(Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Second Cycle: 8, 10, 12, 14 December 2023)
Like Wagner’s monumental work, the first ever staging of The Ring in Brisbane grew in the telling. It was commissioned in 2017, and advertised in early 2019, with bookings in a ‘shuffle format’ scheduled from 13 June of that year, for performances in November/December 2020. Then a Sino/American research project let a bat loose from Hell, and gross inconvenience, and death, ensued. The Ring was set aside, although not as long as Wagner did while he fretted, and tinkered, and researched. With a revised cast, it was finally staged up-north in December 2023. Touted as the first ‘digital’ version of the production (cf. Ulrich Melchinger, Kassel 1970-74; Harry Kupfer, Bayreuth 1988/1992), we’ll have a bit to say about that below.
But the 2nd Cycle was, overall, a triumph. [TVC has a few quibbles, stated below, but really, who cares?] Early mail insinuated that the Queensland Symphony Orchestra had been a tad scratchy in round 1; however, by the time cycle 2 came around, conductor Phillipe Auguin, a Ring veteran, had knocked all into shape. (I think Donner’s hammer was out of synch with the orchestra, and Siegfried’s hunting horn missed a beat once in Götterdämmerung, but these don’t even count as quibbles.) White-haired, smiling, and seemingly avuncular, Auguin, we understand, is selector’s choice in a long line of disagreeable Conductors (e.g., Toscanini, Solti, Fritz Reiner, and in the land of make-believe, Tár). But he and his musicians get kudos for a magnificent performance over 4 long evenings.
Das Rheingold opened the batting, and was fine, although one’s first encounter with Chen Shi-Zheng’s design felt like having chugged one too many martinis. Some of the staging was annoying. Alberich as a toad was woefully inadequate. The piling-up of gold to “hide” Freia was another visual fail. At the conclusion, the ascent to Valhalla, the rainbow bridge through the mist was represented by a long, luminous spike piercing the roily heavens, akin the end of the old Dr. Who programme. No problem with that, but moving side panels blundered into view, containing a digital decorative meld of colours and shapes straight out of William Morris, Leon Bakst and the Saville studio. Wotan’s and Fricka’s introduction was straight out of The Mikado.
The cast were wonderful, particularly Warwick Fyfe as Alberich (though his costume made him look like a cross between Gregor Samsa and Grizzly Adams). Deborah Humble as Fricka, and Hubert Francis, as Loge, were also stand-outs. We thought Daniel Sumegi was strangely muted as Wotan, but he roared back in Die Walküre. The lithe Rhinemaidens skipped and slid down the props with élan.
There was a closing, irritating, thigh-slapping dance number that added approximately nil, a superfluous trope appropriated from some Maoist wet-dream opera such as “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,” or “The Red Detachment of Women.”
Perhaps the most crucial chapter in the saga was very forcefully played and sung: Lise Lindstrom has grown since her Brünnhilde in 2016 and here she was sublime, matched by Sumegi’s Wotan, their urgent discourse under a digital backdrop of circles and cobwebs, which we thought appropriate. Humble as Fricka was superb, as were Anna-Louise Cole and Rosario La Spina as Sieglinde and Siegmund. (I spoke to one of the musicians afterwards, who described playing Walküre as “fun.” We wouldn’t have put it like that, but 10/10 for enthusiasm.)
Once again, some grumbles about staging are apt. On the whole, minimalism (à la Wieland Wagner) reigned, thankfully. We didn’t understand the speedboat chassis on which characters respectively lounged and then dragged, or the table in Hunding’s hut which bastardised Brancusi, Henry Moore and the worst of modern plastic art. But the dragon of fire encircling the sleeping Brünnhilde was terrific, evoking memories of Elke Neidhardt’s Adelaide Ring.
The night belongs to Siegfried and Stefan Vinke, who continues to grow in the role, along with Lindstrom’s Brünnhilde. Sumegi, now the ‘Wanderer’, his bête noire Alberich (Fyfe), Andreas Conrad as Mime, Andrea Silvestrelli as the voice of Fafner, and Celeste Lazarenko as the athletic Woodbird (actually, her stand-in), are very good. Liane Keegan sings at low volume, which suits the portent of Erda’s warnings, undermined as they are somewhat by her strange garb, making her seem like the fifth Banana Split. And there are more dancers, twirling their infernal ribbons, which might have put the orchestra a bit out of time.
This is the closest Wagner gets to the Nibelungenlied, and it is a most satisfying closing-of-the-circle, well done by all, in particular the real hero of the whole saga, Brünnhilde. Once again, we worried that either she or Siegfried would fall off the rock – it looked over 15 feet high, with no guard rails. Also, while it was pushed into position by the camouflaged minions, it creaked quite noisily (WD-40, anyone?). We did, however, like the Wizard of Oz-like door under which Alberich gets into a sleepy Hagen’s head, and the hunting ground, a wintry array of Patagonian mountains and a moon that went from Melancholia to Lord of the Rings.
The director had decamped after Cycle 1, we heard, having urged his players to declaim impassively (!) – We suspect this bit of directorial chauvinism was disregarded by the players once the director left, given the work represents one of the loftiest heights of romanticism, and is a pre-Freudian masterpiece, fortunately played as such. But if our mail is accurate, it does explain something of the sterility of aspects of the operas in this production. Chen has been reported as saying “Opera as a performance, as theatre, isn’t my cup of tea.” However, the production did spurn the wan flatulence of Regietheater.
In any case, and notwithstanding the truly idiosyncratic staging of the world’s final immolation – Brünnhilde and a Mechano warhorse around and atop a pile of generic supermarket tins, doused in bleach, while a truly crazy bunch of CGO swirled about – could not defeat the simply gorgeous music, song, and emotion as we all ‘saw the world end.’ Andrea Silvestrelli, highly effective earlier as Fafner and Hunding, was, as a sonorous and vigorous Hagen, outstanding in a crowded field of sheer brilliance. The audience gave a long standing ovation that was neither phony nor excessive.
The digital effects were generally impressive (hundreds of LED screens, video material and sensors in the ensembles), although often they were too busy, distracting, or intruded for reasons unclear to this correspondent at least (“Effects without causes”?). The technology will enable future productions to be more portable and economical, but as tended to be the case in this production, the risk is the temptation to explore the medium at the expense of clarity and concision. The drizzled titles at the start of each opera included Chinese characters (we surmised, translations), which were neither ‘provocative’ nor ‘insightful.’ But the visuals were often beautiful: for example, the falling golden leaves in Die Walküre, which owed much to digital effects; and the funeral procession to the Trauermarsch in Götterdämmerung, which did not. It was brave to try it and it has, quibbles notwithstanding, succeeded.
The Ring remains one of the peaks of western art, a necessary rampart, still, against the barbarians and their scrobbling retinues.
A Thank-you to the Richard Wagner Society in Queensland
At the splendid Tattersalls club in Brisbane on the afternoon of 9/12/23, RWSQ gave one of a series of receptions to celebrate the Ring in its fair city. Wagnerians had come from far and wide. The President of the Society, Rosemary Cater-Smith, was regrettably indisposed; Professor Colin Mackerras AO gave the welcome and introduced the Society’s new patron, Heldentenor Bradley Daley, who belted out Siegfried’s song whilst he forges Nothung. Being within a few paces of Bradley, the force of his voice was particularly powerful.
(Incidentally, TVC, as usual, funded attendance at the Brisbane Ring out of its own shallow pocket.)