Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” is the mountain that all opera companies have to climb sooner or later. Made up of four separate works that run a total of 16 hours, filled with technical and vocal challenges that boggle the mind, the Ring Cycle tests an organization to its financial and artistic limits. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Siegfried” shows they’re meeting the task with a combination of rock-solid musicianship and questionable creative daring.
This production of “The Ring” is meant to be both a valediction and a salutation for the company. Three of the operas are being presented in its longtime home, the Hummingbird Center (formerly the O’Keefe Center), while the complete cycle will be performed together at their new home, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, in 2006.
The COC is mounting the operas slightly out of sequence. The second, “Die Walkure,” directed by Atom Egoyan, began the series in 2004. “Siegfried” is currently on the boards, to be followed by “Gotterdammerung” early in 2006. The initial work of the cycle, “Das Rheingold,” will not be seen until fall 2006 when the company moves into the Four Seasons Center.
General director Richard Bradshaw has left the design of the entire cycle in the hands of Michael Levine, while splitting the direction among four separate stagers, himself one of them. This obviously means Levine is the major visionary behind how the series will look and it is his choices that will dominate.
On the basis of “Siegfried,” that does raise cause for concern. Levine’s concepts are highly cerebral, dominated by his vision of the cycle being about the psychology of the characters, rather than concentrating on the bold, mythic action found in the libretti. In many ways, the Ring Cycle is not all that different from “The Lord of the Rings,” with elves, trolls, dragons, demons and — of course — a sought-after ring at the center of it all.
For “Siegfried,” Levine has filled the stage in the first two acts with intriguing but distracting sculptures that look as though the world had suddenly exploded and been frozen in mid-detonation, with buildings, debris and human bodies caught motionless in the air.
It’s initially striking, but ultimately distracting, as helmer Francois Girard opts for a highly static presentation, underlit to the point of invisibility by David Finn. During long arias when the soloists are almost impossible to see, the eye keeps straying to elements of Levine’s set, which is surely not the way things should be.
In the opera’s final act, Levine goes to the other extreme, stripping the stage bare, except for a chorus who function as human scenery. But since, like the leads, they are dressed in what seems to be white pajamas, it’s hard to imbue them with any real meaning.
Levine’s set, Finn’s lighting and Girard’s staging constantly contradict the libretto, offering gloom where sunlight is called for, opting for distance when proximity is in the text. One starts to wonder if this is carelessness or sheer perversity.
Mercifully, no such oddities occur on the musical front. Bradshaw’s conducting of the orchestra is strong, subtle and sure. They respond with playing of a richness and texture that would gladden the heart of any Wagner aficionado.
Vocally, the company are worthy, with the Wanderer of Peteris Eglitis, the Fafner of Phillip Ens and the Mime of Robert Kunzli making particularly vivid impressions.
Christian Franz has a nice solidity of tone as Siegfried, but his acting rarely seems to register, which must be placed at the door of Girard and Levine for the challenges they’ve put in his way. His final love scene with Brunnhilde (a workmanlike Frances Ginzer) is staged with the two of them nearly 50 feet apart and no contact at all between them until the very end.
The Canadian Opera Company definitely has the right idea about what the Ring Cycle should sound like, but the jury is still out as to whether or not they also have a similarly accurate concept of how it should look and feel.