|Shiloh Battlefield, Tennessee. Camera: Minolta Hi-matic. Film: Ilford HP5+.|
Last Thursday we found ourselves in Toronto for the premiere of the final installment in Canadian Opera Company's Ring Cycle (aka, the COC Ring), featuring no less a momentous event than Christine Goerke's first outing as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde.
This long anticipated assumption is the culmination of perhaps THE major Brunnhilde assumption of the decade, and certainly the most consequential assumption by an American in some time. Goerke continues to offer an uncommonly beautiful take on this music, fully realizing the score at a level only available to a few singers today. Big climaxes were thrilling, especially a stunning Dawn Duet that elicited the rare intra-act Wagner applause, while Goerke's luscious, expressive middle register shone in stretches like the Waltraute scene and Immolation lead-up.
Beyond sheer vocal beauty, Goerke makes a strong dramatic impression too, introducing some compelling ideas about the character that are sure to mature over time. This is not the blazing Brunnhilde of a Nina Stemme, who plays the warrior princess (marvelously) as a furious powder keg, touched off by the sight of Siegfried and Gutrune. Goerke seems to be after a more vulnerable, wounded Brunnhilde, who comes to her anger at Siegfried reluctantly, from a place of emotional pain.
The first night performance seemed perhaps a bit cautious, as might be expected of a maiden Götterdämmerung, with careful navigation of the some of the trickier passages sometimes slowing down the overall momentum. Also, around the top of the middle register she sometimes goes into an unpleasant swallowed sound to get a note across, a tic we've heard before but seemed especially evident here. Quibbles aside though, y'all need to book your Chicago and Met Ring tickets ASAP. In 30 years North American Ring fans are going to fall into two buckets: the lucky ones who saw Goerke in her prime and the pitiable ones that missed out.
Andreas Schager's Siegfried was a welcome surprise and yet another reason to think that we are living in at the start of a mini-Siegfried renaissance. Schager has a huge, very attractive voice, indeed almost gratuitously loud at times, despite generally unsympathetic dynamics from the pit, and showed almost no wear by the climactic death scene, which was eminently secure and affecting. His characterization leans towards heroic doofus in a Siegfried Jerusalem vein, though again, that death scene brought out some unexpected layers.
Other cast highlights included mezzo Karen Cargill, turning in a ravishing, high drama Waltraute to balance Goerke's Brunnhild and making this scene one of the highlights of the evening. Estonian bass Ain Anger offered up a unexpectedly hot Hagen, backed by a vast, rangy instrument that conveyed the unhinged menace of the role, for instance in a reckless and terrifying call to the vassals. Norns n' Maidens were all very strong, with special recognition going to the wonderful contralto Lindsay Amman, reprising her role from the DC Ring.
COC maestro Johannes Debus offered a strong hand and some persuasive ideas about the score, including as a brutal, ecstatic Siegfried Funeral March, though speedy tempi could cross the line from energetic to glib at times. At least on opening night, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra wasn't always prepared to execute on Debus' ideas cleanly. Strings generally shone but even with the requisite Ring cycle handicap, the brass committed too many pitchiness and entry flub sins for comfort. Hopefully as the run goes on the polish level will improve and do justice to Debus' dynamic approach.
As for the production, the COC Ring shares a common designer but each installment has been given a different director, here Tim Albery. The modern dress, minimalist design can deliver some arresting images, such as the dreamlike setting for Brunnhilde's mountaintop, set on the dark, largely bare stage, punctuated by the odd light and prop that seems to float in the ether. But the production isn't really inventive or strict enough to keep this aesthetic interesting. For instance, the following Gibichung palace just looks like a basic sparsely furnished living room that might be found in any production. While strong direction might have made up for this, Albery serves up an exceedingly conventional, undistinguished Gibichung scene. Say what you will about Zambello, modern dress isn't just a neutral aesthetic in her Ring, but a component of a richly layered (if not always advisable) interpretation.
More successful moments included the Siegfried death scene mentioned above, as well as Gunther/Siegfried's taking of Brunnhilde. Gunther, in suit and trenchcoat, paces deliberately around Brunnhilde and her modest dining table throughout most of the scene before suddenly exploding in violence. Tapping contemporary images of home invasion and domestic violence, Albery powerfully illustrates the terror and violation inherent in this scene.
Unfortunately the finale, in which the residents of Gibichungville place the shattered pieces of a model Vahalla around the stage, slowly walk to the front of the stage, then slowly walk to the back of the stage, is just terribly boring. You don't have to have spectacle for the end of the Ring but if you're not ready to accompany the end of the Gods with some minimally credible stage spectacle, then you better have a good reason why not.