Das Rheingold is my favorite opera. That's not to say I would claim it to be the best- that would be foolish, but it is my personal favorite. I just thought you ought to know.
Standing at the rail in the balcony, I leaned into it and could feel the low hum coming up through the house. It started louder than it should have, as if the orchestra skipped a couple of bars of the beginning, the low E flat lost somewhere beneath the surface. The elements didn't all come together until well into the second scene, when Elizabeth Bishop's Fricka helped kick it into gear and what was threatening to be a mediocre Das Rheingold turned into something extraordinary and remained so until the conclusion. I wasn't the only one to notice this odd change- Isabella noticed it too, called it even better than I did, despite this being her first Rheingold.
The first scene lacked cohesion in the pit and on the stage- Renée Tatum was the only Rheinmaiden who seemed fully present and Gordon Hawkins' Alberich lacked the focus he would later bring with devastating effect during the third and fourth scenes. The brass, problematic in every other evening I've attended in this cycle, were again off- cutting notes short, making late entrances. The only upside so far was the improved video projection which brought us into the river- this time it made a lot more sense than it did three years ago- thank you Jan Hartley for getting rid of the ridiculous Star Trek intro.
Transitioning into the second scene brought lots of noise from the stagehands, though not as bad as I've read in earlier reports. When the scrim rose, there remained the lack of energy onstage and emanating from the pit that had made the first scene somewhat flat and then about ten minutes in, I can't recall exactly what lines Bishop was singing at the moment (for it certainly happened while she was singing), or if the change actually started with her or from the pit, but there was a distinct shift- something I've never witnessed before- and suddenly the orchestra transformed into what it used to be under Runnicles- the magnificence which has been almost wholly absent during the performances I've seen in these cycles had suddenly and without warning returned in full bloom and for the rest of the performance the orchestra sounded as good as it did on the opening night of Die Walküre last June.
But the resurrected orchestra was only half the story of what made this Rheingold so good. The other was the high quality of singing throughout the cast. Odd as it may seem since this is the one Stemme-less opera in the cycle, it's the best of the four as far as the singers are cast- there isn't a weak link. Bishop was fantastic- fully inhabiting the role, she brought not only the vocal chops but she gave Fricka a real presence onstage- a vulnerability not usually associated with the character.
Stefan Margita injected Loge with a lyricism and warmth I have never heard in any performance of a Wagner opera before- he was superb. Sadly, director Zambello misses a huge opportunity to create some real dramatic interest by not creating more interaction and conflict between Loge and Mark Delevan's Wotan- they seem to be performing in different operas. Yes, they exist in different spheres of influence as characters, but some better blocking and direction could have created something really special that unfortunately isn't realized. Delevan's not doing interesting things dramatically in this role, but he sounds most comfortable with the Wotan of Rheingold and he had a strong night.
Brandon Jovanovich was great as Froh, as was to be be expected- a case of luxury casting, he looked like he was enjoying himself. Gerd Grochowski's Donner had the same impact on me as his Gunther did in Gotterdammerung- serviceable, nothing to complain about, but not setting anything on fire either. Poor guy- he's stuck in two of the most thankless roles in the whole cycle which need extraordinary turns to make memorable. David Canglelosi seemed to rely heavily on the prompter last night, giving little hint of his excellent Mime in Siegfried. Melissa Citro's Stockholm syndrome-struck Freia jiggles and minces a bit much for my liking, but I like her as Freia more than as Gutrune and her interactions with Andrea Silvestrelli's Fasolt were always fun to watch. Silvestrelli's Italianate tone and booming voice are a perfect fit for the lovestruck giant. Daniel Sumegi's Fafner left little impression one way or the other and the murder of his brother was another dramatic moment that Zambello left on a table somewhere else. Ronnita Miller's Erda was impressive- she has a presence that's undeniable and it will be interesting to see her in other roles. Thankfully her character's costume has been toned from the previous staging- in fact almost all of the "American" touches in this cycle have been toned down to the point they really no longer exist- which makes it a stronger production overall than when it first debuted.
Gordon Hawkin's Alberich was the most fascinating performance of the night. As I said, the first scene was a bit of an unfocused hash, but in the 3rd and 4th scenes Hawkins gave a tremendously nuanced performance rivaling that of Eric Owens' in the current Met Ring for giving the character a depth not typically seen, Hawkins' Alberich is conflicted and riddled with uncertainty- you can see it playing over his face as he calculates the cost of everything he does, of every choice he has to make- and his sagging shoulders telegraph that he knows he's going to be beaten in this game. There's a weariness in his performance, as if to illustrate an unwritten law of dashed expectations- the oppressed and marginalized who know any gains are temporary and will eventually be usurped, pried from their fingers, by those more powerful then they, leaving them in the same place they started, or worse, and more bruised than the last time.
Later Isabella asked why I had turned my face from the stage during the transition to Scene 3. It was because I wanted to hear it as clearly as I could without the distracting visuals of the video projections and I wasn't disappointed- the trip down into the Nibelung mine is one of the most thrilling parts of the entire Ring for me and it certainly was beautifully played last night. The anvils- what can one say about the anvils? Genius.
When I turned to face the stage again, the scrim came up revealing the best work of set designer Michael Yeargan- the mine is almost a work of art and the lighting by Michael McCullough is superb. Casting children to be Alberich's minions was a great choice on Zambello's part, not only for the underlying political message it sends, but it also creates a powerful visual statement and their screams were terrifying (and loud). This scene, the tightest among the entire cycle in my opinion, was fantastic, even though it includes the one part of the opera I typically loathe- Alberich's losing game Loge and Wotan. If only everything about this cycle were of the same quality and level of execution! Still, having now seen it all in its current state, the San Francisco Opera's Ring cycle is undeniably a success for the company.
We'll be back tonight to see the last Walkure.