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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Superb Musical Values Make Revival of COC Siegfried a Winner

By Joseph So on January 25, 2016

Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016
Stefan Vinke in the title role slaying Fafner the dragon in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Canadian Opera Company: Wagner’s Siegfried. Saturday, February 23 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

In the mind of many Wagnerites, Siegfried is the “problem child” of the Ring Cycle.  Even seasoned fans would sometimes grumble about the longueur of the first two acts – sitting through those four hours is seen by some as a price one has to pay to finally hear Brunnhilde in the fifth hour.  I recall reading some musicological analysis that labels Siegfried as a scherzo of the tetralogy, dominated by male characters and their antics. Then there’s the not inconsiderable problem of Siegfried himself, an anti-hero whom only his mother – or in this rather absurd situation, his aunt Brunnhilde – could love.  As the late Anna Russell was so fond of saying: “You can do anything in opera as long as you sing it!”

Now that I consider myself a “Ring Nut” many times over, I’ve learned to appreciate Siegfried for what it is, a kind of necessary dramatic exposition that sets up the action culminating in Götterdammerung.  Even if one isn’t so fond of the goings-on in the first two acts, the music is first-rate. Act Three Scene Three, with its glorious 40-minute love duet is decidedly cathartic, not to mention long (!), probably the lengthiest love duet in all opera.  Wagner ratchets up the drama and the music to a fever pitch at the end, with both principals hitting a high C, leaving the audience exhilarated and emotionally drained.  With the great cast here to do it justice, this work is hardly the “problem child” any more.

I’ve had the good fortune of having attended a working rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, followed by the final dress, before last evening’s premiere. I can say unequivocally that this is a much stronger cast than ten years ago. This is German heldentenor Stefan Vinke’s 16th production, an extraordinary statistic. By contrast, American soprano Christine Goerke is singing her first, having only previously sung the Walküre Brunnhilde.  The rest of the cast are almost all seasoned veterans.

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

Quebec stage director Francois Girard returns for the revival. An interview of Girard at a Toronto Wagner Society meeting gave me more understanding of his vision for this opera.  When Siegfried is sitting on the ash tree stump, over his head is a gigantic “thought bubble” with hundreds of fragments that represent the collective history of his ancestors, perhaps hardwired into Siegfried’s DNA, something that explains his urge to know his origins and his destiny.  In Act 2, a change in visual perspective has the audience looking down at the top of his head, suggesting that we’ve entered into his cognitive world. We are the silent witness as he slowly gains self-knowledge.  I find this quite clever and totally original, yet this design presents certain physical limitations in the staging. There’s no fire and no forging of Nothung as we know it.  The dragon, the flames and the ring of fire in Act 3 are all people-powered “low tech” solutions.  Novel and original?  Sure, but somehow I missed the magic that only intricate stagecraft can provide.

Musically, it was one of the finest evenings at the COC in recent memory. The only word to describe Stefan Vinke is indefatigable. He sang full voice at the dress rehearsal, and three days later he did it all over again, unflaggingly! On opening night, Vinke offered clarion tone, with well-judged dynamic variations. His easy top meant there was never any fear of his not making a high note. In fact, he sang a high C at the dress, repeating it on opening night albeit with less power. Given he’s been going at it for nearly five hours at that point opposite a fresh-voices soprano, it wasn’t exactly a level playing field! A good actor, Vinke captured Siegfried’s impetuous nature well.  On purely vocal terms, he has a curious tendency to suppress the consonants, but it’s a minor quibble.

The Siegfried Brunnhilde is a short, if intense role, and Christine Goerke sang it with powerful, secure and penetrating tone, with her trademark fast vibrato particularly in forte passages. Her Brunnhilde was sympathetic and full of womanly warmth. At the dress rehearsal, the translation of Siegfried’s line “Das ist kein Mann” brought gales of laughter from the student audience. Mercifully, the offending line in the projected surtitles was removed on opening night.

American bass-baritone Alan Held, a frequent COC guest artist, gave us a beautifully sung Wanderer, with plenty of gravitas but also vulnerability and eventual resignation in his Act 3 encounters with Erda and Siegfried.  Austrian Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is rightly considered the leading Mime today. His acting of this character role was appropriately conniving and slimy, but he sang it with uncommon beauty of tone, as much as the role would allow. British baritone Christopher Purves, was a ringing-voiced Alberich. If any role is short-changed in this production, it’s Fafner (sung by Canadian bass Phillip Ens), who never appears on stage, and the amplification of his voice destroyed any semblance of the fidelity of his sound. Young American contralto Meredith Arwady impressed with amazing low notes as Erda. Former COC Ensemble soprano Jacqueline Woodley made a welcome return to the Company as a pure, clear-voiced Forest Bird, but her placement so far upstage worked to her disadvantage.

Kudos to COC Music Director Johannes Debus for his brilliant Siegfried debut. One would never have guessed, given the beautifully paced, lyrical reading of the complex score, that this was his first. There were moments when he “let it rip” a bit too enthusiastically, and the sound from the pit threatened to obliterate the singers. But in the auditorium, it was undeniably exciting. Debus’ contract renewal to 2021 was one of the best piece of news I’ve heard this season. A final word of praise to the huge number of supernumeraries in this show for their excellent work, but particularly the six men that made up the dragon.

Now I can’t wait for the Götterdammerung next season!

Wagner’s Siegfried runs through February 14, 2016. For tickets and show times, see www.coc.ca

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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