Review: Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008

San Francisco Opera’s mounting of the first opera in Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring” proved to be an extraordinary experience for admirers of the Wagnerian tetralogy.  It brought together all of the essential elements to meet the requirements of a world class Wagnerian performance.  The first element, and San Francisco Opera’s most striking achievement, is an almost uniformly high standard of singing.  The statement needs further explanation and some digression, so I will return to this thesis later in this performance review.

The second element is a superb orchestra performing under the baton of a conductor who grasps the essence of Wagner’s sprawling work. Donald Runnicles, the conductor who has dominated San Francisco Opera’s Wagnerian repertoire (and much else) over the past decade and a half was at the helm.  The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, which now can hold its own in comparison with all of the world’s notable opera orchestras, again proved itself capable of realizing Runnicles’ vision of the work.

There were a couple of unexpected missed notes in the horn section in this Saturday night performance.  Such a notation, with the adjective “unexpected” itself is a commentary on what an accomplished orchestra this has become.  Those familiar with San Francisco Opera Wagnerian performances in the 1960s and 1970s may concede that it was a rare performance without a sour note from somewhere among, say, the brasses.  Now it happens so rarely, that this commentary seems warranted.

[Below right: What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Woglinde (Catherine Cangiamo), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) and Flosshilde (Buffy Baggott) amuse themselvves by teasing Alberich; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Finally, these days a “Wagnerian” will seek confirmation that Wagner’s intentions regarding the storyline are observed.  Here, the advance publicity about Zambello’s concepts created some skepticism among the fellowship of the Ring. (I know of persons who surely would have found the performance an exhilirating experience who refused to attend, imagining it would infuriate them.)

Since I had already attended and reported on the second installment of the American Ring – the Washington National Opera “Walküre” in March 2007 – I suspected that the Wagnerian faithful would find Zambello’s story-telling faithful to the master and even illuminating.

I will detail up front the principal eccentricities, not one of which I believe should deter a fan of this opera from attending.  First, the river in which the gold is found seems to have shifted from the Rhine to the American. But the shift comes in a feature of operatic performance on which Wagner was obviously silent – the English translations in the supertitles.

To my knowledge, this is the only time that an opera company’s media packages give important weight to the thoughts of the person who translates the words being sung into the local vernacular for display above the stage proscenium. Supertitle translator Cori Ellison uses a wordplay on the German homophones Rhein and rein (pure).  Thus, the Rhine Daughters sing of “pure gold”, and the context of the translation is more concerned with informing us of the absence of impurities than fixing the geographic area from which it was originally mined.  Therefore, there are no Rhinemaidens, but River Maidens instead.

Let me reveal that I have spent time on the Rhine (and in cities on its banks) a few months before and then a few months after my last “Rheingold” review (see the November 2006 website archives or follow the hyperlink at the end of these remarks), and that I am scheduled to return to the Rhineland again in the next few months. Let me reveal also that I live on the American River – at least I have a nice view of it.

[Below: Loge (Stefan Margita) reports to Wotan that Alberich has taken control of the gold that  the River Maidens were supposed to protect.]

With over 40 years of attending “Rheingolds” and experience on both the Rhine and American, I can see Zambello’s point in redefining which river runs through the Ring.  To the best of my knowledge there has been very little human impact from finding gold in the Rhine River.  The discovery of gold in the American was one of the transforming events in human history.  Of course, I have previously made the point that not a single character in “Das Rheingold” is a human being, but we humans clearly can identify with the ways that the “Rheingold” gods, giants, dwarves and earth mothers talk and interact with one another.

As will be described, despite all of the angst that the Ring is being highjacked and turned into something that no respectable Wagnerian could abide, there is utterly nothing else but the change of a few words in the supertitles that should give anyone pause.  Yes, the gods in the second and fourth scene are in costumes with the feel of the F. Scott Fitzgerald era, Donner sometimes carries a croquet mallet and the Nibelungs cave resembles a mine; but nothing at all happens that departs in any way from Wagner’s storyline.

Notes on the Production

Before the performance began, those sitting close to the conductor’s podium heard some scattered applause; this was caused by Conductor Runnicles moving to a spot below the podium before the lights dimmed. This allowed for the elimination of the conductor’s walk to his customary position in the spotlight.  Instead there is momentary darkness so that Runnicles, already in place, can summon from his double basses the great E-flat tone from that begins the Ring, without the distraction of an audience ovation.

Having seen both of the Zambello Ring installments – this “Rheingold” and the Washington National Opera “Walküre” – premiered to date, I was ready for one of its distinctive features – a front scrim on which images are projected before each scene. Jan Hartley, the Projection Designer, is one of the creative forces of this Ring.

We become conscious of globules that rush towards us, as if we are in a fixed point in a rapidly moving stream; then the flowing objects become extraterrestrial.  We are in a kaleidoscopic universe of stars, asteroids, the rocky world that makes up Saturn’s rings.  When we return to Earth, we are immersed in waterfalls.   (San Francisco Opera is only a few blocks from the Fillmore Auditorium.  What a spectacular light-show this would have made four decades ago at that crucible of late 1960s rock music.)

Through the flowing water, we can now make out maids of the mist.  We are in the Sierra foothills.  The River Maidens wear dance-hall dresses.  A prospector arrives with a pan for placer mining, pick and axe.  (He also wears a mineshaft hat with light, which he will need in the Nibelheim mines in the third scene, but is a needless luxury for panning for gold at streamside, unless he plans to work into the night. But, I know this is a fantasy, not a documentary on Gold Rush equipment.)

The River Maidens decide to have some fun by sexually teasing the frustrated Alberich (Richard Paul Fink, in an athletic performance).  As he slips and slides across the rocks a large grate that acts as the stage floor begins to glow.  Wellgunde explains the power that would come from a Ring fashioned from the gold, and Woglinde spills the rest of the secret – renounce love and that power is yours.  Clearly, failing to comprehend the momentousness of their message, nor how provocative their own behavior has been, the River Maidens are genuinely shocked that the object of the teasing would decide that renouncing love in exchange for all the earth’s wealth and power would be a better use of his time.

Prior to the renunciation, Alberich appears to be playing along with the River Maidens, each of the three Maidens and Alberich taking a corner of a large golden cloth, but Alberich, as he renounces love, wraps the greater part of the golden cloth around himself to the Maidens’ dismay. Before the first scene ends, we notice that an observer, dressed rather like a Wall Street lawyer, is taking note of the foursome’s activities.

[Below: Jennifer Larmore (Fricka) and Mark Delavan (Wotan); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Then more projections of swirling water, then of clouds, as we enter the realm of the gods.  It is a simple set – we are on a veranda – one with noticeable cracks and broken walls – with a few pieces of lawn furniture.  Wotan obviously has been studying  the giants’ (Fafner’s and Fasolt’s) blueprints of Valhalla, but has dozed off in a lawn chair. Wotan is in a blue blazer, grey pants and thigh length boots.  Donner and Froh are wearing beige suits and socks and white shoes.  Fricka is in a floor length skirt with an overdress and jacket and boots.

In one of the iconic moments of the Zambello “Ring”, a jealous and insecure Fricka cuddles with Wotan (as she will again in the second act of “Walküre”.  Zambello gives great importance to Fricka’s motivations (as does Wagner).  She has consented to the move to Valhalla (although she was not consulted on the price Wotan has agreed to pay for it) because she imagines that if he gets the house he wants, she can curb his incessant infidelities.  Wotan, by so totally underestimating Fricka and by excluding her from his plans for the future, will ultimately lose everything. Zambello wants us to be absolutely clear on what is going on – Fricka is determined to control Wotan.

[Below right: Fafner (Günther Groissböck) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) hold the goddess Freia (Tamara Wapinsky) as payment for their work, pending a satisfactory renegotiation of their contract; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Next Fafner and Fasolt descend on an I-beam that is being lowered by a giant crane. They are the ultimate construction workers, with giant boots and large metals hands.  (One of Fasolt’s hands has a metal hook.)  One by one the giants and Freia swing their legs over the wall.  When the giants refuse to renegotiate the stipulation in their contract that the goddess Freia is to be given to them as payment, Fricka notes that Wotan values the worth of a woman as no more than trifles.

Loge briefs Wotan on Alberich’s possession of the gold and hatches the plan to steal it from him to substitute for Freia as the giant’s payment. Loge enlists Fricka’s support for his scheme, by playing the “Wotan’s fidelity” card.  She rather likes the idea of having the gold for adornment as well.

As we descend into the Nibelheim, the scrim projections now include images of molten ore, being poured into moulds.  The Nibelheim is located in the depths of a gold mine.  We meet Mime, played by the estimable character tenor David Cangelosi (San Francisco Opera’s Valzacchi in its 2007 mounting of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier), who has crafted the tarnhelm – in this production a glittering golden cloth – but cannot figure out its magic.

[Below: Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) in the depths of the Nibelheim; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Nibelung slaves include many small children.  Some of the older children and adults playing Nibelungen are on ladders that reach to the ore in the mineshaft’s walls.  Wotan and Loge make use of a circular staircase to descend into the mine.  Wotan is dressed in a way that reminds one of Orson Welles in the movie Citizen Kane.  When Alberich becomes the giant reptile, the full stage is used to create the effect, with projections on the back wall and serpentine effects in the foreground as well.

When Loge convinces Alberich to use the Tarnhelm to become something very small, a frog puppet pops out on stage, to the amusement of the San Francisco audience.

[Below: What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Since Wotan and Loge have already tricked Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) out of the Nibelung Ring, they release him, seeing no point in keeping him in captivity; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

As Wotan and Loge return to the heights, with Alberich bound with rope, the scrim projections are first abstractions; later, they display the full majesty of clouds surrounding mountain peaks.  For the final scene, the gods have packed and their suitcases sit at the edge of the crumbling porch wall of their old residence.  Alberich is tethered, and, as Wotan takes possession of Alberich’s ring, the floor grates again glow. Fink is venomous as he pronounces Alberich’s curse on the Ring.

As Freia returns, the gods, who have weakened without the golden apples she tends, revive both physically and in spirit.  However, in a masterful Zambello touch, Freia has clearly developed the kind of crush on Fasolt, that is thought to occur with some frequency in hostage situations.  Gods and giants team up to pile the bags of gold on top of Freia, but Fasolt demands that Wotan surrender the Ring, to cover Freia’s twinkling eye.

When Erda (Jill Grove) appears to warn Wotan that he must give up the Ring, Zambello adds an unambiguous sexual attraction between Erda and Wotan, and they caress to the shock of the jealous Fricka.  (Rightly so, since more than half of the cast of the next Ring opera, “Die Walküre” are to be the offspring of this amorous attraction.)

Alberich’s curse proves to be as good as gold, when Fafner kills Fasolt.  Tamara Wapinsky, our Freia – of course, directed by Zambello to do so – adds a non-textual scream at Fasolt’s death, evoking memories of Leonie Rysanek’s non-textual contribution to her “Die Walküre” performances, the scream when Siegmund pulls Wotan’s sword from out of the tree in which it seemed permanently lodged.  Freia then rushes to Fasolt’s body as the music of the curse resounds.

[Below: Rainbow bridge to Valhalla or gangplank to the “Titanic”? Left to right, Wotan (Mark Delavan), Fricka (Jennifer Larmore), Donner (Charles Taylor), Freia (Tamara Wapinsky) and Froh (Jason Collins) crossing over to their future.]

But Freia’s return proved too exhilirating an experience for the happy family of true gods, and they turned their attention to their move to Valhalla.  Froh’s rainbow bridge turned out to be a gangplank.  (Did Zambello intend an homage to the Titanic, or is that simply my imagination?) In a final touch of originality, the River Maidens come to plead for the return of the Gold.  Their dresses are now grimy and seem like paupers’ rags.

This proved to be an uncommonly well-sung performance of “Das Rheingold”, meeting my criteria for bel canto Wagnerian singing. Delavan has proven himself to be a superb heldenbariton. Special praise also must go to Richard Paul Fink, the Alberich; Stefan Margita, the Loge; and especially to Andrea Silvestrelli, an excellent a Fasolt as has appeared on the San Francisco stage.  Adler Fellow Tamara Wapinsky seemed a promising find for the future, with an incomparably interesting performance as Freia.  If I were to express a reservation, it would probably be for Jill Grove’s Erda – not a criticism of an inadequate performance – but a bit of worry that she is committing to the role Erda – which needs a big, mature voice – too early in her career.

In my citations of especially memorable performances that I have seen in the past 40+ years, listed at the end of the Kirov Ring hyperlinked below, Delavan’s Wotan, Margita’s Loge, Fink’s Alberich, Cangelosi’s Mime and Silvestrelli’s Fasolt should be included with the others, and, probably, Wapinsky’s Freia as well.

For a previous discussion of “Das Rheingold”, see: Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold” in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006

For a review of the subsequent opera in this series, see: Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007