Review: “Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011

When the ideas for Francesca Zambello’s American Ring, a 21st century relocation of Wagner’s four opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” to North American shores, was first announced in mid-decade by the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera, a number of broad themes were envisioned that incorporated features of American history, environmentalism, and the role of women.

These ideas began to be realized on the operatic stage, first at Kennedy Center for the first three operas – “Rheingold”, “Walküre” and “Siegfried” – then in San Francisco as budget problems at the Washington program shifted the project’s creative center Westward.

Over the half-decade of creative energy that led to this first week’s final unveiling of the first opera in a complete Ring, presented in classic Wagnerian fashion over six days, some of the original ideas fell by the wayside (Alberich as a ’49 prospector; Erda as an American Indian) while others have prospered – the gods living in a somewhat run-down Long Island Great Gatsby-type mansion while Valhalla is being constructed; the Nibelheim in the depths of a gold mine.

It appears to me, without having discussed this with anyone on the creative team, that what has evolved is less a retoning (or even abandonment) of the original “message” of the production, but a growing fascination on the part of Zambello, the creative team, and the immensely talented singer-actors cast in each role, with each and every character that appears in Wagner’s “Ring”.

[Below: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins, center), having followed the prescription for possessing the River Gold, leaves with it; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Das Rheingold”, as I have suggested in the past, is the most famous opera in which no human character appears. There are three non-human species represented in “Rheingold” – dwarves, giants and gods – but no human being will appear in the “Ring” before Wednesday night at 7 p.m. when Siegmund comes upon Hunding’s house in the storm that opens “Die Walküre”.

I suggest that the Transatlantic shift from Europe’s Rhine to an American river has had a somewhat unintended consequence. (I am choosing words carefully here. I have attended multiple “Rings” over the years which I thoroughly enjoyed just as they were presented, but something is different about what is being seen in San Francisco.)

As each character is shifted from the context that Wagner envisioned (sometime between the dawn of human history and a vaguely pre-Medieval Europe) to some concrete American context – such as a bored rentier class in the Hamptons or their blue-collar construction workers – the genius of Wagner’s story undergoes and is, to an important extent, transformed by the required reanalysis of the motivations of each Wagner’s characters.

One could imagine decades of Wagnerian singers for which such mind-shifts would be meaningless, but Zambello does not surround herself with the stereotypical “park and bark” Wagnerians of days of old. Anyone cast in this “Ring” is a skilled actor who will breathe life into the character and will have a core understanding of what he or she is about.

[Below: the giants Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli, left) and Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) descend from their work on building Valhalla; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In discussing this point further, it is instructive to compare and contrast the Zambello “Ring” with two other 21st century “Rings” premiered on American’s West Coast.

The West Coast “Rings”

I have described the Seattle Opera “Ring” as cinematic in the sense that its settings evoke the feeling that one is engrossed in a technicolor film in a widescreen process such as cinemascope. Here the characters in naturalistic costumes, evoking the Dark Ages in a primeval forest.

The Los Angeles “Ring” was in no way naturalistic. Each character’s visual image was presented in highly stylized, choreographed patterns. I would describe the Los Angeles “Ring” as musically visualized, where each of Wagner’s leitmotivs – the musical phrases that identify a specific character, thing or concept, which resound throughout the “Ring” – was given a concrete form. The interplay of these forms took place onstage – sometimes as characters who intoned the words of Wagner’s libretto and sometimes as other characters who acted out Wagner’s leitmotivs as each was played by the orchestra. The interplay between these quite different ways of presenting action gave the production its visual image.

If the Seattle “Ring” is cinematic and the Los Angeles “Ring” is intended to visualize music, then I would characterize the San Francisco “Ring” as theatrical, by which I mean that it is comprised of a series of intense character portrayals. The total stage effect is not unimportant, and, whenever the projections are in evidence are all-consuming, but this is not, I would argue, the central point of the Zambello “Ring”.

But the Zambello “Ring” is the combination of a series of bravura “best supporting actor” portrayals –  Stefan Margita’s facile Loge, Andrea Silvestrelli’s intensely sympathetic Fasolt, David Cangelosi’s terrified Mime, Elizabeth Bishop’s disquieted Fricka, Melissa Citro’s empathetic Freia – supporting the production’s two “stars”, the conflicted Wotan of Mark Delavan, and Wotan’s nemesis, the Alberich of Gordon Hawkins.

[Below: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins, front right center) takes the tarnhelm from the cringing Mime (David Cangelosi); resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But, before discussing the individual performances, there are three elements that profoundly affect the experience of this “Ring”. First, is the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, masterfully conducted by Donald Runnicles who knows this orchestra and “the Ring” so well. Second are Jan Hartley’s visual projections, that add immeasuribly to the Wagner’s inherently rich orchestration of the prelude and interludes between each scene. Third, is the War Memorial Opera House itself, with its open orchestra pit and salutary acoustics that envelope the opera goer in a Wagnerian “wall of sound”.

Alberich and the River Maidens

The three River Maidens (Lauen McNeese, Renee Tatum and Stacey Tappen) gamboled in the 19th century dresses one associates with Wild West dance halls. Gordon Hawkins (this, his San Francisco  Opera “debut” because his appearances in the first performances of “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” were listed as “dress rehearsals”), is no stranger to Zambello productions (see The Zambello “Porgy and Bess” An Historic Success at Chicago’s Lyric – November 18, 2008), to the “Rheingold’ Alberich (see Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009 ) or even the “Rheingold” Donner (see Wagner, Wadsworth and Lynch Team for Seattle’s Magical “Rheingold” Revival – August 9, 2009.)  In an English translation that vividly brings home Wagner’s technique of constantly using alliterative German for dramatic effect, the super-titles has Alberich calling the River Maidens “slimy sluts”.

The River Maidens are a case study as to how the combination of condescension, sarcasm and sexual harassment of an inferior being, combined with too much information about how a worm can effect his own turning, can lead to disaster. The maidens’ dance hall dresses are dirty and ragged in this opera’s final scene, a dramatic example of how the wheel of fortune spins for individuals throughout the Zambello “Ring”.

The three River Maidens and Alberich take the four corners of a billowing golden cloth. Alberich, possessed with the knowledge that he will gain all the power in the world if he utters a few simple words, decides to take the bargain and leaves with the loot, the golden cloth wrapped around him.

However, Alberich as victim of abuse provides him with no sympathy for the plights of those he subordinates, and he terrorizes his relative Mime, authoritatively played by David Cangelosi  (see Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi.)

[Below: David Cangelosi is Mime; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Gods’ Old Neighborhood

This is the third time I have reviewed the Zambello “Rheingold”. I have come to regard the “Hamptons” scene as one of the cleverest and most interesting in her entire “Ring”. The most striking first impression is made by the Giants, played here again as they were at Seattle Opera by Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Daniel Sumegi (Fafner). Silvestrelli’s Fasolt is a wondrous portrait in itself, but is made immeasuribly more special by the interplay with the Freia character, with whom he develops a “Patty Hearst” type hostage relationship.

Although this emotional relationship with Fasolt was already evident in 2008 between Silvestrelli’s Fasolt and Tamara Wapinsky’s Freia, it has blossomed into a full-blown love affair with the Freia of Melissa Citro (also announced as a San Francisco Opera debut, even though she was the Gutrune of the “dress rehearsal Goetterdaemmerung”), who is disconsolate at seeing the body of the slain giant.

Elizabeth Bishop proved just right for Fricka in both voice and range of emotions. The “Rheingold” Fricka is written with some moments of geniune humor, unlike her sterner self that we will see in “Walküre”. Bishop’s display of suspicion, fear, anger, joy and sudden interest in the fortune described by Loge was a fully formed presentation of Wotan’s neurotic spouse.

[Below: the gods (from left to right) Froh (Brandon Jovanovich), Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), Freia (Melissa Citro) and Donner (Gerd Grochowski) prepare to leave for their new home in Valhalla; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It was a special treat to be at Brandon Jovanovich’s debut as a Wagnerian jugendlicher tenor in the role of Froh. Of course, Jovanovich was hired for “Walküre’s” Siegmund, which will launch the (on the subsequent night) the main part of his Wagnerian career (soon to include the title role of “Lohengrin” in this very house). But it is a bit of casting genius to assign Froh to Jovanovich’s great spinto voice.

Often and understandably undercast, Froh has important lines to sing in declamatory Wagnerian style, but, even when the production has him onstage throughout the two “gods” scenes, as this production does, he is mute for much of the time. It’s immensely satisfying to have the proper voice present to sing this role.

The last of the “supporting gods”, Gerd Grochowski as Donner, is another relatively brief role with an important function in performance, singing one of Wagner’s great anthems as the God of Thunder prepares his family to move to Valhalla. In this production Grochowski also gets a publicity coup, in that as Donner wields his hammer blow sparks shoot off to each side as his fellow gods outstretch their arms as projections of lightning flash across the stage. One assumes that this photograph of this tour de force requires more than routine planning on the part of the production photographer.

[Below: Donner (Gerd Grochowski, center) strikes a hammerblow as, from left to right, Freia (Melissa Citro), Froh (Brandon Jovanovich), Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) and Wotan (Mark Delavan) hold their arms in the air; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Ultimately, the core story of “Rheingold” is the threesome of the two great antagonists – that Wagner’s libretto designates as respectively Light-Alberich and Dark-Alberich) Wotan (Mark Delavan) and Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) – and the God of Fire, Loge (Stefan Margita).

Unlike so much of the “good versus evil” epics that underlie some of great literary and cinematic franchises of the past half century or so, the “Ring” begins with adversaries who do not quite fit into traditional good and evil roles, and a demi-god advising one of them who feels that moral compromise is o.k., if it serves your purposes (and especially if you can slip away before any negative consequences are felt.)

[Below: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins, front), freed from bondage by Loge (Stefan Margita, left) and Wotan (Mark Delavan); curses the Nibelung Ring; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This moral ambiguity of the “Ring” storyline resonates with human reality and assures each new attempt to grasp its significance may yield yet more insights. Accomplished singing actors will be our medium to explore Wagner’s realm and Delavan and Margitta present powerful characterizations that facilitate such insights.

Each time each element of the Zambello “Ring” is mounted, there is more to fathom. In this music-drama, both music and drama are of memorable quality.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

For my interview with Mark Delavan, see: The Dawning of a New Wotan: Interview with Mark Delavan Part 1

and also: The Dawning of a New Wotan – An Interview with Mark Delavan, Part 2.

For other “Rheingold” Reviews, see: Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008,

and also, Pure Gold: A Second Look at S. F.’s “American Ring Rheingold” – June 22, 2008,

and also, Going For the Gold: Kirov Ring’s “Das Rheingold” in Costa Mesa – October 6, 2006.