Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Das Rheingold, San Francisco Opera

June 14, 2011

This idea of an American Ring Cycle is pretty preposterous. Ill-conceived real estate deals? High-powered executives fomenting resentment toward blue-collar workers? Come on! That would never happen in America.

Sarcasm aside, the idea of a Ring festooned in American iconography - a longtime dream of stage director Francesca Zambello - is fitting not only from square one, but at square one, as the Rhinemaidens protect their River of Gold. Rivers of gold? That's the very reason that San Francisco was founded.

Let's begin by giving you a quick rundown of said Americanisms. The maidens are dressed as Gold Rush saloon girls. Alberich appears in overalls and a miner's cap. In Scene 2, the gods are dressed in light-colored 1920s picnicwear - a la the Kennedys, or perhaps the Gatsby clan. Wotan wears a blazer and jodhpurs, and Donner's hammer is a croquet mallet. He and Froh wear the hard-hats of general contractors as they review blueprints for Valhalla. The blue-collar giants Fasolt and Fafner are dropped in on a steel beam, taken from those iconic photos of New York skyscraper workers. They are dressed in denim overalls and work caps, and their extremities have been extended by metallic fingers and black stilt-boots. The gods enter Valhalla courtesy of a cruise ship gangway.

Zambello's touches (and those of costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Michael Yeargan) enliven the action without intruding on it. This invigoration is furthered by the intriguing projections of Jan Hartley (a primordial soup for the famed E-flat prelude, Arizona caves for the trip to Alberich's underworld) and the ceaselessly inventive lighting by Mark McCullough.

Given such a fresh new look, it's easy to find new thoughts on Wagner's epic. Such as, how early and blatantly he proclaims his theme. Alberich is able to steal the Rheingold only by forswearing love, and there you have it: love versus power, for the rest of the Cycle. ("So the gold is safe," declares a maiden. "Who would give up love?")

The second epiphany comes in the trap of rooting for the declared protagonist, no matter what. This is a human habit, one that has led many readers to find themselves, in Nabokov's "Lolita," empathizing with a pedophile. In the case of Das Rheingold, it is important to realize that Wotan is a complete ass. He offers his sister-in-law as payment for Valhalla, intends all along to screw the giants out of any payment at all, and eventually covers his rear-end by stealing from Alberich. Sadly, Wall Street is currently occupied by thousands of Wotans.

Wotan's henchman/lawyer Loge is even slimier, but he's also the first guy you would invite to a cocktail party. Czech tenor Stefan Margita makes use of stabbing marcatos and lively enunciation to fork Loge's tongue even further, giving the production a welcome serving of cynical wit. Bass-baritone Gordon Hawkins brings an animal presence to Alberich, and everything about Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli's Fasolt is gigantic: the voice, the size, the presence. The Rhinemaidens - Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum - are comely both physically and musically, giving the sunrise hymn to the gold a delicate three-part rapture. Contralto Ronnita Miller performs the Earth spirit Erda with a sense of calm power.

Other notes:

- Not very nice to begin a two-and-a-half-hour intermissionless production with all those images of water.

- Nice final-act brotherly beat-down by Daniel Sumegi as Fafner. Watch out for those quiet ones.

- The supertitles are fresh, as well. Alberich leaves the maidens with "Flirt in darkness, you slimy sluts!"

- Provocative choice: On the brink of her release, Freia seems to have fallen prey to Stockholm Syndrome, clinging to Fasolt like a smitten teenager. Perhaps it's that old saying about large feet...

- After Erda clearly warns Wotan to give up the ring, and then repeats the warning, he answers with, "Your words are mysterious." What an ass.

- The Nibelungs are awesomely creepy, courtesy of raggy outfits and the ghastly orange lighting of Alberich's mine.

The Ring Cycle, through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California. 415/864-3330,

Image: Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Daniel Sumegi (Fafner). Photo by Cory Weaver

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel/CD "Operaville," available at

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