Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Anticipating DAS RHEINGOLD

Next month the San Francisco Opera will launch Francesca Zambello's new staging of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen with her production of Das Rheingold. This project is being shared with the Washington National Opera and has been promoted as a conception based in American history, with the obvious focus on the California Gold Rush. However, in spite of the California focus, Washington beat us to the punch, first performing this Rheingold in March of 2006.

Now that The New York Times has made its archives available without charge, I decided that a good way to get a sense of what this "American conception" of the Ring might entail would be to check out Anthony Tommasini's review of the Rheingold premiere in Washington. I was trained under the precept that a good reviewer is, first and foremost, a good reporter, reserving the dispensing of opinions for any column space that remains after the reportage is completed. Tommasini's talent for reporting should give us a good idea of what to expect next month:

There are many fresh and impressive elements to the company's colorful, abstract and well cast "Rheingold." But its success is only partly attributable to overtly American imagery.

It's true, for example, that in the opening scene Ms. Zambello, working with the set designer Michael Yeargan and the costume designer Anita Yavich, portrays Wagner's Alberich, the dwarf who dwells among the lower race of Nibelungs, as a hulking forty-niner, with thick boots and suspenders, panning for gold; the Rhine Maidens are a trio of sassy gals in fleecy dresses who cavort on a mining sluice, a wonderful wood contraption with chutes and ladders.

But the visual imagery that really gives this scene its impact is the depiction of the pristine river. Rushing water is suggested through swirling video projections by Jan Hartley. When the magic gold glows from the river bed, the Rhine Maidens do a celebratory dance with a billowing silken sheet atop this abstract river's sleek, clear plastic surface. Shafts of golden light (courtesy of the lighting designer Mark McCullough) fill the stage. None of this would matter, though, without the powerful singing of the baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, who nearly stole the show all evening.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner (the bass-baritones John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells), having just finished building Wotan's castle Valhalla, first appear sitting on a steel beam as it is lowered from an unseen crane. They are blue-collar laborers in matching overalls with elongated legs and huge clodhopper feet. If they look a little like Gumby giants, the cartoonish humor seems intentional. Ms. Zambello is refreshingly attentive to the whimsical side of Wagner's mythological tale. The audience, sensing it was O.K. to laugh, did.

Wotan and the gods are portrayed as entitled 1920's characters out of "The Great Gatsby," arrayed in white summer suits and dresses. Loge, the god of fire, is a wily lawyer in a tailored overcoat (the tenor Robin Leggate). Still, there is nothing especially American about his look, which has a hint of Inspector Clouseau. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop is excellent as a matronly and prideful Fricka, the long-suffering wife to the inconstant Wotan.

With his goatee and fedora, the sturdy bass-baritone Robert Hale makes an unusually lanky and disdainful Wotan. Still, in the scene when he descends to the lower world to wrest the magic ring from Alberich, he seems too aloof for the job. Mr. Hawkins's booming and husky Alberich looks as if he could take down the surly god — no problem.

The Americanization concept turns political when the all-knowing earth goddess Erda (the tremulous-voiced mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) appears with her ominous warning for Wotan. She is costumed as a Native American princess, and looks as if she had wandered in from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The lingering image of this production comes in the deep, dank and sulfurous mine where Alberich brutally drives his slaves to hew rock and forge gold. The workers are played by a roster of some 50 mostly minority children, large and small, with tattered clothing and sooty faces. Evoking the history of slavery in America is the idea, but the image of child labor, which remains an international outrage, is what came through for me.

The San Francisco cast will be entirely different, but we may expect the imagery to be the same. Given my ongoing appreciation of wit, I was particularly struck by Tommasini's comment about "the whimsical side of Wagner's mythological tale." One usually finds that whimsy in Siegfried, whom we first see with a bear in tow delivering the operatic equivalent of "He followed me home, can I keep him?" There is even the school of thought that views the four Ring operas as a four-movement symphony of enormous proportions, with Siegfried as the scherzo movement. However, having just seen The Little Prince, I have more of an appreciation for Zambello's sense of whimsy and could see that she could apply it effectively even in a confrontation between gods and giants.

On the basis of this report, I find myself looking forward to seeing this vision realized on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. My last dose of Rheingold was the production that Keith Warner had prepared for Covent Garden. Warner chose to play up anti-Semitic stereotypes, which may well have been part of Wagner's conception but which continue to rub me the wrong way. Zambello's politics seem to be more inclined to the exploitation of Native Americans and immigrant child labor, which probably "works" better in an American, rather than European, framework. Of course, since I was thoroughly pleased with Donald Runnicles' conducting of the last San Francisco Ring, I have equally high expectations for the musical performance!

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