Man against the Machine, thoughts about Zambello’s Ring

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(c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Heidi Melton (Third Norn), Daveda Karanas (Second Norn) and Ronnita Miller (First Norn) in Götterdämmerung.

By Rebecca Schmid

Any Konzept-Production of the Ring is bound to draw very strong reactions. This past week, I heard people call Francesca Zambello’s depiction of the American empire’s fall everything from obvious and clichéd to the final step away from Wagner’s association with the Nazis.

My impression, based on far fewer experiences with the cycle than many others in the audience, is mixed. But to my eye, Zambello’s Ring contained highly inventive gestures that are both in keeping with Wagner’s symbolism and extremely relevant to our time. This is no easy feat.

I in fact originally intended to bloviate about her thematization of the machine, which struck me as a fresh yet philosophically rich approach. In contrast to my colleague Earl Love, who expressed some skepticism in an earlier post, I thought transforming the dragon into a mechanical monster in Siegfried was clever and entertaining. The juxtaposition of the machine-driven with nature also seems to coincide beautifully with the spiritual binaries in the cycle.

Some gestures, while highly contemporary, also served to illuminate Wagner’s musical material. In Das Rheingold, Zambello’s modeling of the giants after transformers called my attention to the mechanical nature of their Leitmotif. Although her cinematic references may be over the top for some people’s taste–perhaps in particular those who have experienced more stately productions–it seems to me that she succeeded at updating the work to our time visually and philosophically without compromising Wagner’s basic intentions.

A brilliant stroke was her portrayal of destiny’s rope as a central internet cable at the onset of Götterdämmerung. Our fate may indeed lie with the connectivity we rely on to servers and cell phones, and yet we are ruining the environment in order to promote a technologically-driven society.

Thankfully, Zambello’s production does not leave the audience in despair but rather full of hope about a new future. At the end of the cycle, she inserts a child planting a single tree as a sign that the earth will renew itself. It may seem prosaic, but drawing upon Earl’s last post, perhaps even the corporate types and first-timers present had some food for thought.