Zambello's new Rheingold promises a glittering Ring Cycle

By Truman C. Wang
Published: 6/28/2008
Photo credit: Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera

CAST: Mark Delavan (Wotan), Stefan Margita (Loge), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Jennifer Larmore (Fricka), Jill Grove (Erda), David Cangelosi (Mime), Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt), Gunther Groissbock (Fafner), Tamara Wapinsky (Freia), Catherine Cangiano (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), BuffyBaggott (Flosshilde), Jason Collins (Froh), Charles Taylor (Donner).  Donald Runnicles, conductor. Francesca Zambello, director.  Michael Yeargan, set designer.  Catherine Zuber, costume designer.  Mark McCullough, lighting.  Jan Hartley, projection designer.

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Wagner lovers on the U.S. West Coast have reasons to rejoice.  Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are mounting the Ring Cycle in installments over the next three seasons.  The Seattle Opera will present the entire Ring in 2009.  Even San Diego Opera, a small but enterprising company, put on a winning production of Tannhäuser last February.

Billed as the “American” Ring, first seen in 2006 in Washington D.C. and extensively revised for San Francisco, the production team of director Francesca Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan use imagery from various eras of American history – the California Gold Rush and the Roaring Twenties in Rheingold.  The elaborate projections by Jan Hartley feature glider fly-by of the American West that accompanies Wotan and Loge’s descent into the Rhine, and the water of the Colorado River cascading over a mountain of gold in both rear and front projections on a scrim.  It even takes a jibe at L.A. Opera’s upcoming Lucas’ Ring by opening with fast-zooming stars of a galaxy far far away á la “Star Wars”. 

Overall, the projections, coupled with Wagner’s orchestral alchemy, create mesmerizing, almost hypnotic effects.

The “American” theme extends to Catherine Zuber’s contemporary costumes, circa 1920, of the American upper class enjoying a leisurely weekend in the country.  Their white pants suits and plume hats look elegant and spiffy as if out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”.   The impending doom of the Gods is here depicted as a quintessential American tragedy of greed and lust. 

Only simple props or sets are used, most of the visual wizardries being achieved via video projections.  The giants are lowered from above on a piece of construction steel, and the rainbow bridge that is supposed to carry the Gods to their new home becomes a cruise ship gangplank with rainbow hues splashed onto rear projection.  The exception is the massive Nibelheim set – dark, menacing and imposing – that resemble the depths of a Utah coal mine.    

                                              Margita as Loge (L), Delavan as Wotan (R)

                                              Margita as Loge (L), Delavan as Wotan (R)

Vocally, this has to be one of the best-sung Ring’s I have heard in recent memory.  The Wotan, Fricka, Loge, Donner, Froh, Freia and two of the Rhinemaidens are all singing their roles for the first time, bringing with them a freshness and vitality that the tired old veterans cannot match. 

Bass-baritone Mark Delavan portrays Wotan as smug, egotistical, more interested in his own self-gratification than in ethical dealings.  This Wotan is a young, brash fellow, firm of voice and intense in purpose, who, like a bratty teenager, will get things his way at all cost. 

As Wotan’s partner in crime, Loge is here seen as a slime ball lawyer, dressed in a tie, a grey vest and a trench coat, obsequiously catering to his clients’ whims and doube-, even triple-crossing them in the process. Tenor Stefan Margita gave a vivid and subtly inflected reading of Loge’s Narration (“Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn”) and darted about the stage like a shifty character that is Loge.

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Perhaps the most surprising casting choice is the Fricka of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, whom I have admired in lighter, more lyrical roles of Mozart and Rossini.  Here, as portrayed by Larmore, Fricka’s oft-heard hard edges gave way to soft lyricism and feminine charms that nicely complemented Wotan’s hard-driven single-mindedness.  Larmore’s Fricka berates her Wotan not with venom but with the mocking irony of a woman resigned to her fate, realizing she cannot change her man no matter how hard she tries.  Larmore’s Fricka was vocally sumptuous and dramatically vivid both in her own singing as well as in her interactions with other characters (such as, at Loge’s reneging of his promises, she put her hands up and rolled her eyes in disgust). 

Rounding out this superb Rheingold cast are the three lithe-bodied, honey-voiced Rheinmaidens (Catherine Cangiano as Woglinde, Lauren McNeese as Wellgunde, Buffy Baggott as Flosshilde), the impressive giants of Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Günther Groissböck (Fafner), soprano Tamara Wapinsky’s silver-voiced Freia, and the chameleon-like Alberich of Richard Paul Fink – whose chilling Curse (“Jeder giere nach seinem Gut”) on the stolen ring was a highlight of the evening.  Contralto Jill Grove also delivered Erda’s Warning to Wotan with grave authority. 

                   Groissbock as Fafner (L), Silvestrelli as Fasolt (R) and Wapinsky as Freia

                   Groissbock as Fafner (L), Silvestrelli as Fasolt (R) and Wapinsky as Freia

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played like Gods for maestro Donald Runnicles, in his final season with the company as its Music Director, yielding not only sheer grandeur of sound in the symphonic passages (the Prelude and the descent/ascent from Nibelheim) but also clear, precise articulation in the woodwinds and tight, compact tones in the brasses.  In the fifteen years that I have heard Runnicles, he has grown from a fine Wagner conductor to a great one.

One disappointment was the electronic thunder that was supposed to accompany Donner’s big hammer stroke failed to materialize, rendering a thud instead of a bang to the climactic moment.  

So much of the opera-going experience is about hearing the wonders of natural sounds echoing off of the wood paneled auditorium of the opera house, that any miking or electronic enhancement must be duly noted.  In addition to the botched electronic thunder, there were the amplified anvils (15 strong) in the Nibelheim Scene, and Alberich’s voice when he’s ‘invisible’ (the whip cracks, I was assured, were real without electronic assistance.)

The second Ring opera, Die Walküre, will be seen in the summer of 2010, followed by the entire Ring Cycle in the summer of 2011.