SAN FRANCISCO -- It's "Ring" time in the West. Tuesday night, San Francisco Opera opened its summer season with Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the relatively brief (2 1/2 -hour) prologue in his four-opera cycle.
The new production proved but a peek into Francesca Zambello's fascinating concept of Wagner's damaged gods, dumb-cluck giants, malicious dwarfs and clueless mortals as Americans headed down the wrong side of history. The full cycle will be on display in San Francisco in summer 2011.
West Coast Wagnerites should be well sated by then. Next summer, Seattle Opera will bring back its more traditionally minded "Ring." In summer 2010, the upstart Los Angeles Opera will mount its first "Ring": Achim Freyer's visually fantastic approach, which it will begin unveiling, an opera at a time, next season.
San Francisco, though, is the appropriate starting place. The Metropolitan Opera brought a cycle from New York to Baghdad by the Bay in 1900. San Francisco Opera mounted its first "Ring" in 1935. Its most recent was in 1999. Pictures from 1935 reveal a laughably primitive staging. By 1999, Wagner's epic of the creation of modern society had a pertinent post-apocalyptic appearance.
"Rheingold" begins in the river Rhine, where underwater maidens guard gold. In San Francisco on Tuesday, Alberich, a '49er with his pan, forswore love and stole the hoard. The gods were the idle rich of the Roaring '20s, lounging on a veranda as Valhalla was being built. Fasolt and Fafner, the giants as oversized construction workers who looked like Popeyes with scissorhands, were lowered down on steel beams. Loge, the wily god of fire, became a magnificently deceitful lawyer. In Nibelheim, the dwarfs' realm, child laborers mined coal. Was that a croquet mallet that Donner, the cream-suited dandy thunder-god, was swinging?
These are strong images. Zambello, according to the program notes, will build from them a parable about modern America, its legacy of arrogant corporate power and the defoliation of the environment. Though a co-production with Washington National Opera, Tuesday's "Rheingold" was said to be a significant revision of the 2006 staging, about which there has been ridicule in the blogosphere, and many cast members were new not only to the production but also to their roles.
San Francisco has not solved all of Washington's problems and has probably added a few of its own. The production juggles freshness and staleness, effective concepts and cliches. Video projections by Jan Hartley were predictable, low-def images of stars and waves and the like. Michael Yeargan's sets were inconsistent -- the brilliant coal mine and the intriguing veranda versus hokey stage fog for the Rhine and nary a visual suggestion of Valhalla. After Donner swings his mallet, from which sparks fly, giggling, sodden gods walk up a gangplank as if leaving for a voyage on the Queen Mary.
Mark Delavan sang his first Wotan. Jennifer Larmore, once a favored mezzo-soprano in Handel and Rossini, has moved on to Wagner for her first Fricka. They are a decadent couple out of F. Scott Fitzgerald, she clinging to him. Both probably have a fondness for the bottle. And both sang and acted like Americans. Musical phrases were effectively articulated. Characters were beginning to be built.
Stefan Margita, a Czech tenor, was a terrific Loge, shamelessly conniving, clearheaded. Richard Paul Fink's Alberich is a study in the banality of evil. But then fine, unfussy singing was the rule, and that included Jill Groves' Erda, the earth goddess and Wotan's old love, before whom he prostrates himself.
Zambello turned Freia (Tamara Wapinsky), the voluptuous goddess who looks after the apples that keep the gods young, into an interesting case. The giants paw her with their metal hands. Perhaps that turns her on. She throws herself on the body of Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) after Fafner (Gunther Groissbock) slays him, wanting to keep the gold and the ring fashioned from it for himself.
Zambello's translations on the supertitles are colloquial ("Shut up you wind bag"). The Rhine's gold becomes "pure gold." But Donald Runnicles, the company's music director, didn't carry through with that American colloquial feel. He got a soupy sound from the orchestra, rich in bass. His Wagner is not American; his round phrases lack the rhythmic incisiveness and the crisp shaping needed for naturalistic acting.
Zambello, who did not take a bow Tuesday, may be onto something with this "Ring," but "Rheingold" is just the start, and considerable refining of it is still needed. I hope that Zambello, busy on Broadway and directing operas around the world, has the time.