Opera review: San Francisco Opera presents a new 'Ring' Cycle
When San Francisco Opera completed its new “Ring” cycle with “Götterdämmerung” on Sunday at War Memorial Opera house, the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme's exhilarating Brünnhilde got a huge ovation. Francesca Zambello, the first American woman to direct Wagner’s macho four-opera epic, was loudly cheered (if also booed by a handful).
The other notable moment during Sunday’s curtain call was when conductor Donald Runnicles hugged a despondent-looking tenor, Ian Storey, clearly trying to buck him up. This Siegfried had had a bad day vocally.
In fact, all the men, in one or another, appear to have nothing but bad days in this woman’s “Ring,” Unlike Achim Freyer’s fanciful, echt-German Los Angeles Opera “Ring” last year, Zambello’s production is a mirror to America, magnifying the mess big business moguls and particularly rapacious oil men have gotten us into.
Developed jointly for Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera, Zambello’s “Ring” began with “Das Rheingold” in Washington in 2006, but that company has been unable to finance a full cycle. “Rheingold” reached the Bay Area in 2008 and “Die Walküre” last summer. “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” which I saw Friday night and Sunday afternoon, were saved for this year's complete cycle.
In “Walküre,” the treasure becomes the source of wealth that built the 1930s skyscraper where Wotan, the king of the gods, has his office. When we catch up with “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” we’ve reached our own time. Mime, the dwarf who raises Siegfried with hopes of getting him to steal the hoard, works out of a trailer in the shadow of a power plant.
“Siegfried” is a nature opera, but nature has almost been banished from the industrial wasteland. The dragon is a tank-like vehicle. The rock Brünnhilde has been exiled to is a bunker.
In “Götterdämmerung,” Gunther and Hagen are brothers who head a big oil firms. We see the huge refinery outside the windows of their fancy high-floor apartment. They have their own private militia. Their sister, Gutrune, with long blond hair, seductively lounges on a sofa, bored with their ruler-of-the-universe ways, plainly sick of men. I give away nothing by reporting that Brünnhilde torches the refinery at the end. It is the only option.
Zambello’s strength is in her focus on personal relationships and her sense of humor. She does show the despoiling of the environment — the Rhine maidens clean up a polluted river. But what she mainly reveals is how women are left to clean up the mess the men make of the world.
It can hardly be a coincidence that the women are more strongly cast in the production. Stemme, the bold and frisky Brünnhilde, went through two Siegfrieds. Storey, who was problematical in an L.A. Opera “Otello” in 2008, dropped out of the title role of “Siegfried” when he arrived in San Francisco for rehearsals, devoting himself only to the heroic role in “Götterdämmerung.”
He is an effective actor, but the strain on his voice was too much halfway through the second act. He returned to finish the opera, after an announcement that he had had a vocal indisposition and had been treated by the company’s doctor at intermission.
Jay Hunter Morris, who took over “Siegfried,” has a likably light voice, fine for the small moments but a nuisance to a soaring soprano having to scale back. In fact, the strongest male singer over the weekend was David Cangelosi, an athletic and funny Mime, the most emasculated character in the cycle. Mark Delavan was a wan Wanderer, the pathetic character Wotan turns into.
Runnicles may have showed his masculinity with the big climaxes the company’s former music director likes to produce, but otherwise even he seemed to go with the flow, getting atmospheric and slightly sodden results from the orchestra.
On the female side, Ronnita Miller was an impressively earthy Erda and Stacy Tappan, a nimble Forest Bird. Melissa Citro’s Gutrune was so effective that it became next to impossible to take her ineffectual brother Gunther or her nasty half brother Hagen seriously (although a sexual electricity between Gutrune and Hagen made for an interesting twist).
Wagner gets ever grander and more cinematic in the progress of his “Ring.” Zambello got less so. Perhaps this was the result of a diminishing budget, but it also seemed one more instance of deflating the composer’s capacious male ego. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes followed suit by being more effective when presenting real characters than mythical ones. The theatrical special effects were left to misty film projections by Jan Hartley.
Artistic advisor of San Francisco Opera, Zambello has lately been grasping at power herself. She has just accepted the same position with Washington National Opera and this summer begins her first season as artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.
I hope she makes it a priority in D.C. to get her “Ring” back up and running where its message is needed most.
— Mark Swed
Photo: Ian Storey, center, as Siegfried in the San Francisco Opera production of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung." Credit: Cory Weaver.