Concert Review: Wagner’s Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera 201821 min read

Estimated Reading Time: 16 minutes

By Ron Stauffer

SAN FRANCISCO — Like many opera fans, I have spent years trying to attend as many live operatic performances as I can. This often requires traveling to different cities or states, either by plane or by taking a long road trip.

So far, I’ve been able to see several operas by a few respectable companies, including the Houston Grand Opera in Texas, and the Los Angeles Opera in California (both of which are generally ranked in the top five opera companies in the nation).


At the top of my list, of course, is the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The Met is the largest, the most well-funded, and oldest opera company in America. A respectable contender, however, all the way on the opposite side of the country, is the San Francisco Opera. I’ve always wanted to see one of their productions, and even though San Francisco is far closer to me than New York, I never had the chance to go until this year.

In 2016, the company announced on their website that they would be staging the big kahuna of all operas: Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle—a collection of four operas, all performed in one week in the summer of 2018. I added myself to their list to be notified as soon as tickets went on sale, and when they finally did in January 2017, I went to the website to purchase a set.

Unlike the rest of the company’s productions where you can buy single tickets for each performance, tickets for the Ring Cycle were not available to the general public. Anyone wishing to buy Ring Cycle tickets had to first become a subscriber in order to be eligible. (Like most arts organizations, the San Francisco Opera is a non-profit organization, and so subscribers are those who give additional tax-deductible donations above and beyond the cost of their tickets).

Tickets for a complete cycle ranged from $190 to $3,420 each, not including additional fees and donations. My slim budget for this performance afforded me the cheapest tickets available. At $40 per show, my ticket total was $160. The smallest amount I could donate in order to become a subscriber was $30, so after adding that, and tacking on a $15 “subscription handling fee,” I completed the checkout process and downloaded and printed a confirmation. I was going to San Francisco, for just $205.

The seat I was assigned was “Balcony L 25,” which, according to the seating chart, was on the back wall as high up and far back as you could possibly go in the opera house.

Since the performance wasn’t until June of 2018, more than fifteen months in the future, I had a few months to decide whether to try to upgrade my seat or not. In May of 2018, I regretted having purchased the cheapest seats in the house, so I called the box office to see what my options were.

I wasn’t surprised when the attendant told me that most of the seats had already sold out, but I was astonished to hear that I’d have to pay at least $360 more to upgrade to the “next best” seating section.

The man I spoke to asked me why I wanted to change seats in the first place. I told him that I didn’t want to go all the way to San Francisco only to regret sitting in the worst seats. His response surprised me.

“Actually, there’s not a bad seat in the house,” he said. “And you’d be surprised—some people prefer sitting in your section, and they ask for it specifically.”

After considering his comments and the total cost, I decided I could probably live with the seat I had been given. When the time came, I flew to San Francisco and rented a room on AirBNB just a few blocks away from the opera house.

On opening night, I got dressed, donned a sweatshirt to keep me warm in the cold San Francisco summer, and walked over.

The Opera House

The opera house is located in the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center which is part of the Civic Center at the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue in downtown San Francisco.

I was surprised to learn that navigating the civic center is confusing for two reasons.

First, the opera house itself is a massive, white rectangular building that is so stoic and rectangular that it appears from the outside to be a city hall or courthouse, rather than a performing arts center. (In contrast, for example, the nearby Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall clearly stands out visually as a venue for performances).

Second, the opera house is one of a set of twin buildings that look exactly the same and are situated right next to each other. The second building, the identical Herbst Theatre, is easily confused for the opera house, depending on which street you approach the center civic from.

Once you’re finally inside the building, however, it is quite impressive. After I handed my ticket to the attendant, I walked inside, found the stairs and began climbing. I didn’t know where my seat was, exactly, but I knew generally where I had to go: up.

The long, endlessly-winding half-staircases nearly winded me as I found my way to my seat. I walked up what felt like 16 half-flights of stairs to finally arrive at my section. I looked out at the stage and was amazed to just see how far away from the stage it was.

The Ring Festival

As part of staging this massive opera cycle, the company offered several additional events at the opera house and at other nearby locations, calling the event “the Ring Festival.” These events cost between $30 to $65.

A symposium was held on Thursdays for each cycle, where an expert would host a panel discussion workshop with a variety of staff and cast for the discussion. The week I was there, Greer Grimsley, who played Wotan was a speaker, as were an assistant director, assistant conductor, a prop master, a costume supervisor, the lighting director, and other characters from the show.

A forum was offered at the end of the week, which seemed to have similar content to the symposium but covered different subject matter and included different speakers.

A series of “Ring 101” workshops was provided, geared towards “aspiring Wagnerians” wanting to gain a basic understanding of the opera in general.

A chorus concert was performed at Herbst Theatre that showcased some of Wagner’s choruses. This is an event I attended during the week, and the evening included a wine reception afterward with the chorus members. I met a few of the chorus members and made a connection with one, in particular, Frederick Matthews, who had been the focus of a documentary film made in 1991 called “In The Shadow of the Stars.”

A spread was also created outdoors in the loggia, called “Brünnhilde’s Biergarten,” which offered a menu including German beer, bratwurst with sauerkraut, soft pretzels and homemade mustard. (I thought about partaking, but at $8 for a beer and over $10 per bratwurst, I decided against it).

The Crowd

People-watching at the Ring Festival was fascinating. The audience skewed older, as is typical of every opera I’ve been to, and I’d imagine the largest demographic were folks over 60. There was a fair share of folks my age (the under-40 crowd).

The company’s website states in a guide for first-time opera goers that “We don’t have a dress code. Some opera-goers prefer suits and gowns, others jeans. Wear what makes you feel comfortable.” I saw older women in bright red dresses, men wearing suits of varying degrees of khaki and brown tweed. I did spot a few people wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, and at least one many wearing a fanny pack.

A few festive folks wore horned Viking helmets (as made famous by Brünhillde stereotype), one man wore a kilt, and a few men dressed in lederhosen, the traditional men’s pants from Bavaria.

The Performances

Since I had come early on opening night, I was able to attend a pre-opera talk in the auditorium. It was given by Desiree Mays, an author, lecturer, and former ballerina from the United Kingdom.

She gave some background on the Ring Cycle, some history on Wagner as a composer, and shared musical examples and motifs from the opera we’d be seeing this evening: Das Rheingold.

Since the seating arrangement for the talk was general seating, I chose to sit in the very front row, to get a view of the orchestra pit and the stage, knowing that I wouldn’t get a chance to sit in the $3,000 seats for the rest of the show.

After about 25 minutes, the lecture was over, and everyone cleared out of the hall to find their seats for the actual performance. I took one last trip to the restroom, knowing that this evening’s performance would be over two and a half hours long without any breaks, then found my seat.

Das Rheingold

Falk Struckmann as Alberich and Greer Grimsley as Wotan in Das Rheingold (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold” in English) is the first opera in the series, and, as Mays pointed out in her lecture, is the only comedy in the tetralogy. In fact, Mays commented that “the Ring is actually more properly called a trilogy of tragedies with a prologue that has a happy ending.”

I sat in my seat, a few minutes early, reading the program and waiting for the house lights to dim. As the seats around me began to fill, a short, older woman with white, wispy hair pulled in a tight bun began to seat herself in the row in front of me, but stopped short and turned around and looked up at me.

“Do you own the season for that chair?” she asked, pointing to my seat.

“Umm… own the season?” I stuttered in a bemused response.

“Is that your seat for the season?” she repeated. “Are these both your seats?” she asked, pointing to the empty seat in the corner, to my left.

“No ma’am,” I answered. I was trying hard to figure out what she was getting at.

“Did you give a big donation?” she continued with her interrogation.

I’m sure I just stared at her with a quizzical face, not even sure how to answer. Finally, she explained her concern.

“Normally, I sit in that seat. But for this [show], they gave me this seat. I called the box office to complain, and they told me, ‘Well, the person in that seat gave a bigger donation than you.’ Can you believe that? And I’ve been coming to the opera since 1960!”

I smiled and apologized, still confused about the affair. I watched her sit down in the seat she didn’t want, and promptly fall asleep.

The house lights were dimmed, and the show began. I was surprised to see and hear that the orchestra began playing immediately without any of the usual introductory applause and greeting of the conductor. The slow E-flat major theme of the Rhein began to swell and grow into a beautiful crescendo. The Ring Cycle had begun.

Das Rheingold is set in four scenes, so there are three scene changes, but no intermissions. This performance had a run time of two hours and thirty-five minutes. Inventively, during those scene changes, a transparent scrim was lowered, and images and videos clips were projected onto it. This was a brilliant way of adding an additional aspect of wordlessly telling the story, and also gave the set designers time to change the scenes while the orchestra continued playing.

The production was sung in German, and English supertitles were projected above the stage. Some opera houses (such as The Met) have small individual screens embedded on the backs of the seats in front of each seat. However, the San Francisco Opera’s use of a screen above the stage is more traditional. It is also more preferable, in my opinion, as I found that I didn’t have to keep switching from looking down at the seat in front of me, then looking up to the stage (as I am used to doing at other opera houses).

As I listened to the beautiful music, I thought back to my phone call with the box office attendant, and I was grateful that I had chosen not to change my seat. I was able to hear the orchestra in its full glory, with all the instruments small ringing out brightly and clearly.

During one movement, I noticed that could hear a triangle sounding, and I tried to estimate just how far away I was from the instrument itself—one hundred feet? Several hundred feet? I couldn’t calculate, but it’s still quite an acoustical marvel that as far away as I was, I could hear something so insignificant.

Much could be said about the production itself in terms of the quality, the staging, the prowess of the individual vocalists, the costuming, the pyrotechnics, the stagecraft—I will simply state that my review for the performance of Das Rheingold is this: everything I saw and heard was absolutely exceptional.

It’s even hard to try to critique such a work, since, unlike many others in the audience, this was my very first Ring Cycle, so I had little to compare it to.

There were moments towards the middle of scene four where my face flushed with heat and excitement, and my pulse quickened as my ears tried to take in all the gooey musical goodness that the Wagner the craftsman had created.

There are so many motifs embedded in this work, some of which represent characters or topics on the stage at that moment, and others of which hearken back to an earlier moment in the opera or foretell of things yet to come. It can almost make your head spin trying to decipher all the hidden gems in this work.

As the show came to a close, I was impressed with the thought that Wagner was every bit a musical genius as Beethoven was. If I hadn’t been enough of a Wagner fan before this show, that would change tonight.

After a long round of applause and a triumphant curtain call, the audience broke, and I found my way down the myriad staircases, left the building, and walked back to my room.

The biggest criticism I had for the evening was one that might seem trivial but bothered me more and more as I was walked home.

The focal point of the “Ring Cycle” is a ring. Obviously. However, of all the props used in the production, the ring itself was the least impressive. I’m sure that it’s hard to portray a ring—something small enough to fit on a finger—in a way that anybody in the audience can actually see. However, the ring used was strange and awkward.

Rather than looking like a wedding band or any other traditional gold ring, the “ring” used onstage was flexible and closer to the size of a bracelet. It was awkwardly large for a ring but wasn’t big enough to wear around the wrist, so
the various characters throughout the production who wore the ring placed it slipshod over a couple fingers, making it look almost like a set of brass knuckles.

I decided that I’d spend some time looking into the ways other opera companies chose to portray the ring, and see how that would compare to the San Francisco version.

Die Walküre

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre Photo Cory Weaver San Francisco Opera (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The second night, it was time for Die Walküre (The Valkyries). Since this was the second show in a series of four, nearly everything was the same as the first. I walked to the opera house the same as before, arrived early for another pre-opera talk, sat in the same seat, etc.

One notable difference this evening, however, was the fact that the seat next to me that had been empty the night before wasn’t empty. A slightly heavy, well-dressed man in a suit showed up with about two minutes to spare and sat down right before the doors were closed.

I poked a bit of fun at him, saying “Glad you could make it this time. We missed you last night. Where were you?”

“On a plane,” he responded. “Oh? Where from?” I asked. “From Milan, by way of Munich.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

Steve, as I learned his name was, responded “I was watching a very weird opera at La Scala. It’s relatively unknown, and it’s in German, and it was written by Schubert.”

I slowly repeated “Schubert opera… in German… in Italy? They’re not known for that, are they?” I joked. We both chuckled, and over the intermissions, he filled me in on this particular opera, and many other productions he’d seen throughout his fifty years of opera going.

Steve was a fascinating seatmate. He had just gotten back from Milan, where he was giving a talk as some sort of conference for people who work in traffic management for municipalities. He explained how he’s spent most of his life traveling the world and taking in as many operas as he could. When he found out that this was my first Ring Cycle, I asked him how many complete cycles he had seen.

“Twenty,” he answered. I was sure I misheard him, so I asked again, and he confirmed. He had seen twenty complete Ring Cycles and had a nearly photographic memory of each and every performance, right down to exactly which person sang which role, how he had rated each performer, his opinions of the stagecraft, the seating in each opera house, and more.

He rattled off names, dates, and roles from productions at The Met in New York, the Houston Grand Opera in Texas, the Seattle Opera in Washington, La Scala in Italy, Oper der Stadt in Cologne Germany, and many more. It was a nice to be sitting by someone with so much history and context for questions I had from time to time.

Unlike the way the previous night started, the house lights were dimmed this time, and the audience gave the customary applause as the conductor entered the pit, shook the concertmaster’s hand, and took a bow. Launching into the Vorspiel (Wagner’s version of an orchestral prelude or a sort of concert overture), the long, winding musical motif began, which sounded like feet walking through the woods, or some sort of mountain climbing effort. As the music played, the screen was covered with a projection of mountains, nature, and blizzards.

The finale of Wagner’s Die Walküre with Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Greer Grimsley as Wotan (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The performance of The Valkyrie was just as top-notch as the previous night, and anticipation ran high for the exciting “Ride of the Valkyries”—the instantly-recognizable and most famous motif of the entire cycle.

Director Francesca Zambello’s innovative staging for the movement included the Valkyries being dressed up as paratroopers. They were lowered from the fly tower above the stage with cables, giving the illusion of falling from the sky, which was impressive.

If that was the highlight, the most frustrating part of the evening was the almost unbearably-long Act III dialogue between Brünhillde and Wotan. I can’t fault the performers—this is all on the composer. I couldn’t stop squirming in my seat as I listened to the movement which is famous for its unnecessary length. It feels like Wagner tried to draw out a simple conversation between a father and daughter to make it last as long as possible.

Wagner fans often roll their eyes at critics who call Wagner long-winded. However, they do so knowing it’s true. Die Walküre’s run time of four hours and thirty-five minutes is split into three acts and has two intermissions. If I were able to give the composer some advice in this opera, I’d give some advice from the movie “A River Runs Through It.” In it, the son presents a school paper he has written to his father, who is also his teacher. The father reads it, sighs, hands it back to his son and says: “Again. Half as long.”

At the end of the show, Steve and I agreed that the Soprano playing Brünhillde, while competent in that role, was not spectacular. I had to agree. Iréne Theorin, the Swedish singer, did her job admirably but was a bit weak in her delivery.

As someone who has sung on the stage in operas before, I’m familiar with just how hard it can be to project your voice, unamplified, to fill an auditorium with thousands of people, so I’m sympathetic. However, in this case, the soprano’s challenge to be heard was ironic, since Brünhillde defining characteristic is her strength. It’s hard to appear strong when you’re hard to hear.

Siegfried

Daniel Brenna as the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried.Photo Cory Weaver San Francisco Opera (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

All the Ring Cycle performers and audience members had the next evening off, so I took the time to attend the Wagner chorus concert.

The next day was Siegfried, the third in the series. Siegfried has always been my favorite opera in the cycle, so my expectations were high, and I was almost disappointed. For the entire first act, the tenor singing the title role, Daniel Brenna, was, like Theorin, a hard to hear.

I wondered if this would continue for the entire production but was relieved when he came back for the second act with great strength. My new friend Steve noticed this as well, and suggested: “I think maybe he was pacing himself for the first act since he has so much more singing to do.” I thought this was a good assessment. After the first act, he sang out brilliantly and clearly.

This opera was delightful, as I was expecting: by the time you get to Siegfried, it’s a huge relief. The previous two operas are filled with dialogue and setup, and you finally get to see some action in the third opera.

Sigfried contains action in droves. Sword-fighting, the kiss that wakes a sleeping princess, fire, explosions, stage blood, and the slaying of a dragon.

With a run time of four hours and fifty minutes, Siegfried was presented in three acts with two intermissions, and it was so packed with action I didn’t feel at all like it was long-winded.

Götterdammerung

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde, Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

After taking one more evening off, Saturday, the final opera was performed on a Sunday afternoon.

Götterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) is, at last, the culmination of everything that has come before. All the suspense and drama building for the previous ten hours comes crashing down spectacularly as the final opera gives us closure.

The tragedy unfolds, hearts are broken, a drink is spiked with a magic potion, there’s family drama at an arranged marriage, Siegfried is killed, Brünnhilde sings her famous aria during the final immolation scene and throws herself on a blazing pyre, Valhalla burns, everything in the universe is reset, and the mortals live happily ever after without the interference of the gods.

On a side note, I was happy to see that Melissa Citro sang the role of Gutrune. She’s a soprano I’ve been on stage with in the past, when she sang the role of Minnie in Opera Colorado’s production of La Fanciulla del West in 2016. It was a proud moment to quietly say to myself: “I’ve sung with her before!”

The longest opera in the series, Götterdammerung lasts for five hours and ten minutes and is performed in three acts with two intermissions. By the time the curtains close, we clapped loud and long. Partially because the amazing epic was performed so well, and partially because it’s finally over. And even the fiercest Wagner fan isn’t ashamed to admit this.

The Cycle in Review

Aside from a few issues like not being able to hear some of the principals, I couldn’t detect any botched lines, missed entrances, wrong notes, or other mistakes in the performance.

As a top-ranked opera company, I think the San Francisco Opera delivered an amazing performance of the grandest, most expensive show I’ve ever seen. I was certainly not disappointed.

As I stood up to leave when the final applause ended, Steve mentioned to me that for my first Ring Cycle, I certainly picked an excellent one. I thought so too and was glad he said so because he certainly knows better than me.

In a video released after the production came to a close a few weeks later, the company’s press office released a celebratory video with images of the production and some statistics.

Audience members came from 27 countries, 49 US states, over 3,000 people gave donations, and over 35,000 tickets were sold, which constituted 98% capacity.

I was proud to be one of those who could make this grand spectacle. It was everything I had hoped it to be.