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Ain Anger, far left, as Hagen, is a subtly malevolent manipulator, always fascinating and always unpredictable.

Michael Cooper

Title
Goetterdaemmerung
Company
Canadian Opera Company
Conductor
Johannes Debus
Music
Richard Wagner
Director
Tim Albery
Stars
Christine Goerke, Andreas Schager
Venue
Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, February 25, 2017

There's an inexorable trajectory in the four operas of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, the fourth of which, Goetterdaemmerung, opened on Thursday at the Canadian Opera Company's Four Seasons Centre. As the operas progress, the focus of attention moves in a steady downward arc from the immortals in Valhalla to mankind on Earth. Das Rheingold, the first of the group, is taken up almost completely with gods and giants and Rhine maidens and dwarves – a mythological cornucopia not unlike The Lord of the Rings.

But by the time we get to Goetterdaemmerung, the gods are almost completely absent. It is men and women who animate the story – one of greed and lust for power and corruption and death. But it was precisely this emphasis on the human that made the COC production of Goetterdaemmerung so powerful and stunning. For once, Wagner was not larger than life – he was scaled down to an earthly, human size. And if you are used to your Wagner being gargantuan and epic, you'll realize how unusual (and welcome) that is.

The key to the human integrity of the COC production was the superb, intensely real, stunning performance of Christine Goerke as Bruennhilde, the Valkyrie turned mortal who is at the centre of the opera. Goerke is being hailed as the Bruennhilde of her generation, and she earns the title by investing herself as a performer into every note that Bruennhilde sings, every nuance of feeling that her character experiences. It's not just that Goerke can handle the overwhelming vocal demands of the role. She can – her powerful, soaring soprano has a smoky, gutsy lower register that colours everything she sings, from belt-it-out-over-100-musicians power to the softest pianissimo imaginable. Goerke sings Bruennhilde as though she understands, and insists on understanding, every emotion her character feels – from wild love to the fear of unwanted seduction to the pain of betrayal to the hot desire for revenge to ultimate resignation. And somehow, Goerke does all of this while making the semi-mythological and often stultified heroine into the most modern woman imaginable. It's as though this Bruennhilde stepped out of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

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Goerke's psychological and musical realism for her character was aided and reinforced by director Tim Albery's ultramodern setting for the opera. His Goetterdaemmerung is set more or less in the present day. The male characters wear business suits and lounge in an office with an enormous couch, facing computer screens. The entire set design is stark and utilitarian, with remarkably effective lighting constantly highlighting the human drama of the piece. While the modern setting can have its drawbacks (Goerke starts the opera in a dressing gown that made her look like a Housewife of Bayreuth), the pluses of the staging far outweigh the negative. Wagner can affect us in many ways – he can overwhelm, he can set us up for the transcendent, he can push us over the brink into pure bliss. Seldom does he draw us in to the humanity of his characters and it's a tribute to this production that it approaches the drama of the piece from this perspective, and so successfully at that.

Goerke's Bruennhilde is matched by many other characterizations in this production. Ain Anger made his Hagen, the Iago of the piece, into a subtly malevolent manipulator, always fascinating, always unpredictable. Karen Cargill was an appealing Waltraute, a fellow Valkyrie begging Bruennhilde to get rid of the damn ring that causes so many of the problems throughout the cycle. Martin Gantner made a suitably vain, and then suitably tortured Gunther, a man manipulated by Hagen (his half-brother) so that Hagen can win the ring for himself. Robert Pomakov made a chilling cameo appearance as Alberich, the guy who stole the gold and fashioned the ring in the first place. I was a bit less taken with Andreas Schager's Siegfried. Schager has a fine voice and carries the first half of Act 3 almost by himself, but whereas Goerke seemed in perfect control of Bruennhilde and her motivation on every note, Siegfried seemed to elude Schager. Admittedly, Siegfried is under the effect of a potion and doesn't really know who he is or what he's doing for most of the opera, but somehow the character still needs to exude some self-understanding to make the tensions in the piece work.

It is a criminal act to save an appreciation of the COC Orchestra and Johannes Debus to the end of this review. The orchestra, of course, is really the main character in any Wagnerian opera, and Debus performed a minor miracle with this four-hour-plus score. He made Wagner sound like Mozart in places, he made Wagner sound like chamber music in places, he coaxed and kneaded the score to reveal a hundred new insights, by downplaying the epic in the piece and letting us hear the actual music in the score. And if you think that's common, allow me to play you two dozen recordings of Wagner, past and present. Debus provided an intelligent reading of the score from first note to last. Yes, there were the great swelling lines and those moments when Wagner descends into the garish and flirts with the tasteless (what one would give to be able to take a blue editor's pencil to one of his scores), but Debus kept them under tight control.

In the end, this was a production full of intelligence – in the pit, on stage, in its lighting and direction. And that's not a word one applies to Wagner very often. Powerful, yes, overwhelming, transcendent – those are the common Wagnerian adjectives. But intelligence was the hallmark of the evening, allowing us to see and hear in Wagner even more complex artistry than normal, a tribute to a fine production.

Goetterdaemmerung runs through Feb. 25 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto (coc.ca).

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