Das Rheingold

Richard Bradshaw
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
12 September 2006
Four Seasons Centre Opera House Toronto
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanJohn Fanning
DonnerJulian Tovey
FrohThomas Rolf Truhitte
LogeRichard Berkeley-Steele
FasoltRobert Pomakov
FafnerPhillip Ens
AlberichRichard Paul Fink
MimeRobert Künzli
FrickaJudit Németh
FreiaJulie Makerov
ErdaMette Ejsing
WoglindeLaura Whalen
WellgundeKrisztina Szabó
FloßhildeAllyson McHardy
New York Times

A Brand New ‘Ring’ in a Brand New Space

When the conductor Richard Bradshaw, who has been general director of the Canadian Opera Company since 1998, appeared in the pit here at the company’s impressive new home on Tuesday night to conduct the premiere of a new production of Wagner’s “Rheingold,” the audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation before he conducted a note.

It was the British-born Mr. Bradshaw’s vision and tenacity during nearly 20 years with the company that turned the fantasy of a new house into the $150 million reality occupying an entire block of downtown Toronto, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts. Toronto opera lovers are clearly excited by the center, which opened in June with a series of special concerts and public events. Tuesday night’s “Rheingold” — the first evening in the Canadian Opera Company’s first complete presentation of Wagner’s “Ring,” which concludes on Sunday — commenced this adventurous company’s inaugural season in its new home. This is actually the first complete “Ring” production in Canadian history.

Founded in 1950, the Canadian Opera Company had performed for more than 40 years at the O’Keefe Center, now the Hummingbird Center, a 3,155-seat theater with an inadequate pit and limited backstage storage for sets. The acoustics were deemed poor enough to require what is euphemistically called electronic enhancement.

But the “Thirty Years’ War,” as Mr. Bradshaw called the campaign to build this new complex, has been won. The building’s boxy exterior, designed by the architect Jack Diamond, has been dividing opinion. Nearly three whole sides are covered with dark gray manganese brick, handsome in its way but not very inviting. The front, though, facing bustling University Avenue, is a captivating wall of glass. From the street you have a complete view into the spacious and glittering lobby, called the City Room.

Alas, during the construction period the city discovered that brick sewer lines from the 1700’s that must connect to the Four Seasons Center were shoddy. For the time being the front facade is partly blocked by trenches and cranes as the city completes its work.

Inside, though, is a splendid auditorium in the traditional horseshoe configuration with four upper rings. The house boasts handsome blond wood floors and comfortable seats with plenty of leg room. Best of all, there are only 2,000 seats and the acoustics, the work of the acoustician Robert Essert, seem excellent on first impression. The orchestra sound was bright, yet still rich and detailed. Mostly, the voices carried easily over the ample pit.

Like many companies that have tackled the “Ring,” the Canadian Opera has been introducing this production in stages, one opera per season, starting in 2004 with “Die Walküre.” “Siegfried” was first seen in 2005 and “Götterdämmerung” last spring. Tuesday night was the debut of “Das Rheingold.” And the other productions, which opened at the Hummingbird Center, have been adjusted and altered for the new house.If you ask me, a new opera house should open with a new opera. But inaugurating a theater with the “Ring” certainly proves a company’s mettle. To distinguish its production, the company entrusted each of the four operas to a different director, although Michael Levine, who directed “Das Rheingold,” is the production designer for the entire cycle. His work in “Das Rheingold” fancifully combines abstract imagery with vaguely Victorian modern dress.

In the opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, the swirling river was vividly suggested by billowing, silky white sheets draped on three sides of the stage and also wafting in waves on the stage floor. Wearing delicate white nightgowns, the Rhinemaidens held sisterly pillow fights with puffy pillows that floated like balloons. You could say that Mr. Levine was cheating by substituting pillow play for churning waters. Still, the imagery was lovely and the movements of the singers (Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabo and Allyson McHardy) elegantly choreographic.

As portrayed by the robust baritone Richard Paul Fink, the conniving Niebelung dwarf Alberich was almost too likable: rather like your favorite grouchy, oily-haired uncle. Still, it was refreshing to see the character not seething with resentment and self-loathing, and Mr. Fink commanded the stage.

As the Rhinemaidens first teased and then tried to thwart Alberich, a man in a proper suit and vest slept fitfully in the middle of the stage. Who is he? you wondered. Alberich climbed all over him, and the maidens even pawed at him. It did not take long to guess that the dreaming man was Wotan, who stirred and twitched when the maidens described beams of sunlight calling the “sleeper to wake,” meaning of course the magic gold at the bottom of the river.

Inserting Wotan as an unconscious witness to the theft of the ring in the first scene may be a very heavy-handed idea. Still, it immediately establishes the entire “Ring” story as a battle of wills between the corrupted head god and the relentless lowly dwarf. The scheduled Wotan, Pavlo Hunka, was ill. The sturdy baritone John Fanning saved the day and sang the role, warming up — and loosening up — after a halting start.

The stage was bordered through most of the scenes by an Erector Set of massive black scaffolding and bridges lined with eerie rows of beaming factory lights. One affecting stroke was Mr. Levine’s depiction of the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Robert Pomakov and Philip Ens) as ruthless leaders of competing crews of laborers clad in earth-brown work clothes. The men took turns carrying the giants on their shoulders, sometimes resting them atop scattered tables upon which sat a mock-up model of Valhalla, the sprawling castle of the gods. The concept for the characters had a haunting impact, for the power of these giants does derive from the shoulders of those they boss around.

The mezzo-soprano Judit Nemeth was a rich-toned if somewhat bland Fricka. Julie Makerov’s plush soprano voice and vulnerability were ideal for the goddess Freia. Richard Berkeley-Steele brought a reedy tenor voice and a dose of sarcasm to the cagey demigod of fire, Loge.

Mr. Bradshaw drew a radiant and tellingly paced account of the score from the orchestra. If the performance lacked inexorableness, this was still essentially strong work. And Mr. Bradshaw remains the hero of Toronto for spearheading the effort to build the Four Seasons Center.

Anthony Tommasini | Sept. 14, 2006


An Epochal Night for Opera in Toronto

Toronto opera-goers experienced a number of major premieres on September 12. Canada’s first purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre (named for its largest private-sector donor, the hotel chain) finally opened after a multi-decade struggle (not unusual for buildings of this type). Its architect, Jack Diamond, is an understated modernist – people wanting gilt, red velvet and lavish decor are disappointed. However the shape of the auditorium is firmly based on traditional models, a horseshoe with five levels of seating for 2000. The expandable orchestra pit can hold, as on this first evening, up to 104 musicians.

The acoustics are a major improvement over the Canadian Opera Company’s previous performing home, the Hummingbird Centre, a too-large (3200 seats) “multi-purpose” hall built in 1960. One sonic revelation is just how good the COC orchestra sounds. A drawback of the horseshoe shape is a restricted view from many seats. Here, however, computer-aided design has been cleverly used to minimize this. The general shape and size of the hall is roughly similar to the Vienna State Opera’s, but with far fewer restricted-view seats. The combination of size and layout makes the new auditorium unique in North America.

The second premiere was the opera itself – the first Canadian production of Das Rheingold, not quite 137 years after its world premiere in Munich. This performance inaugurates the first of three Ring cycles which run until October 1. It also marked the debut of designer Michael Levine as a stage director. He has designed all four parts of the cycle while each of the other operas – introduced one at a time over the past three regular COC seasons – has its own director.

Levine’s overall approach is decidedly post-modern, with a design palette heavily biased toward stark black and white. Rheingold opens on an all-white stage, with billowing silk backdrops and floor, in the middle of which a black-suited man is sleeping. The white-clad Rhine maidens (Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabo and Allyson McHardy) have a pillow fight around him. The gold is represented by a golden light that shines up from a hole in the stage directly below the slumbering man. Alberich’s seizure of the gold sees him disappear into the hole, taking with him the hectare or so of white silk. This leaves a bare stage, upon which a large model the white Albert-Speeresque buildings of Valhalla are assembled. The costumes are virtually all-black, the men in frock coats and the women in voluminous gowns with bustles. And the sleeping man is revealed as…Wotan.

This brings us to the fourth debut of the evening, that of John Fanning as leader of the gods. Pavlo Hunka was slated to perform a triple debut as all three Wotans but withdrew during final rehearsals, necessitating a scramble for replacement(s) – and sparking quite the volume of opera gossip. Fanning is on hand to perform the role of Gunther and has been studying the Rheingold Wotan. If not an auspicious debut, it was certainly an honourable and adequate one. The voice is attractive and evenly produced, and he is no doubt wise not to strain in those moments when the required amplitude does not come easily to him.

Fricka is Judit Nemeth, attractive of voice if somewhat under-characterized. Julie Makerov displayed a lovely voice as Freia. Thomas Rolf Truhitte (Froh) has a ringing voice with real helden potential. Julian Tovey is a stalwart, dapper Donner. The two giants, Robert Pomakov (Fasolt) and Phillip Ens (Fafner) have wonderfully contrasting voices, Pomakov with a youthful sound and Ens with his well-oiled, dark, authoritative timbre. Their entrance is effective, being carried in on the shoulders of their cloth-capped minions while scattering parts of the Valhalla model. More humdrum are the later entrances of Loge (Richard Berkeley-Steele) and Erda (Mette Ejsing) where Wagner’s vivid music is simply not matched by significant stage action. Some staging ideas are very effective however. In the Nibelheim scene we find that Alberich has transformed all that white silk into cloth of gold, and his drab black suit is now gold as well, giving him the look of a rock star. The cloth comes to life as the dragon and then later is used as the wrapping for the ransomed Freia. In the final tableau Wotan seizes the ring by biting off Alberich’s finger, leaving a frisson-inducing splotch of blood on the stage. The only other red element in the design is the shaft of Wotan’s spear, and the only bit of green is a tiny shrub revealed by Erda. The other deviation from the black-and-white rule are the rust-coloured overalls worn by Robert Kuenzli (a superb Mime) and the other Nibelungs.

The entrance to Valhalla is anti-climactic. The rainbow music is accompanied by a white light emanating from an opening in the rear wall, panelled to represent a portion of the walls of Valhalla. All the gods but Wotan quickly enter, leaving him to hear the offstage lament of the Rhinemaidens, during which he writhes on the floor in agony. When their singing ends he quickly recovers and walks slowly off.

Richard Paul Fink as Alberich gave the most stunning performance of the evening both vocally and dramatically and this was reflected in the applause at the end. The most vociferous cheering, however, was reserved for Maestro Richard Bradshaw, General Director of the COC – both at the beginning of the evening when he was cheered for having stayed the course and getting the new theatre built, and at the end for having conducted such a thoughtful, finely-detailed performance.

Michael Johnson | Canadian Opera Company 09/12/2006

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 341 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (CBC two)
A production by Michael Levine (premiere)
John Fanning replaces Pavlo Hunka as Wotan
The first performance of Das Rheingold in Canada
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.