Friday, July 1, 2011

San Francisco RING -- post 1


Travel: fun, not exotic

My daughter and I, almost on a whim, jetted west last week to see the SIEGFRIED and GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG of Cycle 2 of San Francisco's 2011 summer RING.

Why not the whole thing? Cordelia, 16, has seen WALKÜRE several times recently, between the Met and the Virginia Opera. We would both have loved to see RHEINGOLD. But taking one thing with another -- tickets (even if only one for Walküre), and hotel nights (we don't have any apartment to borrow in SF) -- it adds up. Even as it was, it was a splurge, but a very worthwhile one.

(Fwiw, Airtran did an excellent job getting us from southeastern Virginia to SF and back for $400 less then the next best offer; and fore a balance of economy and comfort we can recommend the Opal, on Van Ness Ave. between O'Farrell and Geary Streets, home to Mel's Diner, and within walking distance of the War Memorial Opera House. And of the Catholic Cathedral.)

It was her first, and my second, visit to this city. On our day "off," it was cablecars to the max for Cordelia, so we took the California St. line to Powell St. Finding the northbound Powell St. cars were too crowded, we went south to Union Square, then back up the Powell St. line to Fisherman's Wharf, then back to where we had entered the system at California St. and Van Ness Ave.

But you don't want to read out that, you want to read about ...


The American RING

That's what director Francesca Zambello's production has generally been called. (The production was first developed jointly for San Francisco and Washington, except the recession forced the WNO to relinquish its role after premiering the first three operas: one suspects management issues at WNO had as much to do with it as the recession, which, if anything, his Washington less hard than other parts of the country. Perhaps the full Zambello RING will yet be seen at the Kennedy Center.)

Why American RING? Because the particular Regie at work here -- and yes, it's Regie, but what can I say, it's the good kind! -- is the setting of THE RING, with its swords and spears, in 20th century United States. Bad Regie imposes the director's will and ignores and crowd's out the composer's and librettist's. Good Regie tells the composer's-librettist's story in a way that's different from the way they asked for it to be told, but so that it's still the story they told, and no other. Also, bad Regie throws a lot ooh-aah-gosh-deep elements together and glories in the confusion thus created; good Regie is consistent and well thought-out from beginning to end; even things in it that are surprising make sense in context. Chereau's RING was an example of good Regie. So, very much, is Zambello's.

So, American RING. Alberich is at first a Forty-Niner, panhandling for gold in the Rhine. Among the gods, the ineffectual ones -- Donner and Froh -- are preppies modelling Brooks Brothers country club outfits, and Wotan is the one of their ilk with business sense, and hence a Gilded Age tycoon. They will have to deal, however, with those two great big workers, Fasolt and Fafner, entering in their work-overalls aboard a girder lowered from a high story of the newly completed office building, Valhalla.

In Walküre, Hunding is an Appalachian backwoodsman, whose kin ("Sippe") are all too much around (no need to "turn your steps to the west" to find them: "the West" starts here!), as are the trophy mooseheads on his cabin wall. Act II is split into two sets: first, the CEO suite of Wotan Inc., on which Brünnhilde jumps for her first Ho-jo-to-hos; then, a desolate abandoned area of unfinished (or collapsed?) interstates: the perfect place for the destinies of four people to take sudden and unexpected turns and falls.

The Valkyries are paratroopers who drop onto the stage, goggles and all. Posted along rickety stantions surround the Valkyries' Rock are faces of Valhalla's heroes -- except it is said that the faces are those of real Americans fallen in Vietnam, Iraq, etc. Or so it was said when I saw this Walküre in DC in 2007: as mentioned at the start, I did not see it in SF this time. If I am right about the faces, then a question could be raised. Though very moving at one level, one could ask whether appropriating these faces for a dramatic production (unless of course each of the families individually gave consent) could be considered sailing close to a moral line and maybe even a legal one (invasion of privacy, false light). Just saying. Discuss among yourselves. Beyond any doubt, it's a powerful and moving production. Real fire, too: no elf'n'safety ditziness about that!

Enough for now. In my next post I'll start comment on the Siegfried production and performance from Cycle 2.