Opera lovers have long wondered about the fuss over Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Almost a century earlier, Richard Wagner wrote four epic operas in which he told the story of a golden ring that grants great power, but corrupts all who wear it.
Now audiences in San Francisco can see if Francesca Zambello's American-themed Ring of the Nibelung is worth all the fuss.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Opera premiered Zambello's first installment, Das Rheingold, part one of the four-part cycle. The singing was mostly wonderful, but it's not clear yet, whether Zambello can meld American themes to Wagner's version of Norse and Germanic myth.
Some ideas connect brilliantly. The dwarf Alberich, the Nibelung, comes on stage dressed like a California 49er, toting a pan and pickaxe. The three Rhinemaidens wear girdles and bloomers, like dance hall girls, as they guard their golden hoard in a landscape that seems equal parts Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt. Later Alberich guards his treasure at the bottom of a mine, cracking his whip to drive a crew of child miners.
Wotan, chief of the gods, dresses like an industrial magnate, in an office that seems vaguely Art Deco, though the spear seems an odd touch for the boardroom. He's willing to sacrifice his sister-in-law, Freia, and his honor, if he can trick the giants into building his fortress Valhalla (or are they laying the foundations for an American empire?). The giants (and they really are giants -- great costumes by Catherine Zuber) are ironworkers. They make their entrance seated on a steel I-beam, descending from a sky filled with cranes and girders. But Freia's brothers, Donner and Froh, come off as idle playboys, bearing croquet mallets. They're more Oscar Wilde than Sinclair Lewis.
And it's not clear what Roger Hartley, the production designer, has in mind when he projects a planetarium slideshow on a scrim during Wagner's long, darkly lush overture. I loved the shot of Saturn and its rings, but I'm baffled at how it serves Zambello's American theme. Projections of boiling clouds and trippy light shows follow during scene changes to equally spectacular but puzzling effect.
Still, if the metaphor doesn't hang together, the opera cooks along, despite its two hour 35 minute running time, without intermission (as tradition demands). Give lots of credit for that to Zambello's smart direction and the cast's fine performances.
Baritone Richard Paul Fink steals the show as Alberich, combining potent singing with a brilliant physical perfomance that must be exhausting. Tenor Stefan Margita sings the part of Loge with effortless command of the stage. He plays the trickster god as a political fixer with oily assurance.
Jennifer Larmore brings a silky tone to the role of Fricka, Wotan's wife.
Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese and Buffy Baggott (all making their San Francisco Opera debut) are a very sexy trio as the Rhinemaidens, teasing Alberich with their lusty promises.
Baritone and former Adler fellow, Mark Delavan, seemed stiff and unsure in his debut in the central role of Wotan. But he hits all his notes, and may relax into the part for future performances.
Conductor Donald Runnicles holds it all together from the pit, never flagging despite the heavy lifting demanded by Wagner's rich score.
Maybe Zambello will clarify her American themes as the Ring cycle continues. The company presents Die Walkuere (or Walküre) in 2010, and the entire cycle in 2011. Das Rheingold's final scene presents Wotan and the other gods climbing the rainbow bridge to their fortress in Valhalla. The bridge, however, looks more like the gangplank of a ship. If Zambello can't make this work, we may remember the scene as the gods boarding the Titanic.
Das Rheingold runs through June 28, 2008 at the San Francisco Opera. For tickets and information visit sfopera.com.