Opera Australia, Melbourne
20th November, 2013
Down to Earth
After the somewhat coy Rheingold of Opera Australia’s current Ring Cycle in Melbourne, director Neil Armfield’s Walküre delivered a focused and powerful evening of theatre. Though lacking in spectacle (weak points included the drab Valkyries and a predictable, sputtering gas ring of fire), the dramatic tension overall was thrillingly sustained over the six hour evening through detailed, disciplined direction, and with fresh, specific, and vocally impressive performances given by the leads.
The opera opens with the stark image of a tiny, nearly windowless cabin being pelted with snow on an otherwise blank stage. The resemblance to the Unabomber’s cabin may have been deliberate, as its hoarded contents and alienated inhabitants spoke of end-of-times survivalism (Jud Arthur’s Hunding, of booming voice and shaved head, hit the right note of paranoid aggression).
Wagner’s progression from this frozen place of fear and hopelessness to the thawing spring waters of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love unfolded here with perfectly-paced inevitability. This scene, sometimes mocked for its implausibility (or the ick factor of sibling romance) succeeded by telling a tale less of love-at-first-sight, and more of destiny and belonging. What we saw were a Siegmund and Sieglinde slowly coming to life, coming into their lives, finding redemption for their suffering in each other.
This is a testament to Armfield’s direction, which allowed the singers to progress from tightly-controlled tension to giddy abandon, and to the extraordinary performances of those singers. Stuart Skelton, singing with warmth and ease, was a heavy-hearted Siegmund with a boyish, Oliver-Twist-like need. Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglinde gave a phenomenally complex performance of feminine vulnerability and strength, her voice capable of both the contained hopefulness at the opening and the unsheathed power needed towards the end of the act. Her Sieglinde was less abused-housewife and more cosmic sleeper agent.
Act II opens on an enormous spiralling ramp, its bulky, banistered self reminiscent of such modern horrors as cruise ships or parking garages. Wotan’s exotic stuffed animal collection hangs suspended in the center of the spiral, a tragic menagerie. This spiral, though overly large and unwieldy as a set piece, did create a pathway between the godly and mortal realms that was occasionally used to nice effect, such as when Brünnhilde descends to lure Siegmund to Valhalla. A glowing light strip followed her down the spiral, where she then stood hovering above Siegmund, both of them bathed in an altered, unearthly light. This scene was one of the most powerful in the opera, with the compassionate tenderness of Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde and the moral certainty and simplicity of Skelton’s Siegmund, who chooses love over heroism.
Ms. Bullock is a fascinating Brünnhilde, a little spark plug of a soprano whose commitment to text and character propels a voice that is perhaps not ideally suited to the grandeur of the role. The fighting spirit and large heart of this miniature virago delivered a convincing and conflicted heroine.
Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyries were the weak link of the opera, directorially as well as musically. Costumed in olive-colored sportswear (not actually martial; not actually anything definable), loosely milling about the stage, they seemed as scattered and vague as their singing was, with some sloppy pitches and dynamics. Some of the voices were not quite up to the task, although Dominica Matthews as Schwertleite was one of the standouts, with a gleaming vocal presence cutting through all the murk.
It was never clear who or what the Valkyries were supposed to be, Brünnhilde included; and although the relationship between die Walküre herself and her father was believably intimate, what the link might be between the titan of industry and this spunky woman in cheap cotton drab, hair spiked with gel, was anyone’s guess.
Terje Stensvold brought a profound lyricism and pathos to his Wotan, as well as astonishing vocal ease. Jacqueline Dark, though more of a lyric than dramatic voice as far as Frickas go, was compelling as the wounded and spiteful wife.
Maestro Pietari Inkinen offered subtle and assured leadership from the pit: the orchestra never over-balanced the singers, and the momentum ebbed and flowed organically. The overall sound was warm and soft-edged, with gorgeous moments of ethereal Mahlerian colour in the quieter passages, as well as the necessary force in the more dramatic sections. Bass clarinettist Andrew Mitchell deserves mention for his beautifully mournful solos.
The score and the singers were allowed breathing room (rare in such a young Maestro), and the director, too, had the courage to let the music speak for itself. And although Armfield at times pushed the edge of operatic staging minimalism (as in the final long Brünnhilde/ Wotan scene, with just the two actors on a big blank stage for a very long time), the bleak stillness and the resulting investment it demanded of the audience was both appropriate and satisfying, if exhausting.
This is a Walküre that, like Brünnhilde, gets brought down to Earth. And like Brünnhilde, it seemed no less heroic for its being so human.
Bottom line: the real deal.
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Director Neil Armfield
Set Designer Robert Cousins
Costumes Alice Babidge
Lighting Damien Cooper
Conductor Pietari Inkinen
Wotan Terje Stensvold
Fricka Jacqueline Dark
Siegmund Stuart Skelton
Sieglinde Miriam Gordon-Stewart
Hunding Jud Arthur
Brünnhilde Susan Bullock
Gerhilde Anke Höppner
Ortlinde Meryln Quaife
Waltraute Deborah Humble
Schwertleite Dominica Matthews
Helmwige Hyeseoung Kwon
Siegrune Sian Pendry
Grimgerde Elizabeth Campbell
Rossweisse Roxane Hislop