Musical excellence has been one of the defining hallmarks of Alexander Neef's tenure as General Director of the Canadian Opera Company. He has always ensured that the best singers in the world grace the Four Seasons Stage, presenting performances of uniformly high quality.
But nothing in the COC's recent past can adequately prepare you for the almost otherworldly perfection of the COC's current production, the third opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Siegfried. At five hours long, with literally thousands of notes to be performed, this Siegfried never makes a false musical move. Each gesture, each line, each leitmotif, each phrase, both in the pit and on stage, was handled with care, skill, and panache. It was astonishing.
And then Christine Goerke started to sing. And an evening that was already reaching for the stars catapulted to a whole new level. Goerke is the world's most famous Brunnhilde at the moment, having made her role debut in Die Walkurie here last year, doing the same now in this Siegfried. She only appears in the opera at the very end, about four hours or so into the proceedings.
What made Goerke's appearance so devastating was that, all of a sudden, one of Wagner's mythological figures stepped out of the pages of a comic book and became intensely, achingly human. Goerke is a great actress as well as a great singer, and she made Brunnhilde's awakening, her discovery of her mortality, her confusion about her love for Siegfried, and her eventual capitulation to that love so powerful, so real, so visceral, that an opera that had previously been partly allegorical, partly mythical, became a great human drama.
Until that point, it had been primarily Stefan Vinke's Siegfried that had made the evening so thrilling – although, to be fair, every performer onstage without exception was excellent. But Vinke, who unlike Goerke, is onstage for almost the entire five hours, gave a performance not just of of great stamina, but also subtlety, drama, and nuance. His tenor is clear and focused, perfectly under control and very accessible to an audience. And Vinke's superb Siegfried was matched by Alan Held's Wotan, the Zeus-like figure in the opera, who watches his power dissipate and eventually disappear under the influence of the new young heroic Siegfried. Held was magisterial, austere, pained. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a wily, insinuating Mime, Christopher Purves an evil, manipulative Alberich, Meredith Arwady a worldly-wise Erda, Jacqueline Woodley an innocent, free Forest Bird and Philip Ens a fearsome dragon, Fafner. It's not unusual for some of the voices in a Wagner cast to be a little weaker than the others. Not in this Seigfried. Every performer was at the top of their game.
And the beauty of the musical presentation on stage was bettered, if that were possible, by what was going on in the pit. This is Johannes Debus's first Siegfried, and conducting this score needs a concentration and intensity that is almost superhuman. Because of Wagner's famously discursive style, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of individual moments in the score all needing detailed and careful attention to come off successfully. Debus gave full value to them all. Without falling into the trap that Wagner sets for the unwary of "too much, too often", Debus was deeply into the music, but careful to keep each emotion and sentiment in its place. And his orchestra played their hearts out for him – as good as the COC Orchestra has ever sounded.
Francois Girard's direction and Donna Feore's choreography in this revival of the COC's 2006 production were simple but effective. A chorus of extras, all in white provided the backdrop to most of the scenes, many of which are confrontations between two characters, and the production's stark simplicity emphasized the intensity of the drama. Michael Levine's set was equally austere, although something like a Tree of Life, with bodies and exploded bits of buildings laced through it, provided an extremely dramatic focal point for the first two acts.
The world for over a century has been debating the power of Wagner's ideas as well as celebrating the beauty of his music. On the musical side, Siegfried may be the opera that called forth Rossini's famous remark that Wagner has many beautiful moments, and many tedious quarter-hours. But those beautiful moments are in great abundance in Siegfried, so the evening flows remarkably well. And as for those semi-mythical, semi-allegorical, semi-philosophic ideas? You can take them as seriously as you want – they're really like the allegorical overlays of the Lord of the Rings, or even Star Wars. Powerful and revealing if you want them to be.
But for this COC Siegfried, it is the quality of the music-making that makes this a must-see production. Performances of this quality in this abundance are rare. And Christine Goerke's Brunnhilde may be a once-in-a-decade experience.
Siegfried runs at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until February 14.