Sunday, June 12, 2011

San Francisco Opera Ring Preview

"The Ring of the Nibelung," Richard Wagner's late 19th-century collection of four operas about the end of the world, will open in a new production at the San Francisco Opera this Tuesday evening, with three full cycles performed over the course of three weeks.

The four new opera productions have been unveiled individually over the last three years, with the final installment of "Gotterdammerung" debuting last Sunday, where a line headed by the Opera Tattler formed above for standing room tickets for the five-hour-plus finale.

The consensus among serious "Ring" afficionados (such as Axel and David above, Gene below) was that the new eco-disaster production set in America by director Francesca Zambello was something of a muddle, with brilliant scenes offset by nonsensical business, but that it didn't matter. They had never heard a "Ring" sung so beautifully live before in their long listening careers. (Click here for Janos Gereben's roundup of various people's favorite recordings.)

The cycles are all being conducted by Donald Runnicles, the former music director of the company, who is one of the great Wagnerian conductors in the world. The 17-hour piece is a huge challenge for the orchestra in terms of sheer stamina and so far the San Francisco Opera orchestra has been champion. My favorite aspect of Zambello's production is how clearly it tells the stories of all the characters and their relations with each other, a tricky business when your characters are gods and goddesses, dwarves, giants, superheroes, dragons and assorted animals, water nymphs, Amazonian warriors, and the decadent rich.

The cycles are essentially sold out but you can try to patch together individual performances with the stray single tickets that are being returned or exchanged. The cheerful woman at the ticket office said it's as easy as a phone call: (415) 864-3330.

She also confirmed that OperaVision will be broadcast in the balcony section for all performances, and that the Biergarten on the Grand Tier outdoor balcony will also be open for all intermissions, except for "Das Rheingold" which doesn't have an intermission.

$14 gets you a German beer, pretzel and sausage, which is about what you'd pay at the ballpark, and you can order ahead of intermission which might even get you a table.

The main reason to make sure you see this "Ring" cycle is on account of the role debut of the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. A small woman who looks a bit like a cross between Lotte Lenya and Carol Burnett, she knocked everyone out last summer singing the title role in "Die Walkure," and turned an entire opera house into diva worshipers after her individual performances of "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" over the last two weeks. I have heard a rumor that the cycle's progression was delayed a year between "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure" to ensure that Stemme could sing Brunnhilde for the entire "Ring," and if that's true, it was a wise decision.

General Director David Gockley deserves a round of applause for managing to mount this huge undertaking without nearly bankrupting the company like Los Angeles Opera with their recent "Ring" cycle, or indulging in the gimmickry of the New York Met's new production with its almost universally panned Lepage Scenery Machine. The San Francisco Opera company has every reason to feel lucky and proud about this one.

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