At long last, S.F. Opera’s sumptuous ‘Rheingold’

Donald Runnicles
San Jose Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin

SAN FRANCISCO -- With 94 musicians in the pit and a backstage crew of 115 workers, with 920 liters of liquid nitrogen to create fog effects, with a cast of noted Wagnerians to sing in the fog, and with huge anticipation after months -- or is it years? centuries? -- of buildup, finally, the "Ring" has arrived at War Memorial Opera House.

To quote the Rhinemaidens: "Heijaho!!!"

Yes, "Das Rheingold" ("The Rhine Gold"), Part 1 of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle, had its opening Tuesday. It's a spectacle for the digital age -- Wagner meets Xbox 360 -- and it launches this week's full round of the four operas, all 17 hours of the cycle's mighty epic-ness. Two more cycles will follow, through July 3, as San Francisco

That said, we've seen this "Rheingold" before, as a teaser in 2008, when director Francesca Zambello first brought to San Francisco her vision of the "Ring." This time the digital imagery that surrounds the singers -- swirling clouds, cascading waters, molten fields of gold -- is even more sumptuous. Tuesday, the orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, drove home the score's primordial trance-dance, its anvil-driven intermezzo (with six percussionists beating on railroad ties and pipes), its firebrand lust and sinister majesty.

The singing was good, if less consistent.

Let's talk about baritone Mark Delavan, back as Wotan, god of gods, presented here as a 1920s tycoon in double-breasted jacket and chic eye-patch -- and toting his fearsome spear. He lounges on the patio of Valhalla -- the home of the heroes is depicted as a skyscraper to the heavens -- and when we first hear his voice, it sounds like an awakening to power. But Delavan didn't sustain it, not on Tuesday. His voice moved in and out of focus, cloaked and failing to crack open the full magnificence of Wotan's malice and corruption.

Let's step back: "Rheingold" sets Wagner's cycle in motion by showing us the origins of the mythic gold in the waters of the Rhine River. It is guarded by three Rhinemaidens, and it is stolen by Alberich, lord of the underworld, who fashions it into an all-powerful ring. He will rule the world; that's the thief's dream. But Wotan, short of cash to pay for Valhalla's construction, steals the gold -- sacks of it, and the ring, too -- from Alberich. They are two sides of the same coin, these thugs, and they will bring each other down.

Tuesday, baritone Gordon Hawkins, as Alberich, rarely delivered the hell-lord's full menace and wrath. His voice, as usual, was delicious, but it was light-roasted coffee, not bitter enough. Well, once it grew truly bitter: When Alberich is captured, bound in ropes and stripped of his riches, he sings his famous curse upon the ring and its new owner, Wotan. In these moments, Hawkins' expression of desperation and loss was rich. This was awesome.

This brings us to the unexpected star of the show: Czech tenor Stefan Margita, as Loge, demigod of fire, a trickster -- and Wotan's deal- maker. Margita was slick as his sharkskin coat, his voice dapper, precise, sailing and absolutely free -- the voice of a calculator, free to charm or destroy, as he sees fit.

He never flagged. Neither did bass Andrea Silvestrelli, in the role of Fasolt, one of the two giants who build Valhalla. Silvestrelli's voice is outrageous; it could shatter concrete. But in "Rheingold" he also gets to sing the night's only real love music -- Fasolt is smitten with Freia, Wotan's abused sister-in-law -- and he did this Tuesday with giant tenderness.

There were other standouts. Soprano Stacey Tappan and mezzo-sopranos Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum comprised a gilded yet lusty halo of a trio: the Rhinemaidens, singing the primordial sunrise into existence. As Fricka, goddess of fidelity and wife of philandering Wotan, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was earthy and intensely believable. As Mime, brother of Alberich, tenor David Cangelosi displayed a loamy voice, sniveling subservience and rage -- a Dickensian character.

Two and a half hours long, without intermission, "Rhein gold" is the shortest opera in the cycle. But some productions still can be a challenge; all that singing about contract negotiations for the payment of Valhalla.

Tuesday, that wasn't a problem; Zambello's actors kept the momentum happening. And it didn't hurt that Michael Yeargan's sets are beyond eye-popping, from the blood-red underworld, straight out of Dante, to the rainbow bridge across which Wotan and his supremely overconfident family -- nattily dressed in Sunday whites, like characters out of "The Great Gatsby" -- stride toward their house in the clouds. They are doomed. Stay tuned for Part 2.