The audience rose as one at the conclusion of last night’s Das Rheingold, and for good reason. It was stupendous.
Chief Conductor Simone Young promised a lot when she undertook to deliver Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Sydney over four years.
Of course, she is no stranger to the tetralogy overseas, but it’s been three decades since the Sydney Symphony Orchestra last tackled it.
It’s also an ambition that has foiled our national opera company time and time again, with the last fully staged Ring presented in this city over a century ago by a UK touring company.
Not surprisingly, a palpable sense of anticipation filled the air in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House last night, but would the expectations of those assembled be met?
The standing ovation at the end of the non-stop, two-and-a-half-hour concert suggests they were. The time simply flew by, and anyone keen to share in this once-in-a-lifetime experience should immediately snap up the handful of tickets remaining for tomorrow evening’s second performance.
For this writer, brought up on the Rings of Solti, Karajan and Boulez (and later Barenboim), the SSO’s performance of Das Rheingold under Young fulfils the dream of a lifetime: namely, to witness a live performance that rivals those of the aforementioned maestros.
Like sunlight reflecting on the waters of the opera’s eponymous river and its hidden treasure, under Young the music glitters and glistens, every pluck of a string and nuanced phrase clearly heard.
From the opening murmur of the double basses which emerges in a darkened auditorium, we hear the prelude grow across the orchestra’s sections, seamless yet with a clarity that has eluded many celebrated exponents of Wagner’s music.
As underwater lighting illuminates the hall in hues of blue and green, the waves of music wash over the audience, each instrument equal to the sum of the parts. It’s a remarkable achievement.
The music builds and builds until the three Rheinmaidens (Samantha Clarke as Woglinde, Catherine Carby as Wellgunde in place of the late Jacqueline Dark, and Margaret Plummer as Flosshilde) appear, seemingly on a high. They should be; the music is sublime.
And so it continues, all the way down to the smelters of Niebelheim and the rainbow that carries the gods to Valhalla. There’s no skimping on theatrics either, with offstage anvils clanging during the descent, and former SSO Principal Harp Louise Johnson playing from the foyer during the finale, while the Rheinmaidens are heard from afar with the Concert Hall bathed in rainbow light.
In this climactic moment, Young exceeds herself, avoiding the bombastic fanfares that can often drown out the strings, instead drawing them out as they undulate beneath the brass, along with the woodwinds. The result is an overwhelming sense of rapture that has us on the edge of our seats. No wonder we are so quick to jump to our feet.
But it is the superb vocal performances that top off an extraordinary concert.
The Rheinmaidens get things underway, with Clarke as Woglinde setting the benchmark for the vocal fireworks to come.
That Wolfgang Koch makes light work of Wotan should come as no surprise; he performed the role in Young’s Hamburg Ring. As his wife, Fricka, Michaela Schuster brings a gravitas to her performance, visibly embodying the emotions of a woman frustrated by her husband’s treatment of her sister, Freia, sung by Eleanor Lyons with all the vehemence one would expect from someone used as currency.
As the giants who demand Freia as payment for building Valhalla, Jud Arthur (Fafner) and Simon Meadows (Fasolt) are suitably foreboding, striding in time to their thunderous leitmotif and every bit the brutish giants they play, despite being done up in white tie.
Simon O’Neill’s heldentenor is on fine display in the smaller role of Froh, and both Samuel Dundas (Donner) and Andrew Goodwin (Mime) make mighty fine work of parts that others can struggle to inhabit or make memorable. No fear of that here.
Noa Beinart is also striking as Erda, striding ominously through the orchestra to warn Wotan against keeping the ring forged from the Rheingold.
With such a superlative lineup of singers, it seems almost unfair to pick out anyone in particular. However, it has to be said that this evening really does belong to Falk Struckmann as Alberich and Steve Davislim as Loge.
One of Young’s Hamburg Ring alumni, Struckmann is a force to be reckoned with and certainly the finest Alberich in this writer’s living memory. He delivers a performance that leaves one in no doubt of his pivotal role in the tetralogy. It is, after all, Alberich’s curse that sets everything in motion, and this moment is a heart-stopping highlight of the evening.
So too, Davislim owns the stage with his superb diction and sly, mercurial presence. One has to think back to Heinz Zednik in the Bayreuth Centenary Ring to find his equal.
Young’s handpicked company deserves special praise for its command of Wagner’s libretto, the composer’s syntax and musical phrasing sitting most beautifully with both Struckmann and Davislim. For those familiar with German, the surtitles are hardly necessary; the singers’ acting ensuring the goings-on are always clear.
Under Young, the SSO’s Ring Cycle is off to an exceptional start. Whether it will match (or exceed) its iconic predecessors remains to be seen, but given last night’s performance of Das Rheingold, it certainly promises to.