SF Opera Ring – Part I, Introduction

The past week has been an extraordinary experience. In the course of 6 days I spent some 17 hours in seat R1 of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco watching and listening to Wagner’s complete Ring cycle; the 3rd and last cycle of the 2011 summer season of the San Francisco Opera.

SFO Program cover by Micael Schwab

Let me tell you about it.

I started with the idea that I was going to see four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walké¼re, Siegfried, and Gé¶tterdé¤mmerung) and write four reviews. However, the seeing soon got way ahead of the writing, and now I am saturated with the drama as a whole and want to write from that viewpoint. To conform with my editor’s ideas about the proper length of a review, the net result will be four reviews about the four operas as a whole.

My first exposure to the Ring was as a teenager, sitting and reading in the living room Saturday afternoons and semi-listening to the Texaco broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. I remember thinking that Wagner made better background music for reading than did most other opera composers.

Cover for DVD set of 1989 Met production

My next exposure was several decades later in 1990 sitting in my own living room in Minneapolis and viewing with rapt attention the PBS broadcast of the 1989 Met production of the entire Ring cycle featuring James Mason as Wotan, Hildegarde Behrens as Bré¼nnhilde, and the aptly named Siegfried Jerusalem as the young hero.

I sort of forgot about Wagner in the wealth of Italian, etc. operas that I saw at Pocket Opera, West Bay Opera, and Opera San Jose when we moved to California in 1993. Until about 3 years ago when I saw the European HD of the 2006 Valencia production of Das Reingold. What a production that was! I fully concurred with the description in the program:

Modernistic Palau Opera House in Valencia

. . . The city of Valencia is setting new trends in 21st-century opera not only with its spectacular new theater designed by Santiago Calatrava, but also with its visually transfixing production of Wagner’s “Ring” staged by Carlus Padrissa and his theater group La Fura dels Baus. The Barcelona-based Fura blends music, dance, acrobatics and technology into unforgettable stage events of raw but always captivating power. . . .
The Fura’s fertile visual fantasy and endless combinations of savvy video technology, lighting and props (often formed of human beings) are predestined for Wagner’s visionary expressive world. Wagner’s dream of a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total art work,” becomes reality as this shape-shifting sequence of tableaux unfolds before our eyes: 3D computer projections that evoke computer games, organic structures built of athletic performers that recall “Cirque du Soleil,” and much more. In this production, “the visual codes of the digital era become elemental and dazzlingly employed means of narration” (Opernwelt).

Over the course of the next two years I saw the other three Valencia productions which fully lived up to the promise of the first one. Next was an isolated performance of Die Walké¼re by San Francisco Opera last June – the same production that was part of the current season with much of the same cast. This was my first experience with a live performance of a Ring Opera.

Then the deluge started. During the past 9 months I have seen HD productions of Das Reingold and Die Walké¼re by both La Scala and the Met, each production very different from all the others. La Scala made extensive use of a corps of ballet dancers – sometimes very effective as when they formed a shield to hide Alberich while he transformed himself, but other times distracting from the story and the music.

The big Met gimic was their highly computerized versatile base of 24 planks that represented everything from the bottom of the Rhine to a staircase between heaven and hell to a horse galloping through the clouds.

Finally, a couple of months ago I had some kind of an infection that left me with no energy for a couple of weeks. So for each of 7 evenings in a row I watched and listened to about 2.5 hours of the Ring as I played my 7-disc DVD recording of that wonderful 1989 Met opera production.

Anna Russell Poster; photo courtesy theringcycle.com

Oh, one other thing. Years and years ago I first heard Anna Russell’s spoof of the Ring, and from time to time I have played my audio CD of it or watched a section of it on YouTube. And the more I get to know the depth and beauty and universality of Wagner’s epic, the more I appreciate her clever gentle poking fun of it. Don’t be surprised if I quote her once or twice in the rest of this review.

Time for a break. Pour yourself some coffee and go on to SFO Ring – Part II, Who and What.

The Opera Nut

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on July 14, 2011

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