Wagnerian truths, whether on the COC stage or your own electronic device

Ah such a long title. I’m already being Wagnerian.

He’s everywhere whether you know it or not, Wagner not precisely über alles, but still ubiquitous. We talked about him inevitably last night in class, discussing the dramaturgy of silent film, but we could just as easily have been talking about the device on which you’re reading this. Ever notice that when your device wants to inform you that you’ve made a bad choice there’s a funny wonky sound? Or if you’re being notified that you have something good, such as a new text, you get an affirmative sound? Yes that’s Wagnerian, that unity between the machine and the content.

No Wagner didn’t know about computers or silent film (having died back in 1883), but he did toss out the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s sometimes translated as “total art work”, but that’s confusing. He was writing about an ideal, back in a time when designers and directors and performers were upstaging one another, rather than working together towards a single unified concept. So many things work that way now –not just artistic creations like our films or plays but also our machines too–that it’s hard to remember that things used to be way way messier at one time.

And so of course i have to think about Wagner after having seen: Wagner. I finally made it to the Canadian Opera Company Die Walküre, late in the run. Everyone knows their music and their movements exquisitely well by now, how arrogant I am to think I can walk in there for oh 4.5 hours, and then what… create comments within an hour, when they’ve been working on this for literally weeks? Yes, I suppose I must sound a bit like Wagner, a man with a colossal ego and the ability to upset whole nations. If nothing else he is a lesson in remembering that just because an artist is a complete jerk doesn’t mean his art can’t be wonderful.

I was joking to my friend sitting beside me: “I don’t need my voice tomorrow”. We bravo’d extensively. She actually emitted something more like a scream at one point, although I was assured that it was carefully executed to leave the voice intact.

It struck me as ironic that there were as many departures from the text in Atom Egoyan’s production of Walküre as in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni. But –as my friend reminded me—with Wagner we’re long accustomed to Regietheater (director’s theatre), indeed it’s almost de rigueur at this point. I think Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Metropolitan Opera met with at least some critical disapproval because Lepage had the temerity to tell the story as written. Audiences experienced Götterdämmerung without any fancy conceptual overlay.

I wonder though if I should call it “Egoyan’s Walküre”?   Oh he certainly made some interesting choices, don’t get me wrong. But in a real sense, one could question whose Walküre this is, as so many contributed to the total work. Given that the run is almost over –a great success by most standards I am sure—why don’t we try to answer that question, and find some candidates.

When you sit down for the first act, the story seems to be a love triangle.

But before we see anyone we’re listening to that COC orchestra led by Johannes Debus. The orchestra doesn’t go quite as fast as they did in Richard Bradshaw’s day –a quality I loved—but it’s still often quite quick, as for instance in the opening ten minutes of the last act, played brilliantly. Would it be Debus´Walküre?

Hm. Nobody would call it Hunding’s opera, yet what about Dimitry Ivaschenko, so impressive as the wronged husband, lugging huge hunks of animal haunch that he munches on when he’s not noticing how much his dinner guest resembles his wife. The voice is fabulous, powerfully penetrating, as is the stage presence. Given that he’s likely to use this as a stepping stone (although he’s already very successful in Europe) as Americans come to Toronto intent on hearing the soprano and discovering this wonderful artist, you would at least be justified in calling this Ivaschenko’s Walküre.

Clifton Forbis is back in the role of Siegmund that he created when Egoyan’s production (haha bet you though I was going to call it “Egoyan’s Walküre”..! whoops I guess I just did….) was new more than a decade ago. Physically it’s a mature Siegmund, who looks older than his onstage twin, at least from my vantage point in the second row. But the voice? He missed part of the run due to illness, and even tonight we heard coughs. But whenever he appears the story seems to be about him, the music coming to life. The further we got into the role, the better he sounded. Forbis’ Walküre? Perhaps.

The production places a great deal of emphasis on Sieglinde and her visions. Heidi Melton’s Walküre? I cried at her big climax in the last act. I admit I giggled a bit when I saw Christine Goerke begin to give Sieglinde—who is pregnant, we discover—advice as a mom, recalling some of the posts she’s made on social media. Both Melton & Goerke have such lovely vibrant facial expressions, it was a particular pleasure sitting up close. When the two women were singing it was totally amazing.

Soprano Christine Goerke (photo by Gary Mulcahey)

Soprano Christine Goerke (photo by Gary Mulcahey)

How about Christine Goerke’s Walküre? I think you could make a solid case, considering the excitement her casting created. Had she been merely okay the audiences would still have been centred on her. But in fact this was –as you may have heard—completely worth the hype, a performance that even had some genuine swagger to it. When Goerke sings that battle cry to introduce herself at the beginning of Act II she made it a bit of comedy, teasing her dad, at times shining that wacky light –part of Michael Levine’s design—onto him. If the triumph were only in the vocal realm that would still be huge news, given the shortage of genuine dramatic sopranos. Goerke is also a wonderful actress, and will be a joy to watch as she works through the different parts of Brunnhilde in the other two Ring operas that are ahead.

Even so, there might be others who might want to wrest the opera away. Johan Reuter as Wotan gets the last words, and they’re particularly beautiful the way he sang them. While the story in Act I seems to be all about the twins, while the story then gets complicated with the arrival of immortals for Act II, this opera is really about Wotan and his estrangement from himself: enacted via his daughter Valkyries, especially Brunnhilde. In passing I should mention that another Valkyrie, namely the role of Helmwige, can be understood as a future Brunnhilde given that she sings her own brief version of the war-cry in the opening to Act III. Aviva Fortunata was exquisite in her brief appearance.

Who else might claim Walküre?

There’s the fellow whose set & costume design is being used again, namely Michael Levine. I adore these designs, which serve the opera wonderfully. They serve the comical opening to Act III, the metaphysical overtones in Act II (when Wotan & Fricka are debating the whole love triangle, while standing over the sleeping bodies of Siegmund & Sieglinde). There’s so much one could say about the design, although I think it’s almost too much of a good thing. My favourite moment in the production as I saw it in the old theatre over a decade ago was largely invisible where I was sitting, obscured by parts of the set. Was I sitting behind a pillar? Nope, I was about ten feet away from the conductor. He didn’t see it either. Is this set too much of a good thing? I ask that in context with the comment from Debbie Voigt during the documentary on the Lepage Ring, when at one point she categorically refuses to get back on the set, although she eventually would relent. There are no moving planks in this set, just lots of small parts that seem designed to trip up singers. I didn’t see anyone fall, so perhaps I sound unkind. I repeat, I love this set. It manages to simultaneously suggest the grandeur of the gods –especially in Acts II and III—and the process of decay, pieces of flooring coming up, the tree chopped up into pieces.  It always gives us several wonderful things to look at throughout, when it’s not almost blinding us with glaring lights.

So while I may sound as though I am making the case for Levine’s Walküre I am inclined to look elsewhere. There’s the company’s General Director, Alexander Neef, whose assembly of talent is the reason for the excitement. I love that he brought us Tcherniakov‘s DG, complete with Russell Braun, Michael Schade, Jane Archibald, etc, yet he’s also giving us a decidedly Canadian company, whether in the Zerlina of Sasha Djihanian, the Helmwige of Aviva Fortunata, or several other contributors, Egoyan and Levine perhaps most prominent among them.

I suppose I should simply upload this now and go to bed. On the weekend there’s another performance of each opera remaining. If you can go to either –or both—I would heartily recommend you do so. It’s quite an amazing pair of productions.

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7 Responses to Wagnerian truths, whether on the COC stage or your own electronic device

  1. papagenaplumes says:

    Thank you for your review. I very much enjoyed reading it.

  2. I wondered when you’d be able to weigh in on this production! Great insights as always. Just a little correction…twice you refer to Debus as Levine…I’m sure the former would be more than flattered! It also points to the latter’s ubiquity in our consciousness when we think about conductors and the Ring. What struck me most about this production having seen it the first time round and really, not remembering too many of the details, was the superb direction of the singers…the personenregie. There was so much detailed interaction going on throughout. It puzzles me that some of the commentary centred on one of the principle’s lack of acting skills – I thought everyone was superb from this point of view. A thrilling night of singing, acting, production style which did seem to meet the requirements of the gesamtkunstwerk on so many levels.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks as always for the kind words Gianmarco. I know i was writing in a tired state (high on that wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee that you can get at Ginger, having arrived home at 12:30 and finished writing by about 1:30). I was speaking of Michael Levine, the designer of set & costumes who arguably is the biggest single element in the Gesamtkunstwerk that is this particular Walküre. (and so I’m saying that it could be “Levine’s Walküre” because the design is the largest factor in the whole, not in the usual sense where we simply name it from the conductor or the director).

      I think i may need to post on the production again, as there’s a great deal to be said about the direction. Some of the Personenregie is good, some of it is, pardon my French, questionable. Okay maybe i can avoid another post by addressing it here. Yup. (thanks Gianmarco for giving me the occasion). Some of Egoyan’s ideas are stunning, brilliant. I alluded to my favourite moment –when Siegmund tells his “ein trauriges Kind” narration, that’s invisible to the conductor and much of the downstairs audience, due to parts of Levine’s set. It problematizes Hunding –making him sympathetic– which is a good thing. His cast are amazing actors, every last one of them. But some of the ideas they’re being asked to execute? confusing, if not disappointing. I had this issue with his Salome, where his deconstruction/modernization only succeeds in killing much that is good in the original without adding very much of anything. Let’s go to the end of Act II of Walküre. We have this big magnificent hulking Hunding who is physically not intimidated by Siegmund. Excuse me? He pulls the sword out of the tree and Hunding seems to say “so what big deal” and attacks the shorter “hero” and almost knocks him down. If Brunnhilde and Wotan didn’t show up it looks very much as if Hunding would defeat our “hero”. WTF???? While you’re at it why not just say “i am deconstructing Wagner and don’t want the hero to be heroic”. Or perhaps he handed it over to a fight director and didn’t bother to remind him that the shorter guy is the son of an immortal and recently defeated a whole clan, one against… oh 20, 30? One single guy–no matter how tall–shouldn’t stand a chance against Siegmund. I have to control myself, because in conversation i lose touch with Pollyanna and instead am much more scathing. Is Siegmund even a little bit special? No? why then would his son be even worth bothering over? Let’s CANCEL the last two Ring operas because in fact the Walsungs aren’t special at all in this revisionist version. Or if he is special, then DIRECT your Hunding to either be awed by the sword in the tree (jeepers golly gosh that should be something special, no?) or seem to be hanging back. No you don’t turn it over to your fight director because you think the audience wants to see a good fight. This scene is almost always a disaster, and this one lived down to the usual tendency. Egoyan can’t decide which dramaturgy, which style he’s using. Yes the set is a mess, but that doesn’t give you the right as a director to be all over the map. One minute we’re watching something somewhat realistic (eating the haunch of meat), the next we’re in heavily symbolic territory. And what about asking singers to dig with a shovel?
      [DIGRESSION…did Egoyan and Tcherniakov get together over beers and place a bet to see who could come up with the biggest torture? Tcherniakov: “haha I make Donna Anna sing her last scene in a down parka and toque under heavy lights”… Egoyan “that’s nothing, i make Wotan shovel dirt while singing his Act II monologue”. ]
      …but in fairness, there’s much that’s beautiful. The ending is great because, even as Egoyan monkeys with it a bit (having the valkyries there planting the fire in the ground) he doesn’t sabotage the beauty of the ending.

      • Oops my error on the Levine thing. Sorry, I thought you were referring back to the conductor and had substituted (JAMES) Levine instead of Debus – I get it now! I guess what I enjoyed about the direction of the singers was especially the first act scenes between Sieglinde, Siegfried and Hunding – I thought Egoyan got to the heart of that very odd triangle. Similarly, I thought the whole sequence in Act II – long conversation between Brunnhilde and Wotan; then Brunny and Siegfried again was well-directed. Of course, the singers have a lot of input here as well and much of the success depends on their abilities. And yeah, the final bit of Act III is very hard to bring off. I do think the production managed to suggest Wotan’s ultimate place at the top of the heap when he kills Hunding with the wave of a hand.

  3. Edward Brain says:

    Leslie, didn’t you find that the singers were spending too much time singing to the audience and not to each other? But the end of the opera is a total insult to Wagner in my opinion. It showed a total disrespect for the libretto.

    But I think you missed something not seeing Mr. Savage as Siegmund. He has a wonderful voice.

    • barczablog says:

      That’s an interesting question, Edward. I think the rules change from one scene to the next. The Valkyries scene is magical. The scenes between Wotan & Brunnhilde are excellent. While I was disappointed in the scene with Fricka (and this is not the singer’s fault, but seems to be due to a director who understands the goddess in very limited & negative terms, at the almost complete absence of love in her motivation) the dynamics between the two are very well articulated by the singers. For comparison i’d point you to the Met production and the wonderful work of Stephanie Blythe (under Lepage’s direction! he gets no credit that i saw in the press for Personenregie, but every relationship in the Ring is authentically conceived, clear & direct), and her evident heart-break when her tactics backfire, her hubbie pulling away from her. But part of this again comes back to Levine, to a set that seemed somewhat dangerous for the singers, with the result that singers had to find a place to safely sing, and making a fluid interaction much more challenging. When you watch –thinking of my favourite scene of the opera–Sieglinde and Brunnhilde enter, joining the Valkyries, what i saw them play was fear: both the fear of pursuit (that they were playing) and a fear of falling (as they looked carefully downwards to make sure they didn’t land face first on the stage). And so they have to find a spot and then sing from there for a bit, then perhaps plan another move, and therefore not really free to lose themselves in their portrayals. Now of course this could be a complete misreading, but that’s what i saw, and i think it was magnificent. I recognize that it’s symbolic & artificial –that intersection between the characters and the set–and i could draw great pleasure from what they created.

      As for Issachah Savage, perhaps i’ll get to hear him someday. At the risk of sounding repetitive, there are lots of good singers out there. Some of them are even Canadian.

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