Victoria company’s Das Rheingold makes Canadian history

Das Rheingold

When: Tonight and Oct. 18, 24 at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 matinée 2:30 p.m.

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Where: Royal Theatre

Tickets: $25 to $135 (250) 386-6121. Student rush tickets ($15) available 60 minutes before curtain.


With tonight’s performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Pacific Opera Victoria will make Canadian cultural history.

The production marks the first time that the 1869 opera has been performed in this country on its own. Das Rheingold is part of Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle, which includes Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Ordinarily these operas are performed (as the composer intended) as a series rather than a one-off. In 2006, for instance, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company staged the entire Ring Cycle.

The POV will stage a pared-down version of Das Rheingold — an adaptation by Alfons Abbass — that has never before been staged in North America, said conductor Timothy Vernon, artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria. It’s still the full opera, clocking in at 150 minutes with no intermission. However, instead of a Wagner-sized orchestra requiring 100-plus musicians (which wouldn’t fit into the Royal Theatre’s pit), Abbass’s reduced score will be played by 40 members of the Victoria Symphony.

“Art of the possible is what we’re all about here,” Vernon said with a grin.

It may seem surprising that this pocket-size Das Rheingold is new to North America. After all, the Abbass version is often performed in Europe. That’s because small opera houses are common there. By contrast, on this continent big halls with large orchestra pits are the norm.

Das Rheingold is a milestone in many ways for Pacific Opera Victoria. Although the 34-year-old company has previously mounted Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, this is the first time POV has staged a “mature” Wagner work (Das Rheingold and the rest of the Ring Cycle are considered his masterpieces).

Stereotypically associated with leather-lunged singers sporting horned helmets and breastplates, Wagner’s operas can seem daunting to the casual listener. Yet Vernon is quick to assure novices Das Rheingold is both accessible and entertaining. After all, what could be more engaging than paddling Rhine maidens, dwarves twisted by lust and greed, glittering piles of gold, battling super-gods and a magic ring that bears a terrible curse?

Unlike some lavish productions, the POV’s Rhine maidens won’t be airborne in the opening scene. However, Vernon promised a visually striking Das Rheingold, blending traditional and contemporary elements. The set is created by prize-winning German designer Hans Winkler, with costumes by Nancy Byrant.

“Our maidens cavort, they don’t fly and swim. But they’re fun. Trust me,” Vernon said.

Massively ambitious on all levels, Wagner’s original score for Das Rheingold dictated that 18 anvils (tuned to F in three octaves) be sounded to indicate the descent into Nibelheim (the home of the dwarves). In keeping with Abbass’s more minimalist vision, the POV production will likely use just three. They may not all be anvils — metal objects, such as man-hole covers, are also being considered.

“The thing is, they have to sound like anvils. Nobody sees them. As long as it’s got that sound,” Vernon said.

The cast for Das Rheingold is led by John Fanning as Wotan, the king of the gods. A veteran singer who performed 10 seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, Fanning is no stranger to Wagner. Notably, the 60-year-old baritone sang Wotan for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2006 production of Das Rheingold. Substituting for an ailing vocalist, Fanning filled in with just five days’ notice.

“There was lots of excitement for sure,” he said. “In effect, you just concentrate on what you do and hope for the best.”

Performing roles such as Wotan is a monumental task. Fanning said the main challenge for him and the rest of the cast is to maintain focus and concentration over an extended period.

“It’s a big sing,” he said. “Dramatically and musically, it’s a long arc over the course of the evening. Two and a half hours. I think it’s the longest piece in the repertoire.”

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