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An Epochal Night for Opera in Toronto

Canadian Opera Company
09/12/2006 -  and 19, 26 September
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Laura Whalen (Woglinde), Krisztina Szabo (Wellgunde), Allyson McHardy (Flosshilde), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), John Fanning (Wotan), Judit Nemeth (Fricka), Julie Makerov (Freia), Robert Pomakov (Fasolt), Phillips Ens (Fafner), Thomas Rolf Truhitte (Froh), Julian Tovey (Donner), Richard Berkeley-Steele (Loge), Robert Kuenzli (Mime), Mette Ejsing (Erda)
Michael Levine (Director and Production Designer), David Finn (Lighting Designer), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer)
Richard Bradshaw (Conductor)

Toronto opera-goers experienced a number of major premieres on September 12. Canada's first purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre (named for its largest private-sector donor, the hotel chain) finally opened after a multi-decade struggle (not unusual for buildings of this type). Its architect, Jack Diamond, is an understated modernist - people wanting gilt, red velvet and lavish decor are disappointed. However the shape of the auditorium is firmly based on traditional models, a horseshoe with five levels of seating for 2000. The expandable orchestra pit can hold, as on this first evening, up to 104 musicians.

The acoustics are a major improvement over the Canadian Opera Company's previous performing home, the Hummingbird Centre, a too-large (3200 seats) "multi-purpose" hall built in 1960. One sonic revelation is just how good the COC orchestra sounds. A drawback of the horseshoe shape is a restricted view from many seats. Here, however, computer-aided design has been cleverly used to minimize this. The general shape and size of the hall is roughly similar to the Vienna State Opera's, but with far fewer restricted-view seats. The combination of size and layout makes the new auditorium unique in North America.

The second premiere was the opera itself - the first Canadian production of Das Rheingold, not quite 137 years after its world premiere in Munich. This performance inaugurates the first of three Ring cycles which run until October 1. It also marked the debut of designer Michael Levine as a stage director. He has designed all four parts of the cycle while each of the other operas - introduced one at a time over the past three regular COC seasons - has its own director.

Levine's overall approach is decidedly post-modern, with a design palette heavily biased toward stark black and white. Rheingold opens on an all-white stage, with billowing silk backdrops and floor, in the middle of which a black-suited man is sleeping. The white-clad Rhine maidens (Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabo and Allyson McHardy) have a pillow fight around him. The gold is represented by a golden light that shines up from a hole in the stage directly below the slumbering man. Alberich's seizure of the gold sees him disappear into the hole, taking with him the hectare or so of white silk. This leaves a bare stage, upon which a large model the white Albert-Speeresque buildings of Valhalla are assembled. The costumes are virtually all-black, the men in frock coats and the women in voluminous gowns with bustles. And the sleeping man is revealed as...Wotan.

This brings us to the fourth debut of the evening, that of John Fanning as leader of the gods. Pavlo Hunka was slated to perform a triple debut as all three Wotans but withdrew during final rehearsals, necessitating a scramble for replacement(s) - and sparking quite the volume of opera gossip. Fanning is on hand to perform the role of Gunther and has been studying the Rheingold Wotan. If not an auspicious debut, it was certainly an honourable and adequate one. The voice is attractive and evenly produced, and he is no doubt wise not to strain in those moments when the required amplitude does not come easily to him.

Fricka is Judit Nemeth, attractive of voice if somewhat under-characterized. Julie Makerov displayed a lovely voice as Freia. Thomas Rolf Truhitte (Froh) has a ringing voice with real helden potential. Julian Tovey is a stalwart, dapper Donner. The two giants, Robert Pomakov (Fasolt) and Phillip Ens (Fafner) have wonderfully contrasting voices, Pomakov with a youthful sound and Ens with his well-oiled, dark, authoritative timbre. Their entrance is effective, being carried in on the shoulders of their cloth-capped minions while scattering parts of the Valhalla model. More humdrum are the later entrances of Loge (Richard Berkeley-Steele) and Erda (Mette Ejsing) where Wagner's vivid music is simply not matched by significant stage action. Some staging ideas are very effective however. In the Nibelheim scene we find that Alberich has transformed all that white silk into cloth of gold, and his drab black suit is now gold as well, giving him the look of a rock star. The cloth comes to life as the dragon and then later is used as the wrapping for the ransomed Freia. In the final tableau Wotan seizes the ring by biting off Alberich's finger, leaving a frisson-inducing splotch of blood on the stage. The only other red element in the design is the shaft of Wotan's spear, and the only bit of green is a tiny shrub revealed by Erda. The other deviation from the black-and-white rule are the rust-coloured overalls worn by Robert Kuenzli (a superb Mime) and the other Nibelungs.

The entrance to Valhalla is anti-climactic. The rainbow music is accompanied by a white light emanating from an opening in the rear wall, panelled to represent a portion of the walls of Valhalla. All the gods but Wotan quickly enter, leaving him to hear the offstage lament of the Rhinemaidens, during which he writhes on the floor in agony. When their singing ends he quickly recovers and walks slowly off.

Richard Paul Fink as Alberich gave the most stunning performance of the evening both vocally and dramatically and this was reflected in the applause at the end. The most vociferous cheering, however, was reserved for Maestro Richard Bradshaw, General Director of the COC - both at the beginning of the evening when he was cheered for having stayed the course and getting the new theatre built, and at the end for having conducted such a thoughtful, finely-detailed performance.

Michael Johnson



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