The San Francisco Ring – Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

Wagner, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung: Soloists, chorus and orchestra, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 24.6.2011 and 26.6.2011 (HS) 

Siegfried-Jay Hunter Morris
The Wanderer (Wotan)-Mark Delavan
Brünnhilde-Nina Stemme
Mime-David Cangelosi
Alberich-Gordon Hawkins
Fafner-Daniel Sumegi
Erda-Ronnita Miller
Forest Bird-Stacey Tappan

Brünnhilde-Nina Stemme
Siegfried-Ian Storey
Gunther-Gerd Grochowski
Hagen-Andrea Silvestrelli
Waltraute & Second Norn-Daveda Karanas
Gutrune-Melissa Citro
Alberich-Gordon Hawkins
First Norn-Ronnita Miller
Third Norn-Heidi Melton
Woglinde-Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde-Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde-Renée Tatum

Conductor-Donald Runnicles
Director-Francesca Zambello
Set Designer-Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer-Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer-Mark McCullough

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde lit up the stage and provided some badly needed vocal fireworks as San Francisco Opera completed its second turn through Wagner’s Ring cycle Sunday. Both Siegfried, seen Friday, and Götterdämmerung on Sunday expanded upon many of the themes director Francesca Zambello introduced in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, (reviewed here), adding her own glosses to the staging, with mixed results. But in the end, a Ring stands or falls on the music, and this one had its share of highlights, not least of which was a sure grasp of the score’s surges and ebbs by conductor Donald Runnicles.

Siegfried, Act I: Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) Photo © Cory Weaver.

In Siegfried, David Cangelosi as Mime became the second character tenor in this cycle to emerge as the dominant voice in one of the segments. (The other was Stefan Margita as Loge in Rheingold.) Cangelosi’s knack for finding the right tone for every phrase in every scene paid dividends – whether he was wheedling Siegfried into doing his bidding or jousting with Wotan. In sound and balance he was perfect, and his nervous energy made the character palpable.

A little too much enthusiasm from the orchestra tended to overwhelm Jay Hunter Morris, who made his debut in the title role after English tenor Ian Storey elected (in April) to sing the role only in Götterdämmerung. Morris can look like a strapping youth, perfect for the role, and he has a rich, lyrical cast to his voice. He was marvelous in the scenes with Mime and the confrontation with Wotan, but he could not compete with the orchestra in the Act I forging song and audibly reached for the high notes in the final scene with Brünnhilde. Mark Delavan invested the Wanderer with a playful side, albeit with a sharp edge as he toyed with Mime in Act I and led Alberich on, as they waited for the Siegfried-Fafner confrontation in Act II. The text came through in his nuanced singing, even if the orchestra occasionally drowned it out.

In this production, we actually see the Forest Bird, usually an off-stage soprano. In the scene when Siegfried, having slain Fafner, tastes his blood and can understand what the bird is singing, the soprano (Stacey Tappan, dressed as a schoolboy and positioned on a catwalk above the stage) appears first when the orchestra plays the Forest Bird’s music. Usually Siegfried has to pantomime an interaction with the bird, but here there is real communication. Purists may have hated it, but it made the scene much more specific and enjoyable.

A visible Forest Bird fits with Zambello’s most original idea, to ennoble the female characters. In part she does this by pointing up flaws in the male characters whenever possible. In her view, the women need to clean up after the men after they get the world – and themselves – into trouble. In Siegfried, we see Wotan wandering the world looking like a hairy street person, his coat patched at the elbow with duct tape. He helps himself to a beer from Mime’s fridge. In Die Walküre, the staging emphasizes Hunding’s brutality of Sieglinde, complete with a hand-shaped bruise on her arm, and Fricka’s scene with Wotan makes her much less shrill than usual, which is all the more devastating to Wotan when he realizes she has him cornered.

Götterdämmerung, Act III: Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Melissa Citro (Gutrune) and Ian Storey (Siegfried). Photo © Cory Weaver.

Another theme in Zambello’s staging, one more commonly seen in these days of climate change and other environmental concerns, centers on the destruction of nature that Wotan sets in motion by breaking off a branch of the World Ash tree to make his spear and Alberich exacerbates by taking the gold from the river. By using iconic images from American history as settings, Zambello strives to make it easier for audiences to relate the story. So the Rhine becomes a river in California, and the projected titles refer to “River Gold” instead of Rheingold and the three guardians of it as “River Maidens” instead of Rheinmaidens. Mime’s forest hut becomes a rundown caravan in the shadow of electrical towers. Fafner guards his hoard in an abandoned warehouse, manipulating a fearsome machine from inside, Transformer-like. The decay of nature, often shown as crumbling buildings and dead foliage, here becomes continually more intrusive with images of electrical power plants and high-tension towers, and the River Maidens picking up detritus from a polluted river in their scene in Götterdämmerung.

The Gibichungs live in a steel-and-glass penthouse overlooking their oil refinery. It all looks very “1984.” The hunting expedition in which Siegfried is killed outfits the main characters in orange hunting garb and they carry automatic rifles. A flatbed trailer holds the deer carcasses. One of the more striking of Michael Yeargan’s sets puts the hazmat-suited Norns inside a gigantic computer. The rope of fate – signifying their inability to control the future – becomes a cable that shorts out at the climactic moment. The three Norns, dressed in green, were well sung by Ronnita Miller (who also delivered a sonorous Erda), less so by Daveda Karanas (who doubled as Waltraute, to minimal effect) and Heidi Melton.

As Siegfried in this installment, Storey looked remarkably like Morris but deployed a somewhat wobbly tenor that only intermittently came into focus. The vocal star on the male side this time was Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen. The Italian bass seemed to relish every phrase, his height enhancing his menace and an intelligent glint in his eyes making him seem all the more dangerous. As Gunther, the head Gibichung, baritone Gerd Grochowski sounded a bit weak, but even that worked dramatically. As Gutrune, his sister, Melissa Citro cut a femme-fatale figure with her low-cut, form-fitting red gown, but lacked the vocal voluptuousness to complete the picture. However, the three River Maidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum) looked fetching in their tight bodices and flowing skirts, and they sang with charm. The chorus delivered its music with robust sound and plenty of verve.

Stemme, again, was brilliant. She held back nothing in the early scenes, investing the prologue with Siegfried with plenty of ardor and later dominating the oath trio with him and Hagen at the end of Act II. And yet she managed to top everything with a sensationally sung Immolation Scene, alternately noble, reverent and eventually transcendent.

The fall of Valhalla came up woefully short on visual impact, illustrated by upstage flames, and projections on two scrims: clouds of smoke at the rear and falling images of the Valhalla heroes on the forward one. Zambello chose to have only women (including the River Maidens and Gutrune) build the funeral pyre, and in a final gloss, as the orchestra music recedes into a glorious calm in the final measures, a child clad in white walks downstage with a sapling of an ash tree to be planted. As the image makes visible the sense of hope that the ending aims to project, I found it moving.

Harvey Steiman