François Girard’s decision to remove the visual colour from the most taxing opera of The Ring is a courageous artistic risk, leaving the music to pick up the brush and find its way differently into the imagination, understanding and marvel of the audience.
The intriguing concept had the inestimable assistance of Michael Levine’s production design (complemented brilliantly by David Finn’s lighting plot), particularly in Act I’s tree-of-life set where a gnarly stump served as Siegfried’s sound post and blossomed spectacularly to the fly tower, chock-a-block full of bodies, branches and demolished government edifices: objects that in various combinations induce fear and darkness in the general populous but not Wagner’s most famous son.
What little colour that finds its way onto the stage comes from the reflection of the side lights on human canvas that adds much to the personal aura even as it must have left those searching for spectacle disappointed. Nothung, the magical sword is re-forged by hand—ten pair in fact, writhing out of the earth to their master’s direction; the shape-shifting Fafner (effectively sung by Phillip Ens) as dragon is rendered by six men linked together by wire and pulleys before collapsing in a dead-white heap; Brünnhilde’s mountain is a living body of flesh whose two-dozen components roll over and rise, arms stretched to the gods—collectively personifying the Ring of Fire (easily traversed by the one who’s ring burns brighter).
Like Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, each successive act, visually, strips away the coverings until only the two lovers (tellingly, the kiss-awakened warrior is the sole character in black) share each other’s love yet know their final battle must follow another day.
Girard’s other risk is to be a singers’ director and, generally, let his talented cast dig into the opera’s ferocious challenges with a minimum of movement to hinder their task or distract the admiring throng from the high art before them.
And there is much to admire. Christian Franz’s Siegfried—particularly in Act I—was a revelation of control, timbre and subtle shading that will serve as a benchmark for others aspiring to this level of artistry. His occasional (if not inevitable, given the stage time required) letdowns were erased from the ledger as fast as the next soaring line or introspective gesture occurred.
Despite looking too young and merely having a bad hair day rather than being truly repulsive, Robert Künzli served up a Mime that was a vocal gem and a dramatic victory. His cave-guarding brother Alberich also has a musically adept proponent in Pavlo Hunka.
Bass-baritone Peteris Eglitis projects the music and character of The Wanderer with skill and conviction, but a slightly wavering vibrato keeps this performance just short of excellent. Somehow, the magicians in the props department need to come up with a spear that looks sturdier than a chubby twig so that Siegfried’s destruction of it rings true.
Laura Whalen’s Forest Bird is secure, but comes across as one dimensional—her flitting about from side to side above the fray works well, but is surprisingly grounded in Act II.
Several times Girard leaves it to the audience to costume the cast, eschewing the Wanderer’s hat and Brünnhilde’s breastplate, but once awakened by her lover-to-be’s tentative peck, Frances Ginzer’s beautifully rounded soprano floods the hall with more set dressing than can be found in the Hummingbird’s storage bins. Then, as the opera closes in to its heady conclusion, the pair approach each other awkwardly on their knees before sinking back in repose and—finally—a real kiss.
Throughout its nearly five hour run-time, conductor Richard Bradshaw paced the rich score carefully, instantly aware of any slight ensemble defections and righting them in a flash. As performances continue, the music, no doubt, will be allowed to relax and find its way beyond the barlines and truly into the realm of the gods. Every player has a plate full of notes, but special mention must be made of bass clarinetist Colleen Cook, whose sensitive phrasing and dark-velvet tone were a constant pleasure, as were Joan Watson’s offstage horn calls. However, perhaps the "reed" scene might be re-thought; the English horn depiction of Siegfried's faltering attempts was merely a bit off rather than hilariously inept. A laugh is desperately needed by this time, so as to better set up Mime’s unintentional revelations.
Looking back, the all-white uniforms be they PJs, convict gear or socialist garb set this production far apart from the more common visual realization’s of the third tome of The Ring. Girard and the entire production staff must be commended for daring to assert that less is more. As the performances mature, the possibility for a superb result, one that will have even the traditionalists cheering on their feet, lurks bewitchingly in the muse’s lair. JWR