Gold in San Francisco

06/23/2011 06:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

Yes, it must seem odd for a person with only one night in San Francisco to spend it with Richard Wagner. But Tony Bennett wasn't performing and I needed to "transition" back to normalcy (after spending a few days in the sublimities of Yosemite National Park.) For me normalcy is going to several performances a week. So you might say the two and a half hours of "Das Rheingold" was a way of avoiding the cultural "bends."

It was pure chance that found me in San Francisco Tuesday night. My first instinct was to see what was "on." I am not an ardent Wagnerite. Nor am I a fan of Francsca Zambello, who has directed a Ring Cycle for the San Francisco Opera. But how often do you find yourself in a place where they're doing "Rheingold"? I almost had no choice.

As it happens I found the evening thoroughly enjoyable, musically and dramatically. The orchestra was in the capable hands of Donald Runnicles, and Zambello's "concept" for her "Ring" (which is in the middle of its second cycle -- the third begins next week) clarifies the action of the murkiest of the four operas in Wagner's chronicle of the Norse Gods.

Zambello makes an analogy between the ruthless, dishonest, deceitful gods and the Robber Barons of the 19th century. Her conceit almost makes "Rheingold" seem like a local story during the turbulent early days of freewheeling San Francisco. (There is an attempt to make an analogy with the natural wonders of the California landscape.)

She makes the relationship between Wotan and his quarrelsome wife Fricka very human. At one point she declares, "You men long only for power." Her husband gives her a playful punch. In some ways this domestication of the Norse gods diminishes them but it makes their motivations absolutely lucid.

Sometimes her ideas verge on the cutesy -- one of her warriors wields a croquet mallet as a weapon against giants. This makes an interesting social point but it trivializes the intense hostilities between the characters.

But mostly her ideas clarify the action, not easy considering Wagner was a clumsy dramatist, full of inconsistencies. He has a scene where Wotan and his "mouthpiece" Loge subject the dwarf Alberich to one humiliation after another, which he submits to mutely. Suddenly, however, he remembers he has the power to curse and ends his humiliations with a deep one. How come he didn't think of this earlier? No good reason. (I have often thought one of the most chilling of prospects was that of being Wagner's friend and being invited to hear him read his just-completed librettos without the accompanying music.)

The cast is marvelous. I was particularly moved by the aforesaid Alberich, sung with deep emotion by Gordon Hawkins. It is the first time I've ever felt sympathy for this basically nasty character. David Cangelosi sings beautifully as his sidekick Mime.

Wotan is sung commandingly by Mark Delavan. As his wife Fricka Elizabeth Bishop avoids the shrillness that often accompanies this role. Stefan Margita makes the sleazy Loge's sinuous melodies utterly lyrical and breathtaking.

Melissa Citro makes an appealing Freia, Brandon Jovanovich and Gerd Grochowski sing powerfully as Froh and Donner, and Ronnita Miller is radiant as Erda.

Andrea Silvestrelli and Daniel Sumegi bring wondrous bass voices to the giants.

Runnicles conducted capably, projecting the power of the closing more effectively than the magic of the beginning. But it was a satisfying evening all around and, yes, a splendid way to appreciate the riches of San Francisco.