Canadian Opera: Wagner’s “Ring” by Helen & Andy Cappuccino Photos by Dellas
As our mad dash ensued, we felt the usual excitement of a pseudo-getaway...
As our mad dash ensued, we felt the usual excitement of a pseudo-getaway from Western New York, to our “Big City”–Toronto. Tonight, however we had the heightened level of excitement which often accompanies the thrill of doing something unknown. As a couple, and as children, our mutual Italian heritage figures strongly in our lives, and certainly our taste in music is no exception. Our inclination has always favored the Italian masters- Verdi, Puccini, Rossini. There is great comfort in our familiarity with these gifted composers. Tonight, however, portended something exceptional–the first Canadian presentation of a portion of Wagner’s famous tetralogy “The Ring of the Nibelungen”–“Die Walkure.” We have been season ticket holders to the Canadian Opera Company for eight years now, and the thrill of the impending new Four Seasons Opera House (scheduled to open in the fall of 2006) is nearly eclipsed by the excitement surrounding the COC’s staging of “The Ring.” We certainly share in the enthusiasm for this monumental production; but, we were apprehensive also. At four and a half hours, this would certainly be the longest opera we had seen. In a society of immediate gratification and sensory overload, a production of this length, no matter how beautiful, was intimidating for us “recreational” operaphiles.
COC made the decision to stage three of the four operas from “The Ring” in its present home, The Hummingbird Center, and will then present the entire “Ring Cycle” three times in the fall of 2006 as part of the gala opening of the new opera house. This facility promises to be absolutely world class–on par with the Met, La Scala, the Vienna and Sydney Opera Houses. Further fanning the flames of excitement was the innovative decision to have each of the individual operas staged by a different director. Tonight’s performance would be directed by Atom Egoyan. Egoyan is well- known and critically acclaimed for his work in film, television, and theater, having received two Academy Award nominations (The Sweet Hereafter), and the International Critics’ Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Richard Bradshaw has been with the COC for 15 years and serves as its general director and the conductor of “The Ring.” Having loved Wagner since his teens, he also was involved in the preparation of the San Francisco “Ring” in the 1980s. He is the perfect conductor of this monumental work. While respectful of the scope of the complete production, he seems undaunted by it. “Now that I am so immersed in the score I’m more aware of other performances. I realize for the time being I cannot listen to anybody else’s “Ring.” I have to get away from all that and concentrate on my own approach… As I come to terms with doing “The Ring” I am aware of my slight hesitation on the threshold of entering the theater for an evening of four and a half hours. However, I know that once I’m there nothing could drag me away. Time stops in Wagner in the most amazing way… Time’s a totally illusory concept but never, for me, is it proved so strongly as in the operas of Wagner who somehow managed to transcend all that.”
So what of the story of “The Ring?” It is the story of a mythological Nordic world of the gods, and those who serve them. It also follows the quest for a series of different characters to possess a golden ring which contains the power to curse its bearer with a loveless life, but also with unlimited power. Much of the action focuses on the god Wotan, who fraudulently obtains the ring and gives it as payment to two giants who build him his fortress, Valhalla. This bastion is home to Wotan’s nine Valkyrie daughters who are charged with the mission of retrieving fallen heroes to protect Valhalla. Wotan also has twin mortal children, a son, Siegmund, and daughter, Sieglinde. Wotan ardently hopes for Siegmund to recover the ring and return it to its rightful owners, the Rhinemaidens, to forestall any vengeance. All this action occurs in “Das Rheingold,” the first opera in the tetralogy. Tonight’s production would tell the tale of the twins, who (raised separately) unwittingly fall in love, before realizing the incestuous nature of their relationship. The goddess of marriage, Wotan’s wife Fricka, demands Siegmund be sacrificed for this transgression. Despite the protection of Brunhilde (Wotan’s favored Valkyrie and daughter); Wotan concedes and allows Siegmund to be killed in battle, thereby ending his hopes that his mortal son could retrieve the ring. As punishment of her support of her twin half-siblings, Brunhilde is banished to a mortal life, but not before she tells Sieglinde that her relationship with Siegmund will bear the greatest of all heroes–Siegfried. The remaining two operas tell the story of Brunhilde becoming humanized and Siegfried’s tribulations with the ring. His death ultimately results in the ring being returned to the Rhinemaidens, where it can at last portend goodness in the world.
Great enthusiasm has been generated by the sopranos who bring Brunhilde and Sieglinde to life. Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde) recently completed performances of “Queen of Spades” opposite Placido Domingo at the Met in New York, where she received critical accolades. She is a bona fide Canadian talent who left Canada 15 years ago at the age of 25 for Vienna, where she began professional operatic career. With her Met performance and rave reviews for her Sieglinde, she is earning many bookings, including “The Ring” at the Bayreuth Fesitval 2006, which will take place in Wagner’s own theater (where “The Ring” was first staged in 1876). Frances Ginzer (Brunhilde) has performed with the COC previously as Senta in “The Flying Dutchman,” and at renowned opera houses internationally. She too is a local talent, having been educated at the University of Toronto. She has also performed as Brunhilde for the “Ring Cycle” in San Francisco. The featuring of two fantastic locally borne talents lends credibility to the COCs emerging international stature, which will be further reinforced by the new opera house.
As it turns out, the intimidating length of the performance was not so great an issue as we worried, because we arrived late courtesy of infamous Toronto traffic. We counted ourselves lucky to be seated at the time of our arrival, just into the second act. (The Hummingbird Center will not seat late arrivals during the performance; rarely one is allowed to take an empty seat in the back row. This was especially rare because tonight’s performance, like all others of “Die Walkure” in this run, was sold out.) We were immediately struck by the stark, post-apocalyptic stage dressings. Collapsing cat-walks, and grids of browns, grays, and black visually expressed the despair of condemned lovers, dying heroes, and destructive impulses. The lighting reflected the action of each of the scenes, and was artfully choreographed to heighten the range of emotions this opera took us through. Ash was used to complete the canvas on which the action occured, reinforcing the death which is so integral to Valhalla and the fallen heroes who protect it. The music was as beautiful as it is renowned to be. The lead sopranos do tremendous justice to the memorable music. I actually had chills as Bradshaw took us on the “Ride of the Valkyries.”
We were so struck by the sweeping magnitude of the production, and the commensurately strong performances of the vocalists, that we hardly gave pause to the objective plot elements which include incest, fratricide, mythical gods, infidelity, murder, and betrayal. We merely accepted these as the natural context and outcomes of the tremendous emotional conflicts that Wagner portrayed. As Bradshaw says, “It is not an accident that many people think that Wagner is the father of modern psychiatry, the father of Freud really… It’s interesting to read about Wagner and analysis but it’s no substitute for just submitting to it. The genius is the way in which it all happens.”
Richard Wagner lived from 1813-1883 and is considered to be one of the great revolutionaries in opera. He aspired to “unify Shakespeare with Beethoven,” marrying the music and drama as “combined art work.” It took him about a quarter of a century to compose “The Ring” and write its librettos, drawing on primary sources which included Greek drama, Norse and German mythology, and epic poems. The operas were written out of sequence. The tetralogy was interrupted by the writing of other operas. Despite this, the finished “Ring” is fluid, compelling and universal. Father Owen Lee states “Wagner’s Ring” tells us what we are. Each of us is flawed and fallible, destined to die, full of destructive impulses, yet capable too of goodness and heroism, open to beauty and joy, and destined for greater things than we know…We sense that we’re meant to move towards something beyond consciousness that is infinite.”
When The Four Seasons Center opens in 2006 with “The Ring,” it is sure to be sold out, despite the $1700 price tag (Canadian dollars) on an orchestra ticket to the four-part production. Prices will range from $550-$2200. One must apply for tickets, and there will be a priority listing for the seats which are expected to be sold out within seven months. A total of 6000 seats will be available. The hierarchy of those who receive tickets will be based on philanthropic donations, years as season ticket holders, and donations specific to the “Ring” series itself. Opera aficionados are expected to travel from all over the world, especially those who are ardently devoted to Wagner–a particularly dedicated group. The cost of the production is expected to be $10 million, the company’s most expensive venture.
These are exciting times for the Canadian Opera Company. To observe the transition from being a continentally respected opera house to a world class venue shall be a privilege. The beginning of this metamorphosis is the presentation of Wagner’s “Ring,” for which it is garnering significant acclaim. As we witness the evolution of the opera house, from an architectural model in the lobby of the Hummingbird Center, to the bricks and mortar at its new address on University Avenue and Queen Street, we know we are witnessing great things which are likely to be mirrored by the creative direction of the company. We are filled with exhilarated anticipation, and encourage everyone to spend some time with the COC in its present location and especially in its new home.