A MAGNIFICENT RHEINGOLD FROM PACIFIC OPERA VICTORIA
Richard Wagner, DAS RHEINGOLD, John Fanning (Wotan), Gordon Gietz (Loge), Joni Henson (Fricka) Betty Waynne Allison (Freia), Doug MacNaughton (Donner), Adam Luther (Froh), Susan Platts (Erda), Todd Thomas (Alberich), Benjamin Butterfield (Mime), Uwe Dambruch (Fasolt), Jeremy Galyon (Fafner), Lucia Cesaroni (Woglinde), Betty Waynne Allison (Wellgunde), Maria Soulis (Flosshilde), Victoria Symphony Orchestra, Tinothy Vernon (conductor), Wim Trompert (Director), Hans Winkler (Set Designer), Nancy Bryant (Costume Designer), Kevin Lamotte (Lighting Designer), Royal Theatre, October 26, 2014.
How brave, a small company tackling Das Rheingold! There are serious challenges, requiring a great deal of inventiveness. You need to come up with a mise-en-scène of cosmic scope to carry a story that is pure myth, with not a human being in it, but only gods and goddesses, giants, dwarves, and water nymphs, set in no real place or time and taking us from an underwater realm to the heavens to subterranean depths. You have to make do with a diminished orchestra that nonetheless must convince the audience they are witnessing prodigious characters and events. And you require a large cast of strong-voiced singers.
And the audience, too, has to make accommodations, the major one being that we have to do without the heft of Wagner’s sound. Before the performance I thought, well, that’s the price you have to pay. And I am willing to pay it: I am grateful for any rendering of Rheingold, and if a lesser one manages to convey some sense of grandeur, I will be satisfied. Besides, there is much else in this music drama. Flirtation and attempted seduction. A moral choice between love and power. Theft and violation. A domestic conflict between a shrewish wife and a straying husband. A dishonoured contract, chicanery, further theft. For these you don’t need a big set or orchestra; you need convincing acting and music that is well presented.
So, what of the Pacific Opera production of Das Rheingold? No compromises on any side: it was magnificent. The intimacy of the 1,416-seat theatre went a long way to mitigating the diminished size of the orchestra, which sounded strong and rich, and was splendidly conducted by Timothy Vernon. The Royal Theatre is a wonderful venue, projecting the voices strongly, allowing you to hear every syllable. And the visual advantage is as great: good sight lines and a small enough house you can see the expressions on the singers’ faces—an essential element, as far as I am concerned, for an art form that is after all a type of drama. No opera house should be bigger.
Here, the drama was strong, and never before had I realized how beautiful so much of the music is: to a degree the consequence of the transparency of the smaller orchestra and, of course, the musicianship of Maestro Vernon and his players. Not that I was surprised to find quality from Pacific Opera, which, despite being a small company, can compare with the best in the country. There is no better evidence than in the current production -- only the second Rheingold ever given in Canada!
The strength of the orchestra made itself apparent immediately with the magical opening to the opera, that long E flat pedal presenting primordial beginnings, with rising horn arpeggios joining in—the rise of life from the void—then the sinuous strings representing the river Rhine, the opera’s Eden. It was thrilling to watch at the same time the world take form above the stage from a pinpoint of light to the round globe itself. Despite the lack of full Wagnerian weight, the sequence had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. But the real proof of the kind of production I was witnessing was the Rhine maidens—in what are after all minor parts—who were fabulous, singing their roles as well as I’ve ever heard them sung, and acting with panache as well. Nor did any of the other voices diminish this auspicious beginning. This was a very strong cast.
I wouldn’t go through the whole list, but all were so good I feel it unfair to leave anyone out. As mentioned, Betty Waynne Allison, Lucia Cesaroni, and Maria Soulis were superb as the Rhine maidens. One of them, Ms. Allison, doubling as Freia, was excellent in that role as well. Susan Platts as Erda was revelatory, singing with gravity, authority, and beauty. Benjamin Butterfield sang a characterful Mime, playing him with relish as the sniveling little fellow he is. Adam Luther as Froh and David MacNaughton as Donner sang handsomely. I was particularly pleased with the performance of one of my favourite sequences of the opera—Donner’s dismissal of the mists in Act 4. The giants were very good too, Jeremy Gaylon singing a sinister Fafner and Uwe Dambruch as Fasolt showing a strong and ringing bass-baritone. I could see him as Wotan some day.
Gordon Gietz as Loge sang beautifully, playing his role as the sprite-like trickster he is—being, after all, the element fire. Todd Thomas as Alberich sang strongly and made an imposing antagonist, at times sinister, at times buffoonish, at times pathetic. His agony over the loss of his gold and his ring was powerfully conveyed. Joni Henson as Fricka was excellent, with a fine stage presence, showing strength of character more than bitchiness, and singing beautifully. John Fanning sang an impressive Wotan, at times authoritative, at times duplicitous, varying his voice to dramatic effect.
Wim Trompert’s direction was fluid and imaginative, avoiding for the most part that static freezing of the stage that can occur during one of Wagner’s longeurs. Hans Winkler’s set was excellent—stone tiers stretched across the stage providing different playing heights and locales—now the river Rhine, now the heavens, now the infernal kingdom of the Nibelungs, now the earth itself. Helping our sense of different locales was the use of steam and the lighting of Kevin Lamotte, sometimes to stunning effect. Above at the rear was Valhalla, a hovering round shape with a ‘tail’ reaching to the stage, matching the set below with its striations of stones. Was this the globe we saw take form at the opening of Act 1 now reduced to a wasteland planet?
With one or two exceptions the props were effective. The miner-dwarfs in Act 2 were carrying their ore in what appeared to be plastic milk cartons—not what I would expect to find in Nibelheim. The portrayal of the Rhine gold was inventive: at first golden fish, an aspect of nature, but transformed, once having entered the world of power and greed, to sleek golden bombs. Their actual use as acting props on the stage was sometimes awkward, but the concept brought home the fact that Das Rheingold is on one level very much about the military-industrial complex.
The costumes of Nancy Bryant were characterful, with Alberich looking like the threatening figure he is in harness of webbing and straps, perhaps indicating his rough and constrained nature. The Nibelungs look convincingly like the miner-dwarfs they are with their goggles and helmets. My only complaint lay with the costumes of the gods, particularly Wotan’s, whose gold trim and all-white coat, pants, and boots were perhaps intended to lend him a god-like resplendence but made him look to me like a latter-day Liberace. It took me a while to get past the costume and take the character seriously.
But the whole thing was hugely satisfying—a splendid operatic experience. I feel only gratitude to a company that can give its audience such a Rheingold. While this effort was regrettably a stand-alone production, wouldn’t it be nice to think Pacific Opera might at some future date give us the whole Ring cycle with the quality they displayed today?
© Harvey De Roo 2014