The Making of Americans


Oakland ex-pat in Paris Gertrude Stein is the woman of the moment here in San Francisco, with two exhibitions in town devoted to her and her artistic milieu, so I couldn't resist cribbing her title for a discussion of Francesca Zambello's production of the Ring Cycle. In its original (and partial) incarnation at Washington's National Opera it was dubbed "A Ring for America". Now three-quarters of the way through the Cycle (which I'll be covering more fully elsewhere) I wanted to muse about just what makes this production American.


The most obvious ways are visual: the production features a hodgepodge of American vistas, especially those of the West. Projections evoke the redwood forests, Red Rocks, the over-industrialized southern Lake Michigan skyline. Wagner's Edda characters appear as gold rush miners, San Francisco Diggers, a 1940s hausfrau, a gospel singer, a radical survivalist/terrorist, Gay 90s girls, even just-plain-guys sitting around a dilapidated Airstream trailer drinking Coke and Reingold beer. Hunding's house is a clapboard cabin in the woods, its main room graced with stuffed deer heads, firearms, and a hunting scene painted on velvet.


But it seems to me that the most distinctively American aspect is the emotional transparency of Wagner's characters. Zambello places an emphasis on detailed personal relationships, which of course are the means and cause of Wotan's progressive loss of divine power and Brunnhilde's path to redemption of the world. This is by far the most touchy-feely Ring I've ever seen: in a drama based on intimate scenes, human touch, whether loving or aggressive, is a common element to most encounters. The Rhinemaidens teasingly caress Alberich; Wotan and Fricka are more physically affectionate than regally dignified, and Freia returns from her stay with the giants lovingly entwined with Fasolt. In Die Walkure, Hunding menaces Seigfried via face-offs in his personal space, and Wotan expresses frustration by refusing Fricka's conciliatory touch. Beyond physical contact, the direction and conducting underline the most vulnerable emotional moments, like Siegfried gathering his courage to kiss the sleeping Brunnhilde. Zambello's specific direction is partly inspired by feminist themes, but it seems to me that this also reflects and American informality and lack of a priori [ital] barriers in America's (supposedly) egalitarian culture.


I recently saw a concert version of Handel's Ariodante in Paris (Theatre des Champs-Elysees, May 23, conducted by Alan Curtis) featuring three wonderful North American divas. Mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux and soprano Karina Gauvin are francophone Canadians with careers primarily in Europe. Kansas-born Joyce DiDonato, today's "It" girl among lyric mezzos, has an exploding international career but remains the "Yankee Diva". Her Canadian co-stars relished their front-and-center star turns — delicious and perfectly appropriate for the theatricality of a Handel opera. In contrast, DiDonato gave a explosive but also introspective and modest performance, emotions playing across her face before she even took center stage to sing. Her superbly sung arias were technically dazzling and tonally beautiful, but I believe that what brought the audience cheering to their feet was her openness. "Scherza infida", which she recorded in a sorrow-drenched version for her FURORE album, took on an entirely new tone as she risked a stinging new reading. When she returned for the triumphant "Doppo notte", her impeccable fireworks expressed relief, lust, and joy — and humility. Her her naturalness and lack of posturing and preening strike me as a particularly Yankee characteristic.


Coming back to San Francisco and Wagner, I cite Stein as one who discovered her national roots as an expat in Europe. Francesca Zambello has used a quintessential German work to make a distinctively American statement.