Richard Bradshaw
Canadian Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra
17 September 2006
Four Seasons Centre Opera House Toronto
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedChristian Franz
BrünnhildeSusan Bullock
GuntherJohn Fanning
GutruneJoni Henson
AlberichRichard Paul Fink
HagenMats Almgren
WaltrauteMary Phillips
WoglindeLaura Whalen
WellgundeKrisztina Szabó
FloßhildeAllyson McHardy
1. NornMette Ejsing
2. NornGuang Yang
3. NornBirgit Beckherrn

A truly grand finale to the Toronto Ring

Let’s skip right to the end: I have never heard a Toronto audience go so totally wild over a performance – but never before did they have such good reasons. Every single cast member was outstanding, and both orchestra and chorus did themselves proud. Director Tim Albery (with the help of choreographer Patti Powell) created movement that matched the energy and varying moods of the music more successfully than the other three directors involved in this Ring project. He seems to have persuaded designer Michael Levine to abandon his dogmatic adherence to a palette of black and white (with occasional flashes of red or gold). There certainly was no riot of colour, but Brünnhilde was given an attractive pink dressing gown, and Gutrune a blue one. We were treated to flashes of blue and green in the Rhinemaidens’ scene, and after the flood and conflagration we were treated to a golden sunrise. Instead of the earlier relentless black backgrounds there was much use of grey – this doesn’t sound very exciting, but was appropriate for the Gibiching scenes portrayed as among the machinations of power-mad corporatism. Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) was a feral presence in the context of the spartan ultra-modern setting with its huge grey boardroom table, bright red sofa and sparkling cocktail set. Mats Almgren is very, very tall and has a voice not unlike an alpenhorn – a truly domineering Hagen, even when dressed in an ordinary grey suit (as were his assembled minions).

The staging has a few weak aspects. When Siegfried, in ordinary modern clothes, is sent off by Brünnhilde to his heroic deeds, he looks more like a stolid burgher going to a routine day’s work, albeit carrying a sword. In Act III there is no staging for the great funeral music – the curtain closes while the scenery is changed. The flood and fire is pretty tame, as is the reaction of the chorus and supers who seem just mildly intrigued by it all. Work has been done on this final scene since this opera was first staged back in January and what we now have is a great improvement.

Many staging choices work marvellously well. There is a tangle of electrical power lines above the stage and the Norns are weaving wires. The flash of an electrical explosion signals the breaking of their rope. In Act II the huge boardroom table doubles as a second stage on which Brünnhilde is presented as Gunther’s bride and her humiliation, confusion and anger are all displayed. I was expecting much from Susan Bullock based on her Die Walküre and Siegfried performances, but she exceeded them both vocally and dramatically. The men’s chorus was energetically marshalled about. The Rhinemaidens’ scene was lively and amusing, a welcome scherzo movement. As Siegfried approaches they doff their black raincoats, revealing their undies. They then don platinum blond wigs and he is confronted by flirtatious Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. Later, at the moment of Siegfried’s stabbing when Hagen refers to the ominous ravens, two black-clad men (the ravens) enter bearing the corpse of their victim, the woodbird. This has provoked a good deal of discussion among opera-goers, many thinking it an intrusive piece of business. I feel it adds an effective bit of poignancy to the central tragedy.

As for singers: Christian Franz does not cut a heroic figure, but he comes across a a real human Siegfried with an appropriate variety of reactions and emotions. Mary Phillips (Waltraute) added to the riveting impression she made Wednesday as the Die Walküre Fricka. All three Norns and Rhinemaidens have strong, well-contrasted voices. John Fanning potrays a multi-facted Gunther, a gentlemanly man capable of callous violence.

Yet another reason for the audience’s enthusiastic response was their realization that the new opera house simply works magnificently. With the help of friends, I managed to sit in different parts of the auditorium over the ten acts of the four operas – front orchestra, rear orchestra, third, fourth and fifth levels. The sound is terrific everywhere, even in a third-level seat close to the proscenium where I missed some stage action. I have attended opera in more than seventy venues in over fifty cities in fourteen countries, and this theatre is certainly the best in North America and ranks with the best in Europe. Anyone wanting to build a 2144-seat theatre should simply buy the plans from Jack Diamond (paying him a deservedly handsome fee) and replicate this one. Don’t change a thing!

Michael Johnson | Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts 09/17/2006


Gotterdammerung brings Ring cycle to a triumphant close

The Canadian Opera Company’s new hall rang with the happiest of sounds Sunday, as a storm of applause met the end of the company’s first-ever complete performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The crowd greeted each cast member with loud cheers, saving a huge roar of approval for Richard Bradshaw, who led the cycle’s four parts from the pit. It was a charmed moment for the COC’s general director, who never wavered in his 15-year campaign to attain an opera theatre capable of housing the Ring.

Sunday’s triumphant performance of Gotterdammerung, the final part of the tetralogy, also capped a week of tremendous behind-scenes tension for the COC, as two principal cast members dropped out after dress rehearsals had ended. Bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka (cast in the key role of Wotan/the Wanderer) withdrew after being diagnosed with diabetes, and mezzo-soprano Judit Nemeth cancelled her appearance as Fricka in Wednesday’s performance of Die Walkure after an emergency tooth extraction earlier that day.

There has to be an easier way to launch a new opera house, and yet the production of the cycle never faltered. Other singers stepped into the breach, and the COC’s four-year quest pressed on to a moving exposition of this colossal work.

Gotterdammerung, which was first staged at the Hummingbird Centre in February, brought the action into the present. A sparse modernity prevailed in Michael Levine’s designs, with most scenes structured around a central prop – a table, or a bed. The norns (Mette Ejsing, Guang Yang and Birgit Beckherrn) braided their rope of destiny in the first scene as if to add just another strand to the power lines sagging over the dimly-lit highway where they gathered. The skid marks veering into the orchestra pit were a nice touch.

We were in a different world than the Victorian environment of Das Rheingold – a smaller world, with no space in its risk-averse front offices for a story-book hero like Siegfried. He bustled into the headquarters of Gibichung, Inc, looking like a small contractor about to be bilked, and soon enough he was. Christian Franz played the part as a good-natured bumbler, with only his huge steely tenor to remind us of his heroic status. He received Brunnhilde’s fierce public denunciations in Act II like a regular guy facing an absurd charge. And yet his death scene, in which deceptions dropped away, displayed the glowing reverse side of the character’s naivety: his nobility, and purity of spirit.

As Hagen, Mats Almgren combined the lucid malevolence of a born plotter with the deference of a corporate toady, while filling the hall with his strong, deeply vibrant bass. His increasing arrogance after Siegfried murder crumbled as his plot was discovered, and the physically imposing Almgren suddenly became a dwarf, huddled and twitching in a dark corner of the stage.

Soprano Susan Bullock achieved Brunnhilde’s rapid transformations, from adoring lover to violated wife to spectre of vengeance, in what felt like real time. She had steadily grown in the role since her rather tentative beginnings in Die Walkure, and sounded every bit the herald of wisdom and doom in her final narration. Tim Albery’s direction of her forced submission in Act II passed like a rape of the spirit, more shocking even than an assault of the flesh. Her uneven voice was a powerful expressive instrument, in spite of the strident sounds that burst from her at the top of her range.

Baritone John Fanning played Gunther, the dupe in Hagen’s scheme to regain the magic ring, as an earnest but hollow man, whose fragile sense of authority visibly collapsed when his sham capture of the inaccessible Brunnhilde was exposed. Soprano Joni Henson made us care about his sister Gutrune, whose acceptance of a match too devious to be true was too passive to be fully culpable. Bass-baritone Richard Paul Fink snaked his way through his lone scene as Alberich, appealing to his drowsing son Hagen across a vast grey desk. Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips made a more moving plea to Brunnhilde as Waltraute, her bustled black dress making her seem like an emissary from a doomed past.

Choreographer Patti Powell found some clever tarty business for the Rhinemaidens (Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabo and Allyson McHardy), in a scene that added comic leaven to the bitter irony of Siegfried’s last, idly-blown chance.

The COC Orchestra has made huge strides as a Wagner ensemble, given that the company had rarely touched his works before starting to assemble this Ring three seasons ago. Siegfried’s death scene and funeral march in Act III were thrilling to hear, and would have been even better with a bit more precision in winds and brass. The transparent, confidential tone heard during Waltraute’s moving narration in Act I would have been useful elsewhere as well.

Bradshaw kept a jealous watch over any slackening of rhythmic energy, as though conscious at every moment of the music’s urgent need to be heard. He’ll never be accused of dragging out the pulse. He charged into the orchestral depiction of Siegfried’s Rhine journey at a tempo that surprised some of the players, and in other sections passed over moments of expressive possibility without plumbing their depths. He also failed at times to rein in the orchestra’s tendency to overplay (learned during decades at the acoustically inferior Hummingbird), which crowded even the robust men’s chorus in Act II.

The visual starkness of this production had good reasons to be that way (including the need to register the decline from the neo-classical world of the gods), but the sets looked cheap, as if put together after a sale at a furniture superstore. Surely Levine’s point could be made without starving the eye quite so much. Albery changed his closing scene from the very gentle conclusion seen in February, to something that looked more like a procession than a cataclysm, and seemed timid after the coup de theatre at the close of Act II. The end of the world is never an easy thing, and this depiction of it could stand more tinkering.

But by the final curtain, the tragic arc of Wagner’s story was all there, vivid and engrossing. It was the COC’s proudest hour.


User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 583 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (CBC two)
A production by Tim Albery (2006)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.