La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Die Walkure Revival A Triumph at the COC

Revival of Die Walkure a Triumph at the COC (Review)

Joseph So

Christine Goerke (Brunnhilde)
Johan Reuter (Wotan)
Clifton Forbis (Siegmund)
Heidi Melton (Sieglinde)
Dmitry Ivashchenko (Hunding)
Janina Baechle (Fricka)
Rihab Chaieb (Waltraute)
Elaine McKrill (Gerhilde)
Aviva Fortunata (Helmwige)
Lindsay Ammann (Schwertleite)
Mona Somm (Ortlinde)
Laura Tucker (Siegrune)
Megan Latham (Rossweisse)
Charlotte Burrage (Grimgerde)

Johannes Debus, conductor
Atom Egoyan, director
Michael Levine, set/costume designer
Four Seasons Centre, Jan. 31st 2015

Soprano Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Wagnerites rejoice, the Ring is back in town!  Well, sort of... After an absence of eight and a half years, the Ring Cycle, albeit minus Das Rheingold and spread out over three seasons, is back at the Canadian Opera Company. The first installment opened last Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre.  I recall seeing this production for the first time in 2004. I attended several performances including one of the rehearsals. My companion on that occasion was none other than the late, great comedienne Anna Russell. Who can forget her brilliantly funny Analysis of the Ring? Long retired at the time and living in Unionville in a seniors complex close to her ancestral farm, Anna had not attended a Wagner performance in years. I picked her up and drove her to the Hummingbird Centre.  Many of the cast members plus Atom Egoyan came down to meet her at the break. Here's a photo I took of that historic meeting (see below).  Of the cast in the photo, only mezzo Laura Tucker is in the current run as Siegrune. The only other holdover is American heldentenor Clifton Forbis reprising his celebrated Siegmund.

A Trip Down Memory Lane: The great Anna Russell meets the cast of the COC Die Walkure  in 2004 (back - Adrianne Pieczonka, Frances Ginzer, Laura Tucker; front - Elizabeth Stannard, Anna Russell, Buffy Baggott) Photo: Joseph So

The COC opened the Four Seasons Center with three Ring cycles in August-September of 2006. I managed to see two of the three, and the experience remains as vivid as yesterday. Of the four operas, Die Walkure is arguably the most melodic and accessible. For this revival, the COC has assembled an outstanding cast, with many important Canadian and/or role debuts. Danish baritone Johan Reuter is a wonderful singer. I heard him in Munich and at the Met as Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten not too long ago, and I was looking forward to his Sachs last December. Naturally I was disappointed when he withdrew from the Met Meistersinger, but the upside was that it allowed him to concentrate on preparing the Wotan here.  American soprano Christine Goerke makes her role debut with this Walkure.  I heard her way back in 1998 in Glimmerglass as Iphigenie in Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride!   It boggles the mind to think that 17 years later, a singer with Baroque beginnings is scaling Valhalla as Brunnhilde, one of the most demanding of dramatic soprano roles in all opera. Her Farberin at the Met and Elektra in Detroit last summer were both fantastic. The Walsung Twins are Heldentenor Clifton Forbis and American soprano Heidi Melton. Finally, two more major Canadian debuts, that of Dmitry Ivashchenko as Hunding and Janina Baechle as Fricka.  

Siegmund (Clifton Forbis) and Sieglinde (Heidi Melton) Photo: Michael Cooper

Musically there were plenty of  highlights on opening night Jan. 31. First and foremost, Goerke as Brunnhilde exceeded my already high expectations. Her Hojotoho was simply the best I've heard - the timbre has the colour of dark mahogany, and it is huge, equal to if not surpassing Gwyneth Jones who had one of the biggest voices I've heard, and better focused than Jones. Goerke's dramatic soprano also reminds me a little of the great Australian Rita Hunter, my first Brunnhilde. Many singers scoop up to the B's and C's, but Goerke attacks these notes with vocal knockout punches. Her characterization of the warrior maiden  is sympathetic and heart-felt, capable of both fearsome strength and womanly warmth.  Johan Reuter sang with a gorgeous baritone, even from top to bottom, his Abschied supremely moving. I found myself almost in tears at the moment when Wotan took off his coat, rolled it up and tenderly put it under the head of the sleeping Brunnhilde, a brilliant directorial touch by Atom Egoyan. Heidi Melton (Sieglinde) has a huge and luscious soprano with a very big middle voice, ideal for Sieglinde, a soprano role with an unusually low tessitura. She sang very beautifully on opening night, only falling a little short above the stave where the notes were produced with a lot of force. Clifton Forbis has hardly aged since his first Siegmund in 2004 - if anything, his top is more brilliant, focused and trumpet-like than ever. Only the middle and lower notes betray some widening of vibrato. Dmitry Ivashchenko's dark-hued basso was most impressive as Hunding. Janina Baechle doesn't have the sweetest tone -which I suppose is not required in this role! - but she made the most of the short role of Fricka. The valkyries were a combination of COC Ensemble singers and outside guest artists. They all moved well and sounded good, with the exception of the first voice in the Ride of the Valkyries, Gerhilde, who I'm sorry to say sounded strident and wobbly.     

Dmitry Ivashchenko (Hunding) and Heidi Melton (Sieglinde) Photo: Michael Cooper

Seeing this production after eight years is like meeting up with an old friend after a long absence - you think of the good times and gloss over the idiosyncrasies.  The Atom Egoyan-Michael Levine design for Walkure has a vaguely post-Apocalyptic feel to the strikingly chaotic set. I've often wondered why Levine chooses to make his statement with this visual jumble. Interestingly, this aesthetic is not carried over to the other three operas in the COC Ring, perhaps because this is a "Ring by Committee" with different stage directors responsible for the individual parts.  I'd like to think that the physical and visual chaos of Walkure reflect the inner turmoil of the principal characters, particularly Wotan and Brunnhilde, Siegmund and Sieglinde.  The rubble in front, framed by the crisscross of cat walks on top and on the sides, contrasts sharply with the enormous, stately white panels at the back, behind which presumably leads to Valhalla, the domains of the gods, On a practical level, it's likely a treacherous set to negotiate for the singers, particularly the women wearing Victorian style long skirts complete with bustle!  Indeed there were a few instances of costumes being caught by the various jagged edges onstage. I recall vividly Frances Ginzer slipping on the tree trunk during Todesverkundigung. Even with the physical limitations, Egoyan managed to make it interesting, perhaps not so much Act 1, but I love the staging of Act 3 Scene 1 - the bodies coming down from the flies sure make an impression!  If I were to voice one objection, it would have to be the extremely dim lighting of Act 1, for sure one of the murkiest I've ever experienced.    

The Valkyries place the magic fire to surround the sleeping Brunnhilde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducted his first performance of Die Walkure in a well paced reading of the score, with a good balance of drama and lyricism. The orchestra, while not quite note perfect as there were a few moments of balance issues, acquitted itself wonderfully. All in all, it was a major achievement all round and bodes well for the Siegfried and Gotterdammerung coming up in the next two seasons. Now with the Company since 2009, Debus really knows how to bring out the best from the orchestra.  On this evening, the brass and horns were marvelous. Principal cello Bryan Epperson's brief solo early in the opera was a highlight.  Wagner at his best is like an addiction - the more I see, the more I want. This is really a show not to be missed. Six more performances on Feb. 4, 7, 10, 13, 19, 22 at the Four Seasons Centre.
Johan Reuter (Wotan) and Christine Goerke (Brunnhilde) Photo: Michael Cooper

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  • I thought the whole production was dark and depressing. It is not one I'd like to see again.
    Goerke and Melton's voices were big, but often not beautiful.
    Not a production that would bring me back to see another Atom Egoyan work.
    I'm actually sorry I saw it, and I'm a Wagner aficionado
    J. McDonald

    By Blogger Joanne McDonald, At 9 February 2015 at 23:56  

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