Das Rheingold

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
June 2008
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanMark Delavan
DonnerCharles Taylor
FrohJason Collins
LogeStefan Margita
FasoltAndrea Silvestrelli
FafnerGünther Groissböck
AlberichRichard Paul Fink
MimeDavid Cangelosi
FrickaJennifer Larmore
FreiaTamara Wapinsky
ErdaJill Grove
WoglindeCatherine Cangiano
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeBuffy Baggott

One wishes, but only every so often, for the good old days when a Ring was a very special event. Now it seems the Ring may have overtaken Aida as the most produced mega-opera, at least among the big companies around the world. This does gives us the advantage of seeing it in many different ways, clarifying its mysteries, laying bare its weaknesses, with the result that one approaches any new Ring with skepticism rather than blind enthusiasm.

Das Rheingold is surely the producers nightmare of the four, as it has eleven roles requiring major voices, not including the Rhine maidens. One should expect any major American company to ably fill these spots, as San Francisco Opera has done though without great distinction. At the same time Rheingold has little of the musical-emotional payoff we expect from Walküre and Götterdämmerung thus it generates less excitement at the box office. There was the disappointment of visible empty seats at its opening.

Nonetheless the Eb major rumble of the Rhine never fails too ignite shivers of anticipation for the huge and indeed magical exposition to come of the nineteenth century’s socio-economic intrigues, and Wagner’s effective but naïve denouement. San Francisco’s gold rush was simultaneous with the genesis of Wagner’s Ring treatise, thus the famous prelude seemed to belong in San Francisco and in its opera house, the gray, gold and pale blue colors like the Sierras. Viewed from the opera house’s grand tier gold lights bounced from the reflecting surfaces of the polished woods of the strings and the luster of the silver and brass instruments, seeming to betray the placement of the Rhine gold.

Once these initial conceptual shivers had dissipated we were left with a scrim on which throbbed two dimensional colors, lots of them, naively illustrating Wagner’s river. Moving into the river generated some excitement, with a transparent blue floor, three gold clad river nymphs, and a huge black and white projection of a mountain stream tumbling over stones. Maybe this is the Sierras and San Francisco will be Valhalla: there was another conceptual shiver and more fog than ever before flowed onto the War Memorial Opera House stage. Alberich appeared slipping and sliding on the damp stones, dressed as a forty-niner, a strong, physical performer, Richard Paul Fink. Alberich and the Rhine maidens ceremoniously floated a large gold silk cloth around the stage, then Alberich wrapped himself in it and fled the stage.

The temporary residence of the gods was filled with lounge chairs, tables, architects’ blue prints, one had the impression that it might even be a construction trailer or a trailer park. Its inhabitants, Teutonic gods, were trailer-trash even if dressed in what appeared to be post-Victorian garb. Within this context there were excellent performances, Jennifer Larmore as a truly convincing trailer-class Fricka, Jason Collins and Charles Taylor were the handsomely voiced, handsome, if no-good hangers-on Froh and Donner. Tamara Wapinsky made a vibrant, beautifully sung and acted, adolescent Freia. Mark Delavan was the appropriately vain, thin-voiced, head-of-household Wotan. The several extended family squabbles of Das Rheingold unfolded in sometimes amusing, always un-focused staging.

Adding yet another dimension Fasolt and Fafner were giant cartoon characters complete with stainless steel fingers. Descending from the steel beam construction of this dysfunctional family’s new high-rise dream home, the sympathetic Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and the rough Günther Groissböck (Fafner) were comic book heros. The sleazy story unfolded as it always does in the lively, well staged Nibelheim scene with some fine, if perhaps too cheap Disney special effects. The especially effective Loge of Stefan Margita brought the sparks of intrigue and deception that define some of those seedy friends we all have, particularly those of us who live in trailer parks.

The real, the mythical, the symbolic, and the cartoon were intermixed in the production’s storytelling. Two dimensional, color saturated projections on an upstage scrim sometimes illustrated the story while flat colorful shapes throbbed on the downstage scrim during the orchestrally accompanied scene changes. These scene shifts introduced a further dimension as back-stage shouting emerged through the scrim and over the orchestra, a rich idea that enhanced the duties of the underworld Nibelungen. When visible on-stage the Nibelungen were not these vocal stagehands but an impressive group of children that added piercing squeals from time to time. If there was no shortage of ideas or means to realize them in this production, there was the suspicion that this was but a list of ideas, not a production concept.

Though Freia had expressed real regret at being separated from Fasolt she is reconciled to the trailer-trash gods, and finally all ascended a gangplank, clinking their glasses of champagne, presumably climbing towards the next episode of their story, or onto a cruise, or something.

Through all of this the San Francisco Opera Orchestra delivered Wagner’s score from the eloquent pit, Donald Runnicles at the helm. It is an excellent orchestra, expanded for Wagnerian requirements, amply fulfilling all musical requirements in a hall sympathetic to large orchestral sound. Runnicles is famed for Wagner, and if this Rheingold’s musical points were seemingly pallid it was perhaps because the stage was not sure what it was doing.

Of important note is that prior to the performance we were spared the condescending exhortation to seek out our route to the nearest exit (though many of the audience perhaps wished they had had a way out during this performance). Of more important note is that the stage director and designers did not take bows. Millions of dollars and massive energy were expended on this production, and as we, the audience needed to express our appreciation to the performers for their work we also needed to express our appreciation, or lack of, to the producers, here left unmentioned as they apparently preferred to remain anonymous.

Michael Milenski | 3.6.2008

MusicWeb-International.com (II)

Musically, conductor Donald Runnicles and the orchestra bring tremendous energy and luminosity to Rheingold. The singers showed some strengths but, as with most Wagner casts, weaknesses as well. The main attraction is baritone Mark Delavan’s role debut as Wotan. Vocally secure, his portrayal feels like it needs more seasoning to become as natural as his often-volcanic performances of other big Wagner roles, including The Dutchman and Amfortas. For now, anyway, Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich, full of character and effortless singing, and Stefan Margita’s brilliantly sung Loge made the best impressions.

On first taste, I find the mixed metaphors of the staging troubling. It will take some serious rethinking and refining to bring out the good ideas in this mess. The big thought, from what I gather after reading director Francesca Zambello’s comments, is to use references and icons from American history to portray people and places in the Ring. Plans for Gotterdämmerung, for example, put the Gibichungs in a McMansion. We’ll see how that works out. The main link in the Rheingold staging portrayed Alberich as a Forty-Niner gold miner lured by the Rhinemaidens into a river in California Gold Country as he pans for gold. I get it. The gold in the river represents the incessant search for wealth that has led America to compromise our natural bounty and our own souls, much as the characters in the Ring do. I am not convinced this is a strong enough idea to carry the whole drama.

It’s especially puzzling that the production plays fast and loose with time. The stage floor is an industrial steel grate, which does not fit with the opening scene in the water no matter how much dry ice vapor floods the stage. Flats jutting from the wings suggest mountains if they are jagged, walls if they are smooth. Rear projections produce images that can be construed as real (water tumbling down river rapids in the Rhinemaidens scene) or allusive (a sci-fi-like tour of the solar system during the long prelude). The Rhinemaidens wear 19th-century dress, but the gods in Valhalla are dressed like the leisure class of the 1920s, as if they stepped out of “The Great Gatsby.” Wotan looks like a wealthy construction tycoon. Loge looks like a lawyer. The giants, wearing big heavy elevator boots, are done up like mid-20th-century construction workers in bib overalls. Erda rises out of an opening in the grated floor.

And with all the visual effects experts in the Bay Area’s burgeoning film industry, is a weak light projection the best this production can do for a serpent in the Nibelheim scene? Making Alberich disappear when he puts on the tarnhelm needs work, too. You can see his gold-topped head descending amid the child-Nibelungs surrounding him. The toad puppet was cute, but someone please tell Margita (as Loge) not to pretend he’s fighting it it. It looks dumb. At the climactic lightning strike in he final scene, the sparklers emerging from Donner’s croquet mallet of a hammer draws laughs from the audience. Is that the point? That all our efforts at glory are laughable? If so, it’s wrong-headed. Wagner knew what he was doing by setting up a triumphant finish to Rheingold. It makes the downfall later all the more powerful. Telegraphing weakness at this point only undermines the drama.

At the end, the magic bridge for the gods to Valhalla lowers from the wings like the chrome-bannistered gangplank of a luxury ocean liner. Is Zambella suggesting that the supposedly rock solid fortress Wotan has built is as unanchored as a floating boat? That Wotan will drift? As the gods disappear into the wings, Loge remains behind and burns Wotan’s contract with the giants.

Lots of ideas, some good, some misguided, but where’s it headed? It will take seeing all four productions to see if there’s a payoff for all this.

Harvey Steiman | War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 19.6.2008


Zambello’s new Rheingold promises a glittering Ring Cycle’

Wagner lovers on the U.S. West Coast have reasons to rejoice. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles are mounting the Ring Cycle in installments over the next three seasons. The Seattle Opera will present the entire Ring in 2009. Even San Diego Opera, a small but enterprising company, put on a winning production of Tannhäuser last February.

Billed as the “American” Ring, first seen in 2006 in Washington D.C. and extensively revised for San Francisco, the production team of director Francesca Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan use imagery from various eras of American history – the California Gold Rush and the Roaring Twenties in Rheingold. The elaborate projections by Jan Hartley feature glider fly-by of the American West that accompanies Wotan and Loge’s descent into the Rhine, and the water of the Colorado River cascading over a mountain of gold in both rear and front projections on a scrim. It even takes a jibe at L.A. Opera’s upcoming Lucas’ Ring by opening with fast-zooming stars of a galaxy far far away á la “Star Wars”.

Overall, the projections, coupled with Wagner’s orchestral alchemy, create mesmerizing, almost hypnotic effects.

The “American” theme extends to Catherine Zuber’s contemporary costumes, circa 1920, of the American upper class enjoying a leisurely weekend in the country. Their white pants suits and plume hats look elegant and spiffy as if out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”. The impending doom of the Gods is here depicted as a quintessential American tragedy of greed and lust.

Only simple props or sets are used, most of the visual wizardries being achieved via video projections. The giants are lowered from above on a piece of construction steel, and the rainbow bridge that is supposed to carry the Gods to their new home becomes a cruise ship gangplank with rainbow hues splashed onto rear projection. The exception is the massive Nibelheim set – dark, menacing and imposing – that resemble the depths of a Utah coal mine.

Vocally, this has to be one of the best-sung Ring’s I have heard in recent memory. The Wotan, Fricka, Loge, Donner, Froh, Freia and two of the Rhinemaidens are all singing their roles for the first time, bringing with them a freshness and vitality that the tired old veterans cannot match.

Bass-baritone Mark Delavan portrays Wotan as smug, egotistical, more interested in his own self-gratification than in ethical dealings. This Wotan is a young, brash fellow, firm of voice and intense in purpose, who, like a bratty teenager, will get things his way at all cost.

As Wotan’s partner in crime, Loge is here seen as a slime ball lawyer, dressed in a tie, a grey vest and a trench coat, obsequiously catering to his clients’ whims and doube-, even triple-crossing them in the process. Tenor Stefan Margita gave a vivid and subtly inflected reading of Loge’s Narration (“Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn”) and darted about the stage like a shifty character that is Loge.

Perhaps the most surprising casting choice is the Fricka of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, whom I have admired in lighter, more lyrical roles of Mozart and Rossini. Here, as portrayed by Larmore, Fricka’s oft-heard hard edges gave way to soft lyricism and feminine charms that nicely complemented Wotan’s hard-driven single-mindedness. Larmore’s Fricka berates her Wotan not with venom but with the mocking irony of a woman resigned to her fate, realizing she cannot change her man no matter how hard she tries. Larmore’s Fricka was vocally sumptuous and dramatically vivid both in her own singing as well as in her interactions with other characters (such as, at Loge’s reneging of his promises, she put her hands up and rolled her eyes in disgust).

Rounding out this superb Rheingold cast are the three lithe-bodied, honey-voiced Rheinmaidens (Catherine Cangiano as Woglinde, Lauren McNeese as Wellgunde, Buffy Baggott as Flosshilde), the impressive giants of Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Günther Groissböck (Fafner), soprano Tamara Wapinsky’s silver-voiced Freia, and the chameleon-like Alberich of Richard Paul Fink – whose chilling Curse (“Jeder giere nach seinem Gut”) on the stolen ring was a highlight of the evening. Contralto Jill Grove also delivered Erda’s Warning to Wotan with grave authority.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played like Gods for maestro Donald Runnicles, in his final season with the company as its Music Director, yielding not only sheer grandeur of sound in the symphonic passages (the Prelude and the descent/ascent from Nibelheim) but also clear, precise articulation in the woodwinds and tight, compact tones in the brasses. In the fifteen years that I have heard Runnicles, he has grown from a fine Wagner conductor to a great one.

One disappointment was the electronic thunder that was supposed to accompany Donner’s big hammer stroke failed to materialize, rendering a thud instead of a bang to the climactic moment.

So much of the opera-going experience is about hearing the wonders of natural sounds echoing off of the wood paneled auditorium of the opera house, that any miking or electronic enhancement must be duly noted. In addition to the botched electronic thunder, there were the amplified anvils (15 strong) in the Nibelheim Scene, and Alberich’s voice when he’s ‘invisible’ (the whip cracks, I was assured, were real without electronic assistance.)

The second Ring opera, Die Walküre, will be seen in the summer of 2010, followed by the entire Ring Cycle in the summer of 2011.

Truman C. Wang | 6/28/2008

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 346 MByte (MP3)
A production by Francesca Zambello
Possible dates: 3, 6, 14, 19, 22, 28 June 2008