A Bumpy Night at the Opera
Canadian Opera Company
09/13/2006 - & 20, 27 September, 2006
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Susan Bullock (Brünnhilde), Peteris Eglitis (Wotan), Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde), Clifton Forbis (Siegmund), Mary Phillips (Fricka and Waltraute), Phillip Ens (Hunding), Irmgard Vilsmaier (Helmwige), Buffy Baggott (Schwertleite), Elizabeth Stannard (Ortlinde), Krisztina Szabó (Siegrune), Allyson McHardy (Rossweisse), Guang Yang (Grimgerde)
The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Richard Bradshaw (Conductor)
Atom Egoyan (Director), Michael Levine (Production Designer), David Finn (Lighting Designer), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer)
The Toronto audience had further adventures in opera-going on the second night of the first local Ring Cycle, not all of them welcome. One pitfall (literally) was provided by Michael Levine's set which was basically the same as that for the previous day's Das Rheingold, but with an added obstacle course for the performers. The end of the first opera left us with a mostly bare stage, but with scattered remains of the destroyed model of Valhalla and the white wall of the real Valhalla rising at the rear. The action of Die Walküre happens twenty or so years later, and in that time the tiny shrub revealed by Erda has grown huge and been chopped down, its stump and logs occupying centre stage. A forest of girders has been erected, then damaged and abandoned, and these lean every which way beside and above the central area - a bit like Ground Zero on September 12, 2001. The stage floor has experienced some sort of eruption, exposing piles of dirt amongst the jagged heaps of floor tiles. Here is where Hunding and Sieglinde have set up housekeeping, looking like refugees in a bomb site.
The first casualty of the challenging stage surface was a walkyrie who fell during rehearsals and required hospital treatment but who, in true showbiz fashion, returned to perform. On Wednesday the first victim was Wotan (Peteris Eglitis), whose fast dramatic entrance was ruined when he tripped and fell full length almost on his spear - what's that old rule about never running while carrying a sharp object? Later on, a valkyrie bearing the corpse of a dead hero also fell. And Sieglinde (Adrianne Pieczonka) had a bad stumble just as she was to launch her final outburst of praise for Brünnhilde.
Musically there were also a few glitches, most notably during Sieglinde's narration to Siegmund of her past unhappy life when Pieczonka seemed to lose the thread of it somewhat. She was a bit of a late arrival to the rehearsals, having performed her final Sieglinde at the Bayreuth Festival on 23 August. (However, she had been in the COC production when it was first done in 2004.) Pieczonka can be described as a local hero. Born and raised in Ontario, she attended the University of Toronto Opera School in the early 80s, then went pluckily off to Vienna where over a 20-year period she has worked her way up the ranks. Few singers can manage to look both rapt and radiant while dressed in a smudged trench coat as this production requires. Radiant is also the best word to describe her singing overall.
Clifton Forbis (Siegmund) gave a performance of great power and focus. A few high notes were a bit pinched, but his outcry "Wälse! Wälse!" was spine-tingling. Phillip Ens as Hunding even exceeded his previous night's performance as Fafner, his voice and stance exuding thuggish malevolence.
There is much to admire in Peteris Eglitis's Wotan, especially considering he took over the role just the week previous. He sang the role here in 2004 and revealed much the same qualities as then - very expressive in the quieter sections and a tad short of amplitude in the big moments.
Yet another substitute in the cast was Mary Phillips (also the Waltraute) as Fricka, replacing Judit Németh who had undergone an emergency tooth extraction earlier in the day. She was a sensation both vocally and dramatically, striding boldy about the hazardous stage while browbeating Wotan into abandoning the Wälsungs to their fate - a memorable local debut.
The other auspicious local debut was that of Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde. To put it briefly, she seems to be the complete package with the requisite voice, drama and stamina all going for her. There was much luxury casting among the other eight valkyries, and she stood out even from them.
An overall impression is one of visual fatigue at having the same grim unit set for all three parts of a very long opera. Some elements of the design and direction worked well however. The best moment came during the Todesverkündigung scene in Act 2, when Brünnhilde arrives to tell Siegmund of his impending death. She holds his shroud out to him and on it is projected a flame that also flickers across her face. Bullock's stillness helped make this scene a superb visual and dramatic counterpart to what must be one of the most riveting stretches of music ever composed. Later, when Wotan commands the ring of fire to surround Brünnhilde, the eight valkyries enter solemnly, each bearing two flaming torches which are placed in a ring around her. Another effective touch: the valkyries hands are wrapped in crimson ribbons, and when Wotan kisses Brünnhilde's godhead away, he takes off her ribbons and ties them around his spear.
One design element, however, must be singled out for sheer nuisance value. The set's leaning girders have industrial lights attached to them, and these were on full glare during Act 3, some of them aimed directly into the auditorium. It took several minutes for my pupils to dilate sufficiently to make out what was happening on stage - perhaps we weren't supposed to see what they had conjured up for the ride of the valkyries? If it was deliberately to induce discomfort in the audience, it certainly succeeded - but the reason for this eludes me. At any rate, this aggressive lighting gambit - and perhaps other design and directorial decisions - resulted in an eruption of booing and catcalls when Egoyan and Levine appeared for their bows. It was almost like being in Bayreuth again. Also (as in Bayreuth) special warm applause was reserved for the orchestral players and their conductor.