There's an epic tale featuring dwarfs, giants, a dragon and a ring of power that has enthralled people around the world for decades. But, no, it isn't The Hobbit. It's the mother of all epic operas - Richard Wagner's four-part The Ring of The Nibelung.
On Sunday Wellington doesn't get the opera in its entirety - that would be a monumental task taking more than 15 hours to perform. However we do get part two: a five-hour, 40-minute concert performance of The Valkyrie, featuring top international and Kiwi singers and a super-sized New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Outside of an international tour, this is the single largest concert the orchestra has undertaken.
The Valkyrie remains the most popular part of the Ring cycle and, even for people who don't follow opera, it's the most recognisable. A whole new audience was introduced to it when an excerpt, Ride of the Valkyries, was used during the helicopter attack scene in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Kiwi tenor Simon O'Neill, who plays the hero Siegmund in The Valkyrie, is very aware of the opera's history and people's opinions on it. He also knows that the similarities between the Ring cycle and The Hobbit aren't a coincidence, as author J R R Tolkien was inspired by the same Norse sagas as Wagner.
"I know people would have loved to have put the score for Valkyrie on [The Lord of the Rings] movies. I love the soundtrack, but these Valkyrie ones are just phenomenal," he says.
O'Neill, who has become New Zealand's most successful Wagnerian singer since Sir Donald McIntyre, says The Valkyrie is the best introduction for anyone unfamiliar with Wagner.
"It's the best one you can take out of context. You can actually just do Valkyrie by itself. It doesn't have to be done with all the others. It's a great one for people who have never been to Wagner before. I know people think it's five hours and 40 minutes of big German people yelling at you. Well, it is that, but hopefully done with talent. And I swear that one in two [listeners] will get bitten by the Wagner bug and they will say 'I want to see more of this'."
O'Neill, who turns 40 this year, got bitten by the Wagner bug early in his career.
In 2006, for the first time, he played the title role in Wagner's Parsifal, a fully staged production in the New Zealand International Arts Festival with the NZSO. At the time it was one of his biggest Wagner roles and his goal was to then become even more immersed in the German composer's oeuvre.
The results have been impressive. He's reprised Parsifal around the world several times, sang the title role in Lohengrin at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival, was Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at Covent Garden and Siegfrid in concert performances of Gotterdammerung, part four of the Ring cycle, with the Orquesta Sinfonica Galicia in Spain.
But he's never been far away from Siegmund. Before Parsifal in Wellington, O'Neill in 2005 understudied the part for opera great Placido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which was his "big break", he says. Next was a staged version of The Valkyrie at Covent Garden, followed by a return to the Met, productions in Strasbourg, Hamburg, Berlin and, most recently, at the renowned La Scala in Milan under its music director, the conductor Daniel Barenboim.
"I've been surrounded by these great people so my characterisation [of Siegmund] has definitely grown. The characterisation is pretty obvious. You know what you're singing and you know who you're singing it to. And the music is so beautiful and the poetry, of course, is absolutely incredible.
"It's probably my favourite opera. It's epic in every scale, but it's epic musically. Not many orchestras can pull off these big Wagner things. I love singing in The Valkyrie, but my moments aren't my favourites. My favourite moments are Brunnhilde and Wotan, or Sieglinde in the second act. It's glorious stuff."
Being a concert performance, O'Neill and the other singers aren't in costumes. We won't see a sword in his hand. Nor are there any sets. "For me, I loved the old-fashioned Met production, where you see huge mountains and you are dressed as a warrior. You've got swords and spears and shields and it looks like a Peter Jackson movie."
But O'Neill says for an audience the lack of costumes and sets makes little difference to the power of The Valkyrie. "With these Wagner roles there's no less action or intensity in what's being delivered. The Valkyrie works quite well in concert because the piece is so epic."
Australian helden baritone John Wegner is Wotan, king of the gods. He performed the role for six seasons at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany - the spiritual home of Wagner's music. Wellington soprano Margaret Medlyn, one of New Zealand's most acclaimed opera singers, is Fricka, Wotan's wife. Soprano Christine Goerke is Brunnhilde, daughter of Wotan and a Valkyrie, who decides who lives or dies in battles. Goerke, a Grammy Award-winner, has performed in the world's top opera houses. Kiwi bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu in his first Wagner role is the villain warrior Hunding. Italian soprano Edith Haller is Sieglinde, wife of Hunding, and has performed the role at the 2010 Bayreuth Festival The complete set of scores for the NZSO's performance of The Valkyrie weigh 32 kilograms. The NZSO plays several instruments including a steerhorn and thunder machine, off-stage. The steerhorn is a long medieval bugle horn. The concert includes four Wagner tubas, invented by Wagner for the Ring cycle. The instrument combines elements of the tuba and French horn. The Valkyrie premiered at the National Theatre, Munich, in 1870 at the insistence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It was performed as part of the complete Ring cycle in 1876.
The Valkyrie, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Sunday, 3pm. The production is five hours, 40 minutes, including two intervals. Bass-baritone Roger Wilson gives a free 30-minute talk on the opera 45 minutes before the performance.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?