Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Morning Person

June 19, 2011

Nina Stemme and Jay Hunter Morris Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

It’s hard to know what to make of San Francisco Opera’s new Siegfried, which had its second performance as part of the company’s new Francesca Zambello-directed Ring cycle on Friday. This is a particularly thorny opera to begin with and arguably the one that has least withstood the ravages of time. Zambello’s meandering focus throughout the cycle as a whole and convoluted thematic interests continue to blunt the overall emotional effect of the proceedings. However, her vision of Siegfried as an opera in its own right is the most intriguing yet of the four operas. And with a cast including Nina Stemme and a really pleasing Jay Hunter Morris in the title role, it actually is one of the better Siegfrieds I’ve personally seen.

From the moment the ever-present video starts to roll on the opening curtain, one gets the sense that the “American” part of this Ring cycle has been long forgotten. The images are filled with an environment under stress including deforestation and polluted air. All of Michael Yeargan’s sets in the first two acts are dominated by post-industrial dystopias complete with smoke stacks, derelict buildings, and garbage everywhere. By the time our youngest and most naïve of heroes is born, the status quo of Wotan’s world is about destruction of the environment and urban blight. Act I takes place outside of a beaten up trailer home surrounded by smithy tools and garbage. Even more intriguing, however, is the reversal of standard expectations in Act II. Here, Fafner’s cave is now an abandoned factory warehouse. Wotan, as the Wanderer, arrives to fine Alberich cooking up Molotov cocktails among the abandon car parts. When our titular hero arrives he is welcomed by the Forest Bird who is now an actual woman on a catwalk above unable to speak Siegfried’s language until that fateful drop of blood is spilled. Initially she gestures toward him as if speaking sign language and when she does talk, their relationship takes on colors beyond man's relationship to bird. When Fafner finally presents himself, it’s inside of a giant futuristic war vehicle like some operatic transformer. It’s all very fascinating to watch and an interesting twist. In the midst of the scene most associated with the beauty of the natural world in all of Wagner’s operas, Zambello has plunked in its place the most dissociated, mechanistic and industrial of imagery. The point is well taken, though, and I felt that it worked exceedingly well despite some oddly added touches like Alberich lighting the fuse on one of his bombs only to extinguish it immediately for no apparent reason and the Forest Bird madly signaling Siegfried not to set the now gasoline-soaked bodies of Fafner and Mime aflame as was his original impulse. Again what this actions has to do with anything is cloudy, but the Act as a whole is more engaging that what you may be accustomed to. (For those of you counting at home, that now brings gasoline-soaking for immolation scenes to a total of two in this cycle.)

Jay Hunter Morris Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

By the time the evening rolls into Act III, however, things start to slide off the rails. The opening interaction between the Wanderer and Erda is played as an (ex-)lovers’ quarrel completing with some fairly aggressive posturing. And when Zambello finally gets the action to the mountaintop, there’s little left to say outside of the cliché gestures she prefers as signs of human interaction. The good news is that unlike Robert Lepage who is increasingly demonstrating to New York audiences that he has little guidance for his actors on stage, Zambello wants her characters to interact and directs them on how to do so. This is not stand and deliver performance, but it is something you've seen before.

For character development and interaction, the audience continues to have to turn to the uniformly strong cast to fill in Zambello's gaps. Jay Hunter Morris plays the title role. He was a last minute replacement for the originally announced Ian Storey who withdrew from the Siegfried performances while continuing in Götterdämmerung. Morris has covered the role elsewhere, and his time in the limelight in San Francisco was remarkably good. He is even in tone with plenty of stamina throughout. He is a bit light of voice for the part overall and can be drowned out at times by the orchestra but he makes up for it with confidence and clear, flowing vocal lines. He treats Siegfried less as a mindless adolescent, and more as a clueless everyday guy. He’s physically appealing as well, and his chemistry with the evening’s Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme, is strong.

Stemme is again excellent and she delivers a Brünnhilde who is the ultimate morning person, bright eyed and radiant even after years of sleep. David Cangelosi sings Mime peppered with comic touches including cartwheels and odd little dances. Mark Delavan’s Wanderer was hit and miss. His Act II confrontation with Alberich was rich and dark compared to his interactions with Mime and Erda. Stacey Tappan, who has made a name playing bird roles here and in L.A. (where she sang both Wagner's Forest Bird and the Raven in Die Vögel), was a lovely Forest Bird. L.A. audiences will also recognize the Erda, Ronnita Miller, who lends vocal nobility to her role, even when the stage directions she is given work against her doing so. The orchestra and conductor Donald Runnicles continue to be wildly popular with the audience. Which I think is true for the overall production. This Siegfried does take off at moments and while these successes often come at the expense of ignoring the context of the prior two operas in the cycle, there is also a free-wheeling quality to the show that lends excitement when mixed with such good principal vocalists.


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