Johannes Debus
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
January 2016
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Toronto
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedStefan Vinke
MimeWolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
WotanAlan Held
AlberichChristopher Purves
FafnerPhilip Ens
ErdaMeredith Arwady
BrünnhildeChristine Goerke
WaldvogelJacqueline Woodley

Wagnerian adventure

After last season’s Die Walküre this is the second installment of the COC’s revisit of the three music dramas from its 2006 Ring.

A detailed description of the staging can be found in my review from 2006. François Girard’s stylized staging still works wonderfully in places (as with the human pyramid Fafner) and not so well at other times, especially in the third act when the grouped supernumeraries acting as human scenery have finished what they had to do (they were the flames guarding Brünnhilde – see photo above) and their presence is a distraction until they very slowly (too slowly) vanish into the inky darkness.

Overall, though, the drama is handled well in a work where there is so much time devoted to scenes that contain relatively sparse action.

Stefan Vinke (in his local debut) deserves to be called Mr. Stamina in what must be opera’s most grueling role. His voice rings out healthily right to the end – in fact he seems to get a second wind up for the final scene with his Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke. It really is a coup for the COC to nab her for her triple debuts (with Götterdämmerung coming up next season). If her current trajectory continues she is bound to become a historic performer in the role.

The work can be grueling for listeners as well without compete exploitation of expressive variety in both voice and orchestra. There is not a weak link in the cast and the other lengthy tenor role, that of Mime, finds Austrian tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, devoting the fullest possible range of expressiveness to a role than can be gratingly one-dimensional.

It’s great to see Alan Held back, this time giving a definitive performance as The Wanderer. Christopher Purves’s power-house voice makes a visceral impression in the role of the vengeful, ever-plotting Alberich. Phillip Ens is the only singer returning from the 2006 cast; his well-oiled voice is as impressive as ever.

Jacqueline Woodley displays both vocal heft and sparkle as the Woodbird, and Meredith Arwady is suitably doleful as the doom-haunted Erda.

Siegfried is known as the scherzo, or playful “movement” of the Ring Cycle. The work’s most famous line, Siegfried’s “Das ist kein Mann” exclaimed when he cuts the sleeping Brünnhilde’s armour away, is not translated on the surtitle strip and therefore does not receive the usual laughter. I suppose the work’s “joke” is more cosmic in scale as it lies in the unfolding irony in the unraveling of Wotan and Alberich’s efforts to achieve and retain power.

The major source of sonic variety has to be the orchestra, and Johannes Debus (this is his first Siegfried) clearly sets forth every nuance while still conveying the big picture. It would be great if the company were able to put him on the podium for integral production of the entire Ring. The pit is very full for these performances, with 102 players, many of whom play more than one instrument, such as the four horn players who also play Wagner tubas.

Overall, a real treat, and not just for dedicated Wagnerites.

Michael Johnson | 01/23/2016

The Globe and Mail

A stunning Siegfried at the COC

Musical excellence has been one of the defining hallmarks of Alexander Neef’s tenure as General Director of the Canadian Opera Company. He has always ensured that the best singers in the world grace the Four Seasons Stage, presenting performances of uniformly high quality.

But nothing in the COC’s recent past can adequately prepare you for the almost otherworldly perfection of the COC’s current production, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Siegfried. At five hours long, with literally thousands of notes to be performed, this Siegfried never makes a false musical move. Each gesture, each line, each leitmotif, each phrase, both in the pit and on stage, was handled with care, skill, and panache. It was astonishing.

And then Christine Goerke started to sing. And an evening that was already reaching for the stars catapulted to a whole new level. Goerke is the world’s most famous Brunnhilde at the moment, having made her role debut in Die Walkurie here last year, doing the same now in this Siegfried. She only appears in the opera at the very end, about four hours or so into the proceedings.

What made Goerke’s appearance so devastating was that, all of a sudden, one of Wagner’s mythological figures stepped out of the pages of a comic book and became intensely, achingly human. Goerke is a great actress as well as a great singer, and she made Brunnhilde’s awakening, her discovery of her mortality, her confusion about her love for Siegfried, and her eventual capitulation to that love so powerful, so real, so visceral, that an opera that had previously been partly allegorical, partly mythical, became a great human drama.

Until that point, it had been primarily Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried that had made the evening so thrilling – although, to be fair, every performer onstage without exception was excellent. But Vinke, who unlike Goerke, is onstage for almost the entire five hours, gave a performance not just of of great stamina, but also subtlety, drama, and nuance. His tenor is clear and focused, perfectly under control and very accessible to an audience. And Vinke’s superb Siegfried was matched by Alan Held’s Wotan, the Zeus-like figure in the opera, who watches his power dissipate and eventually disappear under the influence of the new young heroic Siegfried. Held was magisterial, austere, pained. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a wily, insinuating Mime, Christopher Purves an evil, manipulative Alberich, Meredith Arwady a worldly-wise Erda, Jacqueline Woodley an innocent, free Forest Bird and Philip Ens a fearsome dragon, Fafner. It’s not unusual for some of the voices in a Wagner cast to be a little weaker than the others. Not in this Seigfried. Every performer was at the top of their game.

And the beauty of the musical presentation on stage was bettered, if that were possible, by what was going on in the pit. This is Johannes Debus’s first Siegfried, and conducting this score needs a concentration and intensity that is almost superhuman. Because of Wagner’s famously discursive style, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of individual moments in the score all needing detailed and careful attention to come off successfully. Debus gave full value to them all. Without falling into the trap that Wagner sets for the unwary of “too much, too often”, Debus was deeply into the music, but careful to keep each emotion and sentiment in its place. And his orchestra played their hearts out for him – as good as the COC Orchestra has ever sounded.

Francois Girard’s direction and Donna Feore’s choreography in this revival of the COC’s 2006 production were simple but effective. A chorus of extras, all in white provided the backdrop to most of the scenes, many of which are confrontations between two characters, and the production’s stark simplicity emphasized the intensity of the drama. Michael Levine’s set was equally austere, although something like a Tree of Life, with bodies and exploded bits of buildings laced through it, provided an extremely dramatic focal point for the first two acts.

The world for over a century has been debating the power of Wagner’s ideas as well as celebrating the beauty of his music. On the musical side, Siegfried may be the opera that called forth Rossini’s famous remark that Wagner has many beautiful moments, and many tedious quarter-hours. But those beautiful moments are in great abundance in Siegfried, so the evening flows remarkably well. And as for those semi-mythical, semi-allegorical, semi-philosophic ideas? You can take them as seriously as you want – they’re really like the allegorical overlays of the Lord of the Rings, or even Star Wars. Powerful and revealing if you want them to be.

But for this COC Siegfried, it is the quality of the music-making that makes this a must-see production. Performances of this quality in this abundance are rare. And Christine Goerke’s Brunnhilde may be a once-in-a-decade experience.

Robert Harris | January 24, 2016

The Toronto Star

A human spin on Siegfried that soars

Dragons, swords and gold are the stuff of operatic legend, but they’re given a poetic twist in the current Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried.

The opera, written between 1856 and 1871, is the third piece in Wagner’s sprawling Ring Cycle and revolves around its titular hero slaying a dragon, claiming the Nibelungs’ gold and finding love with a goddess who makes herself mortal. It’s the stuff of mythology, but in the current production (a remount from 2006), the action is presented as a psychological drama unfolding within the mind of its main character, with the elements (dragon included) acting as symbols in Siegfried’s journey to uncover his true identity.

Act 1 opens with Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) sitting atop a giant tree trunk, with a maze of branches — like a giant thought-bubble — spread above. Tangled within those branches are pieces of furniture, chunks of iron, the remnants of a domed cathedral (in miniature) and bodies clothed in white. David Finn’s contrasting lighting and Michael Levine’s striking set and costume design are creatively employed to convey a range of emotions (dread, hope, confusion) already inherent in the score.

When Siegfried goes to the forge (a red-lit hole in the stage floor), a host of arms reach up, hands undulating; it’s an imaginative way to introduce Nothung, the mythical sword and, like much of the design sense here, serves to strip away an onerous mythology traditionally associated with Wagnerian opera.

Instead of clanking armour and gold breastplates, we see black sheets and white pyjamas; in place of parking and barking, we have moving fleshy performances from talented performers, among them Alan Held as an authoritative Wanderer and Christopher Purves as a petulant Alberich. In place of a green-scaled beast, we see a highly creative depiction of a dragon involving a pyramid made of men. It’s challenging, yes, but ultimately director François Girard’s vision is a deeply rewarding one.

German tenor Vinke offers a machismo-free Siegfried, one who moves between teenage insolence and charming awkwardness. His rich sound grew in colour and volume throughout Saturday’s opening, culminating in breathtaking Act III work with American soprano Christine Goerke. Here, complemented by COC music director Johannes Debus’ masterful conducting, the duo offered some of the best singing ever to have graced the stage of the Four Seasons Centre.

Catherine Kustanczy | Jan. 25, 2016

Siegfried soars

Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus recently renewed his contract with the company through 2020-21. That’s great news, because it means we’ll get more thrilling performances like Siegfried.

The third opera in Wagner’s colossal Ring Cycle isn’t known for its dramatic high points. It begins slow and lacks the well-known tunes and big confrontations of Die Walküre (opera two) and Götterdämmerung (four).

But the score, complete with Wagner’s dozens of leitmotifs, is richly layered and complex. And the libretto is deeply philosophical, dealing with identity and memory.

Debus’s confident conducting, combined with François Girard’s striking production and a fine group of singing actors, give this work the passionate intensity of a fevered dream.

The five-hour production (yup, you read that right) chronicles the heroic journey of the eponymous character (Stefan Vinke), spawn of the incestuous siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde.

Born fearless and raised by the cunning dwarf Mime (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke), Siegfried must make a sword, slay a dragon (Philip Ens) who’s hoarding the all-powerful ring and, thanks to the advice of a forest bird (Jacqueline Woodley), rescue a woman on a mountaintop surrounded by fire. That would be Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke), his aunt.

Michael Levine’s designs make brilliant use of vertical space, with elements from his set for Walküre now suspended above the action, suggesting everything from a forest and a cave to, more metaphorically, a universe in flux and the weight of collective history bearing down on one man.

No spoilers, but lots of surprises emerge from that set.

German tenor Vinke has a heroic voice and solid stage presence to evoke the young, cocksure protagonist. If his pipes seem to lack power in the second act, it’s because he’s holding back for the marathon duet with Goerke in act three.

Alan Held’s Wanderer is magisterial and authoritative; Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime is clear, menacing and physically nimble, and the booming-voiced Christopher Purves makes the dwarf Alberich into a figure seething with anger and greed.

Woodley’s sweet soprano is just right for the forest bird, while Meredith Arwady (remember that name) has the contralto of your dreams as the earth goddess Erda.

Goerke doesn’t appear until the final scene, but she makes you forget that from her iconic opening notes to those soaring melodies familiar from Siegfried’s Idyll.

But it’s Debus and the first-rate orchestra – the horn call comes off perfectly – who add the muscle and metal needed to forge this essential link in the Ring.

Glenn Sumi | January 27, 2016

National Post

Canadian Opera Company’s Siegfried revival is a party worth attending – even in pajamas

From a ravishing orchestra is ravishing to a certifiably Wagnerian cast, Siegfried is a worthy investment

Gents are in white pajamas, except Alberich, who wears a coat. Dozens of bodies, branches and architectural fragments hang from the rafters. Fafner, the fearsome dragon, is represented by six acrobats in pyramid formation.

Having issued this rationalist equivalent of a parental advisory, I can heartily recommend the Canadian Opera Company revival of Siegfried that opened Saturday night in the Four Seasons Centre. The orchestra is ravishing, the conducting is responsive and the cast is certifiably Wagnerian.

As for the many directorial and scenic inspirations I welcomed with a Bronx cheer in 2006, when this collaboration of François Girard (director) and Michael Levine (design) was last seen in Toronto, they are not as distracting as all that. A few of them I liked. Maybe I am due for a checkup.

If my hearing is still all right, Stefan Vinke is a good catch for the title role. This German tenor is a middleweight, but with a youthful tone he is always heard. Burnished phrasing is not beyond him and he acts vibrantly in his own personal space (stage movement in Girard’s conception being relatively limited). The central hero of the Ring cycle is not always as likeably three-dimensional as this.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, an Austrian tenor, was crisp vocally and otherwise as the blacksmith Mime, Siegfried’s long-suffering stepfather. A robust British baritone, Christopher Purves, was a palpably nefarious Alberich. He did much to animate the opening of Act 2, a wordy scene in which Wagner indulges his fondness for prophecy and backstory.

As for Wotan in his Wanderer guise, he is an old man, even wounded, with dressing covering his missing eye. Alan Held, more baritone than bass, made the king of the gods a figure of pity. Christine Goerke, a stellar Brünnhilde last season, nailed her high notes but was often wobbly in tone and pitch. She will have better nights. Her fellow American, contralto Meredith Arwady, was impressively resonant as Erda and the Canadian bass Phillip Ens growled appropriately as Fafner. If the Forest Bird lacked something in sonic sweetness, her descent from on high was enchanting.

All of the above were aptly balanced with the COC Orchestra, which the company’s music director Johannes Debus led with both attention to detail in the busy interplay of leitmotifs and ample feeling for overall grandeur. Brass playing was glowing and strings had spunk. My only request is for a more vigorous tempo toward the end of Act 1, when Siegfried says to heck with it and forges the sword on his own.

Possibly this scene lacked some of its usual visceral impact because there were no hammer, anvil and bellows, but rather a symbolic flame made of writhing forearms over which Siegfried clinked pieces of his broken weapon. It was one of a few sequences of creative motion – the body-sculpture Fafner being another – overseen with undeniable skill by the choreographer Donna Feore. Indeed, Act 3 is done essentially as a stark black-and-white ballet, with bodies in a circle creating the ring of fire around which Brünnhilde (still in her black dress from Die Walküre) slumbers. The scene is bare. The detritus of civilization – all that hanging junk – is gone, as the world starts anew.

Okay, I get this, but why is the bear in Act 1 is portrayed as a homeless man with a beer gut? Why does Wotan linger on stage after he is required quite clearly by the libretto to exit? Why do Siegfried and Mime enter in Act 2 from the interior of Fafner’s cave, the very thing they are looking for?

These and several other non sequiturs are presumably resolvable in the mind of the director at the level of psychological truth. Happily, they do not scuttle the show or interfere radically with character relations (except at the very end, where Girard churlishly denies the lovers a full embrace).

Oh, well. Symbolism can forgive much, as can great performances. Five hours might sound like a big investment, but they are packed with love, treachery, wonder, mystery, comedy and glorious, glorious music.

January 28, 2016

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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 543 MByte (MP3)
A production by François Girard (2006)
Possible dates: 23, 27 30 January, 2, 5, 11, 14 February 2016