The Canadian Opera Company’s magnificent remounting of their 2006 production of Wagner’s Die Walküreis a striking example of Toronto’s steady coming-of-age as a city that can hold its own with the best in North America, and indeed, around the world. When the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opened in 2006, it was Wagner’s Ring Cycle that first graced its boards. The choice was clear—this city had the chops to do the Ring, we were ready to stand up there with all the other heavy weights, and stand tall. To put it simply, the COC’s Die Walküreis the reason you go to the opera.
I am almost at a loss to capture the colossal impact of sight, sound, and feeling, that hits like a wave the minute the curtains rise; this is, in every sense, the gesamtkunstwerk that opera is meant to be. Michael Levine’s post-industrial set is timeless and ancient, Victorian and contemporary, emotional and fiercely intellectual in concept and design. The interweaving steel girders, so reminiscent of the structure that hold up our very own Bloor Viaduct, spear through the space on stage like an atomic spider’s furious web. They remind us immediately of the fragility of the structures that support modernity; they are curiously of this place, and of every place. Behind the chaos of this steel-bound earth on stage, Valhalla, the seat of the gods, stretches into infinity just beyond the lines and lintels of a massive Victorian door. As the troubled gods descend, one is reminded of the descent of those other gods of modernity, Nietzsche and Freud, on a world churning with moral and spiritual decrepitude. And as the gods rise back to their heavenly abode in the third act, they do so over stairs made of the corpses of heroes in pristine white body bags, heaped there by the Valkyries. What more powerful way can there be to remember millions dead in the conquest in the name of myth? To remember that this kind of conquest still piles up the dead in the wars of our day?
But even the most brilliant sets and costumes and concepts would accomplish naught if the ensemble cast could not carry the audience through four hours and forty-five minutes of drama. Making their debuts with the COC tonight were three singers whose voices seemed to defy the logic of physics and space. Heidi Melton’s tortured Sieglinde could cry out with the anguish of an abused animal, then sink to a resonant near-whisper in a lover’s discovering gaze. Ms. Melton brings us a Sieglinde who is a tortured, conflicted, and clear-eyed mortal woman, even as she incarnates a myth. As Brünnhilde, Christine Goerke commanded the stage with a voice so powerful that it almost had a physical presence. One had the uncanny feeling that when Ms Goerke sang, her song consumed the very matter around her and turned it into sound. Against her, and every bit as powerful, was Johan Reuter as Wotan. Mr. Reuter could burst forth with a fury that did indeed carry the thunder of heavenly storms, but his dramatic strength lay in his capacity to capture the sense of defeat and doubt that is central both to his character, and to unfolding events. While Clifton Forbis did an admirable job with Siegmund, one had the distinct impression that he was singing short of his full power, which was all the more evident because he was surrounded by powerhouses such as Melton and Goerke.
As Act III opens with the triumphant calls of the Valkyries, one sits in awe, consumed by that “moment of all moments” in opera history. To be in this theatre as the Valkyries sing is to witness the realization of Wagner’s vision of opera as recapturing the sense of epic tragedy of ancient Greece. It is almost impossible to create surprise with the ride of the Valkyries, but conductor Johannes Debus works new magic with this music that is recognized even by a five-year-old. Rather than a bombastic, triumphalist anthem, Debus’ strings evoke the delicate and furious rush of wind. Trombones sound as if from afar, drawing purposefully nearer. When Debus first took the stage this evening, he was greeted by cheers and thunderous applause from an eager audience. Their expectations were surpassed in his direction of this incredible ensemble on opening night.
Instances in which the power of great art brings us a transformative cultural moment are rare. COC’s Die Walküre is one of them.