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New ‘Ring’ Straddles Two Visions
NEW YORK TIMES

June 10, 2011

“The Ring of the Nibelung,” Richard Wagner’s monumental, four-part opera cycle chronicling the battle between gods, heroes and monsters over an all-powerful, magical ring wrought out of a mystical hoard of gold, is opera’s answer to extreme sports.

The grand scale and huge costs involved in staging the masterwork provide the ultimate test for opera companies. With a budget of $23 million and 415 people involved in the production, San Francisco Opera is doing the equivalent of a base jump off Coit Tower with its current version of the 17-hour epic.

And in a time of fiscal crisis for opera companies nationwide, San Francisco Opera’s decision to mix traditional and experimental production elements — thereby not committing to either — represents the calculated risk of the whole endeavor.

“The Ring” has the potential to draw large crowds and make headlines; this production has already nearly sold out its run at the War Memorial Opera House, which goes through July 3. But San Francisco Opera is struggling to fill a $7 million budget shortfall and had to create the final part of the cycle, “Götterdämmerung,” alone when its co-producer, the Washington National Opera, encountered financial difficulties.

“When the Washington National Opera pulled out about 18 months ago, we thought we might not be able to complete the cycle,” said David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, who is mounting “The Ring” for the first time in his career. “But we were already in it up to our necks with ticket sales and contributions and would have lost more by canceling.”

The very nature of putting on the epic “Ring” serves to announce an opera company’s creative values.

There are some “Rings” that favor anachronism, like Stephen Wadsworth’s 2000 production for the Seattle Opera (scheduled to be remounted in 2013) with its robed characters cavorting amid picturesque pastoral landscapes. Meanwhile, the neon light-gashed, abstract version for the Los Angeles Opera in 2010, directed by Achim Freyer, exists at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum.

The San Francisco Opera’s take on “The Ring” tries a multifaceted middle ground. This approach reflects the populist vision of its general director, whose tenure since 2006 has combined bringing in big stars like Placido Domingo and instituting simulcasts at the ballpark with occasional world premieres, like the coming opera about the Sept. 11 attacks, “Heart of a Soldier.”

In contrast to the company’s solidly traditional previous production of “The Ring,” in 1999, which sought inspiration from the lushly Romantic landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the director Francesca Zambello’s relatively low-tech, character-driven new cycle — featuring set designs by Michael Yeargan and conducting by Donald Runnicles — has elements that are at once traditional and contemporary.

The San Francisco Opera is trying to help modern audiences connect with Wagner’s complex work.

“You can see this ‘Ring’ and get right into the mythology of it,” Mr. Gockley said. “It creates a bridge to the mythology that’s more familiar to our audiences today than the lofty gods with horns and spears.”

Actually, Wotan, the head deity (played by the American baritone Mark Delavan) does carry a spear on stage, proving that some traditions die hard.

But Ms. Zambello’s “Ring” breaks with custom and connects with audiences through its innovative use of multiple settings. Instead of unfolding in one time and locale, the action occurs over four distinct periods of American history.

“Das Rheingold,” (which received a “preview” run in 2008) takes place in the Gold Rush era, partly in a cavernous gold mine where the power-hungry dwarf Alberich holds sway. For “Die Walküre” (which audiences saw in preview last season), the story moves to the boom-and-bust years of the 1920s and ’30s with Wotan presiding over a vast corporate empire. “Siegfried” picks up the story in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

“Götterdämmerung” is staged in a dystopian future. “It’s like ‘Mad Max,’ Ayn Rand and ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’ rolled into one,” Ms. Zambello said.

But the overall feel, with the emphasis on psychological realism, is one of approachability. Unlike the Metropolitan Opera’s in-progress production of “The Ring” directed by Robert Lepage, which has so far alienated many audience members by emphasizing cumbersome design concepts over the storytelling, Ms. Zambello “tells the story straight,” said Steven Sokolow, president of the Wagner Society of Northern California, one of around 150 fan clubs dedicated to the composer around the world.

In this “Ring,” little separates gods from humans because of the intimate interactions between the characters. Wotan and his wife, Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), go from being the perfect romantic couple in “Das Rheingold” to sworn enemies in “Die Walküre.” And the top god relates to Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) like a soccer dad chastising his offspring for missing practice.

But trying to be all things to all people comes with drawbacks.

The production is unlikely to attract many “Ring” newbies with its hefty $120 price tag. And while bold approaches to “The Ring” often garner criticism, they also get people talking: opera buffs are still arguing over Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 version set in the Industrial Revolution.

Ms. Zambello’s middle-of-the-road production may satisfy audiences and opera accountants today, but as any X-Games gold medalist knows, with less risk comes less reward.

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