Die Walküre (Melbourne Opera)
There was a feeling of already seen as audiences gathered for Melbourne Opera’s second half Ring Cycle, almost exactly one year after the first part, Das Rheingold, broke Melbourne’s pandemic-induced opera drought last February. The city’s opera-goers were once again thirsty for a live experience as, after a welcome flurry of productions in May 2021, there was only a brief revival of the Victorian Opera’s opera cabaret, Loreleiin June.
We also wanted another look at director Suzanne Chaundy’s multi-year film. Ring Cycle which had started so well and confirmed the growing art and confidence of the Melbourne Opera. Die Walküre does not disappoint. Indeed, it’s probably a little better than last year Das Rheingoldwith an even more impressive production design and an all-Australian cast, led by an exceptional Warwick Fyfe.
After excerpts were played in Vienna in 1862, Die Walküre premiered in Munich in 1870. It opens with the unexpected arrival of Siegmund at the unfortunate home of Hunding and Sieglinde, who flees with this stranger. In the realm of the gods, Wotan entrusts his daughter, Brünnhilde, with the protection of Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are in fact his illegitimate twin children. When Wotan’s wife Fricka insists that the couple be punished for adultery and incest, conflicting loyalties cause much trouble and conflict as Siegmund is killed, the pregnant Sieglinde flees, and Brünnhilde is driven away.
After missing his chance to play Wotan in Das Rheingold due to quarantine complications, baritone Warwick Fyfe is finally putting on those big boots. He’s often displayed his charming comedic skills before, but here he expresses the frustration and grief of a powerful character whose mastery is waning. Even in the long exposure of Act II of Wotan on Das Rheingold backstory, Fyfe commands the audience’s attention with the power of his voice, his rich tone and nuance, and his poise as an actor. Her performance is particularly moving in the final scene, when Wotan reluctantly punishes and parts ways with Brünnhilde.
In this demanding role of dramatic soprano, Zara Barrett does not quite have the vocal strength and sonic clarity that we hope for Brünnhilde. Her performance becomes more confident, however, including charming and expressive phrasing in Act III. The rest of the main cast is very accomplished. Bradley Daley expresses the heroism and grief of Siegmund with a confident and agile tenor. In Sieglinde, Lee Abrahmsen reveals both the delicacy and the strength of his soprano. Sarah Sweeting captures Fricka’s mood perfectly with her controlled mezzo and formal gestures, while bass Steven Gallop’s Hunding has plenty of menace.
Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyries includes talents as fine as Dimity Shepherd, Sally-Anne Russell and Rosamund Illing, whose great Wagnerian soprano kicks off the famous Ride of the Valkyries with an exciting effect. This scene in which the warrior goddesses are supposed to arrive on flying horses can be visually disappointing. Here, however, the vocal thrill is enhanced by two non-singing performers on stabilizing poles topped with silver horse heads. Dressed as Valkyries, they vigorously sweep across the back of the stage, convincing us that the sisters arrive in proper magical style.
Andrew Bailey looks back on his Das Rheingold set with a stage-sized platform that has a central, circular hole, and is lowered and raised, shaped like a drawbridge, revealing the mortal world below and the divine realm above. The latter’s sense of grandeur is heightened by a projected backdrop of ever-changing clouds by videographer Chris Hocking. The terrestrial ensemble of steps and columns in Act III, reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Scottish basalt, is also impressive.
Rob Sowinski’s lighting is dramatic enough, though sometimes marred by unsubtle spotlight transitions. Costume designer Harriet Oxley quits Das Rheingold‘s in favor of a more vintage feel, including Valkyrie styling and metallic fabrics that are part of 1920s Hollywood glamour, part of traditional Wagner. Brünnhilde’s costume is particularly magnificent.
Like with Das Rheingold, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra is conducted by veteran Wagner specialist Anthony Negus but does not quite have the sonic weight required for the composer’s works. However, there are few passages that feel understated, and overall the orchestra delivers plenty of drama, from the taut massive strings to the bold brass.
Indeed, the capacity of this production to deliver Die WalküreThe moving and gripping drama of rarely fades, so over five hours of opera (including two generous intervals) flies by. Once again Melbourne Opera has set the bar high for all opera companies performing here in the coming year.
Melbourne Opera Die Walküre plays at Her Majesty’s Theater until February 16 and at the Ulumbara Theatre, Bendigo on February 27.