LEAVING THE RAILWAY STATION IN the Bavarian town of Bayreuth leads to an immediate choice between a left turn down Bahnhofstrasse or a right turn up Burgerreuther Strasse. In April 1871, Richard Wagner initially turned left, heading in the direction of the Margravial Opera House, said at the time to possess Germany's largest stage. He needed such a stage for his outsized music dramas, in particular his grand tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Disappointed by the ornate, 18th-century theatre he discovered across the street from the old palace of the Margraves, but charmed by Bayreuth itself, he subsequently retraced his steps, took the right turn and headed up a gentle slope to what is still known today as the Green Hill. There, with the financial support of King Ludwig II, he built his own festival theatre. Ever since it opened in August 1876 with the first complete Ring cycles, it has come to represent not only a geographic but also an artistic summit, worthy of a climb by anyone--performer as well as audience member--eager to experience the music dramas in the specific physical environment constructed for them.
This summer, it was Adrianne Pieczonka's turn to make the climb, singing Sieglinde in Die Walkure in Bayreuth's new production of the Ring for her Festspielhaus debut. And an auspicious one it proved. At the end of the first performance, on July 27, the audience gave Pieczonka a tumultuous roar of approval. The New York Times pronounced her "luminous soprano" a standout, and London's Guardian described her "radiantly sung Sieglinde" as the "vocal highlight" of the performance. The German press was just as enthusiastic. Die Zeit hailed her as the "Sieglinde of our time," while the Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote that "of all soloists, hers was the highest level of vocal accomplishment."
Not that Pieczonka was a stranger to Wagner's music dramas when she arrived in Bayreuth. Her Wagnerian credentials date back to 1993, when she sang Freia in Das Rheingold in Vienna. Since then she has added Elsa in Lohengrin, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and Elisabeth in Tannhauser as well as Sieglinde, which she also sings this September in the Canadian Opera Company's (and Canada's) first complete presentation of the Ring.
A born Wagnerian? Not quite. The University of Toronto Opera Division assigned the statuesque student from Burlington, ON, a variety of secondary roles in a broad repertory, not even sure whether her destiny would be as a soprano or mezzo until Mary Morrison worked with her to develop what has since become one of the particular glories of her voice, an open, ringing top. Her professional debut, in 1988, was with the COC as the First Prisoner in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and in her first season as a contract artist with the Volksoper in Vienna, the then 25-year-old was already portraying (in German) the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She achieved one of her greatest early successes as Tatiana in Harry Kupfer's production of Yevgeny Onegin for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and it was as Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes that she made her debut in Hamburg. When, after a hiatus of several years, the COC brought her back to its Hummingbird Centre stage in 1994, it was as Mimi in La boheme. Talk about versatility!
Pieczonka describes herself as "somewhere between a lyric and a dramatic soprano," which places her roughly in the category of a lyrico-spinto, able to move vocally in either direction. It is from this vocal perspective that she approaches Wagner, rather than as a heroic belter in the Birgit Nilsson manner. Like her fellow Canadian, Ben Heppner, she has thus far shied away from the very heaviest Wagner roles (in her case Isolde and Brunnhilde) in order to preserve the flexibility in her voice to be able to continue singing Mozart.
She was offered the opportunity to portray Isolde in 2003 at Glyndebourne, and it is a role she envisions tackling within the next four or five years. So far, though, Wagner's earlier heroines seem to provide a better vocal fit. As she smilingly puts it, "Elsa is pure bel canto, but Brunnhilde? No, I know my limits."
Although invited to Bayreuth to audition several years ago, no engagement materialized at that time. It was apparently after hearing her in Munich a couple of years ago that Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's 87-year-old grandson and still the Bayreuth Festival's all-powerful head, asked Pieczonka to climb the Green Hill as Sieglinde this summer. "If you want to consider yourself a Wagner singer, it's an important trip to take," she says.
It appears to have turned out to be an enjoyable one as well: "They start rehearsals for a new production a year ahead. So last year I got the feel of the town of Bayreuth. At first I didn't like it--too provincial. But it has grown on me.
"For the last four summers I have been in Salzburg, which is very chic, but not me. I've discovered that Bayreuth is more 'me.' I'm a beer-and-pretzels kind of gal.
"The Wagners had me over for dinner and it was very relaxing. We had Spargel [asparagus] and steak and a California red wine from Wolfgang Wagner's cellar, although he drank a white wine from Franken [Franconia] himself. The house [located a short stroll from the Festspielhaus] wasn't pretentious at all. It was warm and the working atmosphere at the festival is the same.
"It really does seem like a family there. They make you feel welcome. I got flowers on my first day, and I soon learned that Wolfgang Wagner comes to every rehearsal, chatting with the stagehands and getting mad when he disagrees with a producer.
"People don't work at Bayreuth because of the money [fees are famously modest]. It's because of a love of Wagner, and it's the same for the makeup artists as the singers. The ladies making my gown want it to be the best they can produce."
And the Festspielhaus itself? Pieczonka smiles broadly, explaining "the [covered] pit is kind of crazy. My colleagues warned me not to be surprised at the first orchestra rehearsal when you are hit by a tidal wave of sound. 'Don't try to compensate,' they said. 'Don't push your voice. It will ride on the orchestra.'"
And so it does, as any audience member can also testify. The effect is so special that first-time visitors often turn into Bayreuth pilgrims. As for first-time singers, well, as Pieczonka says, "The tradition is that you stay with your Ring production five years, but you don't know until the end of the season if you'll get that handshake--if Wolfgang Wagner will come up and say, 'See you next summer.'"
In her first season on Wagner's fabled stage, the festival's new Sieglinde already feels at home. As for the comfort of her roles, she offers a few candid assessments: "Eva and Freia are light, lyrical roles. Elsa is more challenging--such a big part. I know she is supposed to be stupid, but the music isn't saying so. I've never played her as a dumme Gans [stupid goose], as the Germans say. My voice teacher said of the music, 'Sing it like Verdi.' After all, Tebaldi sang it.
"Freia was my entry into Wagner, and my teacher said, 'Sing it in your voice.' Freia screams when the giants carry her off, but there isn't much to do. You can't get your teeth into Freia.
"With Eva, you can. Eva, like Sieglinde, demands a very developed middle voice, which I have and a lot of singers do not have. She is so thankful to Sachs, yet can't love him as a suitor. You can get choked up singing that role and I love it, although I think my Eva days are numbered.
"I haven't sung Senta [in Der fliegende Hollander] yet, but I'm glad I'm singing Sieglinde. She, too, is a tragic figure and I adore her music, singing it as lyrically as possible. When she brings water to Siegmund, one phrase is like an aria in itself. Working with Christian Thielemann [conductor of the new Bayreuth Ring] on every phrase has been stimulating. He is a madman in some ways, but musically one of the most rewarding conductors I've ever worked with. He's there at all the rehearsals, and he'll leap up off his chair because he's so into the music. It is exciting to work with someone possessing that kind of passion. I guess Sieglinde is now my role in the Ring, and that's it.
"Elisabeth I have sung at La Scala and in Munich and on tour in Japan, but 1 find the role less rewarding. She has an aria, duet and prayer, but her presence is not that important in the opera. It's all those guys screaming with their swords. Some sopranos do both Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhauser, but that would be too much vocally for me."
Like many a young soprano before her, Pieczonka had to be wooed by Wagner. An instinct for vocal self-preservation led her in other directions first. As she recalls, "When I went to opera school, I thought, 'Wagner, schmagner.' I wasn't interested. I thought singing Wagner would ruin my voice. To me, it was helmet and horns, Birgit Nilsson and five hours long.
"But the more I do his music, the more I admire it. I get goose bumps from the leitmotifs. I sometimes laugh at the texts--it's not Hoffmansthal--but the music is magical. It is often not the big moments that get to me. It is those special moments of purity and tenderness.
"I'm sometimes surprised by my Wagner-singing colleagues. If I can still sing a beautiful Desdemona [in Verdi's Otello], why sacrifice it by taking on Brunnhilde? When I cross the Isolde line, certain roles are gone for good.
"For me, Isolde is still about healthy, beautiful singing. When I sang the Liebestod at the opening of the Toronto's new opera house, I sang it with the same technique I use in other music.
"Preparing a Wagner role isn't different for me, either. I read through the score, accompanying myself at the piano, and work with a teacher or coach. Sometimes I'll get a CD and take an iPod on flights to listen to the music. I know some singers do a great deal of historical research, but I look for the truth of what I am doing primarily in the score."
A new solo CD with the Munich Radio Orchestra under Ulf Schirmer devoted to Wagner and Strauss arias documents some of the truths Pieczonka has discovered in her scores. As a calling card for her future Wagnerian career, it could hardly be more impressive or timely. It would be heartening to believe that her future climbs up the Green Hill in Bayreuth will be many and varied. Canada has few such valuable gifts to offer Richard Wagner and his festival.…