Wagner: Das Rheingold
Melbourne Opera: Regent Theatre, 7/2/2021 via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Das Rheingold is the first of the four music dramas in Wagner’s momentous “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle
Largely due to the constraints of Covid border closures, the entire cast and crew, except for the UK escapee Welsh conductor, are Victorian. It goes to show just what talent can be mustered locally. The “Ring” is somewhat apocalyptic, which is appropriate for these times, but Rheingold is especially good during a pandemic, as there is no love and no chorus, so social distancing is not a problem. Die Walküre will be performed in Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 2022, in hopefully more loving times…
For those unfamiliar with the story of Rheingold, or needing a quick reminder, here is the potted version: The dwarf Alberich lusts after the Rhine maidens (mermaids) who reject him; he renounces love and steals their gold from which he forges a powerful ring. Meanwhile Wotan, the chief god, has had the giants Fasolt and Fafner build a fortress for the gods, with Freya, the goddess of eternal youth, as payment. Wotan realises his mistake in relinquishing eternal youth and the giants agree to accept a pile of gold instead, sufficient to hide Freya completely from view. Wotan steals Alberich’s gold hoard and the ring, which Alberich promptly curses. Wotan attempts to withhold the ring from the payment to the giants, but is eventually forced to hand it over. The curse kicks in and Fafner kills Fasolt for the ring. The gods enter their new fortress, which Wotan christens “Valhalla”.
The setting is contemporary, but with Rheingold set mid-century, about 20 years before the coming Die Walküre.
Simon Meadows portrays a particularly creepy Alberich with darkly scuttling music, against the innocent, playful but mocking Rhinemaidens, who swing in illuminated hoops and on rocking poles. Here is wonderful drama in the music too, under the direction of Anthony Negus, as the maidens suddenly realise, against all expectations, that love can be renounced and their gold stolen.
With the need for social distancing the wind and brass players performed from the orchestra pit while the strings were in the stalls, as a result the singers had a task to be heard over the orchestra, with its barrage of brass and percussion. Negus constrained the orchestra accordingly without ever losing its menace or darkness. An impressive balance with the voices was achieved. With massive underlying orchestral textures, often Wagner’s vocal textures can descend into a massive wash of sound. Here however the vocal articulation was crystal clear, perhaps due to the acoustics, but certainly through excellent technical sound production from Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s technical partners, 5stream.
Wotan (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) delivered an enveloping bass-baritone and both Fricka (Sarah Sweeting) and Freia (Lee Abrahmsen) produced warm clear tone. The bass giants Fasolt and Fafner were vocally imposing, but could have been more visually impressive. Their stature was mainly achieved by keeping them upstage.
There was a transformative scene change as Wotan and Loge (James Egglestone) descend into Nibelheim to commandeer Alberich’s gold. Blazing red flamed as they descended into the on-stage pit, and the floor was raised to reveal Alberich’s slave workshop beneath, replete with anvil percussion.
Alberich has now grown in confidence and stature, and is unwillingly aided by Mine (Michael Lapina). Video effects (and the magic Tarnhelm) allow his transformation first into a dragon and then a toad, leading to his capture.
Above ground again, the stolen gold is piled up, including the magic Tarhelm. Erda (Roxane Hislop) appears and convinces Wotan to give up the now cursed ring. In another impressive stage transformation, Donner (Darcy Carroll) reveals the rainbow bridge and Froh (Jason Wasely) welcomes them to Valhalla.
But this is only the entrée to the fate of the ring and the gods…
The orchestral drama and washes of sound, and the archetypal performances on stage, made for an impressive, fresh and engaging Rheingold. The audience was obviously impressed too.