Das Rheingold

Opera Australia, Melbourne

19th November, 2013

All That Glitters

The opening image of this “Melbourne Ring” is at once beautiful and disturbing: a chorus of almost-naked bodies arranged within a circle, gently moving, like bacteria in a petri dish. It is appropriate that director Neil Armfield opens his production with an image of so much anonymous flesh, for he has strained the spiritual out of this Rheingold and reduced it to a fable for our current, “godless” era, an age of humanity drowning in itself.

The gods in Armfield’s production are familiar human types: Wotan (sung with effortless elegance and resignation by Terje Stensvold) sports a Donald Trump blonde combover and pink tie (with a fur coat; his collection of extinct/ exotic taxidermied animals brought Mr. Burns’s “See my vest!” number from The Simpsons to mind); the Giants appear as bullying contractor-types riding in on their Komatsus (deliciously brutal: Daniel Sumegi); Freia is the perfect image of modern male desire, a beautiful young Korean woman with tousled hair in a sequinned mini-dress.

Armfield makes a point of our susceptibility to that which is directly in front of us, whether it be the superficial stimuli that our eyes crave, or the power of our own projections. The set (by Robert Cousins) is spare and dark, as far as Wagner sets go, and so the glitter of the showgirl-Rhinemaidens and their golden pom-poms draws our eye all the more (the pom-poms’ incessant rustling also draws our ear, regrettably; the violin section was inaudible for extended periods during the first scene). The thrills are deliberately cheap, skin-deep: the magic helmet of Alberich (sung with impressively creepy, bingeing abandon by Warwick Fyfe) is in fact a low-rent sideshow magic box, his hoard of gold made of shiny golden paper boxes. Those glitzy Rhinemaidens re-emerge in a later scene in their wigcaps, high heels in hand. Wotan is not an actual creator of anything, but a possessor (and destroyer) only, who fills his home with the aforementioned stuffed animals and painterly canvasses of his Edenic Valhalla.

The other gods and goddesses are likewise reduced to mere human types: Loge, Donner and Froh seem like a Rat Pack of wise guys, all shiny suits, quick on the draw. Fricka is the predictable shrewish housewife, Erda some kind of socialite matriarch with impaired vision in a Chanel suit.

 

© 2013 Jeff Busby

It may be too generous to attribute these somewhat limited conceptions of character to Armfield’s belief that our current culture offers no more expansive archetypes than these, but perhaps he is making a point similar to Sofia Coppola’s in her rather Gothic recent film, The Bling Ring. In that (true!) story, a group of teenagers aspire to nothing more than becoming like the images that obsess them of celebrities, whose homes they then rob. They break into Paris Hilton’s own gilded Nibelheim in the Hollywood Hills, and sneak around as the image of her airbrushed face observes them from every surface . . . This narcissistic loop of our Internet age and its desires seemed to be a point Armfield was striving to make, though his argument was at times presented rather feebly, as in the underlit afterthought of Fafner pulling a smartphone out of the golden hoard at the end, taking a selfie with his spoils.

Ultimately, Armfield’s take on Rheingold felt somewhat cynical in not allowing the operatic art form to reach beyond the limitations of literal, mundane experience. Magic, power, and beauty exist here only as projections of a kind of magpie desire, superficial and distractible. This may be “modern society’s” reality, but it is not the full story of human reality as we know it, and as we come to the opera to experience.

The most moving moment of the whole evening for me came early on, near the end of the overture, when the swimsuit-clad chorus began to rise, individually, faces uplifted. Their nakedness was transformed from flesh to that of naked being, of spirit, and they seemed surprised by their own rapture.

This is what Wagner should be allowed to do, to surprise us with rapture, and I only hope that the rest of the Melbourne Ring will offer more of such moments.

Bottom line: promising, but only dips a toe in the deep end

 

Evelyn Winthrop

 

 

response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production:


Director Neil Armfield
Set Designer Robert Cousins
Costumes Alice Babidge
Lighting Damien Cooper
Conductor Pietari Inkinen

 

Cast:


Wotan Terje Stensvold
Donner Andrew Moran
Froh Andrew Brunsdon
Loge Richard Berkeley–Steele
Fricka Jacqueline Dark
Freia Hyeseoung Kwon
Erda Deborah Humble
Woglinde Lorina Gore
Wellgunde Jane Ede 
Flosshilde Dominica Matthews
Alberich Warwick Fyfe
Mime Graeme Macfarlane
Fasolt Daniel Sumegi
Fafner Jud Arthur


 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://melbourneringcycle.com.au