San Francisco Opera’s Ring closes today and marks Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle
As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable. Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle.
She made up quickly for lost time. In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world. Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year. I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.
You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?
The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner. Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that. You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about.
And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production. For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry. When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good. With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.
It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words. Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music. Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems. He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline. But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world. Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music. It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda. The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.
Who are the heroes for you?
Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes. Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself. She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer. Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself. She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion. Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more.
It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you. I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich. He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature. It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price. Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde. That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.
And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all. It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds. I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world. Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage. I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.
What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?
Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner. It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said. It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity. Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news.
The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal. It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.
Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees). In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.
New questions to ponder: Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla? Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death? Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen? If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?
And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding. Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner. The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed? ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.
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