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“Das Rheingold” at SF Opera


“Das Rheingold” at SF Opera

Carol Benet

After seven years since the last performance of the thrilling “Ring of the Nibelungen” by Richard Wagner at the SF Opera, they reprise the wildly popular production by director Francesca Zambello.

With four operas lasting more than 17 hours total, there are now three cycles of the “Ring” ending on July 1, 2018.  Starting with the opening of “Das Rheingold” on June 12, the excitement at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco was palpable.  Every seat taken and rows of standing room only patrons, “The Ring” is one of the most important opera events in of the year.  Dozens of ancillary events, lectures, performances, workshops, pre-performance lectures) accompany “The “Ring” that attracts opera lovers from all over the world.

This is the third time that SF Opera has staged the Zambello “Ring” with the first in 2008.  It is particularly interesting because she sets this “Ring” in the California gold rush, which is appropriate because its subject is the acquisition of gold.  In the opening opera “Das Rheingold”, Scene 3, so well designed with blazing fire and miserable conditions take place in the the subterranean mine, well portrayed as a locale of child labor and human degradation.  The shrilling, childrens’ chorus makes this portion of the opera relevant today since we are grappling with questions of child and substandard labor worldwide that results in our cheap imports enriching our way of life here in America.

Other relevancies to today appear such as the crass greed of the Gods, so like our mortal race for riches, particularly here near Silicon Valley.  Anything goes in this search that occupies the entire 17 hours of opera. The gold rush of yore as well as the search for riches today is part of the modus operandi of the current government in our selfish country.

“Das Rheingold” is a good opening opera as it lasts only 2 1/2 hours, albeit without an intermission.  But it is a good introduction to those who want to sample “The Ring” without committing to all of it.  It tells the story of the despicable Alberich sung by the wonderful German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, as he stalks the three Rhein maidens who tormant him in with their teasing.  These maidens, Woglinde (Stacey Tappen), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeeseI) an Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) are not only beautiful, but they move as if expert dancers in the river that has been recreated by set designer Richard Yeargan.  Lawrence Peck is the talented Dance Master and Choreographer who directed them.

The entire show is lit by Mark McCullough and enhanced by projections by S. Katy Tucker, new to this production.  They serve to create the feeling of the Rhine River and the entire firmament inside and outside the earth’s surface.

The first scene ends with Alberich stealing the gold that has been guarded by the maidens as he  renounces love in order to have the power that the gold instills. That’s the deal.  Possession of the gold ring or love, not both.

The second scene turns to a domestic scene between the god Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and his wife Fricka (Jamie Barton) who argue over the debt he owes to the giants Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Fafner (Raymond Aceto) who have been miraculously made into giants by clever costuming (Cahterine Zuber) and engineering.  They have not been paid by Wotan for the fortress Valhalla that they just completed.  They were stiffed (reminiscent of our august president’s stiffing his contractors and getting away with it).

But there is a clever and swary lawyer Loge, the god of fire, who has made the contract and whose job it is to weasel out of it. Loge (Stefan Margita) who played this part in the past two productions) is one of the highlights of the opera in his Roy Cohen type sliminess and his whiny voice.

There is a part of the opera that seems to sympathies with all the bad guys like Alberich and the giants.  They too are seeking love and can be seen as pitiable, making their evil ways almost understandable in this cast of greedy, arguing gods all seeking wealth and its power.  The evil Mime (David Cangoles) comes into the mine scene and Erda (Ronnita Miller, a veteran in the part) as earth goddess dispenses her wisdom about the impermanence of everything thus putting all the greed into perspective.

The production is spectacular with its pyrotechnics reproducing magic tricks plus Donner’s thunder and lightning.  Donald Runnicles, musical conductor, did not disappoint neither did the fine Opera orchestra with its many solos and extraordinary demands (one example are the anvils played off-stage).  Runnicles who used to be a regular at the SF Opera returns for his third “Ring”.  He has been much missed and the audience showed its appreciation at the curtain call. The entire cast is outstanding.

“Das Rheingold” plays again June 19 and 26.

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