Three weeks ago I saw the second performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle in Adelaide, and I've just gotten over my disappointment of realizing I'm too old to apply to be a landed immigrant (). The State Opera of South Australia produced a production in 1998 that was borrowed from Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, but this was the first Australian production, sung by a primarily Australian cast. It was almost as big a deal as the Australia/New Zealand cricket test matches that were being played during the three cycles of The Ring, getting pages of press. It was important enough that when it ran 30% over budget, mostly due to the sets and special effects, which the production team came to realize couldn't be built entirely in South Australia, SOSA director Stephen Phillips was able to raise much of the shortfall from private and corporate donors. I read while I was there that every scenic design shop in Australia had participated, and that they had to stop at some point, because there was no capacity for anything new. Reading about the scope of this Production, I appreciate even more how important it was when Boeing sent two senior project managers to the Seattle Symphony to help build Benaroya Hall; the Adelaide Production team did hire a PM when they realized how large a project it became.
There were four stars in this Production, and the first was the set. It was designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, who was the stage and special effects designer for the Sydney Olympics -- and as the creator of the Cauldron was no stranger to fire and water and said in an Australian Broadcasting Company interview that he just brought the fire team with him -- and Nick Schlieper, who was the lighting designer and associate designer. His second title was no exaggeration: the lighting was integral to the set. The "shell" for all four operas was a series of narrow rectangular double columns up each side, one of which contained lights. It wasn't quite as bare as displaying the light racks, but it did emphasize technology and the man-made. At the front of the stage was a continuous series of rectangles down one side, across the apron, and up the other side, which represented the Rhine, and when lit were a deep cyan. At what on a normal stage would be the back -- the Festival Theater stage is double deep -- were two sets of three screen panels that could span the stage or open and close, depending on the action. Because they absorbed light, Schlieper was able to change the brightness and color to create a different atmosphere and setting for each scene.
In the middle of the "normal" stage, there was a circle about 10 feet in radius that was lowered to create a pool of water in Die Walküre and to create a working space in Siegfried, and was raised to create Brünnhilde's rock and Siegfried's funeral pyre in the last three operas. Around that circle was another set piece, a ring that was a few feet wide that was raised with the center platform and tilted, so that it looked like one of the rings around Saturn. Around that circle were a series of holes in the floor, through which metal rods and fire (alternately) emerged, depending on the scene.
Das Rheingold opened with Erda sitting mid-stage, in a Buddha-like position, during the prelude. When the lights came up, the Rhinedaughters were behind a floor to ceiling curtain of water, through which tens of thousands of liters of water per minute fell. (A local water company, United Utilities, engineered the curtain, which was made out of very heavy clear sail material.) This was a set that deserved gasps and spontaneous applause. After the curtain disappeared -- I can't remember how -- the three Rhinedaughters were "swimming" on the stage -- they did a lot of rolling around -- which tilted up from the front, so that when they went over the back, it looked like they were behind a wave. Not exactly the Rhine, but very Kangaroo Island!
The direction was very class- and position- conscious: the Rhinedaughters were Nicky Hilton wannabees, and when Alberich, sung by tall, imposing, muscular John Wegener, dressed in a black muscle shirt and black leather pants, and with a deep, resonant bass that was equally dangerous, tried to get any one of them to be interested in him, they played him badly, as if he were a bridge-and-tunnel guy not worth the time of day. When in most synopses I read that Alberich started the whole mess, I think of that scene, because I'm not convinced he renounces love because he's rejected by them, which they have every right to do, but because they do so without allowing him an ounce of dignity. Why not renounce love (=humanity), if you're not allowed the slightest smidgen of hope or human dignity? There's clearly something amiss in the administration of this god world when the Rheingold, the most important entity in the realm, is being guarded by three airheads who are so bored with their responsibility that they chatter away its secret and couldn't be bothered to guard it, nepotism at its best.
The gods are portrayed mainly as a bunch of extremely rich people who spend most of their time yachting around and going to dinner parties. The set for the gods is rolled from the back of the house, and the base is a huge platform of white rectangles, looking like plastic marble. (I think these were lit from underneath.) In the scene where the gods are wasting away, because Freia, being held as payment for the Valhalla by the giants who built it, can't supply the apples that give them perpetual youth, they are lying on white chairs that resemble Charles and Ray Eames' La Chaise. Wotan is clearly bankrolling this group, and Fricka is like a society wife who is buying the biggest apartment in NYC and spending gazillions to decorate it. (She says in the text that she's doing it so that he will stay home and stop his constant infidelities.) But Wotan, like Donald Trump, is clearly overextended, despite his huge CEO desk -- also on the white platform -- surrounded by the fallen heroes, life-size clear plastic replicas of Michelangelo's David's torso, capped by the helmets that the valkyries bring to the fallen heroes after they have been felled in battle. The Valkyries are a bunch of hard-drinking punk girls, and their hangout is one of the most playful of Scott-Mitchell's set inventions: a bar named "Wunder Bar", with big screen TV's, nine bar stools in a row, blue beer to match the Rhine, and nine 10-15 feet tall full glasses of champagne directly under the huge sign in Gothic letters.
The men in Die Götterdämmerung were also well-drawn: Hagen is the Karl Rove behind the throne, but suffering from his illegitimate status, while Gunther is simultaneously vain and insecure, a weakling with status. What didn't work quite so well was the portrayal of a dowdy Gutrune with a leg brace, the disfigured, plain sister in the family, because with that much prestige in her lineage, it's hard to believe that partial disability was the reason she hadn't been married off, particularly in a culture -- paralleled in Das Rheingold -- where women were bought and sold against their will.
It was in Das Rheingold that in my opinion costume designer Stephen Curtis hit his mark: in a white tunic jacket and slim-line pants and shoulder-length blond hair, Froh looked like Alexander Gudonov, Donner carried around a cricket bat, and it was a wonderful touch to have the giants dressed in bright yellow construction outfits. The male gods did better than the female gods, for whom Curtis made rather silly molded foam breast plates, and molded sixties hairstyles to match. The costumes for the Rhinedaughters were based on unitards, reminiscent of the Aussie swim team, and the Valkyries had stylized punkette costumes. The Forest Bird came cartwheeling in wearing a white t-shirt, baggy lime green shorts over peacock green tights, one pink boys sneaker and one light blue one, and a wig in a pinkish orange ear-length bob. I could understand having Brünnhilde arrive in pants -- until she is made mortal and goes through the gamut of emotions during her first love, she's a tomboy with little respect or empathy for traditional femaleness. I could even buy that the costumes for the Walsungs -- half mortal, half god -- should look like they came out of a traditional Wagnerian production. But to have the mortal Brünnhilde in the typical flowing sack, and Gunther, Hagen, and Gutrune in some mid-20th century style, while the Wanderer was dressed in a light gray two-piece snowbird travel outfit with a bright red visor and Siegfried wearing baggy workout clothes didn't mesh.
As long as the fire is impressive, there are two scenes that provide the greatest challenges for the set designer: when Alberich turns himself into a dragon, so that Loge and Wotan can steal the Tarnhelm and the ring, and Fafner-turned-dragon, a major character in Siegfried. Scott-Mitchell solved the former by splitting the stage diagonally by suspending a stage-wide staircase used by the enslaved Nibelungen to ascend from the mines at what looked to be from the fourth to last row of the theater about twice human height; it became a screen of some sort as a stage-wide red segmented dragon was either projected or back-lit. The dragon itself was a huge arm and claw that looked like it was built out of a steel erector set, and provided the most blatant touch of Australian humor: after Siegfried put the gold in the palm of the slain dragon's paw, he closed each claw over the gold: if anyone was going to claim it, s/he was going to have to take it from the dead dragon's bloody hand. Several seconds after he finished, the middle claw retracted and stood up, and Siegfried let it be.
In the first three operas, I had two bones to pick with the set. I wasn't sure why in Die Walküre, there was a curtain back-drop to create a lush forest scene during Siegmund and Sieglinde's love duet. It looked a bit cheesy to me. I can understand why Scott-Mitchell saved one of the most magical effects for Siegfried -- a row of five-six deep helium balloons across the stage that created the forest in that opera -- but I would have thought that the same effect could have been created with light on the mesh "doors.". The second was that in the scene in Siegfried in which the Wanderer confronted Siegfried, and Siegfried shattered his spear with Nothung. It was played on an empty stage, lit from the side, and all of the action was lateral. It was after this scene that the front curtain dropped, to prepare the stage for Brünnhilde to be surrounded by fire, so that Siegfried could claim her. It seemed to me that the Wanderer/Siegfried scene would have been as, if not more, effective in front of the curtain. The transition between scenes until that point had been so masterful, that the curtain dropping at the point it did break the magic a bit.
After the Norn scene, Die Götterdämmerung takes place mainly among the mortals and semi-mortals until the ring is returned to the Rhinedaughters. The set for opening scene between Brünnhilde and Siegfried was a dressed up version of where Siegfried left off: the outer circle was decorated with bright pink Love Child flowers and the "rock" was covered with a piece of green shag carpet. The set for the Gibichungs was a series of columns down the side from which asymmetrical, diagonal beams were suspended, and which expanded to the back of the double stage and collapsed to the front of the stage to create a "doorway," conveyed the oppressiveness of the power struggle, unhappiness, and, in general, the mess that the mortals had made of their world. The set was collapsed forward during the scene between Hagen and Alberich; Hagen came through the "doorway" from his world and deigned to meet Alberich, who was clearly not allowed in, and the set made the boundary clear. Because it was so flexible for at least half of the opera, it was a bit disappointing that the curtain dropped between later scenes.
Despite the beautiful water and fire effects -- and the immolation scene, with the floating stage-wide line of fire was most impressive -- the most effective set, in my opinion, was for Hunding's house in Die Walküre. The house consisted of a circle of "half spears" -- cylindrical rods coming to a soft point, that were at least twice the height of the singers -- and a couple of chairs. Although the house was open, the metal "bones" of the dwelling conveyed the both the oppressiveness and brute force behind Siegliende's prison.
The second star of the Production was Lisa Gasteen's Brünnhilde. Winner of the Singer of the World competition in 1991 and still a young woman, she is blazing through the Wagner and Straussian repertoire around the world. The afternoon of Das Rheingold, in which Brünnhilde does not sing, I was walking through the gift shop, when I noticed two things: an announcement that Gasteen would be signing a CD of hers, and a foot that looked like it was in a cast. Before Die Walküre, there was an announcement to say that Gasteen had fallen and sprained her foot badly during the first cycle, and that her mobility could be compromised. If there was any sign that she wasn't following the original blocking, I missed it. She moved extremely well, and did plenty of jumping and climbing up and down the various levels of the set and rolling and falling. I couldn't even tell that she was favoring one foot over the other. She sounded fabulous: a voice solidly on pitch, moving seamlessly among registers, with resonant deep notes and sheen on her high notes. She was so passionate in the trio that ends the second act of Götterdämmerung, she nearly burned down the house one act before the Immolation Scene. She was expected to carry this $15M (AUD) Production as the cast member with the most international acclaim -- for all of the official bluster, Australia seems to look for outside approval, at least in the realm of the arts -- and she didn't flinch.
In a Q&A after a recent Rigoletto, Speight Jenkins said that nearly every tenor tries to justify the character of the Duke of Mantua by saying that the character who sings alone of his love for Gilda is the "true" Duke, except for the tenor in the second cast, who was too young to care. Gasteen is young and intelligent enough to portray the ugly side of Brünnhilde: Daddy's favorite who by becoming mortal goes through the agony of late puberty and betrayal by her first love, and then, she thinks, by her father; the angry, jealous, vengeful, destructive person. She didn't need to play the character as Obi Wan Kenobe from the beginning. Instead, she showed how the character evolves toward wisdom and sacrifice in the Immolation Scene.
Star three was Alberich, John Wegener. It's rare to have the most attractive guy in the cast play this role, regardless of how good he sounds; apart from the first scene, there really shouldn't be much sympathy for him. Presumably the reason he gets to become dictator of the Nibelungs isn't just because through his cunning and sacrifice he has the ring and Tarnhelm; it's also because he's bigger and stronger than they are. It also should be rare that the audience, at least those voicing opinions at intermission and during the hour-long dinner breaks, should wish that the Alberich were singing Wotan. Wegener did sing Wotan in the 1998 production, and why he wasn't cast again was a mystery to many of us, because his voice was richer and more imposing than John Bröcheler's, and he was a superb actor. One thing for which I can give the Metropolitan Opera credit: they found their Wotan in James Morris, and he's been singing the role for decades.
Star four was the conductor, Asher Fisch and the orchestra. Fisch has conducted Parsifal and Lohengrin for Seattle Opera. The orchestra doesn't blast under him during the singing passages, but provides a musical cushion for the singers. That doesn't stop him from letting the orchestra rip during purely orchestra passages, although never breaking the musical line. Sadly, he won't be conducting the Seattle Ring next summer.
Other singers who gave impressive performances were Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Gary Rideout, a last minute replacement for Timothy Mussard in Siegfried (Mussard sang the role in Die Götterdämmerung), Yu Shu-Cheen (Forest Bird), and Elizabeth Campbell (Fricka and Waltraute in Die Götterdämmerung). I also liked Christopher Doig's Loge, the illegitimate bookend to Hagen. (The Australian critics didn't seem to like him, and I don't really understand why.) My favorite scenes in The Ring are the dialogues between Wotan and Fricka, Brünnhilde and Wotan, Mime and Siegfried, Alberich and Hagen, and especially Erda and Wotan. Neither Liane Keegan's Erda or John Bröcheler's Wotan had much oomph, which was disappointing. (I've been spoiled by Nancy Maultsby, and the plan is I'm going to be spoiled next summer by Ewa Pödles.) It's rare to have two tenors in an extended scene, and usually Mime is played as a non-stop whiner, which is why Richard Greager's non-whiny, full-voiced but still evocative Mime was both a relief and a pleasure. Andrew Collis was a sympathetic Fasolt, truly sad about trading Freia for the gold, and David Hibbard's Fafner was especially vivid, particularly as the dragon, through the use of amplification and reverb.
At the buffet dinners during the hour-long intermissions of the last three operas, I met several dozen very nice people mostly from Sydney and a lovely couple from Brisbane, who were originally from Mauritius. The Sydney opera fans were there in force: one couple told me that when the opera house -- actually a complex of several theaters and a restaurant -- was being built, the symphony had all of the power, and that's why they got the big hall, and the opera got a little theater. Apparently, the opera house at the Sydney Opera House is rather ill-equipped, and the orchestra pit isn't big enough to do anything on the scale of The Ring. (The only production in Sydney has been a concert version in the big orchestra hall.) I also met a woman in her late 60's or early 70's, who, when she heard my voice and realized I was from the US, told me about the bomb shelter her father had built during WWII as Australia awaited a Japanese invasion, and she told me she still, to this day, thanks the Americans for preventing it. (Thinking about the kind of man who was president at the time was what made me start to think about landed immigration...)
Adelaide is a relatively quiet city. Leaving the Festival Hall, I could walk to my hotel in relative quiet, and savor the performance. I realized when I was in Sydney for a night on my way home, walking from the Opera House after a ballet performance past the street of outdoor restaurants each blasting a different piece of disco-like music, and watching the party spill from the tables to the block-wide promenade during the warm summer night, what a privilege it was to have been in the quiet of Adelaide to hear The Ring, which ended with an image of Erda watching over the new Tree of Life that she had just planted.
Adelaide Ring Cycle
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