseali’i’s slightly grizzled, yet deeply eloquent, bass voice was perhaps just a size too small for Wotan, though he would not be the first.

This was a magnificently polished musical performance of Das Rheingold from the orchestra which Anthony Negus seems to have conducted with an astonishingly fluid and energetic baton. (This livestream gives you the chance to watch him conduct a majestic ascent from Nibelheim in close-up.) Overall, this Rheingold was transparent, rhapsodic, architectural, and virtuosic (some occasionally dodgy brass intonation notwithstanding). It was a striking success and something the Melbourne Opera should be immensely proud of.

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