“Das Rheingold” is strong start to SFO Ring Cycle number two.


Wagner “Das Rheingold”
San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle Two
June 21 through June 26, 2011


By David Gregson


Although it is easy for one to take issue with stage director Francesca Zambello’s unique and quirky looking “California Ring” concept (in which she is aided and abetted by designer Michael Yeargan), one thing it really has going for it is a sense of dramatic and narrative clarity. Moreover, each character seems to have a good sense of what he or she is doing — and everyone interacts with each other just the way they might in a first-rate off-Broadway play.

If this is indeed “The Tragedy of the Fasolt and Fafner Construction Company” is also “The Terrible Fall of Herr Wotan and His Family.” I cannot remember a “Ring” in which the gods are more recognizably human. Zambello’s sights aim higher, of course, but not always as effectively. The front-screen projections of waves and clouds and alpine vistas evoke pristine nature and the despoliation of same, and yet we have been there and seen that before in opera productions — or at our local IMAX science show.

Zambello’s approach to the subject, by the way, is nowhere as radical as innumerable other Regietheater versions which are easy to obtain these days on DVD and Blu-ray sets. Nothing even approaches the over-the-top radicalism of the Los Angeles Opera’s Achim Freyer “Ring” in which the non-stop bombardment of startling visuals virtually banished Wagner from a first-place position in the proceedings. I liked to call it Achim Freyer’s “Ring” — with incidental music by Wagner. And even those who just adored this travesty (almost all the critics) could not defend its lack of narrative clarity. Characters were multiplied (crazy circus costumes, loony special characters including a poodle with an erection, two Frickas, three Loges etc.) so only a person really familiar with the work could possibly figure out what was going on. It was a dehumanized “Ring,” a memorably Wagner destroying extravaganza. Wagner draws one in: Freyer was intent on alienation.

Zambello has her little jokes. Froh (Brandon Jovanovich) and Donner (Gerd Grochowski) look like polo playing frat boys in white suits with school insignias (or so I infer from afar), Wotan (Mark Delavan) relaxes on garden furniture, and the giants Fasolt and Fafner (Andrea Silvestrelli and Daniel Sumegi) make their entrances on a steel beam lowered by cables from on high. Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) looks every inch the matronly housewife, Loge (Stefan Margita) seems like a traveling outsider as he enters in a dark knee-length leather coat. Freia (Melissa Citro) might have purchased her golden delicious apples at a local supermarket.

And there are tons of really old, cheap, but often amusing stage tricks: tons of dry ice clouds for the Rhein Maidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, Renee Tatum) and Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) to splash around in; puffs of fire for vanishing (just like an old timey magic show — or Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz”); sparks that fly out of Donner’s polo mallet — er, hammer. I think Zambello is funning us with these weary “special effects”.

My favorite image is the shifting Gay Pride Week rainbow-colored scrim that backlights the gods as, champagne glasses in hand, they climb up the gangway to a Valhalla Carnival Cruise. (Or the Titanic?) Better than a real rainbow bridge any day. It actually IS, in fact, Gay Pride time in SF this week — and getting to “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” is predicted to be a traffic nightmare!

The singing, so far, has been really excellent — and the same may be said for the orchestral playing under the direction of Donald Runnicles, much of it very clear and lovingly detailed. The Erda (who literally stops the show to tell Wotan to watch out!) offered alto Ronnita Miller a glorious few minutes to shine.

One great success, at least to my way of thinking, is David Cangelosi as the dwarf Mime. One might even describe him as sympathetic. Even Alberich gets some sympathy thanks to Hawkin’s committed approach to the role and they way Zambello has staged his aquatic temptations. Margita’s Loge is an engaging and convincing personality and you really believe him when he says he’d like to burn everything up!

Bishop as Fricka is in top form (which is saying a lot for this fine artist), and Delavan makes you really care about Wotan for a change. The gods and dwarves are strong bunch. I hope the high quality can be sustained to the bitter end.

San Francisco Opera

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