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The Ring: Half-Time Update

June 23, 2011

The San Francisco Opera's new Ring is in full swing.

Although technically we're not quite halfway through Francesca Zambello's production in terms of hours spent in seats at the War Memorial Opera House, we're close enough with two operas completed in the second of three full cycles that are unfolding between the start of last week and the end of Independence Day weekend.

As such, now seems like as good a moment as any to reflect on how things are going so far.

First of all, I'm impressed by the size of the audience. The 3,000-plus opera house has been almost completely full both nights so far. A few tickets are still available for sale, I'm told, but the house is at a healthy 96% capacity. Apparently people have been lining up for hours for the $10 standing places (the only discounted option available for the cycle.)

Contrary to what I'd been told by the press office, neither Das Rheingold nor Die Walkure have changed much at all since I saw the "preview" runs of the productions in 2008 and 2010 respectively. But my feelings towards Die Walkure changed immensely since last year, largely as a result of being completely transfixed by the opening scene, which propelled me through the rest of the nearly-five-hour production on the edge of my seat. Everyone's been talking about Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde since the soprano sang the role here in 2010. But Brandon Jovanovich's Siegmund equals Stemme's take on the defiant Valkyrie for the sheer-edged intensity of the singing and understated yet seething emotion of the acting. I couldn't take my eyes off the stage when these performers were on it. The orchestra led by Donald Runnicles swept me along with a focus and determination that I rarely experience at an opera performance. In general, I am not a fan of Michael Yeargen's conception for the set design. I've seen enough craggy symbolic trees, enormous full moons and grim post-apocalyptic underpasses on stages to last me a lifetime. But I was so transported by the performances, that I stopped caring about how annoyed I was by the ticks of the visual design.

Sadly, this was not the case the previous night with Das Rheingold, which left me mostly cold (and that's not just because the opera house had the air-conditioning system cranked up to its meat locker setting.) I felt particularly sorry for the poor Rheinmaidens and Alberich having to do the entire first scene wreathed in dry ice. The smoke frequently swallowed the performers up. It can't have been good for their voices and much of the physical action on stage was lost as a result of their stumbling about in the impenetrable swirling fog. If I may judge by the first two operas in the cycle, the stuff is way over-used in this production. It's liberally employed throughout Das Rheingold and Die Walkure. Zambello's production has earned the moniker "The American Ring" for the mise-en-scene's references to different periods in American history. But I hereby rename it "The Carbon Dioxide Ring."

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