When I did my year-end review of the highlights of 2016, I cited the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Siegfried in January. Here we are beginning 2017 and once again I’ve experienced something that will be hard to beat. Once again it’s the COC doing a Wagner opera, again starring Christine Goerke, brilliantly conducted by Johannes Debus leading soloists, COC Orchestra & chorus.
It’s a long evening, this Götterdämmerung, and come to think of it that’s the short form of the name. It should be “Die Götterdämmerung”, or The Twilight of the Gods. I was at the opening night of the Canadian Opera Company production of this epic work, the prototype for so much of our popular culture, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, many video games & fantasy novels: and so much else. Tim Albery’s production, with set & costume design by Michael Levine, brings us into a very modern world rather than the heroic setting that’s all too familiar.
The Ring Cycle is a trilogy with a prologue evening (although some call it a tetralogy), recapitulated in this, the final opera, three acts with a prologue. The evening is five hours, when you include two hefty intermissions, but they’re necessary. I noticed a couple sitting near me who left between the second and third act, who missed the best part. Act I can be the hardest because much of it is exposition, setting up the fireworks of Acts II and especially III. I’m not sure if I can be objective when I love so much of this opera. But I’d have to say that if you’re an opera lover who has hesitated with Wagner –because it’s long, because it’s so intense and well Wagnerian—this would be a really good place to start.
Some productions have so much overlaid complexity (director’s theatre) that you lose much of the story, a huge problem for a first time viewer. Not this time. Albery has modernized things, but otherwise the story is mostly clear. No there’s no horse ridden into the fire, but we even have a pair of ravens, and they even catch up to that pesky Forest Bird. And if that makes no sense, ask one of your opera nerd friends to explain.
Loudest applause went to the musical side. Debus moved things along at a brisk pace, which seemed to help the singers, but at times he’s very flexible, as in Siegfried’s story-telling scene near the end, where we slow right down. The orchestral set-pieces were for me the highlights of the evening, especially the Rhine Journey, the Funeral March and the last minutes of the opera. In each case Debus urges his ensemble to take the stage, and they made the most of these beautiful moments, the real stars of the night. There’s a sunrise depicted in each act, each stunningly played but especially the final one.
The scene between Siegfried (Andreas Schager) and the Rhine Maidens: Woglinde (Danika Loren), Wellgunde (Lauren Eberwein) and Flosshilde (Lindsay Ammann) is some of the most difficult and chromatic music of the entire cycle, yet I think it was close to perfect.
The Rhine Maidens were given two costume choices, reflecting the two sides of their character that we see in this scene:
- All in black, like the wise norns, who predict the future
- All in white, as the temptresses who lure men (as in the photo)
When the music for the Rhine Maidens echoes the norns’ music – in preaching about what Siegfried must do, and the consequences for the future—they take on this serious wise-woman aspect. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that one of my favourite scenes in all opera was given such a stunning interpretation. I’ll be hearing their music as i drop off to sleep tonight.
There were plenty of other highlights. In almost every Götterdämmerung I’ve ever seen, the Hagen steals the show, just as Othello/Otello is often stolen by the Jago/Iago. While Ain Anger gave us a powerfully voiced portrayal, the cast was strong top to bottom, particularly on the male side. The testosterone quotient was high in Act II, climaxing in Anger’s call to the Vassals, a male chorus bristling with spears and a high C. Wagner had avoided chorus in the Ring cycle until this moment, some of the most challenging –and thrilling– choral writing in any opera, and the men of the COC Chorus answered the call. And for the few minutes of his role to begin Act II, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Robert Pomakov as Alberich, Hagen’s father. Is this a dream? The scene was indeed spell-binding in its intensity.
I mentioned Schager, who improved as the show went on, tossing off a big loud high C in the last act before his final scene. His was a very sympathetic, fresh-faced reading of the role. Martin Gantner as his blood-brother Gunther was deliciously conflicted, especially as the plot to bring down Siegfried unfolds in the last act.
Christine Goerke is at the centre of this opera, as Brunnhilde, a very long & difficult role. In her climactic immolation scene –done without benefit of fire or horse or logs or anything resembling immolation—her singing was gorgeous, powerful and built to a wonderful climax at the end. The most intense scene of Act I –not usually my favourite but clearly the emotional centre tonight—was the confrontation between Brunnhilde and her sister Waltraute (Karen Cargill). Brunnhilde is usually triumphant as she rejects her sister’s appeals for help, clinging to her ring as proof of Siegfried’s love, but Goerke did something different. She’s wonderfully conflicted, showing us both the sense of joy in her relationship, yet sharing her sister’s anguish, devastated at what she discovers, which is something we don’t usually see. Similarly, in the Act II trio, where Brunnhilde tells Hagen the best way to kill Siegfried (sneak up behind him because he doesn’t usually turn his back on anyone in a fight), we see her horror, rather than just a desire of revenge. It’s a nuanced three dimensional portrait that’s always interesting to watch.
I’ll be seeing this production at least once more, although after seeing tonight’s I wonder if that’s enough.