Opera Australia, Melbourne
22nd November, 2013
Behind the Curtain
Thank you to Opera Australia and director Neil Armfield for bringing out the humour in Wagner! Siegfried, in many ways an inherently comic opera (oafish superhero raised by scheming dwarf), was given in this reading some vaudevillian touches highlighting its epic span, making for a thoroughly entertaining, as well as moving, evening.
Armfield continues with his concept established in the previous two operas of the Ring, that the story is a human one, set in something like the present. (That being said, he does allow room for the inexplicable, the inconsistent, and the purely poetic). Mime (sung by a sympathetic Graeme Macfarlane) is not a disfigured dwarf, but merely an addled, rather gentle bachelor, who microwaves his meals. He and his terror of an adopted son live in what appears to be an abandoned old vaudeville stage or movie theatre. In these cramped, sad quarters, redolent of faded glamour, we sense young Siegfried’s stunted existence: too big for his bunk bed, longing to fight in battles but stuck playing with action figures.
Stefan Vinke was a remarkable Siegfried, bursting with so much brute energy that even the lengthy sword-forging scene was thrilling, buoyed by his pure, unreflective exuberance. Much of his singing was a version of hollering, but such is the nature of the Heldentenor Fach, and his voice made it to the finish line regardless.
Terje Stensvold astonished yet again, as “The Wanderer” (as did his bare, heaving barrel-chest beneath his tattered fur coat; watching him was like a strangely sexy voice lesson). Portrayed as an increasingly beleaguered business tycoon in the previous two operas, in the long-haired Wanderer we saw a liberated, post-breakdown Wotan become a kind of hippie philosopher, à la “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski.
His scene with Erda was riveting, as the elderly matriarch of Rheingold was revealed to have become an even older, crumpled wraith in a wheelchair (bravo to the director for the genius ventriloquistic device he employed here).
Although the enviromental messages in Armfield’s Melbourne Ring are not hammered home, they are effectively dotted throughout in such disturbing and poignant images as this invalid Mother Earth, or in the sleeping Brünnhilde, enclosed and displayed like one of Wotan’s taxidermied treasures. Seeing the former goddess strapped into a museum transport crate like his specimen of the lost Tasmanian Tiger, we are forced to confront the true tragedy of extinction.
Warwick Fyfe delighted again as Alberich, earning many chuckles from the audience with his slovenly manner and slapstick timing. Jud Arthur elicited a perfect liquid snarl as Fafner, here transformed by the ring’s power (and the Tarnhelm?) not into a dragon but into a screen actor, a masked and monstrous Pierrot. Taryn Fiebig had a star turn as the Forest Bird (interpreted as a Reese-Witherspoon-like fantasy girlfriend of Siegfried’s: cheery, supportive, and blonde), with an investment in character and text – not to mention powerful vocalism – rarely seen in this role.
She leads him to Brünnhilde’s ring of fire, gorgeously represented as a shimmering golden curtain cascading down. The vaudeville proscenium arch that has revolved periodically throughout the show, confusing our sense of what is onstage or off, projection or reality, rotates one last time as Siegfried passes through its “flames” and into a realm of uncanny stillness. The effect was like that of a David Lynch dream sequence, surreal and spellbinding.
Brünnhilde’s awakening, and her new embodiment as a mortal woman, were sensually depicted by Susan Bullock. The virago of Walküre had gone from tomboy to bombshell (as certain women do), and the softness and wariness she brought to her new self were touching indeed, as was Siegfried’s cautious wonder.
Like all good comedies, Siegfried has a heart that wallops you at the end. Be afraid; be very afraid.
Bottom line: laughter through tears.
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Director Neil Armfield
Set Designer Robert Cousins
Costumes Alice Babidge
Lighting Damien Cooper
Conductor Pietari Inkinen
Siegfried Stefan Vinke
Brünnhilde Susan Bullock
Erda Deborah Humble
Mime Graeme Macfarlane
The Wanderer Terje Stensvold
Alberich Warwick Fyfe
Fafner Jud Arthur
Forest Bird Taryn Fiebig