SF Opera’s Ring des Nibelungen

Donald Runnicles

By Cedric Chou

The Ring has arrived: Richard Wagner's four-operas-in-a-week cycle kicked off last night and you could see in the audience that this was not the regular season anymore, it's playoff time. You could feel a palpable excitement in the crowd, a positive tension to support the performance: everyone seemed to have arrived earlier, tailgating on the opera house balcony more joyfully than usual. The house was sold out, even in the standing room, even though the opera is 2h30 long with no intermission. And in the press room, you would see all these unknown faces (but names we've heard of) from the national media packed in the tiny space. Just by the vibe you know it's big.

The Ring goes like this: last night, das Rheingold; tonight, die Walküre; then Friday Siegfried and Sunday die Götterdämmerung. The whole cycle repeats two more times, June 21-26 and June 28-July 3. All in all, it's 17 hours of music, 415 people and a $24 million budget. Putting together a Ring is a huge commitment, the last one in SF was twelve years ago. The one in LA in 2009 required that house to beg the county for an emergency loan. The current one in NY demanded that the Met opera's building be structurally reinforced to support the machinery for its Robert Lepage production.

Compared to those, our SF Ring tames down the irrational exuberance. It's less oversized, more down to earth. The Francesca Zambello production focuses on the humanity of the Gods, and recasts the Norse mythology into an American setting covering the Gold Rush in das Rheingold, the 30s in Walküre, the post-Vietnam era in Siegfried and some undisclosed future location for Götterdämmerung. Das Rheingold sets the story in motion when the Nibelung Alberich renounces love to harvest the power of the gold he stole from the Rhine river into a magical ring. Meanwhile, Wotan needs to pay for his grandiose castle (Valhalla), built by two giants. They want Freia to settle the bill, and we don't mean they want her to write a check. Freia is his wife's sister, but what really stops Wotan from giving her away is that the apples she grows give youth and eternal life to the Gods. So Wotan decides to steal Alberich's gold to pay the Giants. Alberich is not pleased and curses whomever will own the Ring. The rest of the cycle intertwines more dysfunctional family issues with the quest for the cursed Ring.

You don't put four operas in six days without a little prep work, and SF Opera had a run of the first two operas in the series in previous seasons. So we had seen this Rheingold before, albeit with a slightly different cast and with some tweaks here and there. But what we wrote then mostly holds true now, so just go read it. What we wrote on the stage setting and on the overall musical excellence: we stand by that today as well. Actually, we can't emphasize enough the steady, thoughtful direction of Maestro Donald Runnicles. The former SF music director started his career here in Wagner in 1990, and he does something special with that music. No wonder his current gig is in Berlin.

The videos have been cleaned up: no more Space Odyssey tangents, the projections are of natural elements, and feel more integrated. The cast has changed, but last night's singers were across the board amazing. From 2008, Mark Delavan (Wotan), Stefan Margita (Loge) have grown even more comfortable in their roles, and seem to have acquire more vocal depth for the former, and brightness for the latter. Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) is as cavernous as ever, and his new giant buddy Fafner, Daniel Sumegi, more than holds his own. The Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum) seemed sultrier, and Donner (Gerd Grochowski) and Froh (Brandon Jovanovich) to have more heft. We liked Gordon Hawkins' Alberich as much as we did Paul Fink's in 2008, for similar reason: his character stays convincing from the initial comic relief to the desperate final curse. It is playoff time indeed, when everyone steps up their game, and this was Tim Lincecum tossing 10 Ks for the opener.