Opera

RADICAL RING MASTER

A director transports the legend of a dragon slayer to a Freudian underworld

Brian D. Johnson January 31 2005
Opera

RADICAL RING MASTER

A director transports the legend of a dragon slayer to a Freudian underworld

Brian D. Johnson January 31 2005

RADICAL RING MASTER

Opera

A director transports the legend of a dragon slayer to a Freudian underworld

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

IN WRITING ABOUT movies, you have to be careful not to give away too much of the plot. Opera is another story. No one gives a hoot if you spoil the outcome of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle (“Don’t tell me! Siegfried is slain? Valhalla is destroyed?”). What is frowned upon, however, is spoiling the set. With opera, the staging is the grand surprise, the magic moment when the curtain comes up and The Vision is revealed. When the Canadian Opera Company launched the Ring last April with director Atom Egoyan’s Die Walküre, I knew that Michael Levine—production designer for all four operas in the cycle—would wince as I wrote about white-shrouded corpses being lowered on cables in a Valhalla of girders and catwalks. But in describing Siegfried, the COC’s next Ring instalment (premiering Jan. 27 in Toronto), it’s hard to give away the set because it’s so wildly abstract. It’s a mindset.

The story unfolds in a forest. But under the direction of filmmaker François Girard, it takes place in Siegfried’s head. The forest becomes a Freudian thicket of memories and dreams. Tree limbs, fragments ofbuildings, garments and human bodies all float suspended in a frozen halo of exploded consciousness—a cerebral vortex, if you will. And in this Wagnerian sleep country, staged with monochromatic austerity, the singers are all dressed in white pyjamas, like orphaned inmates of Siegfried’s virgin brain. The lost son of incestuous twins, Siegfried is bom into a plot he doesn’t understand. And he’s about to slay a dragon—a towering creature I don’t dare describe, except to say that more white pyjamas are involved.

As director and co-writer of The Red Violin (1998) and Thirty Two Short Films About

Glenn Goidd (1993), Girard, 42, has shown a deep affinity for music. “Opera is the ancestor of film,” he tells me over dinner during a break in rehearsals for Siegfried. And it’s true. You can’t imagine modern blockbusters such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—or Apocalypse Now—even existing without the epic Ring cycle. And Wagner’s music colours emotion with such pinpoint precision, it’s as if he invented the notion of soundtrack. Girard concurs: “His thought process is very similar to what a film composer goes through. His music is narratively driven. In film, if you’re on this theme and suddenly a car crashes into a wall, you’ve got to reflect it in the score. That’s how Wagner works. The music doesn’t follow it’s own path. It’s totally interconnected with text.”

Girard is tackling the challenge of Siegfrieda five-hour performance marathon—after a series of frustrations with film. In 2001, he was all set to shoot The Magician’s Wife in Morocco with Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet when 9/11 spooked investors. In

to prepare a war movie, The Far Road, and saw the production derailed by the SARS outbreak. “I’ve had my share of bad luck,” shrugs Girard, who next plans to shoot a movie based on the Alessandro Baricco novel Silk.

2003, he remounted the project with Anthony Hopkins and Winslet, only to have it scuttled by suicide bombings in Casablanca. The same year, he went to China

While movie projects are notoriously unstable, opera schedules are set in stone years ahead. Girard made his opera debut directing the COC’s acclaimed production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex/ Symphony of Psalms (1997). Two years ago, he got his choice of the four Ring operas. “In a day and a half I listened to 16 hours of music,” he recalled. “The main reason I jumped on Siegfried is the opportunity for abstraction. There is a giant dragon, but when you see it....” He stops short of giving it away and simply says, “We took a pretty radical road.”

Girard was nervous that star German heldentenor and Wagner veteran Christian Franz—making his COC debut as Siegfried—might not accept his vision. On the contrary, “he totally embraced it,” says Girard. In the end, opera comes down to the performances. “There’s a rocket quality to the launch,” enthuses Girard. “You go through the dressing rooms and try to find the trigger points that will affect the trajectory, but it’s out of your hands. In film, you can climb a ladder and push a cloud out of the way.” (ifl