Band of Gold: Das Rheingold at San Francisco Opera

Wagner – Das Rheingold

Wotan – Greer Grimsley
Loge – Štefan Margita
Alberich – Falk Struckmann
Fricka – Jamie Barton
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Mime – David Cangelosi
Fasolt – Andrea Silvestrelli
Fafner – Raymond Aceto
Donner – Brian Mulligan
Froh – Brandon Jovanovich
Freia – Julie Adams
Woglinde – Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde – Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde – Renée Tatum

San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Francesca Zambello.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Tuesday, June 19th, 2018.

The Ring is the ultimate statement of intent for any opera company.  It shows what it is capable of in depth and judiciousness of casting, the strength of its house forces, and the quality of its production team.  To coincide with the three cycles in this revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2011 staging, San Francisco Opera has organized a stimulating series of seminars and concerts to create a Ring Festival.  I joined the second cycle taking place from Tuesday to Sunday this week.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In a program note, Zambello mentions that for her, the Ring represents a rupture between humans and nature, the exploitation of nature to power human ambition.  Indeed, with an opening scene featuring a sex pest seduced by absolute power, Das Rheingold might seem appropriately timely in the US in 2018.  It raised hopes that we would see an exploration of the corruption of power and the need to control resources.  I’m not quite convinced we got that tonight.  It’s early days in the cycle but so far, the strength of Zambello’s staging is that it looks visually attractive.  Costumes (Catherine Zuber) seem redolent of the 1930s.  Video projections (Jan Hartley and S Katy Tucker) add abstract imagery between scenes and at the opening.  These were especially striking in those opening moments as they gradually took form into the waters of the Rhine alongside that celebrated musical sequence.  They were also used intelligently to provide constantly changing backdrops at the back of the stage as the evening developed.  The downside is that this approach felt skin deep.  What I longed for was a deeper interpretation of the text, an attempt to dig beyond the surface, to find out and communicate what really lies beneath the surface and to transform it into a cogent and convincing theatrical narrative.  Rheingold has much to say about society today and Zambello in her program note is clearly aware of that.  Yet, I remain unconvinced that this translated into what we saw on stage.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Another downside of the staging was in the direction of the singers.  Far too often, singers felt under directed.  Frequently marooned on stage, with arms aloft, declaiming to the front and staring into the distance, rather than engaging with each other.  For such a magnetic actor as Falk Struckmann to be parked upstage in the opening scene, while the Rhinemaidens indulged in some synchronized dance moves, felt particularly disappointing.  Rheingold is a wordy piece and much depends on the clarity of the text.  It was no coincidence that the most satisfying and rounded performances came from those singers – Štefan Margita’s Loge, Struckmann’s Alberich and Ronnita Miller’s Erda – who really used the text to project to the tone into the house.  It will certainly be interesting to see how Zambello’s approach develops over the course of the week.  At the end of the evening, three women appeared on stage in rags, presumably the Rhinemaidens in ruins now that the gold has been removed, but it felt tagged on as an afterthought rather than part of a coherent whole.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Musically, there was much that was very satisfying.  It’s always somewhat risky to make predictions but my initial thought is that one of the chief glories of this cycle will be the playing of the ladies and gentlemen of the house orchestra under Donald Runnicles’ direction.  There was some tentativeness in the opening pages, a sense that they needed a few moments to settle.  As the opening expanded, it took form in a liquid, flowing tempo, Runnicles bringing out a rainbow of colours from the band.  Tempi were wonderfully fluent throughout, based on a firm rhythmic foundation with never any sense of dragging.  The giants were delightfully fleet of foot and the anvils (pumped in from the ballet studio on the sixth floor of the house) made a tremendous – and rhythmically accurate – noise.  The burnished string sound, with remarkably accurate intonation, also gave much pleasure.  Runnicles always allowed the singers through and moulded each section in such a convincing, organic way.  The closing pages blazed magnificently.  On the evidence of tonight, we have much to look forward to this week.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Margita was an absolutely magnetic Loge.  The voice isn’t the biggest but it’s so well placed and sung off the text that it carried throughout the house.  He dominated the stage through his charisma and a voice always even in emission.  Struckmann’s Alberich was carved from granite, his bass baritone absolutely firm and verbally incisive.  Greer Grimsley was a world-weary Wotan in a compact bass-baritone that had a slight dryness in the middle but with vibrations that were fairly even.  Jamie Barton’s fruity, juicy mezzo was used to advantage as Fricka but I did wish for more clarity of diction and the bottom, at least tonight, sounded somewhat disconnected from the middle.  Andrea Silvestrelli had clearly worked hard on the text as Fasolt, the voice large with a woolly edge.  Both he and Raymond Aceto’s Fafner impressively negotiated the stage in thirty-centimetre platform heels.  Aceto impressively firm, resonant and warm of tone.  Brandon Jovanovich’s Froh was played for laughs, his bright, gleaming tenor an instrument of rare quality.  Brian Mulligan’s Donner was sung in a handsome, lyrical baritone.  Julie Adams’ Freia was sung in a full lyric soprano with a steely edge and there was an attractively mellifluous, if somewhat verbally indistinct, trio of Rhinemaidens.  Ronnita Miller’s Erda really made much of little.  The voice absolutely glamourous in tone from bright top to full, chocolatey bottom.  She warned and we most certainly listened.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There was so much that was good musically in tonight’s Rheingold and much that promises some quite great things for the remainder of the week.  Musically, the orchestra and Runnicles provided deep satisfaction and there were some astounding individual performances, most notably from Margita, Struckmann and Miller.  The staging didn’t quite offer us a penetrating theatrical analysis of the work nor did it claim to.  It laid out the story clearly although the direction of the singers did feel perfunctory.  Still, it was an honourable start to the week and promises much for tomorrow night’s Walküre.

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