Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Bradshaw
Canadian Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra
12 September (R), 13 September 2006 (W)
15 September (S), 17 September 2006 (G)
Four Seasons Centre Opera House Toronto
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre


New York Times

Four Directors Give Toronto a Many-Splendored ‘Ring’

From the moment he began writing the libretto until the day he composed the last notes of the score, Wagner worked on and off for 26 years to complete his epic “Ring des Nibelungen.” Naturally, he evolved as a creative artist during those years, and the four operas that make up the “Ring” have stylistic differences. Still, it is meant to be experienced as one work.

In mounting its first complete production of the “Ring” to inaugurate the splendid new opera house here at the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, the Canadian Opera Company made the bold, though not unprecedented, decision to assign each opera to a different director. Some degree of overall continuity was assured by having one production designer throughout: Michael Levine. Still, the varied backgrounds of the directors made for notable contrasts in this, the first of three complete presentations of the “Ring,” which ended on Sunday night.

For “Das Rheingold,” which opened the cycle last Tuesday night (and was reported on earlier), Mr. Levine made his directorial debut. “Die Walküre,” on Wednesday, showcased the noted film director Atom Egoyan. Another eclectic film director, François Girard, took on “Siegfried,” on Friday. And “Götterdämmerung,” on Sunday, was staged by the sought-after opera director Tim Albery.

The overall look was sometimes abstract and sometimes updated, with costume styles evolving from Victorian-era wear in “Das Rheingold” to modern-day corporate attire when the story shifts to the travails of the mortals who rule the Gibichung people in “Götterdämmerung.” Metal scaffolding and bridges, industrial ropes and fluorescent lights were linking scenic elements.

Each opera had directorial strokes and imagery that alternately baffled and dazzled. In Act II of “Walküre,” the overreaching head god, Wotan, and his chastising wife, Fricka, have their bitter argument about the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde not on a wild rocky mountain ridge, as Wagner indicates, but at the scene of the crime, the house of Hunding, Sieglinde’s bullying husband. There Wotan discovers his beloved and abandoned children asleep together. Though this site shift throws a small wrench in the plot, it is deeply moving to see the anguished god stroking the sleeping heads of his ill-fated offspring.

At the end of “Walküre,” when Wotan punishes his strong-willed daughter Brünnhilde by placing her atop a mountain in a sleeping state, the circle of impenetrable fire surrounding her is here created by Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters, who appear with torches. Again, this is a resonant image, like some wistful sorority ritual. But there is a trade-off. One thing I love about this musically sublime scene is its loneliness: just a punishing father filled with guilt and a rambunctious daughter who adores him. That gets lost amid the crowd.

When we meet the title character of Mr. Girard’s “Siegfried,” he is not the impulsive, hormonal hero of the story — and, I think, of Wagner’s music — but a troubled soul, pensive and confused. In his costume, which looks like white pajamas, he could be a hospitalized mental patient. That he is wondering about his mysterious origins is made obvious by the matrix of jumbled objects hanging over his head like a tree: chunks of stone from Valhalla, weapons, forest animals, even two live actors who sway on branches and represent his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, whom he can barely remember.

Mr. Albery’s staging of “Götterdämmerung” proved the most inventive of all. It was a great idea to depict the Hall of the Gibichungs as a corporate boardroom with a flat-screen computer, a long red couch and a sleek meeting table. The presiding officers were the weak-willed Gunther and his dark-souled half-brother Hagen, the tormented son of the scheming dwarf Alberich. When Hagen summoned his men to battle and glory, the corporate workers came rushing in, threw off their suit jackets, loosened their ties, grabbed spears and were ready to rumble.

A willingness to go along with an opera director’s updated interpretive ideas is made easier when the musical performance has as many rewarding elements as this one did. Last month, in the new production of the “Ring” at the Bayreuth Festival, I was impressed by the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s vocally exquisite Sieglinde, and she was just as fine in that role here, singing with lushly beautiful sound and poignant vulnerability. The tenor Clifton Forbis proved a robust and impetuous Siegmund. That Sieglinde’s brutal husband, Hunding, was sung by the lanky, handsome and vocally formidable bass Phillip Ens lent psychological ambiguity to their relationship.

The audience was understandably excited about the gutsy Brünnhilde of the British soprano Susan Bullock. Her singing was impassioned, her diction incisive and her energy unfailing, right through the final Immolation Scene. Ms. Bullock, though, seems to be singing the role by force of will, and at times her voice sounded pushed and strident. I worry about her vocal health down the road. But for now, Toronto operagoers can enjoy a formidable Brünnhilde.

The German tenor Christian Franz is making the voice-killing role of Siegfried in the two final “Ring” operas an international calling card. He often sounded raw, with much bellowing and scooped phrasing. Still, he persevered, and sang with stamina, rich characterization and, when called for, lyrical sensitivity. Before vocal purists pounce on him, could they tell me who the competition is? I can’t think of a tenor before the public today who can sing this impossible role with genuine heroic command. Mr. Franz deserves gratitude.

Thanks must also go to two solid singers who took over on short notice for the indisposed Pavlo Hunka, who was to sing Wotan: John Fanning in “Rheingold” and Peteris Eglitis in “Walküre” and “Siegfried.” (Mr. Fanning also portrayed Gunther.) The dusky-toned mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips admirably stepped in as a last-minute replacement as Fricka in “Walküre,” then sang Waltraute impressively in “Götterdämmerung.”

Finally, there was the conductor Richard Bradshaw, the general director of the company. Though at times his performance was curiously reticent (a touch of British reserve?), he mostly drew a shimmering and assured account of the 16-hour score from the orchestra. To judge from their playing, the musicians sounded elated to be working in their acoustically vibrant and intimate (just 2,000 seats) new home.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The wraparound glass facade of Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts gives passers-by a tantalizing view of the goings-on in the lobby, which faces a line of popular hotels and restaurants on one side and the University of Toronto on the other.

The new building, owned by the Canadian Opera Company, spans an entire square block and seats 2,043 in its five-tiered horseshoe auditorium. Inside, patrons may look out on the street or down from one level to another. Horizontal slats allow people in the balconies to look down onto the lobbies, but not the reverse. An impressive staircase was originally to be the longest free-spanning glass staircase in the world, although it ultimately required steel supports, which fortunately fit comfortably into the design.

Seating is comfortable, sight lines are excellent, and the acoustics are amazingly good. Seated, for example, on the main level close to the heavy brass section, the voices came through strongly and clearly.

Construction of the Centre has taken more than a decade. Funding was to be totally private (the name Four Seasons honors the generous initial support of the hotel chain), but an infusion of public funding made completion possible, and Canadians are properly proud.

The opening of the center eventually merged with Canadian Opera’s most ambitious project ever: an $18 million Canadian production of Wagner’s monumental “Ring of the Nibelung.” The company launched its first season in this luxurious new home with three complete “Ring” cycles on successive weeks beginning Sept. 12. It was the first Canadian-produced “Ring.”

Opening week coincided with the Toronto International Film Festival and the annual convention of the Music Critics Association of North America, transforming the area into a wonderful hive of activity and crowds.

Producers of this “Ring” assigned scenic design to a single artist, Michael Levine, for all four operas, but divided stage direction of the four works that make up the “Ring” to four directors. Levine doubled as director of “Das Rheingold” while film director Atom Egoyan took on “Die Walkure,” Francois Girard “Siegfried” and Tim Albery “Gotterdammerung.” With the diverse backgrounds of this quadrumvirate, it’s not surprising that the results were mixed, each director showing not only a different vision but also varying degrees of respect for Wagner’s intentions.

Levine’s scenery was cluttered with ropes, wires scaffolding and hanging industrial lights, negating the majesty of Valhalla with two colossal paneled doors, sabotaging the singers with rocks and debris downstage center that caused several to trip or fall while trying to negotiate the stage. The mostly 19th-century costumes featured bustles that emphasized the female singers’ least attractive physical attributes, but it was effective to clad Gotterdammerung’s Gibichungs in modern dress and place them in a steel-and-chrome office suite. A lot of the “Ring” myth centers on greed, after all.

Most important was the musical aspect, and that was in the superbly able hands of conductor and company general director Richard Bradshaw. Under his baton the Canadian Opera Orchestra played brilliantly, and the singers need never have worried about missing a cue or going astray in complex moments. Moreover, Bradshaw’s casting decisions were at the very least defensible.

In the 11th hour, the scheduled singer for the crucial role of Wotan canceled for medical reasons, leaving baritone John Fanning to take the role in “Rheingold” and Peteris Eglitis to assume it in “Walkure” and “Siegfried.” Fanning, who was already cast as Gunther in “Gotterdammerung,” proved competent but dull; Eglitis was vocally frayed and hard on the ears.

A second exigency arose when Judit Nemeth, a colorless Fricka in “Rheingold,” was felled by a dental problem. The splendid mezzo Mary Phillips, already cast as a Walkure, doubled by also taking on Fricka’s single scene. She was more satisfying than Nemeth and impressive later in the crucial narration of Waltraute.

Among the week’s vocal glories were the three protagonists of “Walkure’s” first act: the creamy-voiced Adrianne Peiczonka (Sieglinde), the stentorian Clifton Forbis (Siegmund) and the stand-up-and-notice bass Phillip Ens. In contrast, Christian Franz’s portly, middle-aged persona was the antithesis of the hero Siegfried, but he sang with a degree of solidity and subtlety that put him in the top rank of Wagnerian tenors on the boards today. Susan Bullock, lacking the vocal heft for Brunnhilde, sang with enormous expressivity and created a moving portrayal of this ultimate operatic heroine.

The evil dwarfs Alberich and Mime were sung more lyrically than usual by Richard Paul Fink and Robert Kunzli, respectively. The deep contralto sounds of Mette Eising brought the Earth Goddess Erda vividly to life, and Joni Hanson imparted to Gutrune a soaring soprano that suggest possibilities for meatier Wagner roles in her future.

Robert Croan

Only three months after the Canadian Opera Company held its formal ribbon-cutting for its new home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the first purpose-built opera house in Canada, the company staged as its inaugural production no less than the first complete Ring Cycle ever mounted by a Canadian company. COC General Director Richard Bradshaw, the guiding force behind both the FSC and the new Ring, turned this enormous challenge into a major triumph.

The COC had already presented the last three operas of Wagner’s tetralogy separately, each staged by a different director but all designed by Michael Levine–Die Walküre by Atom Egoyan in 2004, Siegfried by François Girard in 2005, and Götterdämmerung by Tim Albery in January 2006. Seen separately, it was difficult to tell how these very different productions would work together as a whole. Now after seeing all four works in sequence (Sept. 12-17, 2006), beginning with Das Rheingold both designed and directed by Levine, all is clear. Levine’s conception is absolutely brilliant. Using relatively simple means Levine fashions a series of strong visual images that parallel and comment on each other throughout all four operas creating an conceptually rich stage imagery to complement Wagner’s text and music. The result is an intellectually incisive Ring of stark beauty that underscores from the first the illusory nature of the gods’ dreams and their heroes’ power.

To depict the development of the gods and humanity over time, Levine costumes the gods in the first two operas in black Victorian garb. The “Valhalla” we see in Rheingold is merely the bright showroom for an enormous scale model of Valhalla imagined as an elaborate 18th-century palace. Valhalla’s retrograde architectural style reflects both the contempt in which Wagner held the Age of Reason and reveals the regressive concept behind Wotan’s notion of a protective bastion. By Walküre this pristine showroom has fallen into an irreparable decay that matches the gods’ own corruption. The transition comes in the uniformly white-clad world of Siegfried, set in the mind of the hero who defeats monster, dwarf, and god. Yet, in Götterdämmerung Levine shows that the contemporary corporate world of the mortals who now rule the world in stylish black suits at enormous desks is simply a modern imitation of the world of the gods in Rheingold, equally rife with corruption and ready for destruction.

In Rheingold Erda plants the seeds of a tree that begins to grow during her doom-laden prophesy to Wotan. In Walküre this tree now cradling Nothung has already grown to full height, its roots tearing up the tiles of the gods’ showroom, where it has been felled. In Siegfried we see the stump of the tree, Siegfried sitting on it as its trunk, with a cloud of branches overhead in which bits of the Valhalla model and avatars of Siegmund and Sieglinde are caught in the frozen whirlwind of the past that Siegfried must explore. In Götterdämmerung instead of trees there are only metal telephone masts hung with cables in a world where communication is used only for deceit. To be sure, there were directorial oddities in each opera–Wotan discovered asleep on the floor of the Rhine or Wotan’s ravens presenting the dead Forest Bird to the dying Siegfried–but Levine’s overall conception far outweighed such isolated quirks.

Susan Bullock sang Brünnhilde in the first and third of the three cycles with Frances Ginzer taking over the part in the second. Bullock threw herself completely into the role with ringing if not always lovely tones. She charted Brünnhilde’s metamorphosis from joyful warrior maiden, tossing off her Valkyrie cries with ease, to jealous lover to solemn seer, carefully coloring her tone to reflect Brünnhilde’s growing maturity and insight. It was a performance that succeeded through deep understanding of character and sheer vitality.

Christian Franz made Siegfried an immensely sympathetic character, not so much a hero as a man to be cherished because of his innocence. Franz commands a powerful Heldentenor, resorting to the occasional shout only during the punishing finale of Siegfried. Franz shaded his voice ominously in the Tarnhelm scene, floated it beautifully during the Forest Murmurs and made Siegfried’s death heart-rending as Hagen’s potion wears off and the hero briefly glimpses once again who he really is.

As Sieglinde and Siegmund, Adrianne Pieczonka and Clifton Forbis sang gloriously, with Pieczonka’s full-voiced, emotionally harrowing account of Sieglinde’s fears and hopes the highpoint of the entire Cycle. Two days before the first cycle was to begin, Pavlo Hunka, the scheduled Wotan, withdrew due to illness leaving understudy John Fanning to sing the part in Rheingold and Peteris Eglitis to do so in Walküre and Siegfried. Fanning does not have the rounded tone of an ideal Wotan but he does have the power to cut through Wagner’s orchestration. Fanning was already cast as Gunther and the character of his voice suited that complex role perfectly. Eglitis does have a beautifully rounded tone but not the power to project it fully. He is, however, a superb actor and this helped to make his leave-taking from Brünnhilde deeply moving.

Among the many other fine performances was Richard Paul Fink as a powerful, dark-toned Alberich, a masterfully comic Robert Künzli as Mime, Phillip Ens with a voice deep as a mineshaft as Hunding and Fafner, Mats Almgren with a vibrant bass and commanding presence ideally suited to the malevolent Hagen, and Richard Berkeley-Steele as a highly effective Loge. Among the women Julie Makerov was a bright-toned Freia, Mette Ejsing an imposing Erda, Laura Whalen a lovely Forest Bird and Joni Henson an impressive Gutrune.

The star of the Cycle was Richard Bradshaw and the COC orchestra, finally able in their new, acoustically superb hall to play Wagner with the full complement of musicians Wagner demands. The orchestra played magnificently throughout producing a lithe, spacious, exquisitely detailed sound. Bradshaw’s brisk tempi kept the dramatic tension high and shaped the score with a keen sense of inevitability. The conclusion of every act met with torrents of applause and bravos. In fact, Bradshaw received a prolonged standing ovation before even a note of Rheingold was played reflecting the audience’s profound appreciation of a man whose drive and artistic integrity made this landmark in Canadian musical history a reality.

Christopher Hoile | 2006-09-18

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.9 GByte (MP3)
Broadcast (CBC two)
A production by Michael Levine (R, premiere), Atom Egoyan (W, 2004), Francois Girard (S, 2005) and Tim Albery (G, 2006)
The first complete Ring cycle in Canada