War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 12, 2018

Like the swirling waters of the Rhine that welcome the audience to 17 hours of Wagner, Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle is a work in flux, and has been for over 35 years now. In her eloquent program note, the director relates her conception of this vast production back to an experience climbing in the Rocky Mountains in 1981. From this seminal encounter with the unspoiled American wilderness, and a typically overactive imagination that conjured visions of gods and goddesses roaming the landscape, sprung the idea for an ‘American’ Ring. Zambello’s production is peculiarly driven by such contemporary concerns as what we should expect of our children, the acquisition of real estate and the price we pay for despoiling the environment. Don’t expect Betsy De Vos, Donald J. Trump and Scott Pruitt to buy a ticket anytime soon, but hell, it would be nice if they paid some of it it a little attention.

Lauren McNeese as Wellgunde, Renée Tatum as Flosshilde and Stacey Tappan as Woglinde. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Over its various outings to date (from Washington 2005, San Francisco 2011, Washington 2016 and on to today), Zambello has taken the opportunity to update certain elements and embrace new emphases suggested by changing social mores. So, although hers is not a feminist take on Wagner as such, looking ahead we should expect a greater sense of the power wielded for good and ill by the women of the Ring. It’s with the environment that we begin, however, and with the first of S. Katy Tucker’s compelling video projections that carry us from scene to scene in Das Rheingold, the multi-locational two-and-a-half-hour prelude to the Ring proper.

Based on previous work with Jan Hartley, they take us from something like the big bang – perfectly underpinned by Donald Runnicles’ sonorously fat opening E Flat – through the formation of the Earth, finally distilling itself into pure water. Later transitions deliver a heady ascent to some impressively three-dimensional mountain peaks, a colourful journey to the centre of the Earth, and a parched landscape reminiscent of the planet Mars that appears behind Erda to support her warning of the consequences of retaining and misusing the Nibelung’s ring. It’s one of the opera’s most powerful moments, akin to Wagner’s own subtle use of leitmotifs that reveal what is really going on rather than simply what meets the eye.

A scene from Das Rheingold. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Zambello’s riverbed – more likely the Sacramento than the Rhine – swirls with dry ice (occasionally in need of a little taming), and is cleanly framed by a series of receding proscenia. Set designer Michael Yeargan (Australian’s will know his elegant work from OA’s Traviata and Rigoletto, among others) proceeds to present a belvedere terrace in the high mountains and a pretty convincing gold mine. Time is relatively immaterial. In Catherine Zuber’s attractive costumes, the Gods wear Edwardian togs while the giants swing in on a girder like the ironworkers in that famous 1932 Manhattan skyscraper construction photo.

With more than a nod to the California Gold Rush, Alberich appears with map in hand, twitching like a befuddled 49er. Zambello is a director with a keen sense of humour, and Rheingold is not a bad place to put it to work. The Rhinemaidens’ playtime with the giggling dwarf lends him a healthy dose of naïve charm. Later there are witty touches such as when Fasolt pushes a crestfallen Fricka out of the way to get to Freia, or what he sees as the ‘prettier’ lady in the room. The clowning of Donner and Froh – the one a grumpy bulldog with a combover, the other reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s take on a witless Don Jr. – could be toned down at times, especially when, like Freia, they have relatively little to say, but it all goes to build a picture of a modern kind of family, warts and all.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Julie Adams as Freia, Andrea Silvestrelli as Fasolt, Brandon Jovanovich as Froh and Brian Mulligan as Donner. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The most effective scene is reserved for Nibelheim, where the dust-clotted bandages of Alberich’s faceless slave-labourers evoke enormous pity. Their piercing screams, like Runnicles’ furiously clanking anvils, add to the atmosphere of oppression. Neither the projected serpent or the cuddly-toy toad are up to much, but Mark McCulloch’s intricate and moody lighting is another trinket in this production’s treasure chest. A couple of forked lightening effects are powerfully delivered, as is the rainbow lighting for Valhalla’s penny-plain gantry bridge. Donner’s storm, however, underwhelms, and while the image of Wotan pulling up the drawbridge on the desperate Rhinemaidens is a nice idea, it makes for a less than ceremonial Entry of the Gods.

Vocally, this Rheingold has been cast without a weak link. In order of appearance, the three Rhinemaidens – Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) – blend well and carry cleanly over the orchestral waves. Tatum, in particular is blessed with a lovely, warm mezzo. Amazingly, German veteran Falk Struckmann is making his San Francisco and role debut as Alberich, a fully three-dimensional part in his experienced hands. This is a red-blooded being whose impulses get the better of him and subsequently allows power to go to his head, in other words, an appropriate mirror image and foil for the equally flawed Wotan. He brings to bear a deep awareness of the text, while his gruff baritone is always clear and he still posesses all the requisite high notes.

Falk Struckmann as Alberich and Greer Grimsley as Wotan. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The hardest role to pull off in Rheingold is invariably that of Wotan, the man at the centre of it all, but one who scarcely appears in charge, blown hither and thither by this wife, the giants, Loge and the enigmatic prophecies of Erda. Greer Grimsley (who was originally cast in OA’s 2016 Ring but withdrew for health reasons) certainly has the voice to command attention and, a few distorted vowel-sounds aside, offers an exciting range all the way up to a ringing top. Like Wagner himself, this Wotan is a thinking man, not unkind, with a Minna-like wife who can’t seem to follow where his next idea is leading him. If we have yet to see real anger, he’s nasty enough when pushed to spear the ring off of Alberich’s hand. And if he occasionally fades into the background, Wotan’s often do in this opera.

More vocal honours are due to Štefan Margita’s shifty, insurance salesman of a Loge and Jamie Barton’s sumptuous Fricka, both of whom are blessed with razor-sharp diction and an instinctive way with the words. The former has a light, penetrating voice (in the best sense) and offers an exquisite reading of a score in which he frequently gets the most lyrical lines. His assumption of the trickster is more devious than mercurial, his rejection of Wotan’s proffered ‘divinity’ at the end lending him a touch of dignity. Barton’s appealing performance makes the Queen of the Gods into a preternaturally dim society matron – the kind that used to harry poor old Groucho Marx. She may come up light on gravitas, but with her flexible, creamy mezzo you’d have to go a long way to hear the role more beautifully sung.

Jamie Barton as Fricka and Štefan Margita as Loge. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The rest of Wotan’s dysfunctional family consist of Julie Adams’ well-sung but slightly fussy Freia. She’s not helped by having to carry off her own fruit bowl when seized by the giants – one of Zambello’s less successful ideas – but her evident fondness for the kindly Fasolt on their return is a nice touch. Brandon Jovanovich is luxury casting as Froh, boding well for his Siegmund in Die Walküre, and Brian Mulligan does what he can with the thankless role of Donner.

Both giants cope well with their seven-league boots. As Fasolt, Andrea Silvestrelli has the more exciting voice, suitably stentorian, though his German is occasionally odd. He overcomes a set of sinister metal fingers on one hand and a crane hook on the other to build a sympathetic portrait of one of the Ring’s biggest losers. As his brother Fafner, Raymond Aceto is clearly the slyer of the two, his bass respectable if seldom menacing.

Falk Struckmann as Alberich. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Ronnita Miller’s ravishingly sung Erda is a real stand out. Rising from a trapdoor she barely moves, yet commands attention throughout. David Cangelosi – recently a star-turn on the Naxos Hong Kong Ring – creates a nicely fleshed-out character as Mime, singing with power and a more attractive tone than many in this role. His return in Siegfried will be keenly anticipated.

Donald Runnicles, an experienced Wagnerian, drives a pacey reading of the score, ensuring the drama never sags. A few more volts would have helped the giants’ entry and perhaps Donner’s storm as well, but his prologue was beautifully controlled and his descent to Nibelheim a highlight. A credit to him, he appeared unnoticed in the pit at the start, gifting the audience with an uninterrupted entry into Wagner’s musical world. Occasional horn glitches aside, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra had the music completely under their belts.

The Gods enter Valhalla. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

If this Rheingold occasionally seems to have one too many ideas and a lightness of touch that sometimes belies the music, it was a sufficiently intriguing take and clearly a well-thought out production. Assuming Zambello can turn it around for catch the darker hues of Die Walküre, it’s a promising start to this appropriately all-American Ring.

Three cycles of Wagner’s Ring are playing at San Francisco Opera until July 1