‘Walküre,’ shrunk to fit compact opera house, still an exhilarating ride

Bass-baritone Mark Delavan as Wotan, father of the Valkyries, starred in a full-hearted, chamber-size version of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ with Pacific Opera Victoria. (David Cooper photos)

VICTORIA, British Columbia — The National Theatre in Munich, where Wagner’s Die Walküre was given its premiere in 1870, seats 2,171 in its faithful post-war reconstruction. The Royal Theatre, the Edwardian home of Pacific Opera Victoria, is not impossibly far off that mark with room for 1,416. 

Where the difference is dramatic is in the pit, which could accommodate only 43 musicians playing the Alfons Abbass reduced-orchestra version of this most popular of Ring operas. Yet here we had a viable, full-hearted, and certifiably Wagnerian performance that within minutes had us thinking not about what was missing in weight but what was present in music. It was a splendid evening.

Giuseppe Pietraroia stepped in to conduct.

Adding to the improbability of the success was the late withdrawal from the production of founding artistic director (and for 43 years, de facto principal conductor) Timothy Vernon, who suffered a back injury at home (from which he is recovering) after taking all the rehearsals short of the dress.

The company’s associate conductor, Giuseppe Pietraroia, led the opening performance on Oct. 12 with an apt mix of incisive beat and expressive phrasing, the latter quality undoubtedly attributable in part to Vernon’s preparation and a determination amid the ranks of the Victoria Symphony to win one for the Gipper. Still, this was a remarkable first Wagnerian outing for Pietraroia, a Montreal native known for his work in Italian repertoire.

Highlights went well. Strings in “Wotan’s Farewell” played with an intensity that belied their modest numbers, and the “Ride of the Valkyries” galloped nimbly. Less famous interludes made a comparable impact. Subterranean brass sonorities in Act 2 lent gravitas to Wotan’s self-description as the most sorrowful of men. It was a function of the vitality of the performance that this wordy act (presented with two judicious cuts) unfolded as a dynamic sequence of encounters rather than a talkathon.

Long-suffering Fricka (mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy) acquiesces to the rule of her husband Wotan.

Of course the primary source of the drama was the singing, all of it strongly characterized. Veteran American bass-baritone Mark Delavan painted a detailed portrait of the ruler of the gods, whose complex decision-making is not always easy to fathom. He intersected realistically with his morally upstanding and long-suffering wife Fricka (the sympathetic Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy) and his loving if disobedient daughter Brünnhilde (Canadian soprano Jennifer Maines, who was tender or defiant according to need).

Siegmund (tenor Viktor Antipenko) and Sieglinde (soprano Aviva Fortunata).

All of the above could be heard clearly from the mostly downstage positions they occupied. Audible and then some was the trumpet-toned Russian-American tenor Viktor Antipenko, bolt upright and heroic as Siegmund. His prolonged shouts of “Wälse!” merited consideration as a Guinness record for duration, at least in the 21st century. Aviva Fortunata, as Sieglinde, blazed forth with a beautiful sound. A natural storyteller, this Canadian-Italian soprano was the best of an excellent lot. Hunding, her husband by forced marriage, was vividly acted by Simon Wilding, a dark-voiced English bass who managed to parlay his vocal unsteadiness into a positive expression of villainy.

Trumpet-toned tenor Viktor Antipenko as Siegmund.

Scenery and costumes by Pam Johnson were traditional, at least by contemporary standards. Goodness, Brünnhilde carried a shield and wore a wolfskin. Still, it took reading the program synopsis to understand that the story unfolded in a dystopian “not too distant future” — and an intermission conversation with a subscriber to be made aware that the rundown neo-classical façade that dominated the set was supposed to be an evocation of Wahnfried, Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth. There was an ash tree, festooned with Halloween cobwebs. Imagine my surprise when Siegmund’s sword, normally found embedded in the trunk, was lowered from the rafters — a naive touch that got a presumably unintended laugh.

There was much merriment also at the beginning of Act 3 when a street kid spray-painted the outline of a horse that eventually became animated. It was clever, but I am not sure that treating the “Ride” as comic relief is the best approach. Nor is it necessary (or even original) to populate the stage with extras in black hoodies miming the incidents the characters describe in their narrations. Why require Wotan (in fact, a double) to lurk about the stage silently in Act 1? He makes ample contributions later.

The Royal Theatre is home to Pacific Opera Victoria and the Victoria Symphony. (Victoria Symphony website.)

All the same, director Glynis Leyshon was adept at managing and illuminating personal interactions. Never did an individual stray out of character. And it was not a bad idea to ask the Valkyries to define a circle of fire around their sleeping sister in the final scene. It was a reasonable solution to a perennial staging problem in a house with limited technical resources.

The audience was enthusiastic. There were, however, some empty seats. Victorians are not accustomed to Wagnerian running times. Yet Die Walküre, as this performance made evident, remains a profoundly engaging artwork with meaningful things to say about love, loyalty, destiny, and the human condition. The last two of four performances are on Oct. 18 and 21. For information and tickets, go here.