Getting virtually around the Ring with San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s Ring Festival passes the halfway mark

Final scene of SFO’s Die Walküre

More than halfway through San Francisco Opera’s virtual Ring Festival, it is clear that a good deal of thought and creativity have gone into it, even beyond director Francesca Zambello’s decidedly American take on Richard Wagner’s four-opera marathon.

Before the wrap-up on the weekend of 27-28 March, viewers all over the world will have been able to absorb some 30 hours of Wagner’s music and conversations about it. As I write this halfway through the month-long event, all of it has occupied a high level.

Not least are the operas themselves, the June 2018 performances that I reviewed in the opera house (review click here). Watching a few feet away from my 50-inch TV screen is a different experience from sitting halfway back in the orchestra section. For one thing, it is more immersive to be so close, even if the television camera likes some singers better than others as actors – among them soprano Karita Mattila (Sieglinde) and bass baritone Greer Grimsley (Wotan and The Wanderer). Closeups make others who were fine in the opera house look like they are emoting. Though the videos capture the richness and notable lyricism of soprano Iréne Théorin’s Brünnhilde, her acting (at least in Die Walküre) is better appreciated from a distance.

Another minor issue involves microphone placements, or rather, having enough of them to get the full sound of singers who move upstage. This is likely an artifact of the videos’ original purpose, which was for the company’s archive and not for broadcast. On the other hand, the orchestra’s sound brilliantly captures the extraordinary work by the conductor, Sir Donald Runnicles, and the musicians. Balances with singers, pacing for effect and power, and expressiveness without going over the top are all exemplary.

Video projections made for this production, with their swirling waters of the Rhine and scenes of running through forests, work even better on the screen than they do projected onto a scrim in the theater. And most of the theatrical effects in Zambello’s production translate well to TV, except when the camera loses track of Nothung, the sword at the climax of Die Walküre Act II. The fire at Brünnhilde’s rock looks terrific once the fog covers the stage as it should. Fog dispersion also waylaid Alberich’s disappearing acts in Das Rheingold.

Each opera is shown in its entirety, one per weekend, available free and on demand from 10am Pacific Time Saturday through 11:59pm Sunday. Season subscribers and donors of $75 or more get to watch them at any time.

Some 14 hours of ancillary events are scattered throughout the month, shown live via Zoom (not without a few technical glitches, but definitely worth the time) for those willing to pay $99 for a Festival Pass (or $15 for a single event). The events, available on demand for pass holders the rest of this month, cover more than 12 hours of lectures, panel conversations, and the opening and closing specials with general director Matthew Shilvock and principals from the 2018 cast.

My favorite so far was a lively and wide-ranging conversation with soprano Mattila in Finland and tenor Brandon Jovanovich at his home in the U.S. The host, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman, drew wonderful anecdotes and insights from them. In a lecture entitled ‘Confronting Controversy’, William Berger, who has written two books on Wagner, made compelling points exploring innovative ways to reconcile the greatness of the composer and his anti-Semitism and racism. Operaphile and cookbook author Fred Plotkin and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton put together a delicious hour on food and the Ring.

The series kicked off with a freewheeling talk with playwright Tony Kushner (who wrote his own multi-evening theatrical marathon, ‘Angels in America’) and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, whose latest book is Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. It will conclude 30 March with a conversation entitled ‘Feminism and the Ring’, featuring Zambello (whose interpretation of the Ring emphasizes the women’s roles), Barton (Fricka) and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Erda).

Harvey Steiman

Find more information of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring Festival click here.

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