Toronto Grabs the Golden Ring
by John W. Lambert
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 12-17, 2006: Following several try-out orchestral concerts last spring, the Canadian Opera Company officially inaugurated its lovely, long-awaited 2,034-seat home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, on September 12 with a new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold, the first part of the celebrated four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Niebelungen. The opera house, which cost around $180M (Canadian), was designed to accommodate the Herculean physical demands of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The three performances of the Ring cycle that launched the fall season in Toronto marked the first complete presentation of the tetralogy in Canada. The production itself was said to have cost $18M Canadian – perhaps a bargain (since Los Angeles will spend nearly twice that much for its Ring, scheduled to debut as a cycle in 2010...). The COC run was to all intents and purposes completely sold out, at premium prices, and the first week drew (among others) more than fifty representatives of the Music Critics Association of North America, many of whom have now gone home to ponder the state of opera in their own communities... as contrasted with the immense and magical rabbit that the COC has drawn from its fancy and copious new hat. And there was lots more to the occasion than just four operas, repeated three times: the COC hosted lectures, seminars, panel discussions, demonstrations, tours of the new house, receptions, and much, much more, many of which events involved specialists from all over the globe.
It's become almost a rite of passage: opera companies mount The Ring to demonstrate their maturity, their artistic excellence, their prowess, their stamina, their ability to cope with the vagaries of putting on this biggest of the big – and because, like Everest, it's there.... Everything about it seems gargantuan, from the length and demands of some of the roles to the myriad special effects called for in the score to the size of the orchestra (roughly 110 in Toronto, including six harps, eight horns, eight double basses, and one of the most remarkable collections of low brass instruments in captivity – because some of the 22 were made for this production by a member of the ensemble!).
The Toronto vocalists represented some of the very best artists who sing Wagner today – click here for the casts of the first cycle, which was broadcast and webcast live, will be repeated by CBC Toronto later this season (we will list the dates and times in our calendar when they are announced), and will surely begin to circulate soon, either legitimately or in the opera underground. The singers' names will be known to Wagner groupies, for sure, and to opera enthusiasts who keep up with productions around the world. Among the finest was Canada's own Adrianne Pieczonka, who essayed the role of Sieglinde, but she was hardly alone in her excellence. That said, this was not a cast of stars such as one might have heard a generation or more ago at major international houses. Instead, this meticulously prepared production embodied the best of what might be called, for want of a better term, the Glyndebourne model, after the house in Sussex, England, where time is routinely devoted to getting even the smallest details absolutely right. This approach didn't remove awareness – perhaps on both sides of the proscenium – that we no longer have gods, goddesses, and giants to do Wagner, as old-timers think we've had in the past. There were no Melchiors or Windgassens, no Flagstads or Nilssons, no Hotters or Fricks. But the Toronto performances were for the most part marked by exceptionally even casting, and the vocal results, while rarely overwhelming, were often impressive and almost always pleasing. The women were good, the men were fairly good, and the chorus (which appears only in the concluding opera) was magnificent. In addition to Pieczonka, the standouts were soprano Susan Bullock (Brünnhilde), contralto Mette Ejsing (Erda), tenors Clifton Forbes (Siegmund), Christian Franz (Siegfried), Robert Künzli (a Mime who, for once, didn't whine constantly), and Richard Berkeley-Steele (as the cigarette-smoking god of fire, Loge), and basses Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Philip Ens (Fafner and Hunding), and Mats Almgren (Hagen).
That said, it was the orchestra that showered this production with glory, bringing the music to life under the brilliant leadership of COC General Director and Conductor Richard Bradshaw. This was a Ring to cherish for many reasons, but one suspects that the impact of the glistening and vivid orchestral sound in the new, splendid hall – the collective impact of all those strings, high and low, those winds and horns and brasses, those harps, those 18 anvils, and that battery of percussion – will linger long after memories of the staging have faded into the mists. True, there were some little glitches along the way – some errant intonation, a false entry or two, a few lapses in ensemble – but these rough spots were, in the overall scheme of things, minor, indeed, and more than likely they were all corrected in the second and third cycles.
The story can be recapped relatively briefly. A frustrated dwarf steals gold from three maids who inhabit the Rhine, renounces love, and forges a ring that gives him all power. Meanwhile Wotan, head of the gods, has caused two giants to build him a new home, offering for payment a lovely goddess – the one who happens to tend the golden apples that keep the gods young. In lieu of giving her up, Wotan and his sidekick, Loge, steal the gold to use to divert the giants' attention, prompting the dwarf to pronounce a curse on whoever possesses the ring. Before Rheingold ends, one giant has killed the other. There are many more deaths and, ultimately, the destruction of the world as it was then known before the Rhinemaidens regain their gold.
This curse on the ring seemed to infect the COC as well as the characters in the drama. The artist who was scheduled to sing Wotan and his earthly incarnation (The Wanderer) was obliged to drop out shortly before the run began. He was replaced in Rheingold with moderate success by John Fanning, a baritone who would enjoy great acclaim as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, the finale of the cycle, and in Die Walküre and Siegfried by Peteris Eglitis, who seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the taxing part. (He got off to a terrible start in Walküre when, before he'd uttered a note, he fell into an opening in the cluttered, darkened stage and crashed headfirst, spear in hand, toward the stump of what may have been meant to suggest the cycle's famous World Ash Tree..., in which was rammed the sword he'd left on an earlier visit for the eventual use of the hero – Siegfried – destined to save the earth and the gods, too...). Nor was this the only manifestation of the "curse of the ring": Judith Németh, who sang Fricka (Wotan's wife) in the opener, had a dental emergency before Walküre and was successfully replaced by Mary Phillips, who also sang Waltraute. (And to bring this saga somewhat up to date, before the second of the three Ring cycles began, that aforementioned Sieglinde broke her ankle, obliging her to sing from the sidelines while her understudy acted the part on stage!)
We've gone to some trouble to outline the musical importance of this production, in part because with luck we will all get to experience it again, via radio (and perhaps video, too, in due course). But the designs and staging merit a few words, for they were intensely controversial. This cycle was unified by the music and the vocalists, of course, and the production was unified to a degree by the designs and lighting of Michael Levine (who was, incidentally, responsible for the sets for the Metropolitan Opera's recent season-opener, Madama Butterfly...) and David Finn, respectively (and by the superior, flawlessly paced supertitles of Gunta Dreifelds). But each opera was directed by a different person, and therein is the crux of the COC's Ring dilemma – which led to boos and hisses at the ends of Die Walküre and Siegfried and – to tell the truth – less than wholesale enthusiasm for the other parts. Tradition can be a terrible thing, and there's no reason to cling to old ways of doing business when new ways are better. But to begin with Alberich (the dwarf) in the Rhine, manhandling a sleeping Wotan (who seems to "dream" much of the action of this Ring, and from whose stern the Rhinegold itself first begins to glow[!]), to have the Rhinemaidens in pajamas, indulging in pillow-flights, to omit anvils in Niebelheim and the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, the home of the gods, and much, much more, struck this observer as, in a word, strange. (There were also no helmets, no shields, no on-stage anvils, no rams or horses....) Some of the recurring symbolism – water, of course, but also blood, fire, and earth – worked wonderfully well. The industrial artifacts – scaffolding, harsh lighting, and so on – and the cast's Victorian costumes didn't seem out of place. The tug of war over Freia, the bartered goddess, was ingenious, and other staging conceits worked well. Overall, Rheingold, as directed by Levine, succeeded quite handsomely – one could grasp most of the concepts.
Walküre, directed by Atom Egoyan, was, well, a dark, cluttered mess in which the uniset involved a dilapidated hovel for Hundig's hut that was just outside Valhalla, at the entrance of which bodies of dead heroes would eventually be strewn. The tree's remains lay across the stage. The "rock" on which Brünnhilde is put to sleep to await Siegfried is merely a clearing in the center of the hut.... The whole thing was littered with debris and so dark as to preclude seeing the faces of the artists from the balconies, despite the close sightlines. (It is no more than 130' from any seat in the house to the lip of the stage.) This opera, in particular, compressed distances to human proportions, making everything too close together.
Siegfried, entrusted to director François Girard, continued the mind games begun earlier amid less clutter, although the imaginary tree filled with the hero's faint memories of his past – along with other heroes, enroute home... – could be seen as consistent with the previous opera. It, too, was dark and unusual, although the depiction of the dragon (Fafner, transformed) as a pyramid of cheerleader types who crashed down in death was remarkably effective. Act III involved a whole new, simpler set that seemed at first out of character from the earlier sections (and it was interesting that Brünnhilde didn't wake up where she'd gone to sleep...) – but the more abstract staging provided an altogether effective transition to Götterdämmerung, which began with the Norns working on a high-tension power line that snapped with a shower of sparks and thereafter took place in a quasi-corporate world (Gibichung Enterprises, perhaps) of the late 20th or early 21st century (complete with red-screen monitors on the immense multi-purpose boardroom table). In many respects, this opera, directed by Tim Albery, was the cycle's most effective, although that may reflect this writer's enthusiasm for the music, particularly of the second act – surely one of Wagner's most inspired single-span inventions. There were some superb touches, including having Brünnhilde's old Valkyrie dress hanging on a line in her bedroom – the setting, too, of Waltraute's last-ditch attempt to persuade her one-time sister to set the world to rights (after which Brünnhilde shredded the garment...). And the grand finale took the "meaning" of the cycle to the audience in a way not previously observed elsewhere: as Valhalla was consumed in flames, the red glow from the conflagration illuminated the overhead clouds of the ceiling of the auditorium itself.
At the very end there was a tremendous ovation from the crowd that had weathered this great cycle together for the better part of a week. While the stage direction was at best a mixed success, no one could dispute the overwhelming effectiveness of the orchestra, the triumph of Richard Bradshaw – who deserves much of the credit for having secured both this production and the lovely new venue that housed it – and his generally excellent vocalists. The Ring thing has graced Toronto, and it is good. And the new Performing Arts Centre, which features a wondrous glass staircase in the brilliant lobby, is good, too, linking the COC and its city and the world in ways at once impressive and inviting.
But what has all this to do with North Carolina? We can and must learn from the deeds of others. Toronto is accessible by direct flight on Air Canada from the Raleigh-Durham Airport. The city is one of the cleanest and most welcoming in the world. There's lots of public art, all over town. The opera house is outstanding but not ostentatious – it focuses listeners' attentions, properly, on the business on the stage and in the pit. The Canadian Opera Company this year mounts this celebratory Ring cycle and six other operas – for details, visit http://www.coc.ca/ [inactive 10/07].
We are starved for good opera in the Tarheel State, where there are many companies of varying sizes and abilities but only one (Opera Carolina) that puts on what a rational opera lover could with justification call a true season, and of course there's no venue anywhere here that merits being called an opera house, per se. For now, then, North Carolinians can only hope and dream – but while we engage in our collective navel-gazing there are alternatives, including, just across our state's northern border, the Virginia Opera, which offers its productions in Norfolk, Fairfax, and Richmond (where CVNC routinely reviews them), and then, just across our nation's northern border, the COC. By air, it takes about half as long to fly to Canada as it does to drive to Richmond – which makes this Toronto Ring a whole lot closer than many of us may have realized. Granted, the population of Hampton Roads, Virginia, is equal to the Triangle and Triad regions of NC, combined – and Toronto is nearly twice that large. Still, we could be doing more by working together, for the greater good. Fortunately, some of our NC companies are starting to talk about cooperating, but talk is not enough in the high-ticket realm of opera. Here's hoping that there will be some shifts in funding priorities and in funding methods, too, to pump in cash on a regional if not a statewide basis, rather than locally. Doing it the same old way will never get us a Mozart festival, much less our own Ring....