Taking the Right Turn: William Littler Follows Adrianne Pieczonka's Path to Wagner and Bayreuth

Article excerpt

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.

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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.

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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. …