DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN (THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG) by Richard Wagner, directed by Michael Levine, Atom Egoyan, François Girard and Tim Albery, conducted by Richard Bradshaw, with Frances Ginzer, Pavlo Hunka, Clifton Forbis, Christian Franz and Adrianne Pieczonka. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Opens September 12 and runs to October 1. Single opera $75-$550. 416-363-8231. www.coc.ca. Rating: NNNNN
In a step up the operatic social ladder, bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka moves from troubled, murdering army private to king of the gods.
Hunka, nominated for a Dora last year for Alban Berg's Wozzeck, takes on his first Wotan in the Canadian Opera Company's (COC) mammoth Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring Of The Nibelung), Richard Wagner's four operas that play out over 16 hours and mark not only Canada's first Ring cycle but also the company's premiere production in its new home at Queen and University.
"I've spent the past four weeks learning the biggest role I'll ever do, getting the structure of the tough music into my head," says Hunka, who sings in the first three operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried. "Now that it's settled, I can start imprinting my own personality on the piece."
The sense of scale is immense not only in terms of the role but also in the production as a whole. The COC has been presenting one segment a year for the past three years, finally premiering Rheingold, directed by Michael Levine - another first, for designer Levine's never helmed a show before - to open the new house. Atom Egoyan, François Girard and Tim Albery have each directed one of the other parts.
Over the next weeks, the COC offers three complete cycles of the Ring. CBC broadcasts the first cycle live, beginning Tuesday (September 12).
Though nominally the most powerful being in the opera, Wotan is at first an optimist who craves the power resident in the cursed, madness-inducing ring of the title, which only functions for someone who forswears love. Tolkien clearly drew on Wagner when he created his own epic tale of a magical ring.
"I see Wotan as a human figure, a person with a generous heart but also naive," says Hunka. "It's not until the end of Siegfried that he realizes he has to give way to the younger generation, let them make their own mistakes.
"Over the course of the cycle, Wotan makes deals with various gods and giants but doesn't think of the consequences, that one arrangement has an influence on another. When things disintegrate around him, he simply turns his back and fails to confront any of it."
Hunka could have advised Wotan on the problem with such deals. Before he became an opera singer, he practised law in the UK.
"Wotan's as contradictory, as human as we all are. I'm searching for that humanity so I can feel for him and make the audience respond in a similar fashion. Just as Wotan doesn't learn from his own past experiences, so people never seem to learn from history."
The same week that Hunka begins the Ring, another new venture is getting him just as excited, namely a series of premiere recordings of Ukrainian art songs by 15 relatively unknown composers. First up is Kyrylo Stetsenko, who wrote at the turn of the 20th century.
And after singing Wotan, he turns to Mozart, performing in the much shorter Cosí Fan Tutte with the COC. Surprisingly, he says that between the two operatic works there's not that big an adjustment.
"I see little difference singing Mozart or Wagner," he says. "It's a matter of pacing with the Wagner, understanding the arc of the character as well as the vocal line.
"It's long, but if the words are rightly articulated and learned properly, it shouldn't be more than that. I sing the role with a vocally light touch and plan to present a god with failings we all understand."