Review: Opera under spell of ‘Ring’

The ring of Richard Wagner’s four-opera, 15-hour “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is an instrument of pure evil, corrupting and ruining its owners, be they dwarfs, giants, heroes, gods — and at the end, destroying the world itself.

One entity that consistently resists the curse of the ring is the San Francisco Opera, which has done very well with this gigantic enterprise since 1935 (conducted by Artur Bodanzky, featuring Friedrich Schorr as Wotan).

Since 1990, the “Ring” in San Francisco has been under the musical direction of Donald Runnicles, and — except for a disappointing tenor here, a too-large soprano there — all has been well with Wagner.

And so it came to pass Tuesday at the premiere of “Das Rheingold,” the first part of the company’s so-called “American Ring.” Even with a few curious brass bloopers, Runnicles’ orchestra played majestically, providing a grand balance, favoring singers well, and offering musical interludes of unostentatious power.

The gorgeous music of “Das Rheingold” excellently served the stage, too. All eyes and ears were on Mark Delavan, in his role debut as Wotan, and he sang well — accurately, with beauty of tone and fine diction.

A more stunning Wotan might have come from Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli, whose Fasolt befitted a giant in every way. Austrian bass Günther Groissböck’s Fafner was an impressive equal to Silvestrelli.

Stefan Margita’s Loge was a thrilling example of effortless, effective singing, letter-perfect in every way; the man owns the stage, without making a big deal of it.

Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich was powerful vocally and dramatically triumphant. Jennifer Larmore’s Fricka sounded crystal-clear and her acting was first-rate.

David Cangelosi’s Mime was flawless, Jill Grove’s big-voiced Erda was not — one whole phrase went to an unexpected place.

From the beginning, there was good news, the three Rhinemaidens — Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese and Buffy Baggott, all in San Francisco debuts — looking, moving and singing as stars in these secondary roles.

The roles of Froh (Jason Collins) and Donner (Charles Taylor) also are short, but the two debuting artists acquitted themselves splendidly when their “ariosos” arrived.

Adler Fellow Tamara Wapinsky’s Stockholm-syndrome Freia (the abducted goddess apparently becoming fond of Fasolt) was otherwise well-perturbed by her misfortunes.

As somebody apprehensive about the advertised “Americanization” of the “Ring,” I was much relieved by the fact that Francesca Zambello did no such thing — not, at least, so far.

We’ll see in 2010 if it’s a Yankee “Walküre,” and then in 2011, some kind of New-World “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods.”

This “Rheingold” is modern-dress, clean and clear, and not bogged down in a misguided attempt to outdo Wagner, thank goodness.

IF YOU GO

Das Rheingold

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Friday and June 14 and June 28; 7:30 p.m. June 19; 2 p.m. June 22

Tickets: $15 to $290

Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com 

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