Though Pacific Opera Victoria is well known for having successfully scaled a few operatic peaks, it is not clear that even two productions of Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1987/2013) represent sufficient preparation for the company to undertake a presentation of Das Rheingold, the great Vorabend (Preliminary Evening) of The Ring of the Nibelung.
Dutchman, stirring and inspired as it is, represents the composer’s more youthful grappling with the challenges of opera. The Ring is mature Wagner – the product of transcendent genius – the Wagner for which people rearrange their lives to travel and experience what many find to be its inexhaustible splendours.
Pacific Opera Victoria has striven to provide as broad a look at the 400-year history of our art as we are able; with this production we stretch to the maximum our growing mastery of the art of the possible.
Why do we imagine this is something we could dream of doing?
Why do we imagine this is something we could dream of doing in our smallish house with its many restrictions? Even a casual acquaintance with later Wagner shows the crucial importance of the orchestra – at once the narrator of this story and the subliminal purveyor of a great stream of subconscious revelation. Typically in North America, companies have come to see the enormous expense of Wagner’s huge orchestra as prohibitive.
Is there a way through this? Victoria will be given an opportunity to judge. Already as the work was being written, it was mooted to be of seminal importance, and in performance instantly provoked both the adulation and the controversy it still inspires. But not every house in Germany could deploy such massive orchestral resources. A young composer and string player, Alfons Abbass, active as a conductor in Meiningen and Coburg during the last quarter of the 19th and first of the 20th centuries, created the first known reduction of the huge score. He left the strings untouched, but brought the enormous wind and brass sections down from 34 to a total of 18. Wagner specifies 7 harps; Abbass calls for one (with an optional second offstage). Wagner imagines 18 anvils – Abbass suggests a minimum of three.
Will POV patrons hear the expected deeply lush sound of a giant string section (Wagner insists on 16 first violins!)? Of course not. But I do believe that our wonderful partners, the players of the Victoria Symphony, will embrace this assignment, and will find a way to convey the great range of colour the score demands.
Are we committed to an entire Ring? Is this, as I wrote to a friend, a Harbinger of (Sp)Ring? We want to be able to absorb all the lessons involved in bringing Das Rheingold to our stage before making any such determination. We are mindful that, much as producing Rheingold stretches us artistically and pushes our audience to follow, we are also providing an opportunity rare enough in this country for singers to master the specific style and vocal approach Wagner demands. I’m asked often enough if Wagner isn’t the hardest composer to sing well; the answer is: not for the right voice! I believe we have assembled a cast equal to this challenge in the context of our house and our reduced orchestra.
We have noted with interest and amazement in the past that POV has offered many Canadian premières, often of established works (Der Freischütz, L’Amore dei tre Re, Daphne, Capriccio, etc.). With Rheingold, we make no such claim, but it is nonetheless astonishing to me that this will be the second production of Das Rheingold by any Canadian opera company.
Certainly in the direction of Romantic opera of a certain scale, Der Ring des Nibelungen is the unchallenged ne plus ultra – an inscription found on the Pillars of Hercules and meant to stop ships from progressing further. The labour is indeed Herculean, and the ambition may smack of hubris, but we hope that our continuously unfolding saga of operatic adventure and exploration will find in this undertaking a climactic moment of collective achievement – a shared moment of glory.
Pacific Opera Victoria and an international team of artists present Canada’s first standalone production of Das Rheingold, at the Royal Theatre, October 16, 18, 24, and 26, 2014.
About the Author
Timothy Vernon, CM, LL.D (Hon) is Pacific Opera Victoria’s Founding Artistic Director and Conductor. Timothy has received the Order of Canada, Opera Canada’s Ruby Award, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and an Honorary degree from Royal Roads University.
His enterprising artistic vision for POV has included several Canadian premières, among them Strauss’ Daphne and Capriccio, and Blitzstein’s Regina, as well as the world première of Mary’s Wedding (all broadcast on CBC).
Timothy is Conductor Laureate of Orchestra London and has conducted for l’Opéra de Montréal, Calgary Opera, Green Mountain Festival, Opera Nuova, the Calgary Philharmonic, L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings, the Lanaudière Festival, the Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto symphonies. He has led gala concerts for Opéra de Montréal and at the National Arts Centre with Ben Heppner and Pinchas Zukerman.