SF Opera Ring – Part III, How

As Director of the SF Opera Ring Series, Francesca Zambello faced two challenges which are not normally present in opera. First and foremost was the fact that in each act of each opera the music is continuous. Wagner allowed for the fact that it takes a stage crew a substantial number of minutes in real time to make necessary scenery changes by generously filling those minutes with orchestral sound. That’s fine as far as auditory reception goes, but opera also has its visual component. What to do visually during these musical interludes?

Francesca Zambello, Director of the Ring

Zambello solves this problem with a front scrim showing visual projections. Just as the music during a scene change helps us gradually shift our minds from the scene we have just lived through to a mood more appropriate to the scene to come, so the slides give visual help to that same shift.

For example, Scene 1 of Das Rheingold takes place at the bottom of the Rhine and Scene 2 at a very high altitude just a rainbow bridge away from Valhalla. During the interlude the music gradually morphs from liquid low notes to more ethereal music at a higher pitch with Rhine Maiden and Alberich leitmotifs giving way to Wotan and Valhalla ones. Meanwhile, the image on the front scrim starts with a realistic close-up view of the Rhine, then to more distant views. These become stylized, then change to various ground-level views of both nature and man-made devices – sometimes realistic, sometimes highly stylized. The views move up to show tree trunks then tree tops along with higher and higher buildings. Finally, we see a bank of tall buildings with the camera always moving up, then moving up to the top of the tallest one of all. When the curtain goes up we are quite prepared to believe that Scene 2 is a roof garden at the top of the tallest building in the world.

The second challenge of the Ring is that there are several examples of “magic” – situations that are not possible in the real world of human existence. For example, as mentioned above, Scene 1 of Das Rheingold takes place at the bottom of the Rhine, i. e. underwater. The three Rhine maidens are mythical creatures who are equally at home in air or in water – they can breathe, run, dance, and sing harmony in either medium. Since such versatility is not possible for humans, compromises and illusions are necessary. Zambello accomplishes this in two ways. The stage floor is covered with a layer of dense fog, which the imagination easily perceives as the river surface. The invisible stage floor obviously has tiers at different levels, and the fog level varies with time and space. Thus the maidens sometimes disappear under water and at other times are skipping and dancing along the surface. Want a bit of trivia information? Each performance uses 920 liters of liquid nitrogen to produce that fog!

The illusion is further heightened by a continued use of projected images during the opera itself. When the main curtain and front scrim are raised there is a second scrim at the back wall of the stage, which shows images appropriate to the setting and actions on the stage. In Scene 1, this is an image of lots of water rushing down a rapids in ever-changing fashion. In total, it is very easy to believe that the entire scene is, indeed, under water.

The Giants Fafner (Donald Sumegi) and Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) with an unwilling Freia (Melissa Citro)

The Giants are another aspect that requires illusion since the world supply of 8-foot tall men with operatic-quality bass-baritone voices is extremely limited. Zambello’s solution is the simplest and most effective that I have seen – the use of thick platform shoes with very clever clothes design. One really has to examine them closely to discern any deviation from normal proportions.

In Scene 3 Alberic (Gordon Hawkins) dons Tarnhelm and turns himself into a giant serpent. On stage, there is a brilliant flash of light, then that section of stage goes dark so that Hawkins is no longer visible. A writhing image of a snake appears on the rear scrim. Meanwhile the front scrim has been dropped but is essentially transparent except where more of the snake appears, giving the impression of a serpent so large that it more than encircles the entire stage.

The Gods and Giants meet on a penthouse garden of a skyscraper

As you can see from some of the pictures, the time and place are more like 20th century America than Nordic mythic. But it all seems to work. The overall story is epic, but it is told in such personal vignettes that it is universal; time and place are irrelevant.

When the curtain goes up on Act II of Die Walké¼re Wotan (Mark Delavan) is wearing a business suit, seated at an enormous conference table, smoking a pipe, and talking on the phone. The rear scrim shows the wall of the office as a gigantic picture window with a view of an industrial city belching smog. Quite appropriate for the CEO of the whole world.

The fire around Bré¼nnhilde (Nina Stemme)’s rock is done very dramatically. When Wotan first mentions Loge a small flame appears at the rear audience-left, representing the fire-god. When he later calls for the rock to be surrounded by fire the flame appears to run forward down the left, and to run right and then forward. Actually the entire fire line is a series of short perforated pipes, which are successively ignited electronically to give the illusion of continuous motion. Meanwhile the rear projection becomes an angry red with smoke and leaping flames. The apparent smoke you see near Bré¼nnhilde is actually fog to cool her and help her breathe.

Zambello’s use of a 5,000-pound scrap-metal compactor to represent the dragon was extremely effective. It was quite terrifying when it slowly rolled forward from the cave with its malevolent yellow “eye” blinking, its “claw” searching for Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris), and Fafner (Daniel Sumegi)’s great voice booming hollowly from its interior – an extremely rare case where an opera singer’s voice is amplified electronically. Then, when Siegfried strikes his mortal blow, the dying Fafner tumbles out to warn Siegfried about Mime (David Cangelosi).

Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) and his palace guard

As a final example, Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) and his army of soldiers are more evocative of Hitler’s storm troopers than of medieval knights and serfs.

We’re coming down the home stretch, readers. In the fourth (and final) part of this review I’ll sum up my reasons for thinking that this was a truly great performance of a truly great musical drama.

The Opera Nut

Photos by Cory Weaver

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on July 16, 2011

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