Old review of Egoyan’s Die Walküre

I posted this –a review of the current production in a different theatre from a decade ago– on a different website.  I am re-posting it because i won’t be able to see the opening of the new production at the Four Seasons Centre.  I’m busy with a production of Tales from the Vienna Woods at Ryerson Theatre, but FYI the COC Walküre opens January 31st.

Here’s what i wrote back in 2004.

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Only a control freak posts an opera review after everyone else has offered their opinion on the matter in question: the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre directed by Atom Egoyan and designed by Michael Levine. This is more of an appreciation than a review.

New productions of Wagner operas can generate international interest, especially when part of a projected Ring Cycle, as this one is. Opera is one of the artforms most welcome in our global village. Wagner addicts will jet across the sea for a fix, especially when the grapevine (also known as the internet) whispers about an important find. And the word on the new COC Ring—so far at least—is very positive. Reviews have consistently credited the production with a degree of depth at least worthy of a second look.

Opera production and set design can be imagined to fall somewhere between two extremes on the following spectrum. At one end you find the most literal and faithful choices, that respect the instructions in the score above all. While for some people this is ideal, to others, such slavish respect is anathema to the creative spirit. The alternative demands approaches to staging that challenge and problematize the instructions in the original text. When one is staging a particularly well-known work, audiences sometimes become so familiar with the plot and music that they won’t tolerate anything lacking in originality and freshness. One of the concerns with such an expensive undertaking as a production of Wagner’s work, is that one is likely to alienate one side or the other of this ongoing debate.

Surprisingly Egoyan-Levine offer an approach that is sufficiently intelligent to be cutting edge, yet without turning its back on the tale-telling that conservatives usually miss in modern approaches. What’s more, the presentation is essentially coherent, and clearly an attempt to honour Wagner fully with an intelligent and probing exploration. In other words this production is modern without necessarily alienating the more fundamentalist members of the audience.

Act One begins in a manner that at first glance appears to be very conservative. Notwithstanding the hints of modernist steel and light that are central to the entire design, the stage picture we first encounter is recognizably Hunding’s home, albeit with a tree that has been cut down, and with strange things happening on the fringes of that stage picture. There is a curious tension between the centre of the stage and the edges of the frame throughout.

I was confused (but not troubled), in my first impression. Where there should be a big healthy tree, we saw instead, chunks of hewn wood: as though we were seeing a post-modern tree, a tree spoken of as alive while we see it as it shall be once it has fallen down and been hacked to pieces. In fact this is clearly an allusion to one of the central symbols of the Ring that is spoken of but never enacted onstage, namely the World Ash Tree. At various times in the Ring Cycle, we are told that Wotan has taken a branch from the Tree for his spear; later, that the Tree has become unwell (a sign of the rot in the world); and eventually we hear that Wotan has commanded the heroes of Valhalla to cut down the tree and pile its logs around Valhalla, in anticipation of the Twilight of the Gods. The only big strong ash tree we get onstage is the healthy one growing through the roof of Hunding’s dwelling in the first act of Die Walküre, long before the catastrophe of the cycle. But as I said, Levine’s design gives us a tree that has been destroyed surrounded by people who behave as though it were alive and well: a discrepancy that is not clarified until later.

Throughout this production we will be confronted with various kinds of fragments and edges in the stage picture, just as in the story. In Egoyan’s reading, memories keep coming back, not just for the character but for everyone else listening as well. Whereas other productions usually present those flashbacks as entertaining stories presented objectively by a tale-teller addressing passive listeners, the originality of this production is to recognize the reality of flashbacks, often privileging the subjective reality of that flashback in the mise-en-scène.

For example, Siegmund tells Hunding and Sieglinde the story of a bride whose enforced wedding he recently was asked to stop, leading to his current plight, lost and weaponless in the forest. At the end of the tale we hear Hunding’s self-righteous answer. As a relative of the people slain by Siegmund’s unhappy intervention this is an unanticipated surprise (unless you’ve seen the opera before, of course). Egoyan’s addition of a flashback throughout Siegmund’s narration changes it from a simple story into a re-enactment, as the disaster is balletically enacted on the stage. We also see Hunding walk into Siegmund’s flashback, embracing a dead relative, and then returning to the “present”. Hunding as a result is far less the usual two-dimensional villain, and more problematic, as a person with genuine reason to be enraged with Siegmund.

Egoyan seems to be particularly keen to delve into Sieglinde’s reality, a choice that pays rich dividends when you have a strong singing-actor such as Adrienne Pieczonka. As a bride forced to the altar by this same thuggish family, Sieglinde listens wide-eyed to a tale of a failed attempt to rescue a different bride, and then a short time later tells us about her own enforced marriage, clearly in search of her rescuer. When, at the end of Act Two she talks in her sleep, regressed to the nightmare moment in childhood when the thugs arrived, her mother slain and her home was set ablaze, the final straw that Levine and Egoyan add is to locate this moment onstage in a virtual replica of the original event. It is not clear where we are.  While we most definitely are not in the prescribed location of the score (on a mountain somewhere), this could be Hunding’s home, or it might even be Sieglinde’s childhood home, when marauders carried her off. The problematic set allows us to be in all places at once, in the same way that a memory takes us back in time. In the same way it makes emotional sense that a tree spoken of as alive can lie in pieces across the stage.

When so much of a story is linked to the past, it’s as though the here and now have been problematized, and the space undermined. Where are we, for example, if someone onstage has a flashback to an earlier event? When Hunding steps out of the flashback and into his home, one can question where he is. I was reminded of the edge of the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, where Burt Lancaster/Fred Whaley’s joint character (Moonlight Graham) is forced to change from a young ballplayer into an old country doctor. In a conventional fourth-wall representation flashbacks are easily discounted as symptoms, as the viewer fends off the implicit threat to their own reality. But when the viewer is complicit, participating in such hallucinations, one is invited to time-travel, using symbol and allusion to slide through simultaneities. That is the promise that I felt on several occasions in Levine’s design, and fulfilled admirably by Egoyan’s reading.

And that is how we can you have it both ways; this production is both problematically postmodern, and also, a remarkably reverent representation at the same time. The fragments are of the real, encased in a somewhat alien frame. Glimmering at the edges of the stage, one finds bright lights, often glaring directly into the eyes of the audience. And metallic structures run in every direction, chaotically, above the stage floor. These are hard to discern in the darkness that is Act One, a darkness that does not interfere with the story Wagner would normally have expected a director and his cast to tell.

The opening of Act Two, in contrast is not just a breath-taking blast of light, but a virtual gloss on what we have seen, as though to tell us what we were really seeing in the previous act. In a reverent reading, Act Two takes us somewhere else: a mountain top far from Hunding’s forest home of Act One. In Levine and Egoyan’s production, Act Two appears to open in exactly the same place. Siegmund and Sieglinde are apparently sleeping off their love-making of the previous scene.

At first glance Act Two suggests an opera-within-an-opera, as though the set were a traditional representational set, framed within a modern Hollywood soundstage. Upon closer inspection this doesn’t completely hold up, not least, because the resemblance to a soundstage is only via allusion. But notwithstanding the director’s denial—and yes, I did ask him about filmic connections at a conference (he said this was not what it meant, adding that all would be clear once we’d seen the entire cycle)—here’s the evidence.

Egoyan is a film director. When I glibly said that Wotan is like a film director, perhaps his denial meant that Wotan is not ONLY like a film director, which is true. While I made the assertion as much in jest as anything else, the connections are more than superficial. In his production of Salome Egoyan milked every voyeuristic suggestion. If we were to find the director somewhere onstage in that opera, thinking of Hitchcock’s tendencies, I suppose, it would surely be as Narraboth, the frustrated voyeur. The entire production put us into the position of Narraboth. To complete the self-portrait, Narraboth should perhaps walk the stage carrying a handheld camera. Wotan also resembles a film director. Just as Narraboth is unable to control his project or his diva (and makes that most artistic gesture, suicide), Wotan too, loses control of a complex project. But these are only the most superficial connections to film.

The real suggestions of an opera within an opera are the ones that everyone can see (and that were spotted by at least two other Toronto area reviewers). The set floor is a series of tiles, broken by the forces of nature and decay (including that large ash tree), as though the whole world were inside a building: Valhalla resembles a vast art-deco soundstage. Notwithstanding the natural materials that have been lit centre-stage amidst the darkness of Act One, steel rigging, lights, and ropes over-hang that foresty space, suggesting that Hunding’s home was being filmed in the first Act.

And once the lights come up to open the Second Act, it is as though the Director shouted “CUT!” as a throng of support staff (the valkyries) work to clean up the aftermath of the previous scene. At least one of the valkyies wields light as though it were a weapon; others wrap bodies in cloth (shrouds?) as part of their mission to bring heroes to Valhalla, suggesting both the impersonality of forensic investigators at a crime scene or costuming staff. Perhaps most significant is the simple fact of the location of this scene. In a faithful presentation Wotan and Fricka debate on a mountain top, abstractly discussing Siegmund and Sieglinde. By re-locating their debate to this mysterious location (soundstage or centre of the world) Wotan can literally touch his children as he discusses their fate, personalizing and humanizing his struggles.

As a result, Wotan and Fricka are behaving a lot like what we’re told Gods do, at least according to mainstream media. It’s a truism that the gods—or ghosts—walk among us. And counterbalancing all these Gods and Valkyries, is the most mortal of all the characters onstage, namely Sieglinde, whose personal history acts as a thread to pull the work together. But one has to remember that this is opera, where one is moved by resonances & allusions, but without denotative meaning. At his best Wagner is highly symbolic, as in this production. One can make the effort to meet the production halfway by opening oneself to those allusions, or one misses out on that richness.

Musically, too, I was impressed, as both the singing and orchestra playing sounded wonderful. No, it’s not the Met orchestra and the soloists are not the singers one knows from the Met, but perhaps that is a good thing. The COC is probably using microphones to enhance the acoustics of the Hummingbird Centre, but the results are tremendous. I think purists are misguided in their objections when one considers that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (the opera house Wagner designed himself, where the Ring premiered in 1876 and has been literally enshrined ever since) attempts to do the architectural equivalent to acoustical enhancement by putting a huge orchestra into a covered pit under the stage. Until Toronto’s new opera house is built this is the best we can do: and it sounds very good.

Richard Bradshaw –the conductor and General Director of the company–at times took tempi that were startlingly fast, so much so that Peteris Eglitis’s Wotan reminded me a bit of those portions of Loge or Mime who have such quick lines to deliver that they are declaimed rather than sung. Wotan’s lengthy monologue in Act II was shorter for me than ever: partly due to inspired staging, partly due to Bradshaw’s bat-out-of-hell tempi. How ironic, that Bradshaw made Wotan’s monologue more singable by de-emphasizing singing with such fast tempi. For those enamoured of long and sentimental readings this might sound disastrous; but I believe it worked extremely well. Arguably a fast reading is not just an aid to dramatic intelligibility, but also more historically informed than the slower readings that became popular through most of the 20th century.

Eglitis’s Wotan, sounding at times like George London, while reminding me physically of a young Donald McIntyre in the Chereau RING, was called upon to carry the work through several long monologues. Fortunately he has star quality, his only sin being his willingness to throw himself into the performance without restraint or fear, like the other star of the show, namely Pieczonka.

The twins are a most unequal pair. Clifton Forbis’ Siegmund reminded me at times of that baritonal sound of a Suthaus or a Vinay, but dramatically was only adequate. On the other hand, Adrianne Pieczonka, as his sister-bride Sieglinde, not only sang the part wonderfully, but was the dramatic heart of the production. At times her histrionics could be called over-the-top, but without her commitment everything else would have felt more like abstractions and ideas rather than passion and real life. Sieglinde’s flashbacks are the most convincing moments in the opera, whether in her powerful reading of “der manner sippe” (her marriage tale), or in her dream at the end of the second act. In comparison, Forbis’ Siegmund is merely the usual stiff and stoic Wagnerian hero, although his singing was truly splendid.

As Hunding, Pavlo Hunka makes more of his role than usual, but a great deal of credit is again due to Egoyan’s direction, freeing Hunka of the usual stodginess. Frances Ginzer was at times an affecting Brunnhilde, and properly Wagnerian in tone. There are many wonderful moments, such as the hysterical Ride of the Valkyries, and the delicate Magic Fire music, a quiet ritual to close the evening.

I am sure I have a lot of company eagerly anticipating the complete cycle in 2006. Thank goodness I don’t have to wait that long for François Girard’s Siegfried, coming in January and February of 2005.

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And now Walküre comes to the Four Seasons Centre.  I won’t see it for 3 weeks (busy with my own show) but don’t let that stop you.  The fun starts January 31st.

The Valkyries, Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Die Walküre, 2006.  directed by Atom Egoyan, Set and Costume Designer: Michael Levine (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The Valkyries, Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walküre, 2006. directed by Atom Egoyan, Set and Costume Designer: Michael Levine (Photo: Michael Cooper)

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