SF Opera/Runnicles: Das Rheingold

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

The idea of an American Ring, whereby Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is retold in the context of snippets of American history, is quite an alluring concept. The immediate questions, then, are serious and find no easy answers: what happens after Immolation? Is Francesca Zambello, the production director, prepared to foretell the end of American history? Who, then, is Wotan?

To be sure, some of these questions will remain unanswered by the end of Götterdämmerung. In what seems to be the most unfortunate moment of Schadenfreude, the real life saga of the Washington National Opera, a co-producing partner with San Francisco until the east coast partner bailed due to insufficient funds, even seemed to fit the description of a once-mighty empire falling into disarray. But any further deductions would be unfair and premature.

The first scene of Das Rheingold was set in the Gold Rush era, where Alberich’s power-hungry character reigned supreme. The second to fourth scenes were set at the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gatsby era as America learnt how to build skyscrapers and rushed to erect them all over the country. The Wagnerian parallel would be an enterprising Wotan eager to finish hisValhalla. The English surtitles in the early going revealed further “American-ness” of the production, whereupon Alberich referred to the Rheinmaidens as “sluts” while the three sisters joked about Alberich being a “blob”.

The Rheinmaidens, Lauen McNeese, Renee Tatum and Stacey Tappan, dressed and danced as if they were in Minnie’s polka saloon which, in the context of Zambello’s American experiment, was not inappropriate. Their succulent and warm trio foretold the rest of the Cycle’s excellent singing, though Tappan seemed willing to save her voice by skimming through some of the passage’s high notes (she would later sing a  sumptuously satisfying forest bird). Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich was as menacing and mean as any gold rush entrepreneur who wanted it all.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka, humanized as a dependent, portrayed a homely wife in an era before the feminist and women rights movements. Vocally, Bishop delivered her lines with ease, and seemed to reserve vocal power for her more demanding role in Die Walküre. Melissa Citro was shrill as Freia, but had enormous stage presence with her good looks and giddy acting. Mark Delavan’s voice was fine if not slightly too light and lacking penetration as Wotan. He would probably excel in cleaner, lighter roles like Hans Sachs. More troubling, though, concerned Delavan’s portrayal of the ruler of God, which in the face of Loge and Fricka looked all too human. Ronnita Miller, as Erda, sang gorgeously with a supple and well-supported voice.

Since Froh is not typically well casted in any production, it was a pleasant surprise to hear Brandon Jovanovich in the role. Jovanovich, who came to San Francisco mainly to sing Siegmund, delivered the short but difficult lines of Froh. More importantly, he paraded his acting skills by providing the evening’s comedic relief.

Stefan Margita as Loge gave perhaps the most commanding delivery of the role I have heard in years. His crisp, trumpet-like execution projected easily across the pit, and at his curtain call he earned the loudest round of applause of the evening.

A swirling golden fabric held by the sisters to represent the Rhine precious metal was visually stunning. The design proved dramatically effective when Alberich conveniently snatched it away from the sisters and escaped to Nibelheim. The transformation of Alberich into the giant serpent and the toad, effectuated by puffs of smokes and sparks, looked like cheap tricks from a Penn-and-Teller show. The toad was a stuffed toy that Loge playfully juggled before securing it and leaving Nibelheim, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. Otherwise, Michael Yeargan’s stage provided very few excitements and/or novelty.

Jan Hartley’s visual projections provided a rich counterpoint to Wagner’s orchestrations and a story-telling complement to Michael Yeargan’s set. Soft focused imagery of America’s natural heartland provided a dream-scape depicting the distance and geology separating Nibelheim and earth. At times, however, the projections seemed too literal (the depiction of liquefied gold to suggest Alberich’s gold mine), or flawed (the depiction of Rhine with swerving, ocean-like waves).

At the conductor podium was Donald Runnicles, who was San Francisco Opera’s music director from 1992 to 2009. Runnicles was no stranger to Wagner music in San Francisco, having previously led two series of Ring Cycles at the War Memorial in the 90s. Runnicles’ time keeping was not strictly speaking, tight, and provided plenty of breathing room to the singers. Balance tilted in favor of the upper brass (at least where I sat – orchestra center), and the strings, underpowered — there were only 8 cellos to do the work of twelve scored by Wagner — were often drowned out. If there remained one other thing to complain about, it was the tentativeness of the horns at the beginning’s E-flat chord. The output sounded slightly timid and unrehearsed, but otherwise nothing to be scoffed at.