Review by Thomas Gregory
To an uncultured plebian like myself, Siegfried is quite a humorous tale. A young, stupid hero (for he is described as such regularly) wants to learn how to feel fear. He can forge a magical sword because he is unafraid. Dispatching a dragon is a simple, nay, boring task. He even fights off Odin, unaware that the all-father is the man in the floppy hat. The Opera ends with Seigfriend finding fear not in any adventure but in discovering a woman's breasts for the first time.
Of course, I am simplifying things greatly. Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle, is far more complex and subtle. While always intended as an element of comic relief in the seventeen-hour epic, this chapter was still inspired by the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, the many versions of Faust, and the Poetic Edda. The opera is a warning against the schemers, rejoicing at simple pleasures, and most importantly, a love story.
For one day only, Melbourne Opera offered a recital of this spectacular piece as a preview of The Ring Cycle Cultural Festival in 2023. During March and April, Melbourne Opera will be offering the entire cycle, performed in full, for audiences in Bendigo, and tickets are already selling fast. If the packed seats and excited murmurings at the recital are anything to go by, it may be the biggest event in Australian Opera this decade.
As both my first recital of Opera and my first five-hour production, I fully admit to being nervous about what might be presented. In many ways, recitals are rehearsals. There is no stage movement, no sets, no costumes. The orchestra is on stage with the singers and is all about the voices and music.
Melbourne Opera, of course, has both to spare.
Eight of Australia’s greatest singers take to the stage to awe the audience. Bradley Daley plays the eponymous hero, while Robert Macfarlane begins the tale as the crafty Mime. Macfarlane revelled in the comedy of his role, drawing on all the portrayals of tricksters before him. Simon Meadows and Steven Gallop brought a level of gravitas to their roles as Alberich and the Wurm, Fafner. Deborah Humble is almost royal in her presentation, and it is disappointing that the role of Erda did not receive as long on stage as Humble deserved. Celebrated Soprano Lee Abrahmsen finished the night as the captivating Brunnhilde, leaving some audience members in tears.
Two people, however, stand out in the group of world-class professionals.
I was simply enchanted by Rebecca Rashleigh’s Woodbird, as she captured both the beautiful melodies of the forest and the sad longing of Seigfried’s mother. It is astounding what music the human body can produce under the control of a skilled user, and, at least for an amateur listener like myself, there is no better example than Rashleigh.
Warwick Fyfe as The Wanderer is, frankly, a whole other level of Opera. While each of the performers in Seigfried was an accomplished singer, enjoying the role they brought to the stage, none had the presence and charisma of Fyfe. The Wanderer, the disguised figure of Odin, is a mystical, mysterious character filled with wisdom, sorrow, and a touch of mischievousness. Fyfe’s performance of the king of the gods was awesome in the most literal definition of the word.
I suspect the director allowed for much improvisation during the recital, for often it appeared that each actor was in a different production of the show. However, it is clear that each person on stage had the time of their lives being there. In some ways, the most touching moments were those little times when they broke character to recognise the brilliance in each other. Australians are too quick to denigrate the greatness within us, and it was heartening to experience a group of people who truly respected what each brought to the stage.
Regardless of the performers' skill, the recital’s true star was the Melbourne Opera Orchestra. I had the pleasure of enjoying their skill when Melbourne Opera performed Lucrezia Borgia last month, and it was an honour to get to do so again. Conducted by the incredible Anthony Negus, there was a great sense of unity in the talented group of musicians that graced the stage. If not for the destruction of the term by middle-management bureaucrats, one could mention the great synergy that existed under the hands of such an expert.
It was truly something special to be a part of the audience of Siegfried for this singular performance. I suspect finding accommodation in Bendigo during March and April next year may be difficult. If you are considering tickets for the full experience, as you should, I recommend buying them now.