Das Rheingold

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
June 2018
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanGreer Grimsley
DonnerBrian Mulligan
FrohBrandon Jovanovich
LogeŠtefan Margita
FasoltAndrea Silvestrelli
FafnerRaymond Aceto
AlberichFalk Struckmann
MimeDavid Cangelosi
FrickaJamie Barton
FreiaJulie Adams
ErdaRonnita Miller
WoglindeStacey Tappan
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeRenée Tatum
Stage directorFrancesca Zambello (2008)
Set designerMichael Yeargan
TV director?

A strong start for San Francisco Opera’s Ring

As the program notes for San Francisco Opera’s Ring assert, the cycle hinges on love. Das Rheingold can sometimes seem empty. Love is renounced; family members enslave, murder and sell each other. Romantic politics are absent from this prologue, though they will drive the plot in the cycle proper. It’s a testament to SFO’s success, then, that their Rheingold was full of excitement and emotion. A well-crafted production and the highest musical values got this Ring off to a very promising start.

Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra delivered Wagner’s music as I have never heard it before. Even the steady calm of the prelude’s opening drone had gripping power, and it swelled to a sound at once exuberant and tightly controlled. Under Runnicles’ baton, the music was not just full of exciting dynamic and textural variation, but also a driving dramatic force.

A cast without a single weak link completed this Rheingold’s musical excellence. Crisp diction from all singers brought out the alliteration and onomatopoeia in Wagner’s text (aspects ignored in the supertitle translations). From the first “Weia! Waga!”, Stacey Tappan’s sparkling sound as Woglinde set a high bar. The three Rheinmaidens (Lauren McNeese as Wellgunde and Renée Tatum as Flosshilde) were ringing in voice and playful in spirit, especially when singing together. Contrasting with them was Falk Struckmann’s gruff, fast-talking Alberich, who manipulated the colors in his voice to suit casual flirting; harsh orders; and a frightful, resounding curse. As his brother Mime, David Cangelosi was clearly a nasty piece of work, with a raspy sound and spry movement.

Up among the gods, Greer Grimsley deployed substantial squillo as Wotan – a character so familiar to him that his acting seemed as natural as breathing. I would not want to anger Jamie Barton’s fierce Fricka, or Ronnita Miller’s imperious Erda. The giants (cleverly costumed to be truly giant, but still proportional) boomed out their parts, Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) in a cavernous bass and Raymond Aceto (Fafner) in drier, more gravelly sound. The standout in Rheingold was Štefan Margita’s Loge, a slick, chatty lawyer with a sunny tenor voice and the most three-dimensional characterization of the cast. I found myself wishing Loge appeared in later Ring operas, just so that we could hear more from him.

Francesca Zambello’s production tells the story in clear, broad strokes. Colored light floods from the floor, legs, and projected backdrop, creating color palette motifs to complement the score’s musical leitmotifs. The entire stage glows ominous orange-red in Alberich’s mine, shimmers alluringly for the piling of the golden horde, and radiates the soft purple of the mountains for Erda’s entrance. Dizzying first-person-perspective projections take us underground for the Nibelheim scene and then back up to the highlands of the gods. The staging features arresting stage pictures and engaging action, but little nuanced characterization. Froh, Donner and Freia are left undeveloped (and sometimes given contradictory text and blocking).

The opera takes place somewhere around 1910, judging by Catherine Zuber’s elegant costumes. The wealthy gods take the sun in lounge chairs and sip Champagne on their way into Valhalla. They seem unbothered by the slavery in Nibelheim, and they pointedly ignore the ragged, begging Rheinmaidens at the opera’s end. The themes Zambello establishes in Rheingold are common to Ring productions: the threatened beauty of nature and the callous greed of the rich and powerful. It’s too early in the cycle to see whether she will develop these in an original way. With gorgeous visuals and musical talent this strong, I’m looking forward to spending three more nights at the opera to find out.

Ilana Walder-Biesanz | 20 June 2018


Alberich’s ring forged, the gods moved into Valhalla, Loge’s Bic flicked, Wagner’s cumbersome nineteenth century mythology began unfolding last night here in Bayreuth-by-the-Bay.

Ring fever was high in the rather-more-than-usual well-dressed, quite excited crowds (standees three deep) present for the first part of the famous tetralogy of three operas plus satyr play (that’s Das Rheingold).

Though first, Rheingold was the last of the tetralogy composed, thus Wagner had already forged the means to taunt us with the magic fire music that will protect us and finally consume us this Sunday, fire that issued full force from the mighty forces of the superb San Francisco Opera Orchestra of ninety players — curious ears were cocked for four Wagnerian tubas. Conductor Donald Runnicles, of the 2011 San Francisco Ring again sustained a convincing Wagnerian continuum.

Back in 2008 when Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Rheingold was unveiled here in San Francisco the chorus of anvils (last night six off-site players hammered 15 tuned anvils) was prelude to a surprising, indeed stunning vision of the Nibelungen workshop with its multitude of child workers (this was the Industrial Revolution after all). For many of us this was the third time for this revelation, hopefully it once again thrilled those new to this production.

In pre-opening press events care was taken to stress important modifications to the original production, specifically the recasting of many of the proscenium wide videos that now impose video designer S. Katy Tucker’s take on Richard Wagner’s gloriously imposing soundscapes, beginning with the visual play of vastly magnified water molecules intended to introduce the theme of environmental destruction, an important element of the Zambello production.

As well digital technology in more recent years has added stage floor video and lighting possibilities to scenography. This was present in the checkerboard of video screens that was now the stage floor pavement offering the intrusion of ever greater color interpretation. Perhaps an unintended theme to Mme. Zambello’s production will be the tyranny of technology.

The most significant addition to the production is the splendid cast that was introduced to us last night starting with the elegant and cocky shyster Wotan of bass baritone Greer Grimsley. Mr. Grimsley’s well-focused voice promises us an unusually articulate Wotan who has a lot of tough stuff to come to grips with in the next two operas. Of startling effect was the Alberich of German bass baritone Falk Struckmann in his role debut. Mr. Struckmann, once a formidable Wotan himself, was of well-voiced, sufficiently evil stature to forge an amazing weapon of destruction (the ring) and impose its use (his curse).

Dominating the proceedings was the Loge of Czech tenor Stefan Margita (a veteran of the 2008 production in his role debut) — oh so charming, impertinent, supercilious and oh so profoundly cynical. Mr. Margita’s Rheingold Loge was of masterpiece status.

The Zambello Rheingold coup de théâtre is of course the builders of Valhalla, the giants (literally) Fasolt and Fafner. Fasolt, sung by baritone Raymond Aceto (tonight’s Hunding) is smoother and a bit smarter than Fafner, sung by bass Andrea Silvestrelli in a rough and dumb voice. Directorially his mutual infatuation with Freia, beautifully sung by the aspiring dramatic soprano Julie Adams, was ostentatiously overstated. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich (tonight’s Siegmund) added fun, empty-headed personality to Wagner’s conceited gods as Froh, and baritone Brian Mulligan redeemed his pallid Donner with a splendidly delivered command of the storm that clears the skies for a vision of Valhalla (unseen).

Mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Wotan’s wife Fricka has yet to prove herself. That she may do tonight in Die Walküre. Plus we will find out on Friday much more about the Mime of David Cangelosi.

Some of the locales of this first installment of the “American” Ring seemed less specific. Huge billows of stage fog obliterated what I remembered as a gold prospector’s gully, and now the Rhine maidens were burdened with cumbersome, self conscious choreography. As the Rhine valley the Gilded Age ambience of the Newport R.I. was fully intact.

Mme. Zambello did not take a bow.

Michael Milenski | 13 Jun 2018


Another Zambello Ring Cycle Begins’

June 2018 marks the San Francisco Opera revival of Francesca Zambello’s ambitious retelling of Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Last seen in San Francisco in 2011, the “Ring” returns in three cycles, each over six days.

I am reporting on the second of this year’s cycles. This is my fourth Zambello “Rheingold” review in the past decade. For my previous in-depth analyses of the production, see the hyperlinks to the previous reviews at this review’s end.

The 2018 “Ring” cycles feature Lousiana baritone Greer Grimsley singing the role of Wotan and German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann that of Alberich. These are the adversaries whose power battle has resulted in each pursuing (ultimately unsuccessful) strategies that last decades.

Grimley’s character, Wotan, is blinded by the quest for power. Wotan fails to see the incongruity of his being both the universe’s enforcer of contracts and a person who wishes to “find a loophole” to disregard the terms of his construction contract for Valhalla.

Grimsley was vocally solid and dramatically convincing, reminding me of his extraordinary Wotan performances in Stephen Wadsworth’s beautiful “Ring” created for the Seattle Opera [A Richly Rewarding, Re-imagined “Rheingold” – Seattle Opera, August 4, 2013.]

Falk Struckmann, a major European star in the German repertory, proved to be an excellent addition to the Zambello “Ring” family. Struckmann’s impressively sung performance as Alberich was masterfully villainous in his clumsy attempts at “River Maiden” seduction and his sadistic treatment of his brother Mime and Nibelung serfs.

Struckmann’s Alberich evoked some sympathy when tricked by Margita’s Loge and Grimsley’s Wotan, but was terrifying as he unleashed his venomous curse of Nibelung ring.

Czech tenor Stefan Margita was the wily demi-god Loge. Margita was secure in the vocally demanding role. His insightful portrayal of a cunning, basically immoral operative, proved the validity of his reputation as a world class singing actor.

Margita is one of three artists in this performance to have performed the same role in the 2008, 2011 and 2018 San Francisco Opera “Rheingold” performances (along with Andrea Silvestrelli’s Fasolt and David Cangelosi’s Mime.)

Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton brought her lusciously rich, warm voice to the role of Wotan’s wife, Fricka. A lighter role than the Fricka of the next “Ring” opera, “Die Walküre”, some companies assign different artists to the two Fricka roles. Having the same artist playing both Frickas, however, provides dramatic continuity within a “Ring cycle”.

Ohio bass Raymond Aceto was engaging and vocally strong as the suspicious Fafner. A skilled actor, Aceto at first underplays his lumbering character’s aggressiveness, until the fatal moment when he kills his brother for the Ring.

Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli has made the giant Fasolt, the first victim of the Ring’s curse, one of his signature roles. Silvestrelli, who possesses a deep, sonorous voice, is a tall and imposing figure on any opera stage, even without the stilt boots in which he and Aceto’s Fafner wear.

His character’s gentleness in the presence of the giants’ captive goddess Freia, adds plausibility to one of Zambello’s conceptual masterstrokes, that Fasolt and Freia have developed a “Stockholm Syndrome” romance.

San Francisco audiences have the pleasure of hearing baritone Brian Mulligan and tenor Brandon Jovanovich in principal roles in subsequent operas in the “Ring cycle”, so their welcome appearances as “Rheingold” siblings should be considered “luxury casting”. The power voices and stage presence of Mulligan and Jovanovich in these small roles heightened the appreciation of Wagner’s inspired writing.

Mulligan, who is cast as Gunther in “Götterdämmerung“, sings the thunder god Donner’s brief but familiar He Da. Brandon Jovanovich, who is cast as Siegmund in “Die Walküre”, appears as the rainbow god Froh.

This was my first opportunity to appreciate fully the vocal power and beauty of Julie Adams, a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow whose beautiful, powerful voice suggests a future Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre”, here cast in the role of Freia.

Like Margita as Loge and Silvestrelli as Fasolt, Ohio character tenor David Cangelosi has appeared as Mime in all the 2008 and 2011 performances of the Zambello “Rheingold” as well as being cast in the three 2018 “Rings”.

Cangelosi performs the role of the Alberich’s always desparate brother, Mime, brilliantly.

Mime, who reappears in “Siegfried” as the second longest role in that opera, has two extraordinary functions in the “Ring”. He fashions the Tarnhelm, whose magic can make Alberich invisible or transform him into a shape-shifter; and he raises the hero Siegfried from infancy into adolescence. Never appreciated by either Alberich or Siegfried, the character Mime provides a rich mine of emotions and behaviors for the consummate actor, Cangelosi.

Florida mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, another veteran of the 2011 “Ring”, reappeared as the goddess Erda, who warns Wotan of the disasters that will befall him if he continues to possess the Ring. Miller’s resonant voice, whose range descends into contralto territory, gave proper gravitas to a character who knows everything that has ever happened and will ever happen in the future.

The three River Maidens (the River Rhine being replaced in the Zambello production with a gold-bearing Northern California waterway) were engagingly sung, as they were in 2011, by the trio of Oklahoman Lauren McNeese and Californians Stacey Tappan and Renée Tatum. The attractive trio were convincing in their physical movement, including their seductive teasing of Struckmann’s Alberich. They sang Wagner’s luxurious melodies, often in close harmony, beautifully.

Maestro Donald Runnicles and the Musical Performance

Scottish Maestro Donald Runnicles, who served as San Francisco Opera’s music director for two decades before taking on an equivalent position at the Deutsche Opera Berlin, led the excellent San Francisco Opera Orchestra in his confident, masterful interpretation of Wagner’s great masterpiece.

Francesca Zambello’s Direction

Director Francesca Zambello’s production of the four operas of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” has been a joint effort the San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera. The first three opera productions – “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried” – premiered at the Kennedy Center, the “Götterdämmerung” and the complete “Ring” premiered at the War Memorial Opera House.

A notable feature of Zambello’s opera productions, exemplified in her “Ring” (that I consider her masterwork), is Zambello’s faithfulness to the opera’s storyline, while transforming the setting in which the story takes place. Sometimes the change makes little difference theatrically (the location of the river, whether the Nibelungs are in the depths of a gold mine or Wagner’s Nibelheim). At other times Zambello’s transformed settings provide new insights into characters and relationships – the relocation of Wotan and Fricka and her sibling gods to a place like the Hamptons in the Great Gatsby era that highlight their self-centeredness and privileged entitlement of the family of gods.

The new settings provide opportunities for brilliant theatrical events. Among the most striking Zambello “Rheingold” production images are two from the final scene. The first image takes place when Brian Mulligan’s Donner creates lightning bolts by lifting his hammer into the sky.

The second remarkable “Rheingold” image is when the gods ascend Froh’s rainbow bridge (envisioned as a gangplank) to their new home.

Comments and Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend the Zambello “Rheingold” both for the veteran opera-goer and to the person new to opera interested in seeing a “Ring cycle”.

William | June 20, 2018

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 4.5 Mbit/s, 4.7 GByte (MPEG-4)
Webstream (SFO)
Possible dates: 12, 19, 26 June 2018
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.