September 29, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 39
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020



Bits & Bytes
Toronto opens new opera house with Wagner's four-part Ring; 30 countries, 38 states attend
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

TORONTO -- Wagner lovers and opera fans from 30 countries, including 38 states in the U.S. and nine provinces and two territories in Canada, gathered in Toronto this month to celebrate the first full Canadian production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, officially Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Of The Nibelungen).

The four operas-running more than 16 hours over six nights-is considered the Matterhorn of operatic mountains, and the highly successful (if flawed) staging-which continues through this Sunday-unquestionably puts the Toronto-based Canadian Opera Company (COC) on the international opera map.

The local stagings of The Ring cycle did the same thing for Seattle Opera nearly four decades ago. Like the Emerald City those many years ago, the success of COC's first Ring was a mixture of strong local pride, a showcase for some terrific voices, an emotional peak for COC supporters and staff.

The unique concept of having four different but established stage and/or film directors mount each part of The Ring separately drew international attention-and many of the serious (as in serious) international audience members. In pop music, the Grateful Dead have always had their "Deadheads" as loyal supporters-but that group is nothing compared to the Wagner "Ringheads"-as Bits&Bytes quickly learned when the Toronto Wagner Society "adopted" this solo traveler and quickly schooled him in "the ways of the Ring."


As Seattle Opera did for its three separate Ring Cycles over the past decades, the Canadian Opera Company staged each of the three major Ring operas as part of the regular season for the past three years-a financial and artistic decision traditionally used by many opera companies. Das Rheingold, considered by many, including the composer, to be a prologue to the following three operas, is usually the "new" Ring element for local audiences. So it was in Toronto.

As the clearly excited near-capacity crowd gathered for the opening night of the COC's second Ring Cycle, virtually no one in the audience had seen the new Das Rheingold. To be sure, a few season subscribers, major donors, VIP-types and Ringheads had been invited to the dress rehearsal or had seen the first performance in the first Cycle a week earlier. Many of the Toronto Ring-goers had read local reviews and many-like Bits&Bytes-had read reviews in national and international papers-like the New York Times. But for most of us, what was to follow was all new.

The curtain rose on the three Rhinemaidens in white, Victorian-era slips or nightgowns. Billowing white fabric surrounded the stage on all three sides, representing (we were sure) the Rhine. The Rhinemaidens, always audience favorites in this dour tale of the end of the gods, trilled away as they guarded the gold of the Rhine. Alberich, the evil dwarf intent on stealing the gold and turning it into a golden ring that will allow him to rule the world, flirts with the trio of close-harmony maidens as they engage in a pillow fight.

But, contrary to Wagner, Alberich was not alone. Another man seemed welded to him, with the dwarf providing arm movements and vocalization and the unknown figure kicking in swimming-like fashion. At the end of the scene, the dwarf has succeeded the stealing the gold, and the audience found out that the unknown figure was Wotan, the leader of the gods and the force behind Valhalla. Richard Paul Fink was vocally impressive as Alberich and would remain a solid element in all four parts of The Ring. Although Fink was not short and not "dwarfish" in appearance, he was vocally strong. (COC's Ring often cast major roles on vocal strength and not physical requirements-so the giants in scene two were not especially tall and Freia The Fair was not especially "fair."

The original Wotan took ill early in the rehearsal period and withdrew from the production. Replaced by two standbys, Wotan, alas, remained a weak link in COC's Ring.

Rheingold's stage director Michael Levine, the production designer for all four parts of The Ring, made the decision to psychologically link Alberich and Wotan-good and evil teamed from the very beginning-in the first scene. Needless to say, it was a much discussed topic in the following days. Controversy Number One, so to speak.

In scene two, the audience meets Wotan, his quarrelsome wife, Fricka, and other assorted gods who welcome their new home, Valhalla. The two giants who built Valhalla come for their payment-Freia The Fair, Fricka's sister who tends the golden apples that keep the gods youthful and strong. (As Anna Russell so famously noted, "I am not making this up.) At COC, the two giants are average sized actors (with strong, strong voices) carried on the shoulders of the non-singing chorus, the "labor union" who actually built Valhalla. Controversy Number Two, much discussed in following days.

When Fasolt and Fafner, the two "giants," agree to accept the gold of the Nibelungen in place of Freia, off we go in scene three to Nibelheim so that Wotan and Loge, god of fire, can steal the gold and pay the giants. In COC's production, the gold is yards and yards of cloth-of-gold fabric-impressive on stage but awkward in scene four when Freia must be blocked from view of the giants by the bulk of the gold.

After much trickery, Wotan and Loge succeed and return with the "gold," the golden ring that gives power over the world to the wearer and the magic Tarnhelm, a golden helmet that allows the bearer endless transformations. (In viewing seven versions of The Ring over the past four decades, this reviewer has never seen a more successful Tarnhelm-a huge rave to COC for making this tricky prop really work.)

In scene four, we return to the weakening gods. Freia is ransomed, Wotan is forced to give up the Tarnhelm and the golden ring, and Fafner kills his brother over the division of the gold. The curse of The Ring is well underway.

Quick summary: Strong voices in most roles, Wotan, the standby, is questionable. The minor gods, as usual, often steal their moments (in part because they have short scenes and sound strong because they do not have to sustain their vocal work). Judit Nemeth is superb as Fricka, Mette Ejsing is terrific as Erda. Technically, the show is understaged-transformations into dragons or toads are barely acceptable. Magic is missing. The orchestra seems tired (after weeks of rehearsals, a week of public dress rehearsals and a full Cycle last week-there is every reason for the orchestra to seem tired). But the audience clearly loves the show, and Richard Bradshaw, conductor and COC's general director, is clearly basking in the joy of fulfilling a 15-year dream. Two-and-a-half hours of plot and Wagner's incredible music-only 14 hours to go.


In Die Walkure, Wagner introduces the incestuous twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, separated at birth but sired by Wotan to create the new master race of mortals who will protect and support the gods in their decline. Canada's Adrianne Pieczonka, fresh from her triumph as Sieglinde at the 2006 Bayreuth Festival (The Holy Grail for Wagner fans), received rave reviews from national and international press for her performance in Cycle One the previous week. Then she played tennis over the weekend, and-curse of COC's Ring-broke her ankle.

With backstage drama rivaling the on-stage Wagnerian drama her plight took over The Ring. The understudy would go on. Pieczonka would sing the role in a chair by the side of the stage but the understudy would mime the performance. In the end, the broken ankle turned out to be "a serious fracture" and Pieczonka performed in high, ankle-supportive boots with no real evidence of her physical state. She was superb, and Cycle Two audiences cheered her world class performance.

Clifton Forbis was also superb vocally as Siegmund. Physically, he was a cute bear-cub type and not the traditional heroic father of the master race. Vocally, Forbis is one of the best Siegmunds this scribe has ever heard. His scenes with his "sibling bride" were simply the best in the four operas.

Frances Ginzer joined the cast for Cycle Two as COC's second Brunnhilde, the most famous role in The Ring Cycle. Another soprano had sung the role of Wotan's favorite daughter in Cycle One and would repeat her performance in Cycle Three (ending this weekend). Word-of-mouth indicated that Ginzer was not as strong as the first Brunnhilde. At best, Ginzer was adequate with flashes of power now and then. In operas three and four, she often seemed to unable to finish certain vocal parts and her voice virtually disappeared in some sequences.

Plot complications continue-a Bits&Bytes' understatement if they ever was one. At the finish of the four-hour (plus) opera, Brunnhilde is put to sleep on Walkure rock surrounded by The Ring's most famous element, a ring of fire. For COC, the other Walkure sisters enter with flaming torches and surround their banished sister-impressive for the moment but illogical for Wagner's sweeping epic. (And, one fears, far less expensive that building a "real" ring of fire.) Canadian film and stage director Atom Egoyan directed Walkure which seemed a logical development from Rheingold.


For Siegfried, film director Francois Girard took over as director. Known for his symbolic and dream-like visions, Girard staged Siegfried in white, pajama-like costumes for everyone. Bodies hung in the stage "trees" and visions of stage elements combined in a whirl above the stage. (Seattle visitors to this COC Ring were reminded of the "Wotan's Attic" elements of Seattle Opera's now-retired second Ring.)

Robert Kunzli proved to be a terrific Mime. Christian Franz was a revelation as Siegfried, the son of the now dead incestuous twins. Franz is an ideal Wagner tenor-a rare voice that's perfect for the role. Physically wrong for the role, Franz was another bear-like singer with an uncanny (and sometimes distracting) resemblance to Robin Williams. He didn't look like a Siegfried but he sure sang like one.

The scene where Siegfried slays Fafner, now disguised as a dragon, is a major problem for any Ring production. (In Seattle Opera's second staging of The Ring, the company famously redesigned the dragon every revival until they finally got it right, spending $100,000 for the final version the year that Cycle was retired.)

As with most of the production, COC went for a stylized, symbolic dragon. Six men, in flying harnesses, were buried on the stage with other Valhalla bodies until the ominous music for Fafner began. The six floated up from the floor and formed a gymnastic triangle with three men on the lower level, two on the second with a third topping the triangle. When Siegfried "battled" the dragon, Fafner could break into six soaring elements. Impressive in its own terms, but it didn't "work" as a dragon for many in the audience.

The final scene, when Siegfried discovers Brunnhilde and they fall in love, went fine except for the vocal limitations of Brunnhilde-she was fine but the audience feared for her voice and stamina. The Walkure sisters no longer held flaming torches, and the stylized flames, projected on a circle of actors, had little power.


As the audience assembled for Gotterdammerung (The Twilight Of The Gods), the crowd was up beat. "Just over five hours to go," one new Ring friend chuckled. It fell to Tim Albery, an established opera director, to pull the diverse elements together.

New characters forward the plot-Hagen, Gunther and Gutrune, all strong singers and actors. And all physically right for their parts. COC's Ring floats through time within a stylized (if inconsistent) manner, In Gotterdammerung, the process finally (sort of) pulled together.

The costumes and settings move to 2006. We are in a high tech board room-all chrome and vivid red chairs. High finance in Wagner is now high finance in modern times.

Brunnhilde looks great but her voice is going, going, gone. Siegfried looks more and more like Robin Williams but he sings beautifully. Plot complications thud on and on. By the time the opera ends, the audience is ready. The needed stage power is again underplayed. The final scene, with flames destroying the world, is so stylized that nothing seems to really happen.

But The Ring finally ends. And the audience goes crazy. We have, after all, survived The Ring. The cast, the orchestra, the stagehands have survived The Ring. And Wagner-and his Ring-has survived and triumphed again. COC's Ring may not be the best Ring ever-or even the best Ring in 2006, but it is clear that COC's Ring is the musical event of the year-in Canada and in Ring-land. COC hopes to revive The Ring in the near future-maybe within five years. Watch this space for details.

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