‘Das Rheingold’ at San Francisco Opera

Much has been made of producer Francesca Zambello’s Americanization of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In theory, it makes a lot of sense to place this long quartet of operatic dramas, which examines and equates the lust for gold and power vs. sexual lust and love, within the context of our materialistically driven history. Practically, though, an Americanization of this monumental work seems a sad mix of narcissism and advertising appeal.

Not so, though. S.F. Opera’s current production moves past all the pitfalls that lurk darkly behind the concept. The creative team has realized a visual presentation that is both powerful and moving—but not through period costuming and sets. Michael Yeargan’s sets are rather spare and suggestive, more adaptable to the eternal time in which this mythic opera takes place. And Catherine Zuber’s 1920-ish garb of the gods, though mundane rather than divine, is understated and generic enough to be inoffensive. The true Americanization of this opera is in its use of cinematic effects to create place and time.

Video projections, designed by Jan Hartley, describe the world in huge images that cover not only the back of the opera space but fall on the wings, using elemental images of flowing water, vibratory ranges of icy mountains, the turmoil of clouds, all to map out our ascents and descents from earth to the gods’ heaven to the cavernous underworld of the Nibelung.

Throughout, Mark McCullough’s theatrical lighting gilds the stage, moving the cinematic gesture back into the high relief of theater. Only once did the video seem out of sync with the production—during the overture, when the massive imagery seemed to battle with Wagner’s music. The use of planetary imagery was too illustrative and therefore obvious for the composer’s musical description of cosmic and primal urgings toward birth.
What is most wonderful about this production, however, is the music. Runnicles and the orchestra did Wagner fine, and the singers were splendid. Opening with the gorgeously voiced and not too voluptuous Rheinmaidens—Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese and Buffy Baggott.

Richard Paul Fink was an extraordinary Alberich, richly large-voiced and confident on stage, he wasn’t afraid to roll through misty waves in pursuit of the river’s liquid lovelies. He exuded domineering madness in underworld caves inhabited by child supernumeraries dressed as oddly indefinable humanoids. I hear Fink cracks his own whip. Tenor Stefan Margita—tied with Fink for first place as my favorite singer and performer—strutted an ironically aloof Loge, his vibrant, clear voice slicing through the audience stillness. Basses Andrea Silvestrelli and Günter Groissböck sang the hardworking giants whose demands to be paid set the curse of the Ring in motion. Their voices rang true and imposing, despite robotic fingers and big shoes, which set them a good ten inches above the rest of the crowd and would make lesser men’s voices quiver like jelly. David Cangelosi was a fine Mime.

Baritone Mark Delavan premiered Wotan; though he seemed slightly distracted in the role, his voice is up to the challenge. Jennifer Larmore sang a wonderful Fricka, her voice a complex mezzo with lots of overtones and requisitely big. I’m not going to go on and on. Only to say that the singers were uniformly excellent, which was a joy and a relief. Too often for S.F. Opera, there are one or two singers of note and the rest are rather disappointing. But these singers lifted the production into the musical equivalent of the High Sierra—clear, bright, refreshing and glowing with life.

Jaime Robles
Originally published by the Piedmont Post