From the beginning of time to the twilight of the gods, and from deep under the Rhine to the gates of Valhalla, Das Rheingold, the opening installment of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, covers huge expanses of time and space. It also ordinarily takes nearly three hours to perform. On Sunday, June 27, at 2:30 p.m., Opera Santa Barbara will deliver the whole story in less than two hours thanks to a well road-tested adaptation by Graham Vick and Jonathan Dove, and to the determination and ingenuity of maestro Kostis Protopapas and director Crystal Manich.
Protopapas and Manich, who were responsible for the last major production of the quarantine-abbreviated 2020 season with Il Postino a year ago in March, are making a triumphant return to the Lobero with this great Wagner opera, thereby becoming both the last group to produce there for an in-person audience and the first to do so now that we can gather indoors again. Ticket sales are capped at 50 percent of capacity, with groups who come together in adjacent seats yet separated from other parties.
For Protopapas, who was one of the most vocal advocates for the rapid and safe reopening of theaters during quarantine, the opportunity to do Das Rheingold now and under these conditions represents a silver lining to the frustrating period of COVID constraints. “It’s been on my wish list for a long time,” said the conductor of the Vick/Dove adaptation. “The plot is accelerated, and the story moves forward cinematically, with lightness and humor.” Prior to 2020, the shortened version would have been an unlikely choice for the company due to established expectations concerning venue and production values. “Reopening in this way gives Opera Santa Barbara a chance to break out of a mold that wasn’t good for us anyway,” said Protopapas, adding that considerations of scale and scope would have dictated that to do Wagner’s Ring at all would have meant mounting an expensive full production at The Granada Theatre, rather than this chamber version with just 12 singers and 18 musicians.
Director Crystal Manich knows Wagner, and this version of Wagner in particular, inside and out. As a young artist just out of school, Manich was part of the Pittsburgh-based team that brought all of the Dove Wagner adaptations to the Long Beach Opera in 2005 and 2006. For her, this performance means coming home in more ways than one. “It’s like revisiting an old friend,” she said of the opera, adding that she will be working with many actual old friends in the cast, as she has directed half of the singers before.
For those unfamiliar with the Ring Cycle, and perhaps mildly intimidated by its fierce reputation, Das Rheingold, especially in this version, is a great way to test the waters. The story, which revolves around a magic ring that bestows unlimited power, but only under the condition that the person who wields it renounces sexual satisfaction, is fairly easy to follow, and the music is consistently ravishing. From the opening sequence in which the Rhinemaidens taunt the evil dwarf Alberich to the wild musical theatrics that announce the opening of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, there’s plenty of excitement in the score and the singing. While there will be no elaborate physical structure to the set, LED tape and clever use of the Lobero’s deep stage ought to establish the different realms of the three Wagnerian kingdoms more than adequately. Add to that the decision to style the costumes after the fashions of the 1980s, and you have a recipe for a delightful trip through Wagner’s uncanny universe. For further information, visit operasb.org, and for tickets, go to lobero.org.