British Wagner Scholar Barry Millington Assesses the First Canadian Staging of Wagner's Epic

Opera Canada, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

British Wagner Scholar Barry Millington Assesses the First Canadian Staging of Wagner's Epic


FOR MOST OF THE 26 YEARS DURING WHICH WAGNER WAS engaged on the composition of Der Ring des Nibelungen he had no certain knowledge how, or if, his grand vision would be staged. Few thought that Richard Bradshaw, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, would be inaugurating the company's splendid new home at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with a staging of Wagner's massive tetralogy, but a similar single-minded resolve brought the project triumphantly to fruition in three cycles given in close proximity at the end of September.

The COC took the brave and unconventional step of commissioning productions from four different directors for the constituent parts of the cycle, though continuity was provided by the presence of a single designer, Michael Levine. Levine's input was evidently far-reaching, which may account for the impression of thematic consistency--despite the disparate approaches of the directors--in the cycle as a whole.

Levine was both director and designer for Das Rheingold, getting the cycle underway with a conception of extraordinary imagination and accomplishment. A notable feature is the use of cloths as a stage prop, and of supernumeraries incorporated into the action. In the opening scene, for example, huge expanses of white and blue material evoke virginal purity, the mists of time and billowing waves. In Scene 2, an army of workers bearing Fasolt and Fafner on their shoulders represent the giants. Counterposing them is a group of women in black costume, embodying the female principle and engaging in a memorable tug-of-war with the giants over Freia. The descent to Nibelheim is engineered by whirling, balletic figures, with a vast cloth, brilliantly and appropriately lit, standing for the gold mine. The effect is stunning. The magic transformations are managed cleverly, with Alberich, dressed in identical material to that of the set, first fusing with it, then emerging as a dragon out of it. The representation of Valhalla as a model, stretching right across the stage like the enacted scheme of an autocrat--which, of course, it is--paradoxically exaggerates rather than diminishes its scale.

The setting of Atom Egoyan's Die Walkure, like the remaining three parts of the cycle already seen in Toronto over the last couple of years, suggests that some kind of devastation had taken place after the events of Das Rheingold. Wotan's deed has put the world out of joint. The gantries and girders that represented Nibelheim now lie askew: the whole infrastructure is crumbling. Such is the chaos of the ruins that it's difficult not to feel a sense of overkill. Certainly, the set is treacherously dangerous and more than one performer measured his or her length on it at some point. The prominent lamps dotted round the set of Levine's Das Rheingold, effectively incorporated occasionally (as when a lamp is shone in Wotan's face as he wrests the ring from Alberich--is he stricken by conscience or the fear of exposure?), multiply prolifically for Die Walkure and are less suggestively employed.

In an original touch at the beginning of Act II, Siegmund and Sieglinde are discovered asleep under a blanket. Fricka gives Wotan a spade with which to dig a grave and they are indeed symbolically buried. When Sieglinde subsequently appears in Scene 3 calling for Siegmund, she scrabbles in the earth over the grave. At the end of the opera, Brunnhilde is laid to rest on the same spot, and Wotan, briefly lying beside her, movingly takes a clod of earth and throws it away. Much of Egoyan's staging is disappointingly conventional, but there is an imaginative evocation of the Magic Fire, for which the Valkyries, bearing torches, enter and surround Brunnhilde.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Francois Girard's production of Siegfried is on another level altogether. When the curtain goes up, Siegfried is sitting on a tree stump centre stage (a visual reference to the stump in Die Walkure). …

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British Wagner Scholar Barry Millington Assesses the First Canadian Staging of Wagner's Epic
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