COC Siegfried: Love on the rocks in white PJs

Of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle the closest thing to a comedy is Siegfried. Yes we do have a couple of deaths and a couple of would-be rulers of the world thwarted but it’s got a happy ending, literally love on the rocks as Siegfried and Brunnhilde are about to get it on, considering that their last words are “lachender Tod”, or “laughing death”, surely a clumsy euphemism for orgasm.

I am torn. I admire the work done in this production, loving almost every performance and certainly appreciating the contribution of every single person up there, so let’s set aside my concerns until after I’ve properly appreciated what’s right about it.

I was fortunate to be sitting off to the side near the front, which meant I could spend a great deal of the show basking in the pleasure of Johannes Debus’ conducting. The COC orchestra was a force of nature, particularly in the big set-pieces where Wagner turns over the story telling to his brass, string, percussion, woodwinds, and conductor. Debus was very sensitive to his singers, some of whom had much more to offer than others. Anyone coming from out of town to hear the big stars might be confused, that they were hearing a performance as good as what you might hear at one of the world’s major opera houses even though they’re in Toronto.  But the amazing opera house changes everything, helping singers who would be inaudible singing the same role in a bigger house.

Three performances stood out for me tonight in a cast with no weak spots.  Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) sings this role as no one I have ever heard, from his first appearance, singing a high C that is usually omitted. Wow! Vinke sang, rather than barking or shouting (as some do because of the difficulty of the role), his lyrical line getting more beautiful the longer he was singing. Amazingly he was in a better groove in Act III than in Act I, in what is surely the most taxing role in all of opera. I begin to understand the people I see coming back to see it again and again. Vinke is the main treat of this production, singing some of the most difficult lines more clearly than I’ve ever heard them. If that weren’t enough –singing the role better than I’ve ever heard it—he is an attractive presence, and a wonderful actor. Whether in the many comic moments –parodying his guardian, sassing the dragon, trying to play a hand-made reed –badly– the few moments of genuine pathos such as the revelations about his past, or the times we want to see something heroic, he is the most believable, musical, heroic Siegfried I’ve ever seen.

Alongside Vinke we get to see the Mime of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. When I recall the first time I saw this production (directed by François Girard, designed by Michael Levine) more than a decade ago in the old theatre, I can’t forget how frustrating it was, that for several minutes I couldn’t distinguish one character from the other, that Mime (supposedly a hunchback dwarf) and Siegfried (supposedly a great hero), both in their white pajamas were hard to distinguish from one another, because they were roughly the same height and sounded alike. This time the contrast is spectacular, both in the physical presentation and the voices. WA-S is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen at the COC, in a vocal interpretation putting me in mind of Gerhard Stolze (on the Solti recording), playing up all the opportunities Wagner puts into the score for vocal comedy. At times I didn’t know where to look, because Vinke and WA-S were both so interesting to watch.

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1211 – (left to right) Jacqueline Woodley as the Forest Bird (background) with Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime Director François Girard, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine, (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Fortunately I am going to see it again.

The third extraordinary performance is the big name draw of the production, namely Christine Goerke. Her awakening was electric, both in the marvelous hand gestures, the vocal commitment and the magic between the two left onstage. I did not expect the last scene to be the best scene of the whole opera. There were other great moments though.

Jacqueline Woodley’s Forest Bird was wonderfully accurate, and very musical, while Meredith Arwady’s Erda was extremely powerful, especially some amazing low notes.

I first saw (and reviewed) this production back in 2005 when Girard & Levine first unveiled it —and so I am inclined to believe that maybe the problem is that the production doesn’t work as well in the Four Seasons Centre (that magical theatre I was speaking of earlier). I don’t think it’s fair to hold that against the director or designer.  Four Seasons Centre puts everyone under a bit of a microscope, giving us stunning close-ups. It helps highlight performances, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of singers & their acting, and the concepts in the production. Where Girard’s idea that seemed to situate everything in the mind of the young Siegfried seemed fresh and powerful in the big theatre, where everything was far away, hard to see, and impossible to hear, in Four Seasons Centre? Up close it doesn’t quite work so well, the bodies in the mental-tree seen from afar become a bit disturbing in closeup, if not creepy after awhile.

In the program note Girard speaks of how abstract Siegfried is, even though he conveniently skips or ignores the most concrete elements, such as the forging of a sword (magically handed to the hero, rather than created in steps, steps that Girard skips), or whittling a reed to make a flute (this time Siegfried finds his flute hanging in a tree).  Even so, I will mention a couple of directorial choices that bother me. One of my favourite parts of the entire Ring is the opening of Act III, Wotan’s last scene of the cycle as he confronts Erda, seeking a way to avoid the unavoidable. It’s music of despair with backbone. So it’s odd to open the act with the Forest Bird leading Siegfried (yes it’s a beautiful effect, but i missed it at the end of Act II, not inserted to begin Act III) while the music screams a heroic “no way out what do I do now” loudly for 5 minutes, and then to let your Wanderer shamble onstage like an afterthought.  Argh i know i sound like i’m getting old, as I was hungry for the post-modern stuff a decade ago.  Post-modernism means never having to say you’re sorry (and making a joke a decade ago gives me permission to repeat myself).

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Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

And of course the Wanderer is in this white outfit, just like Erda and everyone else onstage, except for Brunnhilde and Alberich. I get the concept, that there’s all this stuff in the hero’s head.  Alberich has a grey jacket on, because he too is from the outside. Brunnhilde is in a sexy costume, which makes sense. I would think Erda & Wotan should also escape the white PJs, but post-modern also includes the right to change sub-text whenever it suits you.

And let me add another white PJs footnote while I’m on the topic. Brunnhilde wakes up, and looks for the one who has brought her back to life, woken her up with a kiss.
I get that the magic fire is done with all these people in white pajamas. It was better in the O’keefe and stunningly beautiful at that moment when Wanderer steps aside and can’t stop Siegfried any longer. But when Siegfried has crossed through the curtain of fire, why keep these people lingering there like spectators? And so, when Brunnhilde says “Wer ist der Held, der mich erweckt’?” (OR Who woke me up?) she wants to know, not because the stage is this confused mess. Why, François, do you leave 15 white-clad extras onstage, and have Siegfried drift upstage into this mess. And then when she asks her question she might well say (in German) “which one of you people was the one who kissed me awake”?

I mean François, why deconstruct the most romantic moment in the whole opera?  Get them off the stage. Brunnhilde and Siegfried are supposed to be alone.

I should have known that the reason Debus said that the opera points to the last scene was because in this production it’s so good. No wait maybe it’s because there’s too much conceptual clutter everywhere else, too many moments where Girard’s ideas –some good, some not so good—just plain get in the way of the opera. There are moments where the production is clever. I enjoy the dragon. I love the bird.  I love the fire and those extras (including John Allemang, who told us his story recently in the Globe and Mail). But on balance I don’t find the production concept illuminating, not when at least part of the time it’s holding me back rather than adding something. It’s odd to me that this scene that usually seems like an extraneous afterthought—the last one– works best this time. Is it because it’s so good? or simply because it’s the only unobstructed scene,  where two people are allowed to sing without all the conceptual shenanigans?

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