Pacific Opera Victoria has golden touch with Wagner

Das Rheingold

Where: Royal Theatre

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When: Tonight, 24, 26

Rating: Four (out of five)

As far as operas go, Das Rheingold is a serious commitment. For one thing, Pacific Opera Victoria presents Wagner’s musical drama as the composer intended: two and a half hours with no intermission. Even the staunchest opera lover is advised to arrive prepared, both mentally and physically.

The good news is that POV’s Das Rheingold offers much: compelling stagecraft, sharp musicality from a smaller-than-usual (by Wagnerian standards) orchestra and some memorable singing and acting.

The production, directed by Wim Trompert, is a curious mix of the traditional and the contemporary. Gods such as Wotan and Loge stride about in classical gowns. Elsewhere, gold-mining dwarves sport steampunk-style caps and goggles. And king dwarf Alberich (played with welcome brio by baritone Todd Thomas) wears a multi-strapped outfit that suggests both Mad Max and a bondage suit.

Das Rheingold is the first in Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle. Pacific Opera Victoria is staging a pocket-sized adaptation scored by Alfons Abbass. We still get Das Rheingold in its (mostly) full glory: the undulating Rhine maidens, the subterranean grandeur of Nibelheim, the gods plotting in the newly constructed Valhalla.

However, the orchestra in Abbass’s version is less than half the size of what Wagner originally conceived. This allows Das Rheingold to fit into smaller houses, such as the 1,400-seat Royal (actually a larger opera house by European standards).

POV’s creative team has fun with Das Rheingold, an epic tale of gods who steal gold (not to mention magical helmets and a cursed ring) from Alberich to pay a giant for the construction of Valhalla. The production remains true to the spirit of the tale, yet there are irreverent touches. In the opening scene, for instance, one of the proto-feminist Rhine maidens kicks poor Alberich in the crotch for being too lustful in his overtures.

It is Thomas as Alberich and tenor Gordon Gietz, well cast as Loge, who provide the action and energy Das Rheingold desperately needs. The opera, after all, is rather static — many of the scenes entail gods milling about while another god fills them in on what’s happened (Donner, the god of thunder, seems to spend most of his time gripping his hammer and listening attentively).

On Thursday night, Gietz, an all-rounder who sings and acts equally well, beautifully captured Loge’s quicksilver cunning and mischievousness. The most striking scenes are in the underworld of Nibelheim. Dramatic highlights included Thomas, as Alberich, gloating over his magic ring while stroking his golden treasure, followed by his oddly human anguish (“Broken! Shattered!”) when he loses all.

In this production, the gold is forged into the shape of military missiles. Such overt symbolism might sound clunky, yet it works quite well. For one thing, these missiles look fantastic on stage. And they serve to link the greedy ambitions of Alberich and Wotan with the real-life aims of deluded despots, both past and present.

Baritone John Fanning, equipped with a gold eye patch as Wotan, sang with commendable depth and resonance — capturing the gravitas any king of the gods must convey. As his wife, Fricka, soprano Joni Henson displayed a wonderfully lush timbre and vocal flexibility.

Also enjoyable was talented tenor Benjamin Butterfield in his all-too-short turn as Mime, Alberich’s woebegone lackey.

Timothy Vernon conducted the Victoria Symphony with verve and precision over what must have been an exhausting workout. There are many delights in this score: the lapping string figures that first welcome the Rhine maidens (whose aquatic harmonies are delightful), the swelling of strings against the horn-section’s creamy tones as Wotan and Loge descend to the underworld.

Listen for the famous extended chord (basses, bassoons) that opens the opera, while a star-like light appears in the darkness, growing larger and larger. Hans Winkler’s abstract set, dominated by a torpedo-shaped cut-out, is highly attractive and versatile.

Overall, this is a fine introduction to the Ring Cycle. POV’s Das Rheingold is worth seeking out.

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