“Ring” Cycles Scheduled for 2010 and 2011 as California Does Wagner’s Nibelung Saga” Part Two (San Francisco Opera)

As related in the first article in this series, the Los Angeles Opera is mounting three cycles of Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” in May and June 2010. A year later the San Francisco Opera will present the “Ring” in an entirely different production, with a different conductor and an almost completely different cast.

The San Francisco “Ring” has been co-produced with the Washington National Opera, which premiered the first three operas in the cycle, but, for budgetary reasons, has deferred to the San Francisco Opera to create the production of “Goetterdaemmerung”.  San Francisco will be the first city to see this “Ring” in its entirety.

Called the “American Ring”, it fits within the 33 year old tradition of “concept Rings” (which first burst upon the scene at with Patrice Chereau’s “Ring” at the 1976  Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany). Chereau’s formative years were spent in postwar Paris. The creator of the “American Ring”, Francesca Zambello, has done much of her creative work in opera companies of the United States.

Concept Rings find relevance to current day problems in Wagner’s storyline of adversaries engaged in infinitely long strategic efforts to gain and sustain power, at the other’s expense. Because all ends badly for the men warring with each other, Wagner’s storyline can be an attractive metaphor for displaying the long-term consequences of something the concept producer deplores.

In Chereau’s “Ring”, perhaps the social consequences of the industrial revolution are deplored; in Zambello’s (whose final episode no one has yet seen), perhaps the long-term consequences of ravaging the resources of the planet, while ignoring the wisdom of women.

Surely, there are concept directors who would wish to make a political statement through the symbols they have chosen for this or that scene or in the realization of a set dressing or a prop, and surely there will be a few critics who will react to whatever images they perceive as political. (The critic for a conservative Washington D.C. newspaper pegged the Zambello Ring as “socialistic”.)

[Actually, for those who tire of the charges that Wagner’s operas are racist or “proto-fascist” because they had admirers among the Nazi leadership, having a few productions requiring defense against the charge that Wagnerian operas are vehicles for leftist indoctrination comes as a refreshing change.]

Of course, no matter what matrix you prepare to show off Wagner’s “Ring”, there is only so much that the producer’s concept can do, particularly if the story itself is played straight, which has been the case in every “concept Ring” that I have seen or heard of.

Having seen (and liked very much) both the Zambello “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” (whose third act sets, of course, become the third act sets for “Siegfried”, I can report that all the supposed political messages, the Washington critic notwithstanding, sailed over my head and,  I suspect, that of most of the rest of the audience.

There are striking images, to be sure. There are subtle antiwar images as the Valkyrs collect dead heros who are clearly contemporary Americans, but these images are respectful of servicemen who lost their lives. Fafner resembles more an industrial machine than the dragons of Saturday morning cartoons, but is vanquished by Siegfried and Nothung just the same.

But whether it sounds subversive or exhilirating on paper, it works dramatically, and 99% of the reason is because of Wagner’s story, particularly when  sung by a cast of principals with voices of beauty and power  and played by a large orchestra with the historically glorious sound of  San Francisco Opera’s under the baton of Donald Runnicles.

Prior to the three “Ring” cycles there will be one single non-subscription Sunday matinee performance each of the two “Ring” operas – “Siegfried” and “Goetterdaemmerung” – respectively on May 29 and June 5, 2011.

[Below: Conductor Donald Runnicles, who is scheduled to conduct all three Ring cycles performed by the San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a Ken Friedman photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

Runnicles, during his nearly two decades as Francisco Opera Music Director, set all company records for “Ring” performances. His  return as guest conductor is a major event, headlining the first complete Ring cycles of dramatic soprano Nina Stemme and company debut of Ian Storey as Siegfried.

[Below: Siegfried (foreground; here, Paer Lindskog) has reforged his father’s sword, Nothung, from its shards, as Mime (here, Andreas Conrad) schemes Siegfried’s death; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

San Francisco Opera: the Ring Casts

The three  characters who appear in three operas are played by Mark Delavan (Wotan), Gordon Hawkins (repeating the role of Alberich that he is also performing in the Los Angeles Opera “Rings”) and Nine Stemme (Bruennhilde).

Of the characters who appear in two operas, Ian Storey is Siegfried, Larissa Diadkova is Fricka, Daniel Sumegi is Fafner and Ronnita Miller is Erda. In the original cast announcement, only the Woglinde of the Rhine Maidens was announced, that being Stacey Tappan, repeating the roles she sings in the Los Angeles “Ring” (including that of the Forest Bird). In addition, Sumegi will be Hunding and Miller the First Norn.

The artists who are announced to appear in different roles in two operas include Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt and Hagen) and Melissa Citro (Freia and Gutrune). Heidi Melton will be the Third Norn and will perform the role of Sieglinde in the third “Ring”.

Those scheduled to appear in only one opera are Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), Stefan Margita (Loge), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), and Gerd Grochowski (Gunther). Daveda Karanas will sing both the Second Norn and Waltraute.

The original press release did not name who will play Froh, Donner, two of the Rhine Maidens, or the eight Walkuere sisters.

The San Francisco Dates

The First Cycle: Tuesday June 14, 2011 (evening*), Wednesday Jun 15 (eve), Friday, June 17 (eve) and Sunday June 19 (matinee**)

The Second Cycle: Tuesday June 21 (evening*), Wednesday Jun 22 (eve), Friday, June 24 (eve) and Sunday June 26 (matinee)

The Third Cycle: Tuesday June 28 (evening*), Wednesday Jun 29 (eve), Friday, July 1 (eve) and Sunday July 3 (matinee)

*Evening performances will begin at from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., depending on opera; **matinee performances begin at 1 p.m.