June 14-19 SF Opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Zambello strikes gold in San Francisco with intelligent ‘Ring Cycle’ that challenges conventions, rouses senses

The celebrated director’s thought-provoking video projections throughout the cycle of music dramas stimulate the imagination, and outshine the singing

By David Rubin

San Francisco is a city with a strong commitment to environmental protection. So it is not surprising that director Francesca Zambello created an Eco-Ring for the city that suggests the world will end in suffocating industrial pollution, filthy rivers, and denuded forests.

Zambello provides two images of the Rhine River as bookends to this Ring. At the opening of Das Rheingold she projects on the scrim an enormous wall of water, surging and heaving and threatening to spill into the orchestra pit and out into the audience. As the Rhinemaidens tease Alberich in the pristine river, a swift-flowing waterfall provides a video backdrop worthy of a painting from the Hudson River school.

By the third act of Götterdämmerung, the Rhinemaidens can’t even risk being in the river. A half-submerged car sits in the water. They are reduced to picking up crushed plastic soda bottles and putting them in black trash bags in a futile effort to clean up their ruined watery home.

Never once in the 17 hours of The Ring does Zambello provide the audience relief from her message of despoliation. Siegfried opens with a sweeping view of healthy forests, followed by an image of endless tree stumps, and then of a train bearing logs to market.

As they flee from Hunding in Act Two of Die Walküre, the sibling lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde pause in a junkyard situated beneath a crumbling highway. Sieglinde, now pregnant and carrying Siegfried, rests on a ratty convertible sofa whose innards are spilling out, her feet propped up on an old tire, one of many strewn around the desolate space. I felt so filthy after this scene that I could have used a shower during intermission.

Imposing a worldview on The Ring goes with the assignment, and Zambello’s vision is as good as any. She makes effective use of video in every opera to set the scene. Indeed, the many projections of smoke, water, fog, sludge, and factories belching pollution become another character in the drama.

Whatever one thinks of this mise-en-scène — and lovers of the Metropolitan Opera’s traditional old Otto Schenk production probably won’t like it — Zambello’s greater strength lies in her direction of the singers as actors.

The most gratifying example came in the final scene of Siegfried, after the hero awakens Brünnhilde with a kiss. They parry and thrust, slowly revealing their emotions to each other. This can be a tedious affair for the audience, at least until the glorious love duet. Zambello choreographed their courtship with great skill. She made the audience believe that Siegfried was an 18 year-old virgin, frightened for the first time in his life. He had to move away from Brünnhilde at times just to gain control of his hormones. She, too, is a virgin, but wiser than Siegfried and more hesitant about a physical relationship. As she warms to him (and stretches out like a cat after her long sleep), she gains confidence. All this was on the stage. Watching it was, for once, as interesting as listening to it.

Another example came in Act Three of Die Walküre, when Wotan confronts his disobedient daughter Brünnhilde. Most Wotans are predictably angry, then stern, and finally resigned and wistful. Zambello adds something else. Her Wotan crumpled in front of Brünnhilde, crying out in anguish that her disobedience had forced him to shatter his own son’s sword, the sword he had left for him in a tree trunk. Zambello suggests that Wotan’s love for Siegmund was stronger even than his love for Brünnhilde`.

Many of her insights gave great pleasure, or at least challenged convention. The Norns in Götterdämmerung, as they weave the web of fate, are connected to a circuit board. When their cord is cut, the computer crashes, and our stored knowledge is wiped out.

At the opening of Act Two of Götterdämmerung, Hagen is on his bed watching television, his half-sister Gutrune beside him. Hagen makes a play for her, which she rebuffs. Is this meant to parallel the incestuous brother and sister Volsungs?

In the final scene of Das Rheingold, the goddess Freia is normally ecstatic to be freed from the clutches of the giants. Here Zambello suggests that Freia has fallen for the giant Fasolt, and that perhaps they have even developed a sexual relationship. She doesn’t want to leave the giant, even though Loge has ransomed her. She mourns over his corpse after Fafner kills him to get the ring.

And so it went over the course of the four operas. Zambello offered much to consider.

Had all the singing and conducting been at this level, this would have truly been a Ring to remember. At times it was, but not often enough.

The Ring rests principally on three characters: Brünnhilde, Wotan, and Siegfried. This Ring was Nina Stemme’s show. The Swedish Brünnhilde more than fulfilled the strong reviews she has been receiving as a Wagner singer over the past half dozen years. She nailed every “Hoyotoho” at her first appearance in Die Walküre. She was grave and moving in her dialogue with Siegmund when trying to convince him to come to Valhalla. Stemme was most affecting in Act Two of Götterdämmerung when she believes Siegfried has betrayed her. She raged and threw herself to the floor, curling into a ball, singing with anguish. Her immolation at the opera’s conclusion was dignified, with no loss of power despite the role’s demands.

Stemme’s voice is warmer and smokier than was Birgit Nilsson’s, although not as clarion and gleaming as that of the other great Swedish Brünnhilde. This is a role she should own for the next decade, at least.

The audience greeted Stemme with great shouts of approval. Only once in all three of her operas did she have problems with a top note. Otherwise the consistency, strength and beauty of her singing were the musical foundation of the production.

Baritone Mark Delavan grew up with the San Francisco Opera and has sung in 16 productions, so it is not surprising that it would entrust Wotan to him. The part, however, is about two sizes too big for his voice. The top is dry, and the lower register lacks resonance. He cannot provide the flowing cushion of tone on which so much of Wotan’s role rests. Conductor Donald Runnicles often drowned him out (and I was sitting in the fifth row of the orchestra). He doesn’t project his voice well.

He was more convincing disguised as the Wanderer in Siegfried than as the Walküre Wotan, and he was steadiest in his final confrontation with his grandson Siegfried, when his power is broken forever.

If Wotan’s Farewell to his daughter in Die Walküre doesn’t make your eyes well up, Wotan hasn’t done his part. No tears here, I am afraid.

By design, two different singers took on the part of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris was the young Siegfried, and the veteran Ian Storey was the Götterdämmerung Siegfried.

Morris has a lyrical voice, lighter than one might expect for such a killer role. But Morris made it work well. He was lovely to hear. His rhythm was rock solid in the forging scene, which can often go off the rails. He held his own with Stemme in the love duet that ends Siegfried. While he isn’t eighteen, he looked eighteen with his close-cropped blond hair and aw-shucks mannerisms. His voice didn’t ring out as some might like, but he was a credible hero.

Storey suffered a vocal indisposition midway through Act Two of Götterdämmerung, rendering him close to inaudible by the close of the act. Before the Third Act an announcement was made from the stage that Storey had received medical treatment and had agreed to soldier on, begging the audience’s indulgence. He then improved considerably and finished the opera with honor, if not much vocal splendor. Runnicles embraced Storey enthusiastically at the curtain call, signaling that he had rescued the performance.

Still, of the big three in The Ring, only Stemme delivered the real goods.

The other roles were also assumed with widely varying success. Best was the Hagen of veteran Andrea Silvestrelli. With his sinister appearance and booming black bass, he and Stemme carried Götterdämmerung. He met his end fittingly — smothered in a yellow garbage bag by the Rhinemaidens as he made a final lunge at the ring.

David Cangelosi was a strong Mime in Siegfried, a good match for Morris. He captured the oily nature of the character. With his greasy hair, knit cap, and frequent scowl, he could have been Robert De Niro. He even managed a few somersaults of joy anticipating, incorrectly, that he would soon possess the ring.

The vocal star of Rheingold was Stefan Margita as Loge, the trickster who gets Wotan into and out of trouble. Costume designer Catherine Zuber made him up as a corporate lawyer, with slick hair and slicker mannerisms. No character tenor, Margita offered strong vocalism and lots of personality. The audience loved him.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund delivered a lovely Winterstürme, and his invocation of his father Walse rang on and on. He also looks the part of a young warrior with attitude. As his sister and wife Sieglinde, Anja Kampe was a bit disappointing, given her international reputation in Wagner roles. But in Act Three of Walküre, once she knew she was pregnant with Siegfried, her voice took on a gleam and that it had been lacking.

Gordon Hawkins as Alberich lacked vocal weight, and his curse in Das Rheingold, which should be a highlight of the cycle, went for little. Elizabeth Bishop was a solid Fricka, matronly and implacable in her protection of monogamy. In the thankless roles of Donner and Gunther, baritone Gerd Grochowski acted well and sang with confidence. Daniel Sumegi was a bit lightweight as the giant Fafner in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, better as Hunding in Die Walküre.

Special mention should be made of the lovely and vulnerable Rheinmaidens, sung by Stacy Tappan (also the Woodbird in Siegfried), Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum.

Conductor Runnicles dragged some tempos, such as the opening of Siegfried, but he generally whipped up lots of excitement, although not much tension. The orchestral set pieces in Götterdämmerung came off well, as did Hagan’s thrilling call to his vassals and the subsequent chorus. The brass had some rough moments throughout all four operas, including one wrong entrance, but overall the orchestra played well for Runnicles. He is an audience favorite in San Francisco and, other than Stemme, received the loudest cheers.

How should a director end The Ring? With hope for mankind? Despair? After another of Zambello’s video projections showed concrete and ash raining down on the stage in the collapse of Valhalla, along with photographs of all the dead heroes gathered there, she sent out a young girl dressed in a simple gray tunic. She carried a sapling and planted it in soil at the front of the stage. Hokey? Maybe. But for me it was an appropriate ending to an intelligent Ring in which the director had great respect for her audience.

Two additional cycles will be performed beginning June 21 and June 28.

Details Box:
What: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, directed by Francesca Zambello
Who: San Francisco Opera
Remaining performances: Cycle 3, four performances:
Das Rheingold: Tuesday, Jun 28, 2011 8:00 PM
Die Walküre: Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011 7:00 PM
Siegfried: Friday, Jul 01, 2011 6:30 PM
Götterdämmerung: Sunday, Jul 03, 2011 1:00 PM
Performance reviewed: Cycle 1 (June 14 through 19)
Tickets: Single tickets from $95 to $360, call (415) 864-3330 or http://sfopera.com

  2 comments for “June 14-19 SF Opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen

  1. Judie Gorovitz
    June 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Bravo to you David Rubin! You did a wonderful job of describing four confusing Operas. Even to one who is not particularly fond of Wagner. Perhaps I’ll go see a Zambelli-Wagner. Thanks for a great review.

  2. June 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    You go, DR, the review is a Ring-a-ding. Stay on the case!

Comments are closed.