San Francisco Opera Ring 2011: Summing Up

The long black storm-trooper coats, barbed wire and images of Auschwitz-like guard towers took discussions of the n-word to a new level.

Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) curses the Ring.
Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) curses the Ring.

This is Cy’s wrap up of San Francisco’s epic presentation of The Ring of the Nibelung, one of the biggest stage presentations this year in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read her reviews here: Part 1 (Das Rheingold), Part 2 (Die Walküre), Part 3 (Siegfried), Part 4 (Götterdämmerung).

Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) curses the Ring.
Gordon Hawkins (Alberich) curses the Ring.

When the houselights go up after the last 5 hour and 30 minute show, we blink our eyes, flex our glutes, and tentatively see if our knees still function. We’ve heard the motivs associated with Wotan’s spear, the Siegfried’s horn, the Valkeries and others so many times we pick them out on the first note.  After taking 24 hours off from this experience, it’s appropriate to have some kind of summing up.  After all, that was just 17 hours of our lives.  For me, covering The Ring was close to a (eminently delectable) full time job. After recovering from this Olympic qualifier for long distance sitting, we can look around and ask ourselves “just what did that mean?”

To complain that it was too long would be like buying a pig in a poke and then complaining that your poke has a pig in it (What does that expression mean, anyway?).  That Wagner needed an editor is obvious, but we knew that going in.  After all, the Ring t-shirts and tschochkes are a highbrow equivalent of “This car climbed Mount Washington” bumperstickers.

The first observation is that just in case there was any doubt, there is a large and committed audience for this. The opera renaissance in San Francisco is heartening. The faces under fifty in the audience easily outnumbered the older crew, which is more than I can say about many classical performances, especially on the peninsula. This provides hope for future funding, especially as the Washington DC production ended due to lack of money.

Secondly, this is a Ring for the books.  Clustered in the press room, I was struck by the number of comparisons to the 2010 Shanghai ring, the DC Ring, the 2010 SF Walkure, the recent Metropolitan Opera Ring and others. For those people that follow Wagner, this is a high water mark.

Francesca Zambello (Director)
Francesca Zambello (Director)

Director Francesca Zambello’s modernist take was hugely successful.  While modernist takes are not novel, I suspect none will be so successful in putting all the Brünnhildes with horns to bed.  Zambello’s sets and costumes confronted every Wagnerian trope head on.  For example, the long black storm-trooper coats, barbed wire and images of Auschwitz-like guard towers took discussions of the n-word to a new level. This was all the more credible because it was so understated, with nary a swastika to be seen. Likewise,  placing Wotan as head of Vahalla Inc., Hagan as the big macher in the chrome and glass center of the Gibichung empire, and Mime as trailer park trash speak volumes about class polarization without resorting to Frankfurt School analyses.

Donald Runnicles, as always, delivered a masterful performance by taking a score not exactly known for its subtly and rendering a tender, nuanced, majestic delivery.

As we go back to our lives, our families and the more mundane, we do so profoundly enriched and entertained. Hopefully, it won’t be 20 years before San Francisco sees this gem again.

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Cy Ashley Webb
Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.