Review: A Triumphant ‘Ring’ For San Francisco, 2011

Ring Cycle, San Francisco, 2011

By Katie French
The San Francisco ‘Ring’ Cycle is most certainly a triumph. It is not just a triumph for Director Francesca Zambello, but for all who clearly worked as a team on this splendid project – glorious, confident singers (for many of whom this was their first ‘Ring’); the tireless Conductor Donald Runnicles, who was clearly inspirational for his musicians; Set Designer Michael Yeargan and Costume Designer Catherine Zuber, whose concepts, when brought to fruition, allowed performers to be at ease on stage in a created world which they clearly felt enhanced their roles; and Lighting and Projection Designers who used today’s constantly developing technologies to intensify the understanding and appeal of Wagner’s masterwork.

Director Zambello’s work is relevant, understandable and appealing. In achieving this she has not resorted to the comfortable familiarity of a traditional interpretation, nor has she sacrificed a heartfelt agenda of well-thought-out themes which she was clearly determined to achieve. Those themes, emerging continually over the four operas, are Wagner’s own timeless themes of the quest for power; corruption; the power of love; the destruction of Nature; and the plight of the powerless.

Zambello’s success lies partly in the fact that she plays out these themes in a landscape with which the majority of her audience is familiar – she calls this the first ‘American’ Ring, as she progresses through stages in that country’s history, assessing the implications of ‘the American dream’. Hence, Das Rhinegold opens during the Californian goldrush, with Alberich a ‘forty- niner’ searching the Rhine for gold. Die Walküre depicts a dapper Wotan as an industrial titan like a Hearst or a Getty, in a boardroom overlooking an empire of skyscrapers. The world of Hunding and Sieglinde is a backwoods, depression world of personal militias and brutal misogyny. Counterbalancing this is the vibrant sky- world of the Valkyries, the technologically exhilarating world of a leather-clad Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson. InSiegfried, Mime and Siegfried live the life of the transient homeless – in a caravan, surrounded by rubbish, under a desolate freeway. Götterdämmerung sees the Norns as computer technicians, operating behind a front scrim of a circuit board, while the Gibichungs reside in the penthouse of a sterile contemporary world of glass and steel, high above their polluting chemical plant.

Zambello’s success also lies in the fact that, grand in scale though her themes may be, with the ‘landscape’ familiar to the audience, she has been able to focus on her characters and their stories, and take advantage of, and heighten, the many small and intimate scenes within the operas to create a touching and personal relevance to the lives of audience members.

With spectacular ‘To jo to ho’, Brünnhilde makes her first appearance as a young, loving daughter, bursting with enthusiasm. In Zambello’s production, she bounds onto Wotan’s board-table, grasps his spear, then confidently leaps onto his back. To much hilarity (and loud audience applause), the two ‘gallop’ off the stage. This wonderful scene makes so much more pertinent her emotional struggle as she listens to the father she adores confess his corruption, his reputation crumbling before her eyes. It makes so clear why the selfless love of Siegmund for Sieglinde would affect her so deeply, and explains her motivation in assisting Siegfried.

Sieglinde, too, emerges as never before. Zambello presents a strong feminist agenda, and is clearly aware of how women can be physically humiliated and psychologically abused. Hunding’s offensive misogynistic treatment of his wife in front of Siegmund, his groping of her breasts and bruising of her arms, heightens both audience and Siegmund’s awareness of her entrapment as a chattel in a loveless marriage. She and Siegmund share that sense of being outcasts, and it seems so natural for two such damaged people to yearn to come together.

Fricka, so frequently depicted simply as a scolding wife, is also encouraged to develop as a more rounded character. Initially, a somewhat dowdy, flighty, gold-bedazzled wife, in this production, she maintains a rather touchingly affectionate relationship with Wotan, who holds her in his arms and gently waltzes with her at one stage to charm her from her anger. When next she is seen, her opulent clothing, with its excess of feathers and silks, tells the story of a woman who has taken solace for Wotan’s infidelities in self-indulgence. For a childless goddess, having to kowtow to another goddess’s children sired by Wotan is one thing; having to kowtow to the ‘bastard child’ of a human is another. Her now-deliberate stride, her mimicry of Wotan’s reading the paper to ignore her, reveals a determined new sense of knowledge and power. After the agreement to kill Siegmund is negotiated, and she puts her arms around Wotan, only to be brusquely pushed aside, we see how this power has been gained at the expense of love. Her standing on an overhead expressway in the goddess’s full legal robes, her sprinkling the now-fulfilled fragments of the contract down on the body of the dead Siegmund in front of the enraged Wotan, speak so eloquently of the icy end of a fraught relationship – and indeed, add to Wotan’s unbounded rage towards Brünnhilde.

Both sets and lighting also work with characters to tell stories in this production. Stunning video back projections depict wild waters thundering down mountain gorges, great clouds of spume are contained within a front scrim, and a bridge provides a playground for three of the most delightfully coy, blonde and ringletted Rhinemaidens. Clad in frilly white corsets and lacy petticoats from a bygone era, they are the epitome of Nature itself in its most pristine, unspoilt and innocent state. Such an uncommonly pretty opening.

Niebelheim is a complete hell-hole contrast, with savage red-gold lighting emerging through an iron-grated floor, a blood-red rear wall, up which stunted rag-clad children struggle and dig with bare hands, and a huge Alberich whose gross, lightning-quick movements instill screaming terror. His abuse of power, and the danger of his curse, are accentuated by the explosion of the whole stage in projections of a massive petrol conflagration.

In Götterdämmerung, the video projections are gone, and the Rhine, now a river created out of plastic bottles flowing through a gorge of plywood cutout silhouettes, is presided over by Rhinemaiden ‘bag ladies’, with torn and filthy clothes and matted hair, collecting rubbish.

The production uses video projections through all overtures and entr’actes. On only one occasion did they seem superfluous – in the first scene of Die Walküre when surely that raging, racing music and the thundering of Wotan’s storm, create enough of a ‘visual’ and emotional impression. Anticipating that the projections might not be popular with traditionalists, the Projection Designer’s solution was short and sweet: ‘Just shut your eyes!’

The performances of the singers were remarkable, and for many of them, this was their first ‘Ring’. The vocal and physical interplay between Mark Delavan, as Wotan, and both Brünnhilde and Fricka was delightful and tender to the point of being heart-breaking in the first case, and both charmingly deceptive and freezingly vicious in the second. Gordon Hawkins, as Alberich, the largest dwarf in the world, had a terrifying stage presence and a voice to match. Jay Hunter Morris, who shared the role of Siegfried with Ian Storey, gave a wonderfully nuanced performance, growing indefatigably from monstrous, petulant child to charming and infatuated lover.

The amount of action taking place on the stage was dazzling, and all undertaken quite fearlessly whilst people were singing. Valkyries whooped as they thundered up the twenty stairs of their fortress in their leather flying suits, helmets and goggles. (Daveda Karanas, who sang Watraute in both last year’s and this production, proudly proclaimed that she had lost 85lbs in last year’s production alone, and was still counting!) Mime leapt in maniacal fury and did frantic cartwheels, while singing, on top of the roof of his caravan. Nina Stemme was audacious in her leaping across the battlements, and the running, teasing foreplay with Siegfried, over and around the set, was just exhilarating for both them and the audience.

However, it must be said that, in a company of champions, it was Nina Stemme who out-starred them all. Her effortless development from a vivacious young girl whose vibrant enthusiasm rang out in her voice, to an enlightened woman, her voice suffused with gravitas, totally fearless in her self-sacrifice to restore the natural order, was simply awe inspiring. Professor Hans Rudolph

Vaget, who many Members of the Wagner Society will know from his series of lectures at Bayreuth, stated: ‘Vocally, Nina Stemme is now in a league with the great Birgit Nilsson. In her acting and her delivery of the German text, she is in a league of her own.’ Amongst Wagner aficionados, those are fighting words!

And not to forget the music: in one of the many Seminars accompanying the ‘Ring’ Cycle, Gordon Hawkins declared that Donald Runnicles was like an artist with 175 different colours in his pencil box, and he would strive to achieve that perfect shade for any singer and any instrument. He and the production team received deafening applause from both audience and cast at the end of the Cycle.

It is perhaps churlish at this stage to mention the only unfortunate moment in the production: the ending. It is an all-female ending, with the black clad Gibichung women, carrying portraits of their ‘hero’ sons and husbands, who help build up the wood for the immolation scene. They are assisted by the Rhinemaidens, and Gutrune (absolved from guilt by Brünnhilde). After Brünnhilde has descended into the flames, the Rhinemaidens retrieve the Gold, a huge silken banner now cleansed, from the river. (They also suffocate a lurking Hagen with a bright yellow plastic bag – a most fitting ending!) They then arrange the gold banner as a triumphal walkway, and a small child in Greek robes, and carrying a young World Ash tree, moves down to the front and plants the tree. Enough said: it was one moment of distasteful kitsch in an otherwise splendid performance. Audiences will not see and hear an equal challenger to this ‘Ring’ for quite some time.