Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Rheingolds”

Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” is, under the most favorable of circumstances, a complex undertaking for an opera company, yet three of the four largest opera companies on America’s Pacific Coast are mounting their own versions of the “Ring” in productions as unalike from each other as one can imagine.

One set of Rings (Seattle) is scheduled for August, 2009, another set (Los Angeles) in 2010, and a third ring set (San Francisco) in 2011. Furthermore, each company is pursuing this feat, as if with the bravado of a young Siegfried, in a period of unprecedented economic stress.

Seattle, of course, has become a major center for Wagnerian opera in the United States, and the “Ring” has been presented by the Seattle Opera periodically since 1975. The Rings now are presented quadrenially (with a symmetry that might appeal to a numerologist between the four operas and the four year intervals).

(Seattle Opera even lent an earlier production of its Ring to the San Diego Opera, which produced one Ring opera a year between 1973 and 1977. That company, however, alone of the four largest Pacific Coast companies, has declined to throw its hat into any new Ring venture.)

In this millenium, the West Coast has already had quite a lot of the Nibelunglied already.  There was a new Seattle Ring production in 2001, revived first in 2005 and returning this August. Additionally  Valery Gergiev and  the Kirov Opera/Mariinsky Theater company from Saint Petersburg, Russia, winged into California’s Orange County in 2006 to perform its mysterious Ring, bound in part by mystic Scythian symbolism. (For a review of the Mariinsky “Rheingold”, see: Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold” in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006.)

The year 2008 further brought “Rheingold” to San Francisco Opera, under the baton of Donald Runnicles, in a Francesca Zambello rethinking of Wagner’s ideas co-produced with the Washington National Opera.

In February and April 2009 respectively, a new “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” debuted in a production created by German stage director Achim Freyer for the Los Angeles Opera, that was conducted by James Conlon. (For further discussion of the upcoming  “reveals” of the Los Angeles “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” and the San Francisco “Walkuere”, see:  California Rings Up Wagner – 2009-2010.)

It is already possible to compare the first halves (i.e., the “Rheingolds” and “Walkueres”) of the Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco Rings. One can speak about the appearance of this summer’s Seattle Ring rather authoritatively, because the 2009 Ring is a revival of what was shown in 2005, and the official production photographs have been widely distributed . (The “Rheingold” photos are shown below and the other Ring opera production photos will be shown in later posts on this website as well).

All three companies have revealed their “Rheingolds”.  Although San Francisco’s “Walkuere” will not debut there until June 2010, its general contours are known, since San Francisco’s partner company, Washington National Opera, produced it in May 2007. (One of the performances at the Kennedy Center is reviewed on this website.)

But we will leave the discussion of the other three operas until later posts on this website. This essay will concentrate on the Ring’s “prologue” opera – the most popular opera in existence in which not a single one of its characters is a human being (albeit, all the roles are invariably sung by humans costumed as gods, dwarves, giants or water sprites.)

[Below: Alberich, below, is taunted by the three Rhine Maidens; edited image, based on Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

“Rheingold” is usually always presented in one sitting, as it will be in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. (When San Diego Opera did it, to the horror of Wagner purists, the management permitted a vote on whether to have an intermission or not, and so there it was presented in two acts.)

Although “Rheingold’s” length in performance, usually just over two and a half hours, may seem daunting to some opera goers, many films of recent years are longer, including some of the “Harry Potter” films and ALL of the “Lord of the Rings” series.  In fact, Peter Jackson’s final Ring epic “Return of the King” was over 45 minutes longer than a typical “Rheingold”. Obviously, most opera houses will not let you leave for food or drinks and then return to your seat, but my observation is that most persons attending the cinema sit through blockbuster films – even those of great length – in their entirety.

“Rheingold” begins the series of “Ring” stories. Scene one takes place in the depths of an important river.  Up until this millenium, there never was any doubt that the river was Germany’s Rhine, and remains so for the Seattle and Los Angeles Rings. But for the San Francisco Ring, the scene takes place in one of the rivers that descends from the Sierra into the foothills that form the Eastern Wall of California’s Central Valley. Some have argued that it must be the Yuba. I think it is supposed to be, and, if not, certainly should be, the American River, where a human who accidentally stumbled across some pure gold, caused one of the most momentous events in world history – the California Gold Rush. San Francisco’s Zambello Ring is, after all, subtitled “the American Ring”.

[Below: Flosshilde belittles Alberich; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

In the Ring’s early moments, the dwarf Alberich finds the Rhine Maidens (in San Francisco, the River Maidens) to be sexually attractive, but they find Alberich repulsive. Apparently not inclined simply to give an unwanted suitor a brushoff, the Maidens are distracted from their duties in the most important jobs in the entire universe – guarding the gold that keeps the world in balance.

The maidens cannot resist an opportunity for cruelly teasing and humiliating Alberich. Once their behavior has converted him into a dangerous enemy, they prattle to him the secret to obtaining absolute power in the universe.  All you do is renounce sexual love, then fashion a Ring from the gold, and you become the most powerful person in the world. (A primeval example of “too much information”.) They are stunned when the being they wish to put in his place, acts on the information they witlessly have provided him.

[Below: the River Maidens of the American Ring, play games with the frustrated Alberich (Gordon Hawkins); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

From this point in the first two story arcs of the “Ring” are set into motion. First, Alberich decides to invoke the magic in the gold, and, in this very first scene, takes the first step – by renouncing love. In the interim between the first and second scenes, he has fashioned the Ring and has enslaved his people, the Nibelungs.

Second, the maidens, having lost the all-powerful gold to Alberich, begin their fight to have the gold, as well as the Ring Alberich made from it, restored to their guardianship. As Alberich’s Ring moves from the possession of Alberich to Wotan, Fasolt, Fafner, Siegfried and Bruennhilde, they beg for its return, and around seventeen hours later in Ring time they are made whole again.

Of the four scenes of the opera, the one with the least variation between the three productions is the scene in the river. The L.A. ladies are suspended in a horizontal line in what is supposed to be water and each has a reflection (played by a member of the Freyer Ensemble). The San Francisco maidens have feet instead of fins. Those in Seattle, suspended by cables, more clearly simulate swimming. Two of the men who play Alberich each have experience in two of these Rings. Gordon Hawkins (shown above) was the American Ring’s Alberich in the other Washington (DC) and in L. A., and Richard Paul Fink was Alberich in the San Francisco American Ring and in Seattle.

The second scene is in the realm of the gods, and here the three Rings differ markedly on how they conceptualize this gods’ country. For Seattle it is a bucolic forest primeval, in woodlands that we suppose is the European mid-continent of ages past, but which also remind you of the great Northwest forests that one enters just a few miles from the McCaw Theater, where Seattle Opera performs.

[Wotan (Greer Grimsley) in the Seattle Ring; edited image, based on a Bill Mohn photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

The Seattle gods are costumed as one might expect to see the chieftains of the wealthier barbarian tribes of the European Dark Ages. The American Ring gods affect the dress of an upscale 1920s country club, but both Rings have gods in human form. (For reviews of two performances of “Rheingold” in San Francisco, see: Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008 and Pure Gold: A Second Look at S. F.’s “American Ring Rheingold” – June 22, 2008.)

[Below: Mark Delavan, costumed as Wotan in the American Ring’s “Rheingold”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera. For other photographs of the San Francisco Opera American Ring “Rheingold”, see both reviews for the production listed in the June 2008 archives.]

The Freyer Ring costumes are an entirely different  matter. One cannot speak of “costumes” for the Los Angeles Ring in the traditional sense. Most of the principal characters have multiple forms, including the shell I call the carapace into which they might withdraw.

Besides the artist singing the role of a given character (who not only is costumed but often is topped with an outsized head), there may also be members of the Freyer Ensemble dressed like that character (whom I call avatars) who will act on that characters’ behalf at certain points in the action. (For a longer discussion of the Freyer “Ring”, see Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009.)

The three Rings each are associated with their own Wotan – Greer Grimsley in Seattle, Vasilij Kowaljow in Los Angeles, Mark Delavan in San Francisco. All have performed this role to great acclaim in their Ring’s respective “Rheingolds”.

There are several arcs that are introduced into the second scene, all of which have great consequences in the later operas. First, there is a battle of wills between Wotan and his wife Fricka. The latter, already alienated to a great extent by Wotan’s infidelities, has begun to understand the potential for disaster that her family faces should Wotan’s great scheme for paying the giants for constructing Valhalla go awry. She moves to thwart his grand design (and she will achieve success in her objective in the second act of “Die Walkuere”, without, however, lessening the potential for disaster.)

Second, Loge’s scheme to steal the Nibelung Ring and Rheingold from Alberich (gaining a substitute payment certain to satisfy the giants), causes Wotan to shift his energies from the near term goal of building Valhalla and populating it with heroes to the long term goal of appropriating and using the power of the Ring himself.

[Below: the Giants Fafner and Fasolt (in brown pajama suits) insist that the terms of their contract be honored, here in conversations with Wotan and Loge; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of Seattle Opera.]

Seattle Opera’s primeval Ring and San Francisco Opera’s American Ring have obviously different looks. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald would not have found any of the sophisticated costumes for the American Ring’s Gatsby-era setting for the gods particularly unusual, but, since they are fashions from a time perhaps four decades in the future from Wagner’s death, many traditionalists would likely prefer the “once upon a time” proto-European costuming that may be more in tune with Wagner’s imagination.

But in both the Seattle and San Francisco Rings, the action is consistent with Wagner’s story line and stage directions. These are humans going about their business – one in a time that Huns and Visigoths were roaming Central Europe, one in the Hamptons in the Jazz Age. The business of negotiating with one’s contractors can be just as grating and demoralizing in any age.

Those with a deep knowledge of the Ring should concede that Freyer’s approach is also true to the story line, although Freyer adds levels of action that might initially mystify a traditionalist. Since the main characters have multiple forms, characters normally move when Wagner’s stage directions call for it, but their avatars and other symbols of the character may also move when any of Wagner’s musical symbols of the character are sung or are played by the orchestra.

So the second scene is a quite un-human realm of the gods in the Freyer Ring. It is a disk rather like the tilted face of a clock, with the Giants, Freia and the Rheingold often seen at 12 o’clock, Wotan at 9 o’clock, Fricka at 3 o’clock, Freia sometimes at 6, Froh at 10:30 and Donner at 1:30. Totems significant to each god (although not always obvious to the audience) hover above them. The Ensemble are in constant motion in the intricate business that comprises the Freyer Ring.

[Below: the disk the gods inhabit and their totems in the airspace above it; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The third scene in the Nibelheim is an action scene, that moves one of the story arcs along – Wotan’s strategy for revising his contract with the giants. In the American Ring, Nibelheim is associated with a mineshaft. In each of the Rings we know we are deep in the Earth.

[Below: Loge (here Arnold Bezuyen, in red costume, top center) visits Mime (Graham Clark, in green costume, bottom center the Los Angeles Ring’s conception of the Nibelheim; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Tricked into surrendering the gold, the dangerous Alberich is again humiliated as his slave Nibelungs must deliver the gold to the realm of the gods with their master held as hostage.

[Below: a Freyer Ring Nibelung delivers one of the gold pieces into which the Rheingold has been transformed in payment of ransom for Alberich; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

It is the first two scenes that introduce most of the story arcs of the Ring operas, save one especially important new one in the opera’s fourth and final scene. Alberich, whose lethal nature and inherent power is wholly misunderstood by the Rhine Maidens  and grossly underestimated by Wotan and Loge, places a curse on the Nibelung Ring until it is returned to his hand. It will prove fatal to anyone who possesses it until he gets it back. (We will see that the Rhine Maidens’ determination to correct their blunder  from the first scene ultimately trumps Alberich’s curse, but that is many hours away.)

The fourth scene also introduces Erda and her knowledge of all that has happened and will happen in the future, but even Wotan discovers that the time periods in which Erda works, thinks and plans are too great for even himself, the most prominent  and most strategic of the gods.

The great story arcs that begin in Rheingold will continue to evolve, particularly in the second acts of “Walkuere” and “Siegfried” and in  the second and third acts of “Götterdämmerung”. But so much has happened in the past couple of Ring hours that the gods are quite pleased to simply get on with their lives – and moving into their now completed new home, Valhalla. In the American Ring, the gods ascend the gangplank of an ocean cruiser. In the Seattle Ring, Froh creates a rainbow that provides the bridge the gods’ woodland habitat to their new castle in the sky.

[Below: With the body of Fasolt laying on the ground, the Seattle Ring gods cross over a rainbow bridge to Valhalla; edited image, based on a Rozarii Lynch photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]

For those who have never attended a complete Ring, with the four operas performed within a single week, there will be nine or so opportunities in three different styles. For those who especially like the traditional approaches to the story, the Seattle Ring is clearly a place to start and for many will be the Ring of choice. It also has the advantage of being the closest in time. Tickets are on sale.

The Los Angeles Ring is a sophisticated experience, which abounds in visual effects, and boasts the musical leadership of James Conlon. If the “Ring” yields new insights with every hearing, the Freyer Ring’s complexities argues for its aficionados (and it has many) to see more than one performance of each of its components. Tickets are on sale for May 2010, with accompanying “Ring Festivals” planned  for different venues in Los Angeles.

We do not yet know all the details of the San Francisco Ring. We do know that, even though Washington (DC) National Opera premiered the productions of each of the first three operas of the American Ring, it will be San Francisco that will first see the “Götterdämmerung” and will first experience in its entirety this insightful collaboration between producer/stage director Francesca Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan. It will also have the masterful musical leadership of Donald Runnicles, who should be on everyone’s short list of the greatest Wagnerian conductors currently performing.

My advice to the conscientious opera goer who appreciates Wagner’s music dramas is to save up and plan to see each of these Rings at least one time. Each Ring experience should  prove the unlimited capacity of this great four opera masterwork to amaze, to inform, and to yield new secrets.