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A truly grand finale to the Toronto Ring

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
09/17/2006 -  & September 24, October 1, 2006
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Susan Bullock (Brünnhilde), Christian Franz (Siegfried), Mats Almgren (Hagen), John Fanning (Gunther), Joni Henson (Gutrune), Mary Phillips (Waltraute), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Mette Ejsing (First Norn), Guang Yang (Second Norn), Birgit Beckhern (Third Norn), Laura Whalen (Woglinde), Krisztina Szabo (Wellgunde), Allyson McHardy (Flosshilde)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorusmaster), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Richard Bradshaw (Conductor)
Tim Albery (Director), Michael Levine (Production Designer), David Finn (Lighting Designer), Patti Powell (Choreographer)

Let's skip right to the end: I have never heard a Toronto audience go so totally wild over a performance - but never before did they have such good reasons. Every single cast member was outstanding, and both orchestra and chorus did themselves proud. Director Tim Albery (with the help of choreographer Patti Powell) created movement that matched the energy and varying moods of the music more successfully than the other three directors involved in this Ring project. He seems to have persuaded designer Michael Levine to abandon his dogmatic adherence to a palette of black and white (with occasional flashes of red or gold). There certainly was no riot of colour, but Brünnhilde was given an attractive pink dressing gown, and Gutrune a blue one. We were treated to flashes of blue and green in the Rhinemaidens' scene, and after the flood and conflagration we were treated to a golden sunrise. Instead of the earlier relentless black backgrounds there was much use of grey - this doesn't sound very exciting, but was appropriate for the Gibiching scenes portrayed as among the machinations of power-mad corporatism. Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) was a feral presence in the context of the spartan ultra-modern setting with its huge grey boardroom table, bright red sofa and sparkling cocktail set. Mats Almgren is very, very tall and has a voice not unlike an alpenhorn - a truly domineering Hagen, even when dressed in an ordinary grey suit (as were his assembled minions).

The staging has a few weak aspects. When Siegfried, in ordinary modern clothes, is sent off by Brünnhilde to his heroic deeds, he looks more like a stolid burgher going to a routine day's work, albeit carrying a sword. In Act III there is no staging for the great funeral music - the curtain closes while the scenery is changed. The flood and fire is pretty tame, as is the reaction of the chorus and supers who seem just mildly intrigued by it all. Work has been done on this final scene since this opera was first staged back in January and what we now have is a great improvement.

Many staging choices work marvellously well. There is a tangle of electrical power lines above the stage and the Norns are weaving wires. The flash of an electrical explosion signals the breaking of their rope. In Act II the huge boardroom table doubles as a second stage on which Brünnhilde is presented as Gunther's bride and her humiliation, confusion and anger are all displayed. I was expecting much from Susan Bullock based on her Die Walküre and Siegfried performances, but she exceeded them both vocally and dramatically. The men's chorus was energetically marshalled about. The Rhinemaidens' scene was lively and amusing, a welcome scherzo movement. As Siegfried approaches they doff their black raincoats, revealing their undies. They then don platinum blond wigs and he is confronted by flirtatious Marilyn Monroe look-alikes. Later, at the moment of Siegfried's stabbing when Hagen refers to the ominous ravens, two black-clad men (the ravens) enter bearing the corpse of their victim, the woodbird. This has provoked a good deal of discussion among opera-goers, many thinking it an intrusive piece of business. I feel it adds an effective bit of poignancy to the central tragedy.

As for singers: Christian Franz does not cut a heroic figure, but he comes across a a real human Siegfried with an appropriate variety of reactions and emotions. Mary Phillips (Waltraute) added to the riveting impression she made Wednesday as the Die Walküre Fricka. All three Norns and Rhinemaidens have strong, well-contrasted voices. John Fanning potrays a multi-facted Gunther, a gentlemanly man capable of callous violence.

Yet another reason for the audience's enthusiastic response was their realization that the new opera house simply works magnificently. With the help of friends, I managed to sit in different parts of the auditorium over the ten acts of the four operas - front orchestra, rear orchestra, third, fourth and fifth levels. The sound is terrific everywhere, even in a third-level seat close to the proscenium where I missed some stage action. I have attended opera in more than seventy venues in over fifty cities in fourteen countries, and this theatre is certainly the best in North America and ranks with the best in Europe. Anyone wanting to build a 2144-seat theatre should simply buy the plans from Jack Diamond (paying him a deservedly handsome fee) and replicate this one. Don't change a thing!

Michael Johnson



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