Saturday, June 07, 2008

Das Rheingold at SF Opera

Tue June 3, 2008 8 pm

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Francesca Zambello

Wotan: Mark Delavan
Loge: Stefan Margita
Alberich: Richard Paul Fink
Fricka: Jennifer Larmore
Erda: Jill Grove
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Andrea Silvestrelli
Fafner: Günther Groissböck
Donner: Charles Taylor
Wellgunde: Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde: Buffy Baggott
Woglinde: Catherine Cangiano
Froh: Jason Collins
Freia: Tamara Wapinsky

We have to wait until 2011 for the full cycle, but Tuesday night we got a 1st look at what is being billed as an American Ring. The evening began Bayreuth-style. All the house lights went down, then the 1st low rumblings of the prelude began. No unseemly applause for the conductor!

During the prelude they projected a sort of cosmic fly-by on the scrim. Stars & planets flew by. The sets are pretty spare, other than Nibelheim, which is set in a deep mine. Instead of a backdrop, there are digital projections. Cascading water for the 1st scene, clouds for the Valhalla scenes. I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of these projections as the cycle progresses. My first impression is of a production designed under financial constraints.

As for the American theme, Alberich is a grimy prospctor, the gods look like they have been invited to play croquet on the Great Gatsby's lawn, the giants are construction workers, & Erda may be an Indian princess. But America is a place, & the settings & projected images are pretty generic, lacking any sense of a specifically American locale. I feel like they could have pushed the American imagery much further. A native American scenario would be pretty provocative.

As one expects in a Ring staging, there are plenty of directorial touches. Loge appears as a silent witness at the very end of scene one. Donner & Froh are on-stage for most of scene two & given a lot of stage business. Jason Collins was a great actor as Froh. His Froh was smug, juvenile & spoiled. If they ever do an opera about George Bush, he's the one to cast. Fricka came across as a somewhat silly, shallow woman. Even while she's scolding Wotan, he grabs her playfully & makes her laugh. This seems wrong for her character. The giants make an amusing entrance lowered by crane.

The Nibelheim is appropriately set in a dark but glowing mine shaft. The oppressed Nibelungen miners are terrorized children. When Alberich appears, they surround him, reaching out to him beseechingly, so it's clear that they are dependent upon him as well as in fear of him. I found it chilling. However, Alberich's transformation into a "Wurm" was lame. It's a huge projection of a slithering snake.

In the final scene, Alberich is led onstage with hands tied behind his back & a sack over his head, looking like a terrorist suspect. Wotan is brutal in wresting the ring from him, shoving him to the floor from behind, then crushing his hand with the spear. When the giants return with Freia, the implication is that a romantic relationship has developed between Friea & Fasolt. They did a similar thing in the Chicago Lyric Ring, & it adds an interesting layer of emotion to the action.

The rainbow bridge was a gangway lowered from the wings, so the gods looked like they were boarding a cruise ship. Having seen 5 different productions of this opera by now, I've given up the hope of ever seeing anything resembling a rainbow or a bridge here (well, actually there is a rear-screen projection of a rainbow). The Rheinmaidens appear on stage in the last moments to plead their case in person, but are left in a pose of despair. Loge does not join the gods in Valhalla, instead remaining onstage to set Wotan's building contract on fire.

I like Runnicles generally, but he occasionally turns in very sloppy performances like this one. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed. Instead of moving from climax to climax, the music just kept flowing along, nothing standing out particularly from anything else. There were some intonation problems with the woodwinds as the evening progressed, as well as a few minor horn bloopers. Still, on balance I think the opera orchestra sounds as good as it ever has. The trumpet solos were spot on. I thoroughly enjoyed concert master Key Stern's gorgeous solos.

As for the singers, I liked Andrea Silvestrelli's deep, resonant voice & his portrayal of Fasolt, who is the only sympathetic character in the whole opera. Richard Paul Fink gave a great snarling, singing/acting performance as Alberich, especially in the final scene. He gives an over-all impression of great strength. I think Alberich is really the main character in this opera. Stefan Margita as Loge was a rock of vocal stability. He consistently produced a beautiful, focused, clear sound, always sounded in control, & was convincingly sardonic. Mark Delavan sounded lighter than one would expect for Wotan & paced himself well. His voice never flagged from start to finish.

I also have to note that the scene changes were very noisy. The audience was treated to shouting as well as clunks & thuds & scrapes. It gave the negative impression that the set design must be really clumsy. The anvil choirs seem to have been pre-recorded, which was very disappointing.


The Opera Tattler said...

I believe the anvils were back stage, but yes, they did come out of the speakers. Perhaps the orchestra pit is not large enough for everyone?

Axel Feldheim said...

OK, maybe I'm being cranky. I didn't like that the sounds were coming through the PA system, & it made me suspicious. I know that the ballet has used this trick of using pre-recorded samples for the children's choir in The Nutcracker. I hope those were real anvils back there. I believe that when they did the Ring back in the 80s, they had anvil choirs at the grand tier level, so the sound came from 3 sides. Very cool.