A Night at the Theatre: Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold

Bottom row, left to right: the Rheinemaidens (Louise Keast, Karen van Spall, Rebecca Rashleigh). Top row: way pole performers Emily Ryan and Lily Paskas Goodfellow. Photo credit: Robin Halls

By Aidan McGartland

Guest contributor Aidan McGartland recently attended Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold, presented at the Regent Theatre. He has kindly put together a review of the production for Fever Pitch readers.

Composer: Richard Wagner

Director: Suzanne Chaundy

Conductor: Maestro Anthony Negus, David Kram (alternate nights)

Melbourne Opera’s Das Rheingold was a triumph, especially after the horrors of 2020. Das Rheingold would be an ambitious undertaking under normal circumstances, requiring a 90-piece orchestra with mature singers, and an expert conductor. Melbourne Opera will be presenting each of the ‘music-dramas’ from Richard Wagner’s epic tetralogy, Der Ring das Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelungen”), over the next few years, eventually culminating in the entire cycle in 2023.

Melbourne Opera’s production marks the fourth time The Ring Cycle has been mounted in Melbourne, as well as the first independent performance in more than 100 years. Thomas Quinlan’s touring opera company premiered The Ring in bel époque Melbourne in 1913, the centenary of Wagner’s birth. This production was sung in English, suiting Wagner’s desire for his works to be performed in English to English-speaking audiences. (He had objected to a 1877 production of Lohengrin in Melbourne which had been performed in Italian). After 1913, Wagner was rarely performed in Melbourne and The Ring was not heard again for another century, until Opera Australia’s Australian-themed production in 2013. The announcement of 2013 Ring Cycle reignited an enduring Wagner craze, with every major opera being performed in Melbourne in the following years.

From left to right: James Egglestone (bottom left), Darcy Carroll, Jason Wasley, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Sarah Sweeting, Lee Abrahmsen. Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold famously opens with a gradual build-up of E♭ major chords symbolising the creation of the world (E♭ major also symbolising gold) over the first four minutes of the opera. This appropriately grand beginning felt like a post-pandemic re-emergence of the arts. The orchestra continued to impress by clearly portraying Wagner’s intricate web of leitmotifs and propelling the drama, most notably with pounding timpani and foreboding brass at the entry of the giants, and the triumphant finale as the gods move their new home of Valhalla. This orchestral mastery is attributed to the work of world-class Wagnerian, Maestro Anthony Negus, known for pragmatic approach to Wagner, allowing the music to have space so it can speak for itself.

The all-Australian cast did not fail to impress. Of particular note was Alberich (Simon Meadows) and Loge (James Egglestone). Meadows’s Alberich not only captured the greedy, creepy, repulsive gnome groping around the depths of the Rhine, but also a certain quirkiness expressed by his almost slapstick gestures. His voice captured the declamatory nature of Wagner’s writing, with clear German diction and the richness of his tone effortlessly resonating over the supersized orchestra. Egglestone’s Loge followed suit, dressed as a cunning, almost goofy magician, carrying Suzanne Chaundy’s vision of Loge as a cross between “Puck and Lear’s fool.”

From left to right: Alberich (Simon Meadows), and the Rheinemaidens (Karen van Spall, Louise Keast, Rebecca Rashleigh). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Wotan (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) had a powerful presence and sense of majesty, and clearly identified by his eye patch and spear. Unfortunately, he was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Darcy Carroll, a Melbourne Opera Young Artist, was very impressive in his Wagnerian debut as Donner, especially considering the richness of his voice while being in his late twenties.

The giants, Fasolt (Adrian Tamburini) and Fafner (Steven Gallop), commanded their bass-baritone voices with a sense of gravitas, aided by their distinctive rag-like costumes. Melbourne Opera stalwart, Michael Lapiña, was perfectly cast as the distressed nibelung (dwarf) Mime. Lapiña’s strong voice carried well, but at the same time created a sense of innocence and pain as he is tortured by Alberich.

One of the most memorable moments in the production was the appearance of Erda (Roxane Hislop), the personification of Mother Earth. Erda urges Wotan to give up the ring, as it will bring about the end of the gods. Hislop elegantly glided through the stage, her mellifluous voice filling the theatre with ease. Her performance not only captured the authority, but also the radiating warmth of Erda.

From left to right: Fasolt (Adrian Tamburini), Loge (James Egglestone), and Fafner (Steven Gallop). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold is Melbourne Opera’s most lavish production to date, upholding Wagner’s revolutionary practice of gesamptkunstwerk, or total work of art, where the drama, visuals, and music are given equal importance. The set struck a balance, avoiding the pitfalls of being too minimal or too cluttered. The idiosyncratic costumes, from Donner’s glittery silver suit, to the rags worn by the giants, helped identify characters with ease and realised Chaundy’s vision of the gods as “normal recognisable people” in our contemporary world. Each scene was clearly illustrated from the mysterious aquatic realm of the Rhinemaidens, to the world of light inhabited by the gods and the shadowy caves of the Nibelheim.

The production also carried an important metaphor for our current times with Chaundy comparing “The Twilight of the Gods” to “The Twilight of Humanity” due to the current dual crises of the pandemic and climate-change. In addition, this is supported by Wagner’s grave environmental metaphor of the plundering and exploitation of the Rheingold.

From left to right: Wotan (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i), Frika (Sarah Sweeting). Photo credit: Robin Halls

Das Rheingold was a huge success, especially considering that it was performed between lockdowns in the current pandemic. A number of COVID-safe measures were adopted, with the orchestra spaced out throughout the pit and the stalls, and the regular deep cleaning and daily sanitisation of the stage and rehearsal spaces. It also proved to be an apt choice in its lack of large chorus scenes, allowing singers to be naturally spaced around the stage.

Das Rheingold also marks a highpoint in the development of Melbourne Opera. The company, established in 2003, has been dubbed ‘the people’s opera’ because of its accessibility and community spirit. The progression of Melbourne Opera from a small opera company to one of Wagner, is largely due to the work of Producer and Resident Conductor, Greg Hocking, and Company Manager, Robbie McPhee. Unlike other opera companies, Melbourne Opera rarely receives government funding, and is instead supported by a number of generous philanthropists, making this achievement even more remarkable.

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