Thursday, November 24, 2016

A magnificent, playful and character-focused Das Rheingold in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

In Wagner’s epic journey through the four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, the concept of time diminishes and an expansive musical landscape opens to set its story of power, greed, dirty deals and the price of love with the power to knock at the conscience. That story started magnificently again Monday night in Das Rheingold (Wagner’s ‘Preliminary Evening’), the first part in Opera Australia’s mammoth Ring Cycle that premiered in 2013 by director Neil Armfield.

James Johnson as Wotan and Jacqueline Dark as Fricka
From the opening majestic orchestral drone and humankind seemingly under the microscope, Armfield keeps the uninterrupted two and a half hours bobbing. Stripped of the superfluous and communicated simply and legibly — conveyed by Robert Cousins’s spacious eye-catching sets -Armfield responds with playful touches on the music while focusing squarely on the characters.

Props are few but none more cleverly lighthearted than the magician’s cabinet, the Tarnhelm. With Alice Babidge’s costumes combining an eclectic mix of power suits, bathing costumes, workwear, feathers and sparkle to define gods, mortals, giants, dwarfs and water nymphs, the total effect is a tantalising breath alongside the swells and contractions of Wagner’s score which conductor Pietari Inkinen rendered with grand sensitivity.

Possession of the Wagnerian might of voice to project well clear of the polished 135-piece Melbourne Ring Orchestra below wasn’t always evident in all but nothing can be taken away from compelling and distinctive characterisation by the strong cast.

Standing vulnerable in his realm as Wotan, ruler of the Gods, James Johnson wore the weight rather than the crown of authority, his richly seasoned and strong-topped baritone needing bottom strength to ride the orchestra. As Fricka his wife, Jacqueline Dark added creamy dark-voiced dominance. Michael Honeyman was a solid oaky-resonant Donner alongside the smooth ringing tenor of James Egglestone’s Froh with fright and hope equally portrayed by Graeme Macfarlane’s dear cowering Mime.

Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews sparkled as the mocking, leggy and alluring Rhine maidens, riding their crowd assisted pompon-gold hoard in glittering form and Hyeseoung Kwon brightly lit up a dragged about Freia

Andreas Conrad as Loge and Warwick Fyfe as Alberich
Performances increased in stature with the thuggish giants Fasolt and Fafner, contracted to build the new palace for the gods and filled out hugely by Daniel Sumegi’s rumbling earth and Jud Arthur’s benzene bass. Andreas Conrad brought superb emphatic fire as the cunning Loge and a riveting, deep lusciously sung Erda came via Liane Keegan.

Most of all, it was Warwick Fyfe’s night as the nerdy and gnarly Alberich, renouncer of love and absconder of the treasure. In a reprise of his 2013 performance, Fyfe completed the music, commanded the stage and, with his intense and fulsome baritone, conveyed his character’s stench with utter magnetism.

As the gods climb the stairs to Valhalla in a glorious rainbow of chorus-girl colour, a chapter closes but the artistic chemistry at work in Armfield’s concept might achieve for its audience the potential to etch itself on raw music long after the production is over.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 9

Photo credit Jeff Busby

Rating: four stars

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