Arts & Culture » Music

The 'Ring' cycle approaches

by Philip Campbell

Scene from "Das Rheingold," the first opera in Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" cycle. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Scene from "Das Rheingold," the first opera in Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" cycle. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

A recent press conference led by San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock previewed the soon-to-launch revival of the Company-commissioned 2011 production (with Washington National Opera) of director Francesca Zambello's so-called "American Ring."

Before "Game of Thrones," "Star Wars," Tolkien's trilogy or Joseph Campbell's explanatory "The Power of Myth," controversial genius Richard Wagner made his own massive creation-and-destruction saga, "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung"). The composer fashioned his fantasy from epic German poetry and Nordic legend, but his words for the four music dramas in the "Ring" exhibit his own provocative and often prescient politics and philosophy. The story is told in a rich musical narrative, filled with recognizable leitmotifs and descriptive symphonic interludes. A highpoint of Western Art and one of the greatest achievements in all of music, the "Ring" is a huge undertaking for any opera company.

Wagner's "festival play," performed in three days preceded by a "preliminary evening," usually assigns conceptual vision and staging to just one director, with an allied staff devoted to the mise en scene. Boldly adventurous Francesca Zambello has returned to tweak her brilliant version, with fresh emphasis on the consequences of messing with Mother Nature.

In her view, each opera hurtles through an American era, from a pristine beginning to a world of unfettered capitalistic selfishness and technological progress that ends in ecological ruin. Against all odds, she still maintains a note of hopefulness.

The Valkyries are leather-clad parachuting aviatrixes, and their father Wotan is a big-time developer who stiffs his building contractors. He also has a troubling relationship with his daughter Brunnhilde. Zambello's scenario is proving scarily timely.

The orchestral responsibilities are awesome, too, and the conductor must be able not only to support the auteur's vision, but also to coax the core instrumentalists (at least 88) to their best performance, while satisfying critical Wagnerites. Donald Runnicles conducted two highly praised SFO "Ring" cycles decades ago, and as the company's music director for 17 years, also leading the cycles of 1999 and 2011. With international approval of his Wagner creds, it is great to know he will be back on the podium.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich will reprise his roles of Froh in Das Rheingold and Siegmund in Die Walkure. Photo: San Francisco Opera  

A panel of singers and an enthusiastic member of the current production's creative team assured us at the press meeting that everyone is in collegial lockstep for the three complete cycles starting June 12, 19 and 26.

American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has previously made his mark with SFO audiences as Scarpia in "Tosca" and as an unforgettable Jokanaan in "Salome." The title role of "The Flying Dutchman" proved his Wagnerian skills. No stranger to the role, he will be a complex and thoughtful Wotan.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, another SFO favorite, is Sieglinde; and a superstar tenor in the ascendant, Brandon Jovanovich, with several SFO triumphs under his belt, repeats his success in the roles of Froh in "Das Rheingold" and Siegmund in "Die Walkure."

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton will sing Fricka in "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure," and Waltraute in "Gotterdammerung." We loved her as Adalgisa in "Norma," and can't wait to see what she makes of Wotan's embittered but clear-eyed wife.

Bass Raymond Aceto, chilling as the Reverend Olin Blitch in SFO's "Susannah," reprises his equally ominous performance as Hunding in "Die Walkure." He also appears as the giant Fafner in "Das Rheingold."

More luxury casting showcases German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, making his SFO debut in the crucial role of the tormented dwarf Alberich. His theft of the gold at the beginning of "Das Rheingold" sets the whole plot in motion. Struckmann is an admired Wagnerian who has appeared in other productions as Wotan.

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin is replacing German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as Brunnhilde. Herlitzius has withdrawn for health reasons, and the company wasted little time finding a suitable new diva. Theorin's SFO "Turandot" in 2011 proved she has the necessary strength. We applaud her bravery and Matthew Shilvock's quick maneuvering.

American tenor Daniel Brenna makes his SFO debut as Siegfried. Widely considered "one of the best-known heldentenors of his generation," he is also one of the few singers regularly performing the taxing role of the ill-fated hero. Zambello will surely be spending some major rehearsal time with Brenna and Theorin. Cast members already in place will assist in creating a cohesive ensemble.

The production's creative team reunites to utilize the latest technological advances, especially in revised lighting and projection designs. The 2011 "Ring" was visually striking. 2018 is going High-Def.

It's the Olympics of opera, and SFO is confidently accommodating the rush of international music-lovers and "Ring" cultists to the War Memorial. LGBT Pride Month visitors and locals looking for a big cultural fix are snapping up tickets (already at 90% sold), but some complete cycles and individual performances are still available. Ancillary events are happening all over town.

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