On the handsomely designed box containing the libretto booklet and CD of Das Rheingold, Melba Recordings’ second instalment of the now fabled 2004 South Australian Opera Ring cycle, is a short quote which reads: “Adelaide’s Ring Cycle was an event without parallel in Australia’s modern history.”
On reflection, and just over two years on from that momentous week of heart-stopping music and drama, I stand by that quote, hubristic though it might appear. Ring cycles come and go - there is a Cycle or a couple of spokes happening virtually every month somewhere in the world - but Adelaide’s production was very, very special.
In the audience at the Festival Theatre were Ringophiles from all over the world. Over the four days of its playing out friendships were made, confidences exchanged. Probably a few affairs and divorces happened too - hard to say, the spectacle on stage was so riveting it was difficult to think of anything else.
For a Ring-virgin such as myself it was both life-enhancing and life-changing: music and theatre have not been the same since. For that I have to thank SOSA boss Steven Phillips for having the inner fortitude to stage it; director Elke Neidhardt, rescuing producer Noel Staunton and her brilliant crew of creatives headed by designer Michael Scott-Mitchell, Nick Schlieper (lighting) and Stephen Curtis (costumes).
The final bill for the venture came in at a bit over $15m - a staggering sum for South Australia to spend on a single event, it was said. The sums broke down as $7.5m from the state government, $800,000 from private benefactors, $600,000 from sponsors, $1.1m from the Australia Council and $5.5m was taken at the box office. SOSA reserves and a mortgage on future dough from the OzCo soaked up the rest.
It was a huge gamble that paid off in unprecedented international recognition and goodwill for Adelaide and the state. There were also positive side effects which don’t show up in a crude balance sheet. Of the 6000 who were privileged to fork out up to $1500 to bear witness to a full four-part cycle, more than 80% arrived from interstate or abroad and they spent more than $10m during their stay.
Therein lies the rub: 6000 experienced the Ring. But aside from a frustrating one-hour doco, there is no visual record. Somehow or other, the ABC was either not empowered or not sufficiently motivated or simply lacked the vision and respect for its charter to organise the (considerable) logistics required to film the four operas.
Once upon a time this would have been a given and millions of Australians would have been able to watch if they wanted. There’s always a lot of shrieking about the - very real - threats to the Corporation’s serious responsibilities to news and current affairs. But filming the Adelaide Ring Cycle is as important an undertaking. Its cultural and social significance are unparalleled. Think of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony - and then slip in the DVD. Adelaide and the rest of Australia deserved as much.
And that’s where Melba comes in. Their care and expertise in capturing the sensation of the living, breathing Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with Asher Fisch on the podium is just short of miraculous. After an international triumph with the first part, Die Walküre it’s reasonable to say this - Das Rheingold - is the most eagerly anticipated classical recording of the year. And it’s gorgeous: best taken through the best sound system, on a chaise longue in a cool, mist-shrouded (okay, sheer drapes across plantation shutters) room with an icy jug of weissbier - or a chilled young riesling - nibbling on a platter of spargel mit schinken to keep up the strength as Wagner’s sublime music and the best Australian voices of their generation do their stuff. I’ll stop now.
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