It may surprise people who hate opera to hear that Richard Wagner was a revolutionary. This towering Teutonic giant of high culture, monumental egotist, and legendary anti-Semite, whose operas people nowadays dress up like heads of state to attend -- not a flatterer of power? Hell, even Shakespeare wrote sonnets to the queen. But it's true. After a failed Liberal insurrection in 1849, at Dresden, where he had a comfortable music-director job, Wagner moved to Switzerland because the provincial German government had marked him out as one of three dangerous leaders of the recently quashed revolt. He spent 12 years in exile, and those 12 years made up roughly the first half of the quarter-century he spent writing The Ring of the Nibelungen, his epic fable of worldly power, exploitation, rebellion, and love.
So why was this Liberal such a racist? Partly because he was also an ideologue: Wagner saw Jews as moneyed capitalist pigs. The irony (and this should be a lesson to ideologues everywhere) is that post-1945 you can't sit through the Ring without realizing that Alberich -- evil head Nibelung and vaguely Jewish goldsmith-boss -- is a seamless artistic prophecy of Hitler himself, warning that he plans to one day rise from the shadows and topple the compromised government of gods. Wagner's passionate impersonations of evil were, in the end, profound impersonations of his darkest self, which is one reason the Ring still stands as a work of art and not a 16-hour political screed.
The other reason, of course, is the music. The current production of the Ring at the San Francisco Opera is graced with a nimble orchestra, energetically conducted by Donald Runnicles. Except for a couple of rogue tubas, which to me sounded harsh more often than they needed to, the music under Runnicles' hand has been bracing and well-controlled. He goes for the bright dramatic effects of his mentor, Georg Solti (whose studio version of the Ring is sometimes called "the best thing ever recorded"), and -- short of a few movements where the tempo could have been statelier, or the horns livelier -- Runnicles and his musicians achieve them.
But the staging has been weird. For some reason San Francisco has a mellowing, lightening effect on dark classic productions. This seems to be true in opera as well as in plays. I don't claim to understand it, but Andrei Serban's revision of the Ring for this festival is as strangely lacking in gravitas as ACT's recent versions of Hecuba and Juno and the Paycock. Sometimes a singer, or a set, reaches down to those dark and necessary notes, but without shadows the Ring has no life, and this production misses them often enough to point it out as a trend.
For example: An appearance of the mother of all gods, the slumbering Erda, should have a certain grandeur, but when Wotan asks her opinion on whether to keep the Nibelungs' ring of absolute power, Erda rises from the stage on an enormous egg. It's really a sideways-leaning sculpture of a sleeping woman's face, but I imagine the egg shape is a Concept. The trouble is that eggs by themselves are not very grand. Erda wears a wig that makes her look as if she's just gotten out of bed, and generally comes off as an eccentric wild woman rather than a universal Mother Earth -- not that this kept Elena Zaremba from singing her powerfully on opening night.
In a rare lapse by the orchestra, the gods' descent into Nibelheim also seems milquetoastish, because the anvil leitmotif that represents the forceful, wage-slave hammering of Alberich's goldsmiths tinkles prettily, instead of clanking. Alberich himself looks like a hairless lizard dressed up in a 19th-century burgher's coat and vest, but this is not nearly as bad as it sounds. If Alberich normally resembles a hairy goblin, the bland costume here combines with Tom Fox's authoritative singing to make him a compelling new vision of evil.
Another strong innovation is director Serban's decision to use Wise Fool-style puppets for the giants. Reinhard Hagen and Eric Halfvarson sing Fasolt and Fafner from inside stiff and towering robed figures with massive hands. In theory it's a brilliant idea, because these giants are huge, more than twice the size of the gods. But it still needs work, because Hagen and Halfvarson have trouble projecting from inside the robes, and the puppets don't collapse, so Fafner has to chase Fasolt offstage to kill him, which automatically declaws the effect of Das Rheingold's bleakest scene.
Die WalkYre is technically the strongest opera in the opening cycle. It has solid singing in almost every important role. Jane Eaglen makes a formidable BrYnnhilde, singing with force and ardor, showing enough daughterly adoration in her scenes with Wotan to overcome the fact that she's twice his size. Deborah Voigt turns in a fresh performance as Sieglinde -- well-controlled, with nice bright expression -- but she overpowers Siegmund, her lover and twin, especially in the lusty love-duet just before he pulls the sword from the tree. This is, or can be, one of the strongest passages in the cycle, but Mark Baker as Siegmund can't project well enough to make it interesting. And in Siegfried, two days later, the title hero took after his father: Wolfgang Schmidt sang Siegfried in a dry, uncertain voice that faded behind the orchestra and only sometimes, on very important notes, soared out strong and heroically full. It's true that Schmidt has more presence here than in last fall's now-notorious Tristan and Isolde; it's also true that Schmidt's throat seems to have aged, or been forced, beyond its heldentenor prime.
Physically, he's fine. Schmidt knows the role and looks the part, but the first scenes of Siegfried are dominated by Gary Rideout as Mime. He sings like a real heldentenor, full of resonance and vibrato he doesn't even need. He also adds quirky physical flourishes to make the bullied dwarf seem wretchedly triumphant when in fact he is about to die. Rideout flirts with cuteness but never gives in, and his performance is framed by sets built with just as much well-rendered bathos. Mime's cave looks dirty, with a massive old bellows and a cleft in the rock to show the level of daylight; and Fafner's lair looks like the polluted-forest doorstep of a terrible dragon.
But, again, at a climactic moment, the production pulls a punch: The massive dragon looming and singing in a fearfully low bass (Eric Halfvarson, through a microphone) is killed offstage. The dragon's head is a holdover from the 1985 Nikolaus Lehnhoff Ring design, so Serban might have done something to make it more interesting. I can only quote Shaw, in a comment on Siegfried from 1892: "Surely it is within the scope of modern engineering to make a thing that will give its tail one smart swing round, and then rear up."
But the drawbacks start to work to the Opera's advantage in Gotterdammerung. Schmidt's voice isn't as disappointing after the Gibichungs drug Siegfried and make him their drone: He doesn't sing well, but he also doesn't need to seem heroic. The Gibichungs' hall is ridiculously clean, with white walls, Victorian furniture, busts of what might have been Roman politicians, and tall narrow windows open on a bright blue sky. These people are supposed to be Gothic barbarians, not neo-Roman yuppies, but the set works because the wickedness they perform is trickery, rather than outright terror. The pastel robes worn by everyone in the Gibichung wedding scene are cloying -- I think Siegfried even wears pink -- but the sickliness of all those bright colors has a certain logic.
Jane Eaglen was sick on the night I saw Gotterdammerung, but she sang Brunnhilde anyway, and except for a few uncertain notes you wouldn't have suspected that a cold had weakened her voice. Siegfried's physical death felt rote and disappointing, but Runnicles' orchestra played the funeral march with an ecstatic majesty. This passage of music is maybe Wagner's mightiest creation, a melodic impression of grief that washes up to a climax and recedes, over and over, wavering in tender melody and washing up again until the pounding grows almost unbearable; and the orchestra last Wednesday kept out of its own way well enough to let the composer's intentions fill the hall, while a dark scrim fell on the stage and there was nothing to do but sit and listen. The vital subterranean notes in this Ring came mostly from the pit, and at the very end it was like waking from a musical dream.
-- Michael Scott Moore