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Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Clifton Forbis as Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre.

Michael Cooper

Title
Die Walkure
Company
Canadian Opera Company
Conductor
Johannes Debus
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto

Richard Wagner has baggage.

There's the man himself – the notorious anti-Semite, the megalomaniac, the Nazis's favourite composer (although that wasn't actually Wagner's fault).

Then there are the operas themselves – long-winded, gigantic, saddled with interminably detailed expository declamations, full, it seems, of very loud, constantly over-the -top voices making very loud, constantly over-the-top music.

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Baggage.

So it is a measure of the success of the current COC mounting of Wagner's Die Walkure, the second opera in his Ring cycle, that the production completely overcomes the composer's supposed deficiencies and for four hours and forty-five minutes, holds us in complete thrall. Friedrich Nietzsche called Wagner "The Sorcerer", not entirely kindly – and this Die Walkure helps you understand exactly what the philosopher was talking about. You emerge from the Four Seasons Centre in a sort of spell.

And it's a musical spell. The key to the overwhelming success of this Walkure was the exceptional quality of the voices on stage and the musicianship in the pit. Wagner is tough on singers – the music is not easy to sing, but when there is anything but complete artistic focus among its performers, the torturous plot of the Ring cycle, with its gods and humans and dwarfs and giants and confusing philosophical reflections on freedom and fate can so easily turn onto parody, even farce.

But nothing remotely farcical transpired upon the Four Seasons Centre stage on Saturday night. Instead, two very human stories, two love stories – one between Siegmund and Sieglinde, brother and sister as it turns out, the other between the God Wotan and Brunnhilde, father and daughter – were touchingly and beautifully played out. Wagner is noted for his enormous musical gestures – like the famous Ride of the Valkyries, which opens Act 3 – but it is a succession of more surprisingly intimate moments that actually linger in the mind after this production, and which makes it so affecting. The world of Gods and fate is suspended; the world of human emotion is propelled to the foreground.

The musical highlight of the evening was supposed to be Christine Goerke's Brunnhilde, the first time she has sung this role in a staged version of the opera. Georke is the hottest Wagnerian singer on the planet at the moment, scheduled to sing Brunnhilde at the Met for their next Ring cycle, and there was great excitement at her appearance here. And she lived up to all the hype, with a powerful, supple soprano voice, with a surprisingly effective lower register, so clear and communicative that can shake the rafters of the house, and then reduce to a whisper in a moment, all under perfect control. Goerke is a fine actor as well as singer, and her Brunnhilde, once her father's darling and then his betrayer, was full of subtle shades of humanity and tenderness.

But, it's a tribute to the excellence of the COC cast that Goerke didn't completely steal the show Saturday night. She shared that honour, I thought, with Heidi Melton's Sieglinde, or perhaps with the pair of Melton and Clifton Forbis, who sang Siegmund. Forbis, who has sung the role before at the COC (this Walkure was originally presented in 2004) was powerful and extremely heartfelt as the hero who discovers his true love in the midst of a forest, and eventually dies for her. On the other hand, Melton's crystalline soprano provided amazing intensity as Sieglinde, and the duet between the two, which is basically all of Act 1 of Walkure, was riveting. With an enormous orchestra blazing behind them, Melton and Forbis captured our full attention and sympathy.

Just as powerful throughout the evening was Johan Reuter's Wotan. Wotan may be Wagner's most interesting character in the Ring – an all-powerful God who actually is full of doubt and confusion, harried on all sides and stricken by his loss of confidence and power. Reuter expressed the combination of Wotan's furious energy and mental reticence beautifully all evening. It is to Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie who is his favourite daughter, that he confesses his growing desperation, and Reuter and Goerke played out these scenes with tenderness and feeling, contributing to the special rosy glow that permeated the entire performance. The cast of the opera is filled out by Dimitry Ivashchenko, who was a malevolent Hunding, Sieglinde's actual husband, and Janina Baechle as Fricka, Wotan's hectoring wife, who convinces him, against his better judgment, to censure the incestuous and adulterous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde.

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More than with most operatic composers, Wagner puts a great deal of the musical essence of his work in the orchestra, not on stage, and Johannes Debus led an inspired performance of Walkure, the first time he's conducted the work. Debus chose, wisely, I think, to hold back a bit on the score's tendency to musical hyberbole, and conducted an almost classic version of the work, allowing the tender and minimalist moments of the piece to shine through the bluster of 110 musicians. Atom Egoyan's direction was similarly spare and focussed, exactly the right counterpart to the musical intensity on stage, a directorial touch that moulded and shaped the musical essence of the work with care and taste.

I am not a Wagnerian. But the COC's Walkure almost made a believer out of me. It is Wagner with a heart, not just with noise and faux political theorizing. It takes a great deal of musical excellence to make a Wagnerian opera move seamlessly through its various stages, digressions, backtracks, musical valleys and climaxes. It is a credit to all involved that this Walkure didn't lose its momentum for a second. It provided a human face on a mythic theme, touching and exhilarating at the same time.

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