I saw Francesca Zambello’s “American” Das Rheingold when it premiered at the Washington National Opera two springs ago; the revival at San Francisco Opera is also to some extent a revision, and I think in some ways an improvement.
In DC I felt that the production went overboard with the projections, so that they began to seem not an aesthetic but an economic choice. I understand that the Ring is incredibly expensive to put on, but you can’t really look as if you’re scrimping even if you actually are. I thought the landscape projections both during the scenes and during the musical interludes were nicely done and effective (“That’s the Sierra Nevada!” the old man next to me helpfully announced as we were traveling up to Wotan), but I thought, as I did in DC, that when Alberich uses the Tarnhelm to turn himself in a giant serpent, it just looks cheap to use a giant projection of a snake, especially when the picture breaks over the apertures in the Nibelheim mine. I can’t say I cared for the opening space shots during the prelude, either; the visual echoes of sci-fi movies (which have larger budgets and sharper effects anyway) are unfortunate, and aesthetically entrancing as the rings of Saturn are, they don’t really link up to anything in the music: it’s the creation of the world, sure, but the Prelude pretty clearly gurgles and swirls towards a water-borne creation, and when that music reappears with the Rhine Daughters or Erda you need that link to earthly elements, not outer space, and when the waters rise at the very end and swamp the world, you need that sense that they are circling back onto the very first notes of the prelude, long before. Given the very visual nature of our culture, it’s a shame to neglect the power of a completely dark theater with no stimulus but the rippling music.
The first scene is simplified and improved from the DC production. My memory of that set is of a fairly elaborate gold-mining structure off to the right, with the three Rhine Daughters looking semi-prostitutey in white nineteenth-century bloomers and camisoles, and the Rhine gold (always referred to in the surtitles for some reason as “pure gold”, as if we can’t hear the singers calling it “Rhine gold”) was a large billowing quilt top of sheer golden fabrics. I had mixed feelings about the quilt, since quilts are made of scraps and the Rhine gold needs to be untouched and unformed until Alberich steals it. I thought the switch in San Francisco to a seamless piece of the sheer gold fabric was effective (though the quilt blocks in the earlier version did suggest rich farmlands viewed from the air, which was a nice touch even if I was the only person who thought that) and led to some nicely picturesque effects when the Daughters billowed it aloft or when Alberich wrapped himself in it. After he steals it, the gold reverts to its usual stage form as heavy-looking sacks or glinting rocks.
Alberich still enters dressed as a prospector, which neatly brings not just an American but a local twist to the theme of exploiting and despoiling nature. Maybe because there was less of a camp they seemed less like camp followers, but the Daughters (Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese, and Buffy Baggott) seemed less like whores and more like frontier women this time around. I liked the power of Richard Paul Fink as Alberich, though his voice was sounding tired by the end of the evening, but he was competing with my memory of the mighty Alberich of Gordon Hawkins in DC. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but casting a black man like Hawkins as Alberich – the despised, rejected, and angry Other – in the context of an “American” Ring lent a really powerful and troubling subtext to the role, an element that Fink, through no fault of his own, doesn’t bring to the part. (In the same way the usual casting of children as the laboring Nibelungs gained an extra resonance in the light of America’s long history of child labor, which continues in the reliance of American corporations on the poorly paid labor of overseas children.)
This was clearly not a Wagnerian audience; the chatter – please, people! the Master’s music is playing! – during the gorgeous interludes between acts made me think it was maybe just that worst of all opera audiences, the ones who don’t pay attention until The Big Aria, when they suddenly turn into highly critical connoisseurs. Lucia is next week, kids! I don’t know why anyone who cares enough about music to pay those prices and give up an evening would lose a single moment of those rapturously beautiful sounds (the orchestra was in outstanding form) listening to their own voices instead. Maybe they figured the incredibly noisy scene changes meant open season. I’ve actually never heard noisier scene changes anywhere. I really knew it wasn’t a Wagnerian audience after the performance while standing in the immensely long line for the basement men’s room: “That’s it,” one older guy was saying. “They need an intermission.” What a candyass. Try sitting on those Bayreuth seats for the show and then I might sympathize. Or not. I think the whole “Oh my God no intermission” thing is psychological anyway. Plenty and too many movies these days run two-and-a-half hours, even without the previews and soda commercials and dancing snack items singing Let’s Go Out to the Lobby, but people don’t feel trapped in quite the same way. You can get up and leave during a movie without causing quite as much disturbance. But if people can sit for two-and-a-half hours of Sex and the City or Transformers, it’s clearly not too much of a physical burden to sit through an uninterrupted Rheingold as the Master wished.
Probably the most notorious element of the DC production was Erda’s appearance garbed as an American Indian maiden (check any package of Land o’ Lakes butter and you see the costume). You may have heard that the Indian maiden is gone, but that is not the case. She’s just switched regions, from the fringed fawn-colored dress decorated with bright beads and eagle feathers of the Plains Indians to the gauzy white cotton fabric and silver squash-blossom jewelry of the Southwest, a more understated costume that tends to lose the effect, so that I can see why those sitting in the back thought Erda was just dressed in her usual flowing, vaguely Earth-Mothery garments. I had mixed feelings about the original costume and also about the change. On the one hand, I hate the use of ethnic groups as symbols rather than individuals, and the sentimental and erroneous stereotype of American Indians as a simple and harmonious part of nature is pretty annoying. On the other hand, the resonance created by an African-American Alberich also occurs with an American Indian Erda, and though positive racism is still racism, there really is a long history in the United States, dating back to the nineteenth century (to around the time when the Indian nations stopped being violent threats and started being conquered remnants) of seeing the Indians as nobler (because less complicated and more in touch with nature and the basic elements of life) than their white conquerors. Also: the costume is visually stunning, not only in itself but in contrast to the leisure-class white suits and gowns of the bright gods. You lose the effectiveness and the contrast when Erda looks like just a funkier version of the gods. Neither the DC nor SF Erda really overcame the costume; I found Jill Grove the vocal disappointment of the night, fairly hooty and underpowered. Elena Zaremba in DC had a better sound but the wrong demeanor; Ms S of DC had accompanied me and when I ventured the criticism afterward that Erda had smiled too much, she said, “Yes, she seemed very pleasant.” Indeed she did, as if she were the nice neighbor lady down the street who had just shown up with a covered dish to welcome the gods to their new home, along with some common-sense advice about the looming end of all things. Erda’s appearance is one of my favorite moments in the entire cycle, so that may account for some of my disappointment.
Zambello did a really nice job directing the gods and giants. Fafner (Gunther Groissbock) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) enter on a cross-beam lowered from the ceiling, and the costume designer (Catherine Zuber) did a terrific job making them look like giants without burdening the singers with stilts. They were a mix of nineteenth century laborers and creatures of myth, on big elevated shoes and in denim overalls, with their shoulders and arms padded for muscle (very effectively and carefully done, in fact, so that they actually looked as if they had the right bulging muscles there instead of just cotton padding), their arms ending in metal hooks and claws instead of hands. Froh (Jason Collins) and Donner (Charles Taylor), despite their bravado and threats of retribution, showed clearly in their curved posture and discomfort when the giants approached them that they felt effete and useless next to them; and beneath the arrogant swagger of the giants (with Fafner suitably the more aggressive) they conveyed a sense of being outclassed, out-thought, and out of place in the bright palace they had built.
Freia (Tamara Wapinsky), in a fascinating insight, gradually returned Fasolt’s love, so that she had to be torn away from him after the giants were given the stolen gold. I’ve never seen this relationship staged like this, but it makes sense – she’s the goddess of love, and why wouldn’t she reach out to someone who so clearly loves her; for all of Siegfried’s and Brunnhilde’s declarations of smiling love and laughing death, neither says or does anything as profoundly moving as Fasolt’s declaration that he cannot bear to give up Freia as long as he sees even the glow of her hair or the glint of her eye. (Once again the exchange of gold for Freia is staged absurdly with the goddess lying on the ground being covered by sacks, instead of standing up and having them piled in front of her, so that the poor singer is trapped down there, being covered – and not even completely, as required for the scene to make sense – with props, until she has to find some more or less clumsy way to get out from under all that.)
Some of those at opening night mentioned to me that they found Jennifer Larmore’s Fricka a vocal size too small; that may have been the case, but if so she had adjusted by the second performance, when I heard her. She gave a precisely etched comic performance of an entitled and frustrated upper-class housewife, from the moment she forces Wotan (a powerful Mark Delavan) awake by thwacking him with the rolled-up blueprints of Valhalla on through to her triumphant entry into the hall, despite the dead Fasolt and the lamenting Rhine Daughters. When Loge (played as a suavely ironic lawyer by Stefan Margita), for whom she had openly expressed her dislike, praises the love of women above all things, she gives him a wonderful look of ironic bemusement and surprise, and her approach to him after that is brittlely flirtatious. She has a wonderfully sharp-elbowed and determined walk when she’s angry and wants to get something out of someone, usually her husband. It was an amazing comic performance, and if I found myself marveling at it some times and disagreeing with it at others, it’s because Fricka is not a comic role. Yes, she is a narrow-minded and conventional woman, and she is as complicit as any of the gods in the building of Valhalla and the theft of the gold – you can’t be a goddess of the hearth without a hearth, and her sense of entitlement is only strengthened by her spouse’s failure to stay at home like a good husband – but she is also always correct. There’s a lot to be said for the rule of law as opposed to grand but shaky schemes, if you want to draw a parallel to American political life today. She is always the first to perceive and accurately point out the fatal logical flaws in all of Wotan’s schemes while he’s still brushing the facts aside as troublesome details, to be dealt with later. Though she plays a necessary role, nobody likes a rulemeister, and it’s just as well to emphasize when you can the moments when Fricka is softer and more sympathetic.
A couple of times Zambello brought characters on stage at moments when they aren’t usually there. Loge appears at the very end of the first scene, as an eyewitness of Alberich’s escape with the stolen gold. I found this unnecessary; he pretty clearly says to the gods that the Rhine Daughters have told him what happened, so there’s no real need to have him stroll on at the last minute to see it, especially since most of what he relates (about the curse on Love, the forging of the Ring, the dominance over Nibelheim, and so forth) are things he isn’t seeing at that moment anyway. It seems like a solution to a staging problem that doesn’t really exist. I did like the physical as well as vocal reappearance of the Rhine Daughters at the end; they obviously are important to the scene, and their lament from the waters is one of the prized moments in the Cycle; it wasn’t entirely necessary to see them in person, ragged, bedraggled, and with imploring hands outstretched, but it was effective, especially since it gave Mark Delavan the chance, with a troubled, dismissive gesture, to emphasize once again Wotan’s tendency to form grand schemes at the expense of the reality he can’t quite dismiss from his sight, as he finally turns his back on them and Loge to bring up the rear in the procession of the gods, who march up what looks like a ramp to a luxury liner, giggling and sipping champagne with the exquisitely refined and appealing frivolity (a quality better conveyed in this production than I have seen it before) that will doom them.
When we left the DC production, Ms S kept saying, “But did you think it was American?” And you may notice I keep putting “American” Ring in quotation marks. As I said back in DC, it makes some sense that a Ring that starts out in late nineteenth-century America will in many places look awfully European. The changes in this production from the original DC staging make me think that further and deeper thought is being given to the themes as the Cycle progresses, but so far, the use of local scenery is not that different from Stephen Wadsworth’s forests-and-mountains-of-the-Pacific-Northwest staging for Seattle, and the presentation of the gods and giants as late-nineteenth-century robber barons and labor is not that different from any of the Shavian (or Chereauvian) interpretations. I didn’t see the Walkure when it was staged at DC, so I don’t know how the "American" theme develops. I’m curious to see how it plays out in the entire cycle; at this point it looks like an interesting but not crucial approach, though this production is well worth hearing and pondering.