Over the Rhine: Wagner’s Epic Returns to S.F. Opera

Giants and dragons, gods and mortals, magic swords and rings of power come to the San Francisco Opera in the 17-hour Ring Cycle.

Talking about Richard Wagner’s mega-opera Der Ring des Niebelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which opens at the San Francisco Opera on June 12, gets music lovers pretty worked up.

Take Matthew Shilvock, the general director of the company, who said, “We are on the cusp of a journey into one of the greatest feats of humanity.”

The Ring inspires that kind of hyperbole. It’s in four parts — Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung —spread over 17 hours, including intermissions, and it took Wagner nearly 30 years to write. It’s filled with gods and mortals, dwarves and giants, corruption and redemption, a magic sword, a giant who becomes a dragon, and a ring of power. People describe it with words like “epic,” “titanic,” “intense,” and “monumental,” and for this production, opera lovers are flying in from 27 countries and 48 states to see the hero Siegfried, the hero, Wotan, the king of the gods and his daughter Brünnhilde, along with the embittered Alberich, who starts everything off by stealing gold from the Rhine maidens to make the ring that grants the power to rule the world.

Director Francesca Zambello was hiking in the Rockies when she was inspired to stage this Ring. The view made her think of the untouched world at the opera’s beginning, and she saw parallels with the themes of the destruction of nature, the quest for power, and the plight of the powerless. Zambello sees Brünnhilde as the transformative hero, achieving what no man can, and rebalancing the scales after Alberich breaks the contract with nature

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley plays Wotan — a role he has done so often, including at the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, and Deutsche Oper Berlin — that Shilvock says “it’s in his DNA.” Grimsley likes Zambello’s version of The Ring.

“It’s a layering effect with each production, and different directors emphasize different things about the character,” he said. “I’m so glad to be doing this with Francesca – we have a language together that’s like a short-cut. I understand her vision.”

Falk Struckmann, also a bass-baritone, has performed so many of the roles in The Ring (including Wotan) that Shivlock joked he could do a one-man Ring Cycle.  In this production, he is singing the role of Alberich for the first time, and he’s enjoying being the villain.

“There is more development in the role,” he said. “I have sung often the bad guy, and this character fits me although I can be very nice.”

Struckmann, a German, said he’s finding parallels in the opera’s story and current American politics.

“You have the gods who represent the power and the rich ones, and you have underdogs like Alberich,” he said. “It could be an ideal world if not for that urge for more power and more gold. In Europe, there’s more of a middle class and society works better.”

(Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

To add to people’s enjoyment of The Ring, the opera is presenting The Ring Festival, which includes symposiums, forums and screenings of Sing Faster, a documentary about the stagehands of The Ring. For people new to Wagner’s most famous work, there’s an introduction, “The Ring 101,” led by Kip Cranna, the dramaturg at San Francisco Opera.

Cranna says the scale of the opera makes it a challenge to stage — and captures people’s attention and imagination.

“It demands a lot, but it offers a big reward,” he said. “It’s cathartic. Wagner was steeped in ancient Greek classics, particularly Aeschylus, and he had a communal experience in mind.”

Cranna, who has a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford, says he tells people to just focus on what they hear.

“My approach since I come from the musical side rather than the theatrical side is to encourage people not to listen with their eyes, which modern audiences often do,” he said. “For The Ring, it is much more rewarding if you manage to turn your ears back on and let the music talk to you.”

Zambello’s version is recognizably American, with images inspired by this country, starting with the Rhine maidens, set in what looks like the Gold Country and the gods in Valhalla, looking like they’re in a scene from The Great Gatsby.

Wagner aimed to show us what heedless acts of greed could do, Cranna says.

“A slow moving doom looms over us in these situations,” Cranna said. “The only solution is an act of love – redemption through love, which is something that Wagner believed in deeply. And that is certainly a lesson for our own time.”

The Ring of the Nibelung, San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Ave., In three cycles, June 12 -17, June 19-24, and June 26- July 1, $135-$535, 415-864-3330 or sfopera.com.


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