Above – Alexander Sefton, Daniel Sumegi, Dean Bassett and Hubert Francis. Cover – Dean Bassett, Mariana Hong, Daniel Sumegi, Deborah Humble, Alexander Sefton and the Opera Australia Dancers. Photos – Wallis Media

One of my endeavours as a reviewer of music and theatre in these pages is to present my experience of the performances I attend as an audience member, rather than as a divinely appointed judge of what is or is not good in the performances. In this endeavour of course I am not alone – the concept of reviewing has gone through various shifts of focus, easy and uneasy, since I first encountered the practice. Bernard Shaw, like Nietzsche an ardent Wagnerian until Gotterdammerung and Parsifal, is remembered for his socialist critique of the Ring, but not for such remarks as “This folksong deserved a better fate than being buried alive in a Brahms quintet”. Fred Blanks, a music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald in the 80s and 90s, may chiefly be remembered today for his fundamentalist insistence that no concert should last more than two hours.

Be that as it may, I approach the task of reviewing the Brisbane Ring with apprehension. Last night I attended Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas comprising the Ring cycle. I am torn between two opposing desires (such contradictions being completely in place concerning Wagner’s greatest work). One is to relay to you, my readership, the full impact of the splendours of this production. The other is not to give an impression of something which may very well change, even be reversed, when I have seen the remaining music dramas in the cycle – and importantly, not to write spoilers!

This is the sixth time that I have attended a complete Ring cycle. Each time I am confronted by the avalanche of contradictory opinion, interpretation and assertion that has surrounded the work’s reception for the 150 years since its premiere in 1876 – more has been written about Wagner than about anything else except Shakespeare and the Bible. However, it is the first time I have found myself in the position of critic. Most of the writing about the Ring addresses the question of what it is, and why. I thought that perhaps it would be interesting to ask a different question – not what the Ring is, but what it does.

As this performance takes place over the next week, I will give fragmented snippets of writing, little windows into the magic that the conductor, Phillipe Auguin, the director Chen Shi-Zheng, the creative crew and the vast cast of singers body forth into the sweltering Brisbane summer air. There is much I could say about Das Rheingold, but, for reasons outlined above, I will confine myself here to three things.

First, the “Digital Stage”. This production has been marketed as the first time the scenery for a production of the Ring has been generated digitally. Wagner said at some point “My art is the art of transition”. Musically he is a master of this. But stage transitions that accompany the musical ones are usually at best awkward and at worst distractingly clunky. The digitally projected scenery in the current production, designed and created by Leigh Sachwitz and her company flora&faunavisions, makes these transitions seamlessly, reflecting in my opinion Wagner's desire far better than anything he could actually have seen in his lifetime.

And, crucially, the overarching effect this has is to take the production out of the realm of the many contradictions surrounding interpretations of the Ring, into the realm of magic where, as in dreams, contradictions do not exist but are subsumed into the world not inhabited by rational thought but by – music. Thus the beautiful and terrifying images that serve as scenery allow us, the audience, to experience the various often contradictory levels on which the work operates at once, as magic, as myth.

Second (since he is the only major character who doesn’t appear in any of the later music dramas but only in Rheingold) that impersonation of magic, Loge. At once the engineer of events and the detached onlooker, the character of Loge was brilliantly sung and acted by the tenor Hubert Francis. He holds the characters on stage spell-bound, and he did just the same with the audience. Handling vocal writing that is even by Wagner’s standards extremely difficult with precision cloaked in casualness, his voice integrated with the orchestra in a way I have hardly ever heard the part rendered. And I could hear every word.

Lastly, the orchestra itself. Wagner (or was it Nietzsche?) described his orchestra as the modern counterpart to the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedy: the vehicle for interpreting to the audience the action on the stage. As I entered the Lyric Theatre in QPAC I was apprehensive about the fact that, far from concealed as in Wagner’s theatre in Bayreuth it was exposed in a not very deep pit, and I thought it would drown out the singers frequently. How wrong I was. Phillipe Auguin coaxed the most delicate sounds out of the enormous orchestra, only allowing anything loud when no-one was singing. It was impossible – another form of magic. I was reminded of Reginald Goodall’s handling of the orchestra for Tristan und Isolde in a Welsh theatre 50 years ago.

Who knows what tomorrow’s performance, of Die Walkure, will bring?

Event details

Opera Australia presents
Das Rheingold
Wagner

Director Chen Shi-Zheng

Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane QLD
Dates: 1, 8, 15 December 2023
Bookings: opera.org.au

Part of the Brisbane Ring Cycle – visit the Opera Australia website for full details»

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