A Brand New ‘Ring’ in a Brand New Space
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
September 14, 2006
TORONTO, Sept. 13 — When the conductor Richard Bradshaw, who has been general director of the Canadian Opera Company since 1998, appeared in the pit here at the company’s impressive new home on Tuesday night to conduct the premiere of a new production of Wagner’s “Rheingold,” the audience gave him a prolonged standing ovation before he conducted a note.
It was the British-born Mr. Bradshaw’s vision and tenacity during nearly 20 years with the company that turned the fantasy of a new house into the $150 million reality occupying an entire block of downtown Toronto, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts. Toronto opera lovers are clearly excited by the center, which opened in June with a series of special concerts and public events. Tuesday night’s “Rheingold” — the first evening in the Canadian Opera Company’s first complete presentation of Wagner’s “Ring,” which concludes on Sunday — commenced this adventurous company’s inaugural season in its new home. This is actually the first complete “Ring” production in Canadian history.
Founded in 1950, the Canadian Opera Company had performed for more than 40 years at the O’Keefe Center, now the Hummingbird Center, a 3,155-seat theater with an inadequate pit and limited backstage storage for sets. The acoustics were deemed poor enough to require what is euphemistically called electronic enhancement.
But the “Thirty Years’ War,” as Mr. Bradshaw called the campaign to build this new complex, has been won. The building’s boxy exterior, designed by the architect Jack Diamond, has been dividing opinion. Nearly three whole sides are covered with dark gray manganese brick, handsome in its way but not very inviting. The front, though, facing bustling University Avenue, is a captivating wall of glass. From the street you have a complete view into the spacious and glittering lobby, called the City Room.
Alas, during the construction period the city discovered that brick sewer lines from the 1700’s that must connect to the Four Seasons Center were shoddy. For the time being the front facade is partly blocked by trenches and cranes as the city completes its work.
Inside, though, is a splendid auditorium in the traditional horseshoe configuration with four upper rings. The house boasts handsome blond wood floors and comfortable seats with plenty of leg room. Best of all, there are only 2,000 seats and the acoustics, the work of the acoustician Robert Essert, seem excellent on first impression. The orchestra sound was bright, yet still rich and detailed. Mostly, the voices carried easily over the ample pit.
Like many companies that have tackled the “Ring,” the Canadian Opera has been introducing this production in stages, one opera per season, starting in 2004 with “Die Walküre.” “Siegfried” was first seen in 2005 and “Götterdämmerung” last spring. Tuesday night was the debut of “Das Rheingold.” And the other productions, which opened at the Hummingbird Center, have been adjusted and altered for the new house.
If you ask me, a new opera house should open with a new opera. But inaugurating a theater with the “Ring” certainly proves a company’s mettle. To distinguish its production, the company entrusted each of the four operas to a different director, although Michael Levine, who directed “Das Rheingold,” is the production designer for the entire cycle. His work in “Das Rheingold” fancifully combines abstract imagery with vaguely Victorian modern dress.
In the opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, the swirling river was vividly suggested by billowing, silky white sheets draped on three sides of the stage and also wafting in waves on the stage floor. Wearing delicate white nightgowns, the Rhinemaidens held sisterly pillow fights with puffy pillows that floated like balloons. You could say that Mr. Levine was cheating by substituting pillow play for churning waters. Still, the imagery was lovely and the movements of the singers (Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabo and Allyson McHardy) elegantly choreographic.
As portrayed by the robust baritone Richard Paul Fink, the conniving Niebelung dwarf Alberich was almost too likable: rather like your favorite grouchy, oily-haired uncle. Still, it was refreshing to see the character not seething with resentment and self-loathing, and Mr. Fink commanded the stage.
As the Rhinemaidens first teased and then tried to thwart Alberich, a man in a proper suit and vest slept fitfully in the middle of the stage. Who is he? you wondered. Alberich climbed all over him, and the maidens even pawed at him. It did not take long to guess that the dreaming man was Wotan, who stirred and twitched when the maidens described beams of sunlight calling the “sleeper to wake,” meaning of course the magic gold at the bottom of the river.
Inserting Wotan as an unconscious witness to the theft of the ring in the first scene may be a very heavy-handed idea. Still, it immediately establishes the entire “Ring” story as a battle of wills between the corrupted head god and the relentless lowly dwarf. The scheduled Wotan, Pavlo Hunka, was ill. The sturdy baritone John Fanning saved the day and sang the role, warming up — and loosening up — after a halting start.
The stage was bordered through most of the scenes by an Erector Set of massive black scaffolding and bridges lined with eerie rows of beaming factory lights. One affecting stroke was Mr. Levine’s depiction of the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Robert Pomakov and Philip Ens) as ruthless leaders of competing crews of laborers clad in earth-brown work clothes. The men took turns carrying the giants on their shoulders, sometimes resting them atop scattered tables upon which sat a mock-up model of Valhalla, the sprawling castle of the gods. The concept for the characters had a haunting impact, for the power of these giants does derive from the shoulders of those they boss around.
The mezzo-soprano Judit Nemeth was a rich-toned if somewhat bland Fricka. Julie Makerov’s plush soprano voice and vulnerability were ideal for the goddess Freia. Richard Berkeley-Steele brought a reedy tenor voice and a dose of sarcasm to the cagey demigod of fire, Loge.
Mr. Bradshaw drew a radiant and tellingly paced account of the score from the orchestra. If the performance lacked inexorableness, this was still essentially strong work. And Mr. Bradshaw remains the hero of Toronto for spearheading the effort to build the Four Seasons Center.
“Siegfried” will be presented tomorrow afternoon and “Götterdämmerung” on Sunday afternoon. There are two more complete cycles of the “Ring” through Oct. 1.