Above – Rosario La Spina. Cover – Dominica Matthews, Deborah Humble, Jennifer Black, Mariana Hong, and Agnes Sarkis. Photos – Wallis Media

Wonderful. Quite wonderful.

In the production by Harry Kupfer of the late 1980s at Bayreuth, Siegmund ran through the driving rain all over the stage, all through the tumultuous music of the prelude. In Shi-Zheng’s production the curtain remains down through most of the prelude (a welcome, unusual occurrence these days) and when it goes up we are already inside Hunding’s hut in the forest, and Sieglinde is waiting at a table. This difference focuses attention on Sieglinde, rather than Siegmund, as the protagonist of this second opera, which is to my mind closer to Wagner’s wishes.

In a clear echo of the World Ash-Tree which withered and died after Wotan made a spear out of one of its branches and inscribed laws upon it, the tree in the centre of the stage looks withered and ancient beyond belief. A sword buried in its trunk is plainly visible, long before we know its purpose (though of course we are all familiar with the fact that if there is a gun on the wall in the first scene of a film it will certainly be used before the end). Shi-Zheng played with the idea of foreshadowing in the opening scene on Das Rheingold too, where the gold nugget at the bottom of the Rhine was also plainly visible from the start, long before the music talks about it. Although this sort of foreshadowing is not inconsistent with Wagner’s musical practice – we hear Siegfried’s motif in the last scene of Rheingold long before we know it refers to Siegfried – I find that to foreshadow the moment when the gold, or the sword, reveal themselves (to Alberich, and to Siegmund) cannot but detract from the element of surprise which is integral to theatrical effect. Both these moments are marked by Wagner in the score, who asks for shafts of light to illuminate the gold, and the sword.

My remarks here are only observation, an opinion, not a criticism – we are only half-way through the cycle, and in the next two evenings there may be events which make Shi-Zheng’s choices compelling. I wonder, for example, what the sequels will be to the puppets, reminiscent of Brisbane’s wonderful company The Dead Puppet’s Society, that made their appearance as a snake in scene iii of Rheingold, and as the eagle which brings Brunnhilde to Siegmund in Act II of Die Walküre.

Anna-Louise Cole’s portrayal of Sieglinde was exemplary. Her clear soprano voice is capable of many shades of emotional intensity, and many colours of light and shade. Convincing both as the abused wife and as the chosen mother of the future hero, her voice is clear and true in pianissimo as in the one fortissimo she is allowed, when Brunnhilde tells her her destiny. Her acting too showed a precise sense of timing and detail which truly supported the action. The dramatic stillness of the moment when her eyes meet those of Siegmund for the first time; the growing horror when she realises that Hunding wants to kill Siegmund; the realisation that she is Siegmund’s long-lost sister – all these moments were held with an understated strength that is a mark of the highest acting skill.

Hunding was sung and acted with evil power by Andrea Silvestrelli, who had also played Fafner in Rheingold with similar vileness. Hunding, surrounded by his minions, appears in this production as so revolting that it makes us question very seriously Frika’s decision in Act II to support him in the name of wedlock. With his vast bass voice he pulls his wife by the hair, and strikes fear into Siegmund. It is important that Siegmund should show fear, as it is only his son Siegfried who shall be without fear. Rosario La Spina’s Siegmund was thoroughly believable, thoroughly human, as befits the first actual human we meet in the whole cycle. His nobility as he respectfully tells Brunnhilde that he will not willingly follow her to Valhalla is beautiful.

Daniel Sumegi as Wotan has moments of complete integration with the drama, though much of the time when he is on stage, but not singing, his presence exudes a stiffness which is to my mind incompatible with the demeanour of a born leader. At his best in moments of abjection, he was also very comfortable in his farewell to Brunnhilde, the opera’s gorgeous conclusion. Here his wide, sonorous voice was allowed the scope it deserves.

Wotan’s wife, Fricka, is an ungrateful role. Deborah Humble sang the role with a regal, civilised restraint that, while serving to make the details of her arguments with Wotan clear, did not seem quite strong enough to make Wotan change his mind about defending Siegmund against the misogynistic, abusive Hunding. Shi-Zheng seems here to underline his opinion that Wotan made a great mistake by allowing Fricka to influence him.

One of the design features I most enjoyed was the shape of the Valkyries’ shields. Strong yet somehow female, they stood for the energy you would expect of such warrior women. During their famous Ride the company’s dancers were the soldiers who, dead, would be taken to Valhalla by these women. Their individual voices were fabulous, but when they sang together they presented a wall of sound rather than a harmony. But it is always like that; perhaps one of Wagner’s miscalculations was to expect voices powerful enough to carry over the huge orchestra to be intelligible as chords when singing together. Or, just possibly, it doesn’t matter.

The digital stage was more multivalent in Die Walküre than in Rheingold. As the action in this opera is more “realistic” than in the first one, there was a temptation for me to try to interpret the scenery effects, rather than let them surround one as magic. For example, at the end of the first act the rain effect turns into what looks like falling leaves, or confetti, or stars…the very fact that I tried to interpret this effect at all says something about the difference of register in the digital construction. And since the whole imagery in the text at this point is about Spring, falling leaves seemed out of place.

Lise Lindstrom is wonderful, quite wonderful, as Brunnhilde. But since she has more to do in the evenings to come, I will not say more here.

Event details

Opera Australia presents
Die Walküre
Wagner

Director Chen Shi-Zheng

Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane QLD
Dates: 3, 10, 17 December 2023
Bookings: opera.org.au

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

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