The Ring that should have been Washington’s was unveiled in San Francisco last week: Francesca Zambello’s co-production of Wagner’s ”Ring” with the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera became entirely San Francisco’s when WNO pulled the plug after the third opera of the cycle’s four.
I was originally not going to be able to attend, but an 11th-hour change of plans enabled me to go after all. Here, therefore, is my own assessment of the “American Ring.”
New productions of Wagner’s Ring cycle tend to have themes: the postmodern Ring, the green Ring, the avant-garde Ring, the traditional Ring (extra credit if you can name recent examples of each). Francesca Zambello’s Ring, which just had its complete premiere at the San Francisco Opera, is, for Washingtonians, the Ring that got away -- three of the four operas had their premieres in D.C. before the Washington National Opera decided it didn’t have sufficient funds to finish the whole cycle. Or, it’s the once and future Ring, since now that Zambello is coming to Washington as the opera company’s artistic advisor, it’s probable that she will make considerable efforts to have the cycle seen here in its entirety.
What it isn’t, particularly, is the “American Ring.” When Das Rheingold first opened at WNO in 2006, it was replete with overtly American imagery: Alberich was a prospector in the California gold rush; the Nibelungs were African-American slaves; Erda, the mother-earth-goddess, was Native American. But all of that was toned down considerably in San Francisco, and despite Zambello’s insistence that the production was heavily influenced by American iconography and American film, the operas became progressively less rooted in a specific place and time as the cycle continued, defaulting to the Everyplace that serves as a kind of vernacular of contemporary European stage direction: the abstract rocky pass, industrial wastelands, sleek contemporary interiors of metal and leather.
(Some critics observed similarities between the imagery of Michael Yeargan, Zambello’s set designer, and other recent “Rings”: the highway overpasses in “Walküre” echoed a moment in Tankred Dorst’s recent Bayreuth “Ring;” Mime’s battered trailer in “Siegfried” mirrored Robert Carsen’s Cologne production. A Jungian could counter that these images are drawn from a common well of the contemporary collective unconscious, in the same way that opera companies often seem drawn to mount new productions of the same infrequently-performed work in the same season.)
Zambello is a brilliant story-teller. The most difficult scenes in the Ring -- Act II of “Die Walküre,” with Wotan’s lengthy monologue recapitulating the opera’s action to date; Act I of “Siegfried,” in which Mime and the Wanderer similarly reprise events in a drawn-out riddle scene -- were some of her best. She is adept at finding the dramatic kernel of a scene, translating words and sung phrases into something that is compelling on stage: Wotan in “Walkuere” was a business tycoon in a high-rise Valhalla with commanding views of Lower Manhattan, dealing with his estranged wife and spoiled favorite daughter in a way that was entirely emotionally credible.
I’m less convinced by Zambello’s big-picture thinking, and that was in a way the weakness of this Ring. I’m not sure a “Ring” always needs to have a Concept, but I was expecting one in this case and, having bought wholly into the premise of the American Ring, I was disappointed to find its promise largely unfulfilled. This “Ring” was rife with acute observations and laudable details, but few “aha” moments about the larger implications of the story. Seeing this “Ring,” I felt I better understood something about Zambello’s directing that had puzzled me in the past: the way her productions veer between more abstract, interpretive stagings and the extremely literal readings she’s offered of, for instance, “Porgy and Bess” in Washington. My theory now is that she’s a gifted story-teller who has a more tenuous connection to the Concepts on which she sometimes draws. Those Concepts are what alienate some viewers and lead her to be labeled “Eurotrash,” but in fact, if this was an “American” Ring it was American in its literal-mindedness, its obedience to the text, its traditional approach to narrative -- a contrast, for instance, to Achim Freyer’s more symbol-laden, avant-garde, and perhaps European “Ring” in Los Angeles last year.
This Ring’s great strength was the insight it offered into the characters. Zambello described her own Ring concept in human terms: these are operas about flawed gods and dysfunctional family relationships. One key to her conception is the primacy of women: as she astutely points out, the god Wotan seeks to sire a hero who can redeem the world, failing to recognize that he has already done so in the person of his daughter, Brünnhilde, who ends up getting the job done. For much of the final scene of Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung,” only Brünnhilde, Gutrune, and the Rheinmaidens are on stage: the women are left to clean up the messes made by the men.
It may therefore be a measure of her success that the production left me feeling so testy about many of the characters, the Ring, and even Richard Wagner. Admittedly, it cannot entirely have been Zambello’s intention that so many of the men she had to work with were quite so annoying. Wotan, the spoiled and petulant God-father, was rather roughly incarnated by Mark Delavan, who brought off some nice acting details but barked himself clear out of a voice at the end of “Die Walküre,” Jay Hunter Morris was unimpressive in the title role of the third opera, “Siegfried,” and Ian Storey lost his voice almost completely as Siegfried in the second act of “Götterdämmerung,” though he recovered enough to finish the opera audibly. In “Die Walküre,” Brandon Jovanovich and Daniel Sumegi made a callow Siegmund and Hunding, respectively; in “Götterdämmerung,” Andrea Silvestrelli made a big, pinched sound as Hagen, which the crowd seemed to appreciate. There were some high points — Stefan Margita’s Loge, for one — but none of them were helped by Donald Runnicles, the longtime music director of the company here and a big local favorite, whose conducting was basically competent but to my ear lacked profile. The notes were there (give or take some inaccuracies in the playing), the magic was not.
And once you start undermining the men, you’re on a slippery slope with the Ring since you can easily end up undermining the cycle’s creator, Richard Wagner, the biggest chauvinist of them all. I am not sure to what extent my reactions were prompted by the production and to what extent by simple critical dyspepsia, but I found myself nettled as never before by Wagner’s self-indulgence. Lacking a conductor to bring the score alive, the leitmotifs became tiresome, film-score iterations of the obvious — do we really need to have EVERY theme trotted out EVERY time someone mentions the sword, or the gold, or renunciation of love?
Furthermore, the realism of the story-telling spotlighted the flimsiness of some of the plot. Siegfried goes through tremendous travails, killing a dragon, defying Wotan, and penetrating the ring of fire, to find Brünnhilde — only to turn around and go off in search of unspecified heroic deeds to do? He couldn’t stick around and father a few Volsung kids first? And how is he supposed to have learned so much about women and their ways — as he keeps telling the feckless Gunter (Gerd Grochowski), having falled for his tacky sister Gutrune (it makes sense that this Siegfried would be seduced by a cheap blond; Melissa Citro’s Gutrune was a trailer-trash vision of sophistication) — when just yesterday he had never laid eyes on another human being? The death of this silly, swaggering person, surrounded by Gunter’s men in camouflage hunting outfits like a paramilitary troupe, left me utterly unmoved for the first time in my life, though I’m pretty sure I would have managed to shore up a bit more suspension of my disbelief had the singing and playing been better.
The whole thing left me reminded of another self-indulgent epic I recently saw, Terence Malik’s mysteriously overhyped film The Tree of Life, an equally naked attempt to give monumental underpinnings to what is essentially a personal coming-of-age saga. Malik gives us magma and dinosaurs; Wagner gives us gods.
Zambello’s feminist critique was strengthened by the fact that the women in this Ring were its strength: Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka, angry but resigned to her husband’s neglect of her; Anja Kampe’s poised Sieglinde; and particularly Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde. This Valkyrie was girlish when she first bounced in to embrace her father Wotan in “Die Walküre,” rose to womanhood in “Siegfried” (the exuberant sexual romp of the Washington performances were here channeled into a single iconic embrace), and crowned the tetralogy with smooth, powerful, unforced singing in the final “Immolation Scene” of “Götterdämmerung” which, finally, I found as moving as its creator intended.
It’s open to question whether a production that exposes the flaws of an opera quite so thoroughly is a success. But Zambello can hardly be blamed for turning in a reading that not only brings an opera into modern times, but holds it up to modern standards of judgment. In the end, her “Ring” could be called “The woman’s Ring.” Few other women have directed the tetralogy (Ruth Berghaus, Christine Mielitz, Phyllida Lloyd, Elke Neidhardt -- can anyone name others?); few other directors have brought to it such penetration. Of course, even the idea of a woman’s “Ring” is hardly original: there have been Rings told from Brünnhilde’s perspective before. One thing that was certain about this Ring: it has continued to evolve from its origins in Washington. However much it may have jaded me toward Richard Wagner, I hope that Washington has a chance to see this production in its next incarnation.
Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times.
Richard Scheinin in the San Jose Mercury News.
Janos Gereben in the San Francisco Examiner.
A special on the San Francisco Ring from the Web journal of the Music Critics Association of North America.