Don't worry, this isn't one of my usual solemn and rhapsodising Wagner posts. Das Rheingold was of course magnificent, soul-filling Wagner but it was also, dare I say, quite a lot of fun. This is Part the First of Francesca Zambello's so-called American Ring. Wagner filtered through American mythology and cultural history. Sounds subversive enough, but its bark is worse than its bite. It's as if she had nerve enough only to come up with the basic concept, not to pursue it as far as she might have and possibly should have.
I mean, if you're going to go as far as blatantly Americanising Wagner, for heaven's sake, you might as well go all the way. Zambello hasn't. Leaving aside objections to the very essence of the concept (and I realise many won't be willing to even do that), I think her idea of aligning the Rhine and its gold to the California gold rush is not without its appeal. However, it seems a little pointless to have the idea and then create a scene which looks like any big river. The only aspect which says "gold rush" is Alberich's prospector costume; why not, since video projections were such a prominent part of this production, use some to evoke the particular historical moment she's apparently referencing? All the projections provided us with was rushing water and swirling gold — what's specifically American about that? Nibelheim didn't match either; I expected it would look more like a working mine but it too could probably have passed for a conventionally Germanic underworld. It looked good, don't get me wrong; it just didn't seem to fit the concept.
The world of the gods was a bit more consistent. A burgeoning 1920s dynasty, lounging about a temporary vacation residence while waiting for their mansion to be built. Jennifer Larmore was appallingly marvellous as a hardbitten, grasping Fricka. Still, Zambello stumbled over details. There seemed no attempt to translate Wotan's spear into 20th century American terms; likewise Freia's golden apples. Now, you might fundamentally object to any attempt to translate such symbols, and that's understandable; but if you're Francesca Zambello, and you've had this big idea, surely you ought to have the audacity and the creativity to integrate every part of the opera into your vision. You've already gone ahead and meddled with the Ring, I doubt anyone will be very surprised if you fiddle with the symbols a bit.
Then there were the bits that were just plain weird. Like Alberich's slinky Discohelm, a square of gold lamé which he tucked into his belt like an oil rag when he wasn't draping it ridiculously over his face. No wonder the surtitles just called it "Tarnhelm", since this was not in any way, shape or form a helmet. I was disappointed by the staging of his transformation into a giant snake — music that terrifying deserves something more substantial than scaly video projections. The toad (which became a frog for the purposes of alliterative surtitles) was much better; actually it was very cute. I wanted one. I thought turning Donner's hammer into a croquet mallet was a stroke of brilliance, though.
One thing up with which I will not put, however, is the blithe manner in which Cori Ellison has just changed the translation of "Rheingold" in her surtitles. Apparently it now means "pure gold". On account of the pun in the libretto, "Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold". Not really a pun if you turn them all into the same word, though. The Rheinmaidens are now "river maidens". Of course, I can see that she really had no choice. You can't set the opera in America and then have your characters wittering on about the Rhine every three seconds but still... it makes me uneasy. Especially since the word in question is also the title of the opera. Good on Ellison, though, for attempting to retain the libretto's alliteration in her surtitles where possible, even if Wagnerian German alliteration and Ellisonian American alliteration haven't quite the same rhetorical effect.
The only singer I really want to rave about is Stefan Margita, who was slick, seedy and fantastic as Loge. Everyone seemed to relish their parts but Margita still more or less stole the show; from his final monologue you'd think it had been his opera all along. It was lovely to see Jennifer Larmore in person, too; she was obviously enjoying herself a lot and given that Wagner is way out of her usual repertoire, she sang pretty damn well. She needs, however, to EAT SOMETHING. And preferably quite a lot of it. My other favourites were Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt), Tamara Wapinsky (Freia) and Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde). I also like Buffy Baggot (Flosshilde), mostly for her excellent name.
And! The orchestra! Thank you, Maestro Runnicles, I like you a lot. Seamless, shimmering playing which, American Ring be damned, rose from the very depths of the Rhine. Also, it has to be said — what a difference a pit makes. I've always known the conditions for the orchestra in the Opera Theatre were atrocious, but I don't think I really realised how atrocious until, at my first SFO Lucia, I was reminded what an opera orchestra can sound like when playing from a pit not actually designed for physical discomfort and muffled sound. Luxury!