My favorite moment in Wagner's Ring cycle comes right at the beginning: the soft E-flat chord in the orchestral introduction to Das Rheingold, the first of the four works that make up the mighty drama.
It is perhaps a bit odd to focus on the opening notes of such a vast musical experience — more than 17 hours of opera, broken up by days off between the second and third and third and fourth installments for recuperation by cast, crew and audience — but for me, the Ring is as much about anticipation and pondering the thing as it is about actually hearing and seeing it in the theater. There is something about the harmonic complexity of Wagner's score that brings out the abstract side of me.
I recently read an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar, that likened the Ring to Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, and that seemed exactly right. Wagner tried to encompass no less than the story of the cosmos, the gods and humankind in the operas he adapted from Norse and Teutonic mythology. He wrote both libretto and music over more than 25 years — taking an 11-year break to compose Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger — and the entire cycle was produced for the first time in 1876.
Given these ambitious stakes, directors of the cycle — Der Ring des Nibelungen, to give its full name — must always have a concept. Francesca Zambello, whose production recently received its first complete performance in three cycles at San Francisco Opera (I attended the first cycle June 14-19), had at least three concepts. It was billed as the "American" Ring — Das Rheingold begins in the Gold Rush and Alberich, the Nibelung dwarf who steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens, is a prospector, and the "rainbow bridge" to the gods' home place, Valhalla, suggests the gangplank to the Titanic — but a more consistent theme was about the environment. The many video projections (by Jan Hartley) were full of images of industrial pollution.
This Ring originally was a co-production of San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, and the first three operas in the cycle were staged at the Kennedy Center. But the Washington company dropped out because of financial concerns — total cost of the cycle was $23.4 million — and that seemed to influence revisions in the production.
"When we began production in 2005 in Washington, D.C., the seat of political power, we focused on the misuse of it," Zambello wrote in a program note. "In San Francisco, where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment, we placed more emphasis on despoliation. Is there a major river in the U.S. that hasn't been raped like the Rhine as the brooding E-flat chords begin Das Rheingold?"
Zambello's Ring was also a feminist interpretation of Wagner's fantasy world, highlighted by the passionate performance of Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. The Swedish soprano grew from the plucky tomboy with Dorothy Hamill bangs who bounces into the Valhalla boardroom to greet her father, Wotan, ruler of the gods, in Die Walkure, to the powerful presence whose love leads to the famous immolation scene, in which the gold ring is returned to the river and Valhalla is destroyed, in Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final opera. Stemme, performing her first complete cycle, was hailed as a Brunnhilde for our times.
Almost all the women of this Ring made a more vivid impression than the men, from major roles like Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), Wotan's long-suffering wife, and Anja Kampe's luminous Sieglinde to the character parts of Waltraute (Daveda Karanas), Brunnhilde's sister, and earth goddess Erda (St. Petersburg native Ronnita Miller; see accompanying story). Stacey Tappan was a splendid Forest Bird and earned extra credit for her charming tweets on Twitter: "My costume for Siegfried has a familiar color scheme . . . Forest Bird or Scooby-Doo character?"
"There are no 'bad' female characters in the Ring," Zambello, one of the few women to direct the cycle, told a conference of the Music Critics Association of North America (a dwindling band in these days of newsroom cutbacks, with only 40 at a gathering that not too many years ago would have drawn up to 100). "Women represent a stronger presence, and Brunnhilde is the hero."
In conventional 19th century terms, Siegfried would be considered Wagner's hero. He's the fearless youth who slays the dragon — a Transformers-style monster that bleeds oil — to gain possession of the ring. But the tenors who played him, Jay Hunter Morris in the notoriously taxing role in Siegfried, the third opera, and Ian Storey in Gotterdammerung, gave lackluster performances. Storey actually lost his voice at one point, but after an announcement at intermission that he was "indisposed," he carried on, rewarded with a hug from conductor Donald Runnicles at the curtain call. Gordon Hawkins' gruffly sung Alberich was also a weak link, getting some boos after Das Rheingold.
Mark Delavan played Wotan in a way that divided critics, with some finding his singing underpowered — and there is a fine-grained, somewhat finicky quality to his baritone — but he was a witty, persuasive actor in the pivotal role that carried a lot of the weight for another theme of this Ring, the financial meltdown. Delavan's Wotan is a corporate shark, which is a valid approach, given that the plot of the cycle basically turns on his defaulting on the construction of Valhalla.
All the performances got more assured as the cycle proceeded, and I thought Delavan was at his best as the homeless Wanderer, the guise Wotan assumes in Siegfried, crisply articulating the guttural German text to answer a series of riddles posed by Mime (David Cangelosi). Mime is the Nibelung blacksmith who raised Siegfried in a ramshackle house trailer in the woods. The most fully realized performance among the men was Stefan Margita's Loge, the cagey, fire-bringing demigod who advises Wotan in Das Rheingold. Of the others, Brandon Jovanovich brought appealing energy to the doomed Siegmund of Die Walkure, and Andrea Silvestrelli was a menacing villain as Hagen in Gotterdammerung.
I have now attended three Ring cycles — the others were in Seattle and Toronto — and each time the labyrinthine tale has become more clear. I grasped the tangled relationships among the characters pretty well this time around, and a lot of Zambello's staging really worked, such as the women-warrior Valkyries as paratroopers, Valhalla as a kind of Wall Street aerie, and the thread of fate spun by the three Norns as computer cables. But for me, Wagner's orchestra score is the throbbing heart of the work, and Runnicles led a less than magical performance in the pit, marred by some rough brass play, though it got more refined in Gotterdammerung.
So as much as I relished the San Francisco production, I think the Ring of my dreams is still out there, yet to be experienced.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.