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June 27, 2011

A Ring for our time at the San Francisco Opera

If you want to immerse yourself in the ultimate opera experience -- Richard Wagner's 4-episode, 17-hour epic Ring Cycle -- you have to plan for a pilgrimage, and you have to plan well in advance. 

Ring of Fire.jpg
The Ring is a hot international ticket, wherever and whenever the production is mounted. It takes nearly a week to see it all, so that key singers can rest between episodes, and it is thus a perfect festival event for the months of summer. 

The San Francisco Opera, a highly respected company in a popular city for cultural travelers, topped off the second of its three cycles on Sunday.

Not to worry if you aren't going to be there for the third cycle this week. The very nature of a Ring Cycle -- if it's as good as this one -- is that it will be around for decades and serve various singers, conductors and even opera houses before it is done. The point is that the San Francisco Opera's new Ring Cycle -- conceived by the American director Francesca Zambello -- is worth plotting your future travel bucks for.

I have seen my share of big, even very big, productions of the Ring, including Parts 1 and 2 of an overpowering new cycle underway at the Metropolitan Opera, with its morphing, motor-driven set. One can become conditioned to expect that each new production will find ever bolder ways to emphasize the cycle's great sweep.
Thus it comes as a stunning revelation to witness Zambello's humanizing directorial approach. You can see it at work in this early scene, below, from Part 1 of the cycle, "Das Rheingold," when Wotan's new castle, Valhalla, is nearing completion. The gods arrayed before us are instantly recognizable as a dysfunctional family. We have in Wotan the charmingly devious robber baron. His wife takes the jewels and guards her turf while tolerating his wandering ways. The two sleekly clad sons of entitlement make a hobby out of appearing useful. Soon arrive a couple of formidable giants -- actually giant working stiffs -- who float in on a construction beam to claim the wife's comely sister in payment, as contracted, for their work. The family freaks. Wotan starts to finagle. You don't have to know anything about Wagner or German myth to see that this is going to be quite some story: 


The time just flies by in this Ring. Zambello has presented us with characters whose individual richness seems Mozartian, even Shakespearean, in its verisimilitude. Each is wholly differentiated from the rest. This is a lively bunch of creatures -- charms, foibles, warts and all -- clearly and unsentimentally captured and yet recognizable in all their humanity. The interplay is nonstop and right on target.

The Ring's creation occupied Wagner for more than a third of his life, between 1848 and 1874, and was first presented in its entirety in 1876. It covers the mythological time span from the fall of the gods to the dawn of man, and it has been scheduled somewhere in the world regularly since Wagner's death in 1883. Operabase.com currently lists new productions underway in Darmstadt, Milan, Munich, and Frankfurt, as well as at the aforementioned Met. Between now and the end of next season, Operabase lists 93 individual productions of Ring segments -- 185 performances in 26 cities. 

Inevitably, these new productions get taglines to distinguish them. This production has been called the American Ring, the Feminist Ring. Neither label quite sums it up, although it is accurate to say that much of the cycle's natural imagery (designed by Michael Yeargan, with lighting by Mark McCullough and projections by Jan Hartley) stems from the American Rust Belt's continuing decay, and that the women of this Ring are interpreted with rare brashness, humor and sympathy.

Brunnhilde.jpg
The San Francisco Opera cast of singers was uneven vocally. Yet to a person they did the most honest and thoroughly detailed acting job I have ever witnessed in service of Wagner's saga -- really a singular achievement. The heldentenor Ian Story suffered a debilitating loss of voice in the middle of the finale I attended, but his protracted death scene as Siegfried, crawling instinctively across the ground to attempt retrieval of his sword amid a swarm of terrified onlookers, was unforgettable. There were many such moments of spellbinding theater in this cycle. Yet Nina Stemme, a truly glorious Swedish soprano at the height of her vocal powers, was so outstanding as Wotan's alter ego Brünnhilde that the opera really did become this female hero's tale. 

It has been a heady time for the San Francisco Opera despite systemic financial woes that general director David Gockley sums up as an annual scramble to find $7 million in miracle money just to meet a $70 million budget, and a future that looks as ominous as the wrecked ships strewn along the city's Lands End coast: Half the company's annual donations come from just 11 very generous benefactors, all over 65. 

Zambello Gockley Stemme.png
Zambello and Gockley, shown from left with Stemme, have worked together since Gockley's Houston Opera days. Both have asserted their commitment to making opera and theater more accessible to more people. Zambello has said that she considers musical theater to be the opera of today, and she seems respectful of the shared cultural history that great film and television have brought us. She is the artistic and general director of central New York's Glimmerglass Festival, which she reconstituted to include a work of American musical theater along with three opera productions. She developed Disney's "The Little Mermaid" for Broadway as well as a musical adaptation of the movie "The First Wives Club," which was presented at the Old Globe in San Diego. And as a speaker, Zambello has made comparisons between the grand scale of Wagner's Ring Cycle and the accessible mythical worlds of George Lucas' "Star Wars" and J.K. Rowling's seven-book Harry Potter saga. 

Thus it is not surprising to find that this Ring Cycle freely mingles high and low cultural influences. We have wonderfully sly references to rich bimbos, smarmy lawyers, an "Oh whatta guy" who uses antlers in all of his decorating, Molotov cocktails, the Transformers, the Temple of Doom, and an unlikely romance that is very Kong and Dwan. The production is so immediate and absorbing that advance preparation should not be required. 

The Zambello Ring is widely expected to be revived at the Washington National Opera -- money willing, in two or three years -- where Zambello has signed on as artistic advisor. (The production started out as a shared venture between the two companies, but money ran out in the nation's capital midway through the project.)  

If the time comes that you obtain a ticket for this or any other Ring Cycle, and you decide to prepare, I recommend borrowing or renting a DVD of the 1976 Bayreuth Festival centennial production of the complete Ring Cycle, conceived by Patrice Chéreau, conducted by Pierre Boulez and featuring a resoundingly great cast of singers (recorded in 1980). And pay particular attention to the singing, because the vocal richness of that cast -- a truly historic assemblage of great artists -- is something that very few opera companies in our lifetime will manage to duplicate.

At top, Wotan (Mark Delavan) encompasses the sleeping Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) in a ring of fire at the end of "Die Walküre, Part 2 of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen."  Below, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is Brünnhilde. Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera.

At the Ring cast party, from left: Francesca Zambello, David Gockley and Nina Stemme. Photo by Kristen Loken, San Francisco Opera.
June 27, 2011 9:51 AM | | Comments (0)

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