A last-minute cast replacement and years of anticipation raised the stakes to unusually high levels for the premiere of the Canadian Opera Company's "Das Rheingold." Opening a new opera house with a complete version of Wagner's Ring Cycle is a daring move, but the COC's general director, Richard Bradshaw, has never been known as a shrinking violet.

A last-minute cast replacement and years of anticipation raised the stakes to unusually high levels for the premiere of the Canadian Opera Company’s “Das Rheingold.” Opening a new opera house with a complete version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a daring move, but the COC’s general director, Richard Bradshaw, has never been known as a shrinking violet.

In this particular case, he hit the jackpot. The new Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts is a glorious setting for opera, the eleventh-hour substitution of John Fanning in the role of Wotan was electrifying and this production of “Das Rheingold” suddenly made clear where designer Michael Levine was going with his vision of Wagner’s epic work: nothing less than an overview of world civilization for the past century.

The COC has been assembling this particular version of the Ring Cycle for several years now. Levine has been the overall creative visionary, with separate directors coming in for each production. Atom Egoyan’s “Die Walkure” opened in 2004, followed by François Girard’s “Siegfried” in ’05 and Tim Albery’s “Gotterdammerung” earlier this year.

Levine directed as well as designed “Das Rheingold,” actually the prelude to the other three, larger operas.

Like the previous productions in the Cycle, it is simultaneously bold and sparse, eschewing any kind of literal realism or overblown fantasy for the greater reality of myth.

Levine has given this “Rheingold” the feel of the later 19th-century, with those in power wearing the dark frock coats and concealing gowns of the Victorian era. Those farther down the social ladder wear the ragged clothes of the working poor.

When the home of the gods, Valhalla, is finally revealed, it appears as a giant architectural model, which is not only impressive in its own right but can be deconstructed to telling effect as the action goes along. The scale is grand, but not overwhelming, and here — as throughout the cycle — there is a successful attempt at humanizing the mythic creatures of Wagner’s world, which adds to rather than diminishing the work’s power.

There are odd staging quirks that emerge less successfully. The Rhine Maidens seem to be having a pillow fight at a pajama party, which gets the evening off to a shaky visual start. But once the action shifts to Valhalla, all is well.

Since the Four Seasons is a house built specifically for opera, it has a giant orchestra pit able to house the 104 players demanded by Wagner’s score. The major joy of the evening is the superb quality of the COC orchestra, conducted with a rare combination of grace and strength by Bradshaw. In a hall with impeccable acoustics, the subtleties of the playing emerge more clearly than ever.

The new environment also is kind to the singers, who are able to be heard throughout the 2,000-seat venue in crystal clarity without any sort of amplification.

Each of the many characters in the plot-heavy opera has moment in the sun. Especially effective at the opening perf were Julie Makerov as the sacrificial Freia, Richard Berkeley-Steele as the Machiavellian Loge and Mette Ejsing as the spiritual force, Erda.

But the star of the evening was undoubtedly Fanning as Wotan. He stepped into the role with only a few day’s notice and minimal preparation after Pavlo Hunka withdrew during dress rehearsals.

Fanning undoubtedly will grow in time to fill the deeper vocal requirements of the role in its final scenes, but he already acts it brilliantly throughout, bringing a tortured, Ibsenesque grandeur to his character. And the sheer fact that someone who rose through the ranks of this company over the past 20 years was there to help the organization in its moment of need provided one more emotional resonance to an evening already bursting with them.

Das Rheingold

Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, Toronto; 2,000 seats; C$550 ($490) top

Production

A Canadian Opera Company presentation of an opera in one act by Richard Wagner. Directed and designed by Michael Levine.

Creative

Choreography, Serge Bennathan. Conductor, Richard Bradshaw; chorus master, Sandra Horst; lighting, David Finn. Opened, reviewed Sept. 12, 2006. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Woglinde - Laura Whalen Wellgunde - Krisztina Szabo Flosshilde - Allyson McHardy Alberich - Richard Paul Fink Wotan - John Fanning Fricka - Judith Nemeth Freia - Julie Makerov Fasolt - Robert Pamakov Fafner - Phillip Ens Froh - Thomas Rold Truhitte Donner - Julian Tovey Loge - Richard Berkeley-Steele Erda - Mette Ejsing

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