Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) began its first cycle of Richard Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). Each cycle will take place over the course of this and the next two weeks, with the four operas being performed on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. These productions are a revival of the staging by Francesca Zambello, first performed here in its entirety seven years ago in 2011.
As Zambello’s “Director’s Note” in the program book explains, she conceived her production as “an American parallel to Wagner’s story.” This posed a somewhat provocative problem. Wagner’s cycle in its entirety may be the best instance of what has become a familiar trope these days, that of a train wreck in slow motion. After the first seven minutes of the very first opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), the first four of which are strictly instrumental, the narrative proceeds steadily on a solid descent that only ends when almost all of the characters have gone up in smoke (literally), leaving only the three Rhinemaidens (also known as the daughters of the Rhine), whose voices were the first encountered at the end of those first seven minutes. In contrast most American narratives tend to be optimistic accounts of progress and growth, blithely minimizing, if not overlooking, any downsides that may be encountered along the path of ascent.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Zambello created her “American parallel” for opera companies based in two of our country’s bastions of progress, so to speak. San Francisco has been a city of advances in business and finance that date back to the days of the gold rush; and, with the rise of Silicon Valley following World War II, those advances extended into the area of technology and the emergence of information as a commodity. SFO’s partner in Zambello’s project was the Washington National Opera, the city most responsible for weaving the threads of “the American story” around milestones of advancement and growth.
Zambello first began to put her thoughts into action in 2005. By that time the narrative of the “ever ascending America” had taken several serious beatings. For my generation the first of those beatings came during our student years with the Vietnam War. In 2005, on the other hand, the “American spirit” was only beginning to recover from the beating that took place closest to home, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By the time she had worked her way through all four operas with SFO giving the first performance of the cycle in its entirety in 2011, consideration of an “American parallel” to Wagner’s narrative of decline seemed not only feasible but necessary.
From that point of view, there is a chilling sense of the immediate present in Zambello’s setting of Das Rheingold as a narrative of thefts, acts of deceit and greed, and even one murder, all emerging around a ring fashioned from a lump of gold at the bottom of the Rhine that grants its wearer ultimate power. The depiction of Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) as a prospector evokes not only the gold rush but also the early stages of greedy violation of natural environmental settings. Even more chilling is the connotation of Valhalla as a luxury real estate project, conceived and managed as the “family business” of the gods that will soon inhabit it. The project itself has been built on a contract made by the “family patriarch” Wotan (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley), who now brings in his “legal consultant” Loge (tenor Štefan Margita) to help him break the contract.
The “real estate family” on the way to their new luxury property: Wotan (Greer Grimsley), Fricka (Jamie Barton), Freia (Julie Adams), Donner (Brian Mulligan), and Froh (Brandon Jovanovich) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)
There are multiple ironies in play here, even before we encounter connections between this fictitious real estate family and the other one that now dominates our attention due to the political advances of its patriarch. In the mythology that inspired Wagner, Wotan is the keeper of contracts. Every contract ever made is inscribed on the staff that he carries with him at all times. (Keep an eye on that staff, by the way. It will play a major role in the third opera of the cycle, Siegfried.) The staff is made from the wood of Yggdrasil, an immense ash tree that is the center of the cosmos. Wotan breaks off one of Yggdrasil’s limbs to serve as his staff. Thus, that “narrative of thefts” includes a “theft against nature” (as in the gold rush) that takes place even before Das Rheingold begins.
The one murder in the narrative involves the two “construction workers,” the giants Fasolt and Fafner (both bass roles sung, respectively, by Andrea Silvestrelli and Raymond Aceto). Wotan evades his original contractual obligation by “buying off” the workers with Alberich’s hoard of gold (which includes his all-powerful ring), which Wotan and Loge have stolen. (After the theft, Alberich puts a curse on the ring around which much of the plot to follow will revolve.) Presented with all of that gold, Fasolt takes the ring for himself, after which he is almost immediately killed by Fafner. (Remember that curse lurking between the parentheses?)
Thus, by the time the narrative was worked its way through the two and one-half hours following those first seven minutes (all of which unfold without an intermission), every character we have encountered is either in deep yogurt or dead. The one exception may be Erda (mezzo Ronnita Miller). However, as may be guessed from her name, she is the spirit of the earth itself, reminding us of how the natural world often cures itself of the abuses of the human world. She is not so much living or dead as simply a spirit that warns Wotan that he is already well on the path of his descent.
It should be clear by now that Wagner packed quite a lot of content into this one opera. Nevertheless, between Zambello’s ideas and the realization of those ideas through stage action, costume design, lighting, and some very imaginative use of projection, all that content proceeds through the narrative at an almost breathtaking pace. That pace was enhanced (but never overplayed) through the musical leadership of conductor Donald Runnicles (who had also conducted the 2011 SFO performances).
The astute readers may have noticed that the above tour through the Rheingold narrative did not involve any mere mortals. They will only make their first appearance tonight in this week’s performance of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie). As those readers can probably expect by now, things will not go well for them.