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Richard Bradshaw, conductor; Atom Egoyan, stage director; Michael Levine, production designer; David Finn, lighting designer; Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Adrianne Pieczonka, Frances Ginzer, Judit Nemeth, Liesel Fedkenjeuer, Krisztina Szabo, Allyson McHardy, Irmgard Vilsmaier, Elizabeth Stannard, Stacey Rishoi, Laura Tucker, Buffy Baggot; Clifton Forbis, Pavlo Hunka, Peteris Eglitis.
The Canadian Opera Company deserves immense credit for stirring up such palpable excitement and curiosity surrounding the launch of its ambitious Ring Cycle. For weeks before opening at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto on April 4th, radio, television and print media were replete with interviews and previews, headlined by Richard Bradshaw as both COC General Director and conductor, and the home-grown creative team of director Atom Egoyan and designer Michael Levine. Even from Germany, where the sense of Wagnerian proprietorship runs deep, reporters were dispatched to investigate this significant landmark in Canadian opera history.
The COC marketing department, along with Mr. Bradshaw and his colleagues, deserve kudos for more than simply creating a Toronto social ‘event’ with banal catch phrases and gimmicky promotion. They should be heartily applauded for focusing Die Walküre’s publicity on Wagner, on the creative process, and on why this opera was inspiring to those involved in realising it. Mr. Bradshaw spoke passionately about his love of Wagner’s evocative music, Egoyan eloquently discussed the profound intellectual issues he saw at the core of Wagner’s work, while Levine articulately conveyed the unique challenges of crafting an aesthetic landscape befitting Wagner’s world. It all sounded so exciting, so challenging, so refreshing.
Perhaps with such intensive build-up, the result could not but be disappointing. In truth, however, the disappointment came only in relation to the fantastic expectations raised. An exciting, challenging, refreshing Die Walküre, this was not. After all the hype, the COC’s Ring Cycle kicked-off with an inconsistent yet highly respectable production, revealing both tremendous strengths and disconcerting weaknesses.
First, mention of the evening’s most pleasant surprise: to these ears the COC orchestra has never sounded so good. Set into a quasi-Bayreuth sunken pit, the ensemble conquered Wagner’s tricky orchestral writing with confidence and fine sonority.
The COC must also be congratulated for assembling a cast which, on paper at least, is worthy of most stages in the world. Thanks to the COC first for bringing two important Canadian sopranos of international stature back home. While one proved the evening’s greatest glory, however, the other left one rather more worried than impressed.
Adrienne Pieczonka is an absolutely world class dramatic soprano. Her voice possesses an immaculate range of colours, with crystalline diction, and a sound emanating seamlessly, without ever seeming forced, even under the stress of Wagner’s endless lines and extreme dynamics. It was a treat to hear a great role truly interpreted, not merely hear it sung. Bayreuth should be very pleased come 2006.
Frances Ginzer, meanwhile, disappoints. As Brünnhilde, she delivers some stunning notes, but only sporadically interspersed with what sounds suspiciously like vocal struggle. There is no line to her singing, little subtlety to speak of, poor diction, pitch problems and obvious physical tension. Save for those occasional laser-beam bursts belying a potential Brünnhilde inside, Ginzer gave no indication she has either the range or the stamina to master the relatively brief but high demands of Siegfried or the marathon that is Götterdämmerung. A star she may be, but certainly not on this night.
While their eldest sister failed to convince, the other Valkyries were uniformly excellent. Without for the moment quibbling with some of their staging, the three Canadians and five imported ladies performed their famous Ride and subsequent third act with vigorous commitment.
Pieczonka did not quite have a match in Clifton Forbis’ Siegmund, whose capacity for dramatic subtlety appears limited, and who, especially in the first act, too often sounded like he was trying to produce a manufactured type of Heldentenor sound instead of letting his natural voice ring true. This tendency to modify, even distort his sound muddied his diction and occasionally lead to pitch problems. Forbis did, however, improve both dramatically and vocally in the Second Act, with some thrilling notes as the part rises in range and showed an affecting devotion to his helpless Sieglinde.
Siegmund’s nemesis Hunding, invariably accompanied deep trombones, is an austere bass role. Why Richard Bradshaw chose to cast baritone Pavlo Hunka is puzzling. Hunka is a fine, intelligent singer, but he is no Hunding. One craves the deep, dark quality of a true Germanic bass to juxtapose with the voices around him. Instead, Hunka lacked the menace and weight necessary to cast such a long shadow over the first act. He will make a much finer mercurial Alberich, but this casting was a mistake.
One must pity a singer with fine qualities but missing the vocal heft to fill his role and the hall. Similar to Hunka, Peteris Eglitis is a solid singer with many nice qualities. In an intimate opera house, his Wotan could possibly be most persuasive, but unfortunately, his is a relatively small voice, not a resonant cannon like one requires for the Hummingbird Centre. Eglitis commands the role well, performing with subtlety and conviction, but his voice strains to fight through the orchestra and fill the cavernous auditorium. This weakness to a certain degree undermines the role’s stature, his third act rage somewhat muted, his Farewell never quite reaching an emotional bloom. Still, Wotan’s psychological anguish was written across his face, and Eglitis’ intense presence energised those around him.
Judit Nemeth’s Fricka was one who did not need Eglitis’ spark to deliver a strong performance. Even from bottom to top, her rich alto cut through powerfully, delivering a stream of bitterly convincing vitriol. Despite Egoyan’s stated wish to make Fricka appear more a friend to Wotan than a nagging wife, Nemeth still most convincingly conveyed a strong, self-righteous, intimidating presence to her husband.
Which leads us to the production itself. Egoyan’s program notes further supplement the expectation his interpretation of Die Walküre will yield something fascinating and utterly gripping. Certainly, his articulated ideas are very challenging. Something, however, seems to get lost, as it were, in translation. His concepts may be brilliantly provocative, but Egoyan’s staging is no more than conventional. And mediocre conventional at that. One might be tempted to attribute the fault to his work as a film director, where the camera’s lens can focus and frame the dramatic connections, but on stage, drama must be generated not just by inner psychology, but by dynamic exchanges between people communicating in space.
There may have been revolutionary insights taking place in Brünnhilde’s head through Act Two, but she spent most of her time downstage staring out at the conductor instead of wrestling with the feelings of her father, her half-brother and her own. Parts of the first act, including Siegmund and Sieglinde’s famous arias (‘Wintersturm’ and ‘Du bist der Lenz’, respectively) could have been concert version, one sitting back while the other projected to the house. Wotan and Brünnhilde’s beautiful scene up to and including his ‘Abschied’, though admittedly long and complicated, was devoid of any theatrical or dramatic tension. There was no visual, physical, tangible realisation of the terrible conflicts at play.
Stand and sing opera, though considered old fashioned, is still more or less an unfortunate fact of performance today. And the singing was generally quite fine. The pity is Egoyan’s work has pretence to much more. With the time and resources available to prepare this production, there can be no excuse for failing to deliver. The ideas might have been there, but the craft simply was not. The few thoughtfully well-constructed moments were obvious set-pieces, almost certainly conceived in tandem with designer Levine. Wotan digging a grave beside the sleeping Wälsung siblings provided nice emphasis for the God’s moral dilemma; the snapping of Siegmund’s sword at the close of Act Two was one of the most credible versions yet seen.
Two unconvincing choices were to make Valhalla look like a Laundromat, with Valkyries tossing around stuffed white dummies like they were… stuffed white dummies, and at the opera’s close bringing back the Valkyries to surround their sleeping sister, Brünnhilde in a ring of candles. The latter solution is dramaturgically problematic and visually unimpressive, the former staging, simply ridiculous.
Michael Levine is undoubtedly an exceptionally good designer who invariably makes his directors look good. Egoyan benefited particularly in the first act from a strongly atmospheric, abstract but suggestive set that concentrated action in a dense, intimate space around a roaring hearth. This same unit opened up in the second act to show an interesting constellation of steel girder constructions above and an intriguingly back wall in the distance (surely glimpses of Das Rheingold to come). By Act Three, however, this same configuration had lost much of its impact, the space never really developed, and four and a half hours looking at little action in similar patterns in uniform space does start to tire. David Finn contributed some lovely moments, particularly early in the opera, standing out from the predominantly functional lighting design.
Finally, the man in many ways the centre of attention. One wishes it possible to say Richard Bradshaw’s conducting talents could match his achievements as COC General Director. At least in Wagner, this is unfortunately not the case. His orchestra played well for him, for which he must take at least some credit, but beyond individual playing qualities in the pit and singing qualities on the stage, the evening’s musical worth was no better than fair. Communication between stage and pit seemed content with synchronised downbeats. Never did a bridge emerge linking voices with their woodwind motivic echoes, seldom were string phrases drawn sensitive to the vocal line. Wagner’s music unfolds like an organic process, melodies and tempi flowing out of each other seamlessly bound by a lush harmonic stream. Bradshaw’s conducting duly followed the score in a reactive sense to its needs, but conveyed no drive or indelible direction, produced no sweep of ebb and flow, showed little nuance, and revealed none of the flexibility that can make Wagner’s music an intoxicating aural experience.
In summary then, Mr. Bradshaw the General Director, deserving of much praise, should be content, if not completely delighted with this first instalment of the COC’s Ring Cycle project. Mr. Bradshaw the conductor might well be less pleased.
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