Inspired cast and magnificent conducting lift a mixed “Rheingold”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Wotan (Mark Delavan), right, confers with Loge (Stefan Margita) in San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Photo: Cory Weaver.

SAN FRANCISCO. The good news about San Francisco Opera’s Das Rheingold, which opened the second cycle of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen Tuesday night, was that the singing was consistently inspired from a cast as solid as one can hope to field these days. Most importantly, Donald Runnicles’ musical direction was virtually faultless, as rich and eloquent a presentation of this music as one is ever likely to hear.

The opening opera of Wagner’s mighty tetralogy sets the scene for the epic music-drama. The dwarf Alberich renounces love to steal the gold from the Rhinemaidens, amassing wealth by enslaving the Nibelungen people. The god Wotan, assisted by the fire-god Loge, conspires to steal the gold from Alberich as ransom for the goddess Freia who is held captive by the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Alberich curses the gods and all who hold the ring, and the curse immediately bears fruit as Fafner kills Fasolt. The gods ascend to their new heavenly home Valhalla as Loge expresses misgivings about their future.

While the cast and musical direction are excellent, Francesca Zambello’s production will divide opinion as it clearly did in the earlier premieres of Rheingold and Die Walküre. The director’s “American Ring” draws on national topography in its projections as well as its historic mythologizing with Wotan appearing to be a kind of West Coast industrial magnate, circa 1920.

The updating — aided by Catherine Zuber’s attractive period costumes — doesn’t get in the way of the unfolding drama, which is mostly played straight, but neither does it offer any special insights or illumination. The gods’ mountaintop retreat is a plain, rustic patio and the rainbow bridge a utilitarian metal plank, like a boarding ramp to a cruise ship. Ultimately it serves mainly to trivialize and diminish Wotan and the other gods—why make Froh and Donner dweebish collegiate nerds?

Some staging ideas were ill-advised. Bringing the bedraggled Rhinemaidens onstage at the coda to beseech Wotan was an unnecessary bit of heavy-handed lily-gilding. And having the gods standing in a row with upraised arms summoning the lightning suggested an undergraduate Earth Day ceremony. Also unfortunate were the surtitles’ fitful lapses into slangy vernacular (“wise-guy” and “You slimy sluts!”).

Zambello’s direction proved most effective when her concept was less manifest. The Nibelheim scene was especially successful, with Michael Yeargan’s striking fiery-red set and a large contingent of youthfully nimble body-suited Nibelungen. While most directors ignore the fact that Fasolt and Fafner are supposed to be towering giants, Zambello really makes their stature palpable with padded bodysuits and monstrous shoes. And you have to love Alberich’s transformation into a large leaping frog, which was a big hit with the audience.

Even with the dubious revisionism, Zambello’s stage direction is mostly graceful, detailed and imaginative, as with Fasolt stroking Freia’s hair and the gods’ lassitude in their sudden loss of youth. Rheingold is clearly a challenge for singers and often feels like effortful work. But the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves greatly under Zambello’s direction, and that positive energy came across vividly.

As for the singing, the show was decisively stolen by Stefan Margita as Loge. Repeating his role from the company’s 2008 performances, the fire god here morphs into a kind of shifty family attorney. The Czech singer brought Loge to vivid life, vocalizing with a vibrant liquid tenor and embodying the character as Wotan’s ironic enabler and skeptical outsider.

Mark Delavan is undeniably a light-in-the-vocal-loafers Wotan, his rugged baritone lacking the weight and sonorous heft for the big moments, as with an underpowered ode to Valhalla in the final scene. Still, Delavan sang with dramatic point and dedication throughout and was a dignified and authoritative god, bringing incisive frisson to his confrontation with Alberich.

A late substitution for Larissa Diadkova, Elizabeth Bishop made a fine Fricka, singing with warm tone and etching a more rounded character—even girlish at times—than the usual nagging battleaxe.

As the malign dwarf, Gordon Hawkins was a most impressive Alberich, singing with robust power and making the villain’s dark emotions—longing, pain, greed, shame and unadulterated hatred — chillingly manifest. Oddly, Alberich’s curse — the crucial moment of the entire opera – went off the boil with Hawkins’ rendering lacking the requisite dramatic intensity.

As the giant brothers, Daniel Sumegi and Andrea Silvestrelli proved adept at moving about with their body padding, metallic Edward Scissorhands digits and size 30 footwear. Sumegi brought due vocal strength and malevolence to Fafner. Silvestrelli was a wonderful Fasolt, singing tenderly in his lyrical moments and conveying the humanity of the doomed giant’s hopeless love for Freia.

The object of his affections, Melissa Citro was a pure-voiced and graceful Freia. Brandon Jovanovich — also singing Siegmund in Die Walküre — proved luxury casting as Froh, though Zambello’s satiric treatment of the character didn’t do him any favors. The same applies to Gerd Grochowski’s admirable Donner.

As Alberich’s abused brother, David Cangelosi was a vividly characterful Mime. Ronnita Miller proved a bit wobbly as Erda, though her imposing dark mezzo was well-suited to the earth goddess. Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum were the seductive and vocally well matched trio of Rhinemaidens.

The evocative video projections by Jan Hartley were masterfully rendered, with the opening clouds turning to the undulating Rhine waves and the descent to Nibelheim painted with tinted scenes of American valleys. Mark McCullough’s lighting was likewise superb throughout.

Lest there be any doubt that Donald Runnicles is one of the leading Wagnerians of our day, his direction of this multivaried score was terrific across the board. The company’s former music director laid out the myriad riches of the opera’s unbroken 160-minute span with great transparency and a natural flow. The big moments possessed firm dramatic impact and Wagner’s lyricism was always to the fore. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played magnificently with notably majestic brass.

Das Rheingold will be repeated June 28.; 415-864-3330.

For reviews of the other Ring operas this week, go to The Classical Review.

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Wed Jun 22, 2011
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