SFO Rheingold

As I ponder the future of streaming performances & concerts, I’m checking out Wagner’s Ring Cycle as produced by the San Francisco Opera in 2018 in their co-production with the Washington Opera. If you go to https://sfopera.com/opera-is-on/ you choose between “stream for free” and “subscriber/donor”, the latter presumably offering greater options.

I wonder if we’ll see something like this one of these days from the National Ballet of Canada or The Canadian Opera Company? As a free visitor I’m enjoying the offer of one Ring opera each weekend beginning with Das Rheingold.

Whether you think of Rheingold as the first night of a tetralogy or the prologue to a trilogy I’ve had great fun watching Francesca Zambello’s creation, a director I only know through her production of Les Troyens that I saw at the Met a few years ago. Both operas are epic works requiring vision, indeed they’re among my favorites. Could Zambello repeat her Troyens magic on the Wagner opera? I think so.

On the SFO site, she offers the following commentary on her production, that’s often called “the American Ring” for its approach to the materials.

The Ring is always contemporary. We are presenting a world in some ways familiar to our audience but also one that will feel very mythic as we look to our country’s rich imagery. The great themes of the Ring—nature, power and corruption—resound through America’s past and haunt our present.” –Francesca Zambello, Director

I don’t think there is an opera that offers more opportunity for directors or designers to show us their creative brilliance. Presented as written –that is without any embellishments—the work requires us to see giants, dwarves, gods, a giant serpent, a toad, nymphs swimming in a river, a mountain-top, subterranean caves, a rainbow bridge to a distant castle, and scene changes traversing the transformation from one setting to another. Zambello’s American orientation means that for example the building of the castle offers us a modern construction crane, while the gods (awaiting their new home) look eagerly at the blueprints. But the production hasn’t strayed far from the text, at least not in the first of the operas.

I like some of the performances, but must say that the best thing about this streamed opera is Zambello’s inspired direction. Yes there are wonderful things in the design, but I’m indifferent if the eye-candy isn’t purposeful. It must be redeemed by a soul, by something in the text to make it truly good. It’s early to be concluding anything, but so far I’m totally enamored of this production.

A few moments stood out for me.

The usual dynamic in the story involves a misguided bargain to pay the giants for building Valhalla by giving them the goddess Freia. The gods must get her back, and so conspire to steal the ring Alberich has made out of the Rhinegold, a prize that the giants will accept as ransom in lieu of Freia.

Got that?

In Freia’s part –as written– she complains when she is threatened and then given (temporarily) to the giants in scene two, and she’s expected to show relief when she is released in the last scene, as part of the bargain for the ring. Of course some modern directors have played with that a bit.

Patrice Chereau (1976) for instance follows the usual template until the moment when Freia is released: and she dashes away from the giants AND away from the gods, perplexed by what she’s been put through.

Robert Lepage in his recent production has Freia revolted at first but starting to warm up to Fasolt by the end.

Zambello takes this much further. Where Freia is afraid of Fasolt at first –a creature who resembles a giant Edward Scissorhands—by the end she seems smitten with him, and genuinely upset when he dies.

Initially Fasolt’s rough handling of Freia terrifies & alienates her…..

Fasolt is played by Andrea Silvestrelli, Freia is Julie Adams.

…but Freia seems to be smitten by the end.
(from left) Fafner (Raymond Aceto), Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Freia (Julie Adams)

The opening scene likely would please the composer if he were alive, compared to so many productions that mess with the content. We see almost exactly what we should be seeing.

The Daughters of the Rhine, namely Woglinde(Stacey Tapan), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) & Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) mock Alberich (Falk Struckmann)

Yes Zambello’s Alberich does enter looking a bit like a prospector looking for gold in California, but once we get past the funny hat, he’s more or less like any other Alberich: except that Falk Struckmann gives an exceptional portrayal. Struckmann has a vulnerable charm as he makes his futile play for the Rhine-maidens, who dance around him mocking & teasing. Zambello’s interpretation is very relatable, her characters all wonderfully fleshed out. When Alberich’s frustration boils over his anger is stunningly three-dimensional & entirely sympathetic. In the subterranean scene –where we meet him after he has renounced love & forged the Rhine gold into a ring—he is brutally scary, bullying the Nibelungen dwarves, some played by children whom he lifts up in his arms.

Alberich (Falk Struckmann) terrorizing the Nibelungen

I have never seen the dynamics of the scene when Wotan & Loge come to visit his underground home so perfectly enacted. As Loge & Wotan flatter him, Alberich grabs Wotan’s hat, provoking the angry eruption that’s in the score, while Loge struggles to keep a lid on that anger.

Alberich (Falk Struckmann) with Wotan’s hat in his hand

Stefan Margita is a superb Loge, admittedly in the most fun role in the opera, the provocative trickster- liar. Greer Grimsley brings a lot of authority to the role of Wotan although I found he yelled through much of the role, missing many of his notes. Jamie Barton was his wife Fricka, constantly contradicting her husband, and deliciously contrary to Grimsley in her perfect singing.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Fricka (Jamie Barton)

I also love what Zambello makes of Erda the Earth goddess, gloriously sung by Ronnita Miller.

Erda reaches towards Wotan, advising him to let go of the ring upon his finger.

In a few short minutes Zambello has Wotan worshipfully kneeling to Erda, whom he will impregnate before the next opera.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) kneels to Erda (Ronnita Miller)

Sir Donald Runnicles leads the SFO orchestra & the cast in this production. I was very fond of the CGI, projections making scene change magic, including S Katy Tucker whose name may be familiar for her work with Against the Grain & on the COC’s Hansel and Gretel just over a year ago. In addition to Zambello & Tucker I must also mention others on this wonderful team, namely set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Mark McCullough and the original projections designer Jan Hartley. It all hangs together beautifully, a superb experience.

Next week it’s Die Walküre.

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