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The End of the World by the Bay

San Francisco
San Francisco Opera
06/14/2011 -  & June 21-26, June 28-July 3, 2011
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Stacey Tappan (Woglinde, Forest Bird), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde, Rossweisse), Renée Tatum (Flosshilde, Grimgerde), Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka), Mark Delavan (Wotan), Melissa Citro (Freia, Ortlinde, Gutrune), Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt, Hagen), Daniel Sumegi (Fafner, Hunding), Brandon Jovanovich (Froh, Siegmund), Gerd Grochowski (Donner, Gunther), Stefan Margita (Loge), David Cangelosi (Mime), Ronnita Miller (Erda, First Norn), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Cybele Gouverneur (Schwertleite), Daveda Karanas (Waltraute, Second Norn), Sara Gartland (Gerhilde), Tamara Wapinsky (Helmwige), Maya Lahyani (Siegrune), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried [Siegfried]), Heidi Melton (Third Norn), Ian Storey (Siegfried [Götterdämmerung])
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (production), Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Mark McCullough (lighting), Jan Hartley (video projections)

M. Delavan & N. Stemme (Courtesy of SFO)

Francesca Zambello’s idea of an “American” Ring has been unfolding for more than five years, since the Das Rheingold installment premiered at Washington National Opera in March 2006. Walküre followed there a season later, but budget constraints delayed Siegfried until the spring of 2009 and limited the presentation of Götterdämmerung to just two concert performances that fall. There are no current plans to perform the complete tetralogy there. It has fallen to the San Francisco Opera, which co-produced Wagner’s epic with Washington, to finish the staging and present the first complete cycles of all four operas this summer. Much fanfare preceded the event. Six weeks of lectures, musical events, and public discussions prepared the mood in a scholarly tone. A launch party at the St. Regis Hotel fueled sponsors with a buffet whimsically called “Fafner’s Feast.” And of course, an international audience assembled from all corners of the globe to display the outré eccentricities of devout Wagnerian spectators.

Staging a new Ring is undoubtedly the most difficult feat in the world of opera. The tetralogy’s sheer length and scale are daunting enough, but its deep philosophical meditations on the nature of power, love, hate, envy, and redemption demand a sophisticated conceptual interpretation. Only superb artists of enormous talent and great stamina can address its massive musical demands fully. Zambello’s “American” interpretation follows the trend in other stagings that develop the plot in linear time over a recognizably recent past. Rheingold opens in a 1920s milieu with gods who resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald characters preparing to move into a skyscraper Valhalla. Their immediate nemeses, the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who demand payment for building the gods’ castle, are cartoonish construction workers who make their entrance on a lowered beam. Alberich, the greater existential threat, whose theft of the Rhine gold sets the whole bloody tale in motion, is a prospector in a river bed setting that evokes the California gold rush. Walküre takes the action forward a generation, to a kind of 1940s or 1950s blossoming of American industrial capitalism. Wotan is now styled as the chief executive of a vast manufacturing concern, presiding over his empire from a sky-high office that looks down over a gray city silhouette. His Valkyries are clad as aviatrixes who cleverly parachute in during their famous “Ride.” Hunding is a cabin-dwelling backwoodsman whose life is brutalized by the developments around him. Siegmund and Sieglinde play out their scene of doom beneath the construction site of a highway overpass. Valhalla’s heroes are depicted in black and white photo slides of actual American soldiers killed in the country’s great wars. In Siegfried we find a decaying industrial idiom that evokes the malaise of the 1970s. Mime inhabits a broken down trailer in a squalid trash dump by a power station that ominously emits green smoke. Fafner’s transformation into a dragon is explained by the character’s operation of an armored vehicle that looks like a cross between a tank and a trash compactor. He dies when its vital power cords are severed. Siegfried liberates Brünnhilde in surroundings that look bleaker than those in which Wotan had left her in the previous opera. By the time we enter the gloomy universe of Götterdämmerung, environmental despoliation and social atomization are complete. The Norns, whose rope of fate contains all the knowledge of the world, are antiseptic technicians who tend cables inside a vast computer motherboard. Where else is our knowledge stored today, if not in computer servers? The obliteration of their wisdom by spiraling fate results in a hardware crash. The Rhinemaidens are reduced to bag ladies who desperately try to clear the garbage from their Aquarian abode. They ultimately kill Hagen by snuffing him out – tastelessly in my opinion - with a yellow garbage bag. Gunther, Gutrune, and their evil half-brother Hagen appear in louchely decorated digs within a glass and steel structure that could have been designed by Philippe Starck. Their realm is a black zone of hopelessness tended by a gruff private army of wage slaves. The only weak suggestion of the tetralogy’s redemption theme comes in the form of a child planting a sapling ash tree - the source of the world’s blossoming wisdom before Wotan corrupted it - for the amusement of the blasé denizens of Gunther’s realm.

No one can accuse Zambello of lacking imagination, though I did wonder what provocations this Ring made that Patrice Chéreau missed in his centennial production in Bayreuth 35 years ago, based as it was on the destructive evolution of industrial society. Günter Krämer’s recently completed Paris production of the Ring also embeds the work deeply in the pitfalls of industrial modernity. The impressive technical execution of Zambellos’s effort relied on innovative video projections to convey landscapes – from the flowing Rhine to the mountain heights to blighted urban districts. Old fashioned smoke and mirrors – aided by ample amounts of liquid nitrogen – gestured toward magic. It seemed incongruous to include these elements, however, when the production’s bleak idiom suggests a thorough de-mythologizing of the work. If we are meant to see the Ring as an all too human progression from hubris to ruin, then who needs divinity or enchantment? The larger philosophical suggestion seems to be that there is none. With imaginative power thus undermined, a natural and pervasive tension evolves between what the tetralogy really is and what Zambello wants it to be. I am uncertain she succeeded in resolving it. To take a central example from her development of the characters, her presentation of the vitally important role of Brünnhilde rises on the stated idea that Brünnhilde is herself the hero Wotan needs to restore harmony to the world. But for as well as Nina Stemme sang the role, the dramatic interpretation suggested nothing more than a rambunctious preteen who jumps on Wotan’s back in her first scene, reacts as though she is being grounded when Wotan decrees her divine punishment for disobeying him, and succumbs to puppy love when Siegfried awakens her. Her morphing into a vicious wronged woman in Götterdämmerung implies a level of emotional sophistication she simply does not have; this Brünnhilde should be crying herself to sleep rather than plotting murderous revenge. And nowhere does the progressively bleak production allow her or anyone else to emerge as heroic. The Immolation Scene, in which Brünnhilde reveals her newly acquired knowledge of the world and appreciation for what is needed for its redemption, is eviscerated by a soapy reconciliation with the hapless Gutrune (who ever cared about her?) and the Rhinemaidens, who make an unscripted appearance to lead the action as the end nears (again in questionable taste by dousing Siegfried’s funeral pyre with gasoline). If this immature Brünnhilde is really so heroic, why is she not the dramatic center?

Excellent voices can imbue even the most troubled production concepts with aesthetic appeal, but despite all the fanfare only two of the principals rose to the challenge. Stemme, who sang her first Brünnhilde only last year, made an exciting debut in her first full Cycle performance of the role. Her cool Scandinavian tones recall the best efforts of her Swedish countrywomen Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay two generations ago. The technique is at its best in the middle register, where creamily delivered Bs and Gs polinated the score with a delicious musicality one can only savor. Her top notes were not perfect – the final “Heil” in the prologue of Götterdämmerung warbled and she sang a touch sharp in the Immolation Scene – but this is a Brünnhilde the world needs and will long remember. Another star ascended in Brandon Jovanovich’s excellent Siegmund. The voice’s fine baritonal coloring conveyed the part with an uncommon union of nobility and power. These dynamic performances overshadowed the other principals. Mark Delavan has the necessary legato and vocal color for Wotan, but in all three incarnations of the role he more often than not sounded underpowered. Act III of Walküre and his scenes in Siegfried were the only places suggesting the effulgence readily encountered in other performers of the role today. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde showed flashes of power, but the voice rests too high for the part and missed its important lower tones. The role of Siegfried was divided between Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey. Morris was the more severely parted. In Act I of Siegfried he at times lapsed into inaudibility. Although the voice possesses a fine lyrical quality, it is simply – and obviously - not right for a Heldentenor role. Storey fared rather better in Götterdämmerung, though the voice’s throaty qualities made the hero sound more gravelly than the brilliant music needs to soar. A “vocal indisposition,” moreover, caused his singing to collapse late in Act II. After treatment during intermission he continued through Act III with noticeable caution. Gordon Hawkins’s Alberich made a stir when he first sang the role in Washington five years ago, but this time the voice betrayed a curiously listless quality through much of the role and only fluttered decision in the delivery of the curse in Rheingold. Andrea Silvestrelli blustered through Hagen’s malevolent music and the lesser part of Fasolt. The Italianate basso was not unappealing but seemed out of place, especially when accompanied by a mischievous dimension that we rarely encounter in this grim role. It was nevertheless a clever touch to put him in bed with Gutrune at the spectral opening of Act II of Götterdämmerung. Daniel Sumegi’s Fafner and Hunding both emerged with rough edges. The supporting cast offered few standouts. David Cangelosi’s energetic Mime – complete with cartwheels – captured the character’s vices and in vocal terms even rivaled Morris’s unfortunate Siegfried in power. Stefan Margita’s Loge and Ronnita Miller’s Erda were skillfully executed. Gerd Grochowski, who sang Donner and Gunther, sounded serviceable if not more. Melissa Citro’s Freia and Gutrune were rather weak, though her slutty interpretation of the latter role enlivened this usually dull part.

San Francisco’s former music director Donald Runnicles returned to the podium for the Ring Festival. Not a distinguished Wagner conductor, he led a pedestrian orchestral effort. While efficient and technically correct, it disappointed listeners intrigued by the score’s great subtlety and possibilities for deeper exploration. Although Runnicles’s rendering of Götterdämmerung occasionally reached with some insight into that realm, too many of the great moments lacked emotional charge and dramatic power.

There will be two more Cycles, with the last concluding on July 3. Zambello’s effort leaves the impression of a work in progress. More careful casting decisions and a refinement of the production concept could make this Ring worth hearing again.

Paul du Quenoy



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