Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Conduit for Sale

June 06, 2011

Nina Stemme, Andrea Silvestrelli, Ian Storey, and cast Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

After years in the making and a late-term abortion in Washington, D.C., Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen reached its conclusion in San Francisco with the opening performance of Götterdämmerung on Sunday. (For those of you who may have forgotten, Washington National Opera was the original venue for this production that only made it through the end of Siegfried before the economy and the company pulled the plug with 2 concert performances of the finale.) Perhaps more than Zambello’s Ring or Wanger’s Ring, or for that matter San Francisco Opera’s Ring or America’s Ring, what has arrived in California is above all else Nina Stemme’s Ring. The company appears to be acutely aware of this. Following a superb performance on her part Sunday, Stemme took a solo bow on the empty stage and was forcibly put forward by Zambello for a third one after her bows with the rest of the cast. The company knows when they have a great thing, and Stemme is it. The following cycles in San Francisco will mark her first appearances as Brünnhilde in complete Ring performances and it is already clear that she is on top of the current heap. No one currently singing before the public can touch the ease and clarity of her top notes in this role and the power with which she manages them. The beauty and effortlessness of the vocal performance was jaw dropping at times. I’ll admit that I wasn’t as certain about the middle and lower parts of her range on this particular Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde afternoon, where the power seemed to drop away at times. But as a total artistic performance, she leaves everyone around I can think of in the dust.

To be honest, the rest of the afternoon could have been horrific and it would have been irrelevant compared to Stemme’s work, but it wasn’t. The much loved and missed maestro, Donald Runnicles was back in the pit for an assured and often lovely performance. I personally could have used a little more dynamic range overall, but the pacing was first rate. Perhaps the biggest vocal surprise of the show was tenor Ian Storey as Siegfried. He’s proven to be a somewhat controversial Tristan, and when he backed out of the Siegfried performances he had originally committed to last month due to inadequate preparation time stemming from a prior illness, eyebrows were raised. He delivers in Götterdämmerung without strain or warble anywhere. His voice is lighter than one might expect, with more a head than chest quality, but also has an athletic ease. He was well paired with Stemme, and they had good stage chemistry, even in some of his more buffoonish moments on stage. There were many other notable performances including the large voiced Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen and Melissa Citro as a vamped-up, man-hungry Gutrune. (More on that later, and for those who don't want any specific spoilers, this may be a good place to stop reading.)

The biggest disappointment in the whole show is Francesca Zambello’s decidedly middle-brow modern-dress production. It’s hard to judge how close or far the production strays from being successful, in part, because Zambello has so many ideological irons in the fire it's not really certain what she is driving at here. It certainly is not the culmination of an "American" Ring as billed by WNO, a fact that Zambello acknowledges in her own program note. She states, "When we began the production in 2005 in Wahington, D.C., the seat of political power, we focused on the misuse of it. In San Francisco, where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment, we placed more emphasis on despoilation." If by this she means we know garbage when we see it, she's right on that count and the whiff coming off this show is mighty suspicious.

At times, this Götterdämmerung comes off as an amalgamation of every directorial idea floated for a Ring cycle in the last 30 years. Zambello’s vision is a standard post-Chereau approach and is simultaneously presented as a number of things including an environmental ring and a feminist ring and others. Wagner's opera are certainly big enough for holding a whole world's worth of ideas. But in the home stretch Zambello's vision is muddled and indecisive. Götterdämmerung now takes place in an identifiable near future on the grounds of an oil refinery. The three Norns appear after the introduction dressed in surgical outfits and busily laying cable. They are behind a scrim where digital circuitry blinks and glows, only to be later replaced with five hours of ominous billowing black and gray clouds. The sets are uniformly static and filled with modernist furnishings Hollywood has misappropriated for decades from their utopian origins in order to signify menace and evil. (See Los Angeles Plays Itself for footnotes.) A sexed up Gutrune and leather clad brother lounge around a massive steel frame atrium in leopard skin bar stools and curvy white sofas. All of this is surrounded by massive amounts of conduit designed to carry who knows what.

Although initially visually attractive, much of the opera visually grows cold quickly. In Act II, Zambello brings on a group of black-clad cowering women following the male chorus during Brünnhilde's arrival in the Gibichung Hall. They skulk around suggesting the Gibichungs have systematically engrained a physically oppressive misogyny as a cornerstone of their culture. The women claw at the comparatively shiny and pretty Brünnhilde like a sort of space rock until she spots her now brainwashed husband. All of this comes home to roost in Act III, which opens in the dry riverbed of the Rhine now strewn with mountains of plastic bottles and other garbage. The filthy Rheinmaidens are busy filling garbage bags with trash until they come across Siegfried in his bright orange hunting outfit and carrying his semi-automatic assault rifle and Nothung. The staging of the subsequent murder is clunky and awkward with Siegfried raising his arm from a prone position when he is returned in the final scene.

Of course, the big finale is when all hell breaks loose ideologically. After Siegfried's body is returned and Brünnhilde arrives, all the men, including Hagen leave the stage leaving Gutrune and the Rheinmaidens as the sole witnesses to her entire climactic aria. When she calls for the funeral pyre to be built, the village women again appear with garbage bags they drop at the back of the stage before the Rheinmaidens douse it with gasoline. Siegfried's body is dumped and Brünnhilde discusses the ring directly with the Rheinmaidens. Hagen returns suddenly for the operas final line only to be tackled by the Rheinmaidens who kill him by suffocating him with one of their bright yellow garbage bags. This bizarre collision of feminist and environmental frames is followed by a rain storm, a flood of water, and the men returning while the photographed faces of the real-life veterans used in Die Walküre fall from the sky. And just in case you weren't confused enough, the old-favorite of a small child in a white gown bringing a tree to plant at the foot of the stage as the gray sky clears to blue wraps up the whole show. And thus ends Wagner's four day music drama on the origins of Arbor Day.

No, I'm not making this up. And to be honest as much as I appreciated the effort, the big finish was more disappointing than anything else. I'm all for unusual challenging productions. Heck, I don't typically care if they are "faithful" to anything in particular or even if they completely make sense. But I'm also for committing to an idea or vision and sticking with it. Zambello's take on the Ring smacks of intellectual desperation in the end, or at least a decision to change horses mid-race that doesn't pay off. Oddly though, all of this doesn't really amount to much when you consider the musical qualities of the show. And missing Nina Stemme would be on the order of the gravest error - like failing to give up a cursed ring. Full cycles kick off in San Francisco next week so stick around for further reports.



You're pretty spot on about everything, though as you'll see when you watch the whole cycle, Zambello's greatest strength is in keeping the narrative and the characters clear and interesting. It's a beginner's Ring, and a very good one, minus the final scene where poor Ms. Zambello ran out of a probable combination of time, money, and ideas.

However, Nina Stemme is God in Her Prime right now, and so is Donald Runnicles. Plus, the rest of the cast is fairly amazing. Compared to what's going on in New York right now, we feel blessed.
Having seen the first two bits of the Met's new Ring in the house and all but the Siegfried in SF, I'd have to agree with your comparison. You all have lucked out (once again I'd say looking at the casting history of the Ring in SF over time) with just about the perfect cast at the perfect time.

And say what I will about the production, it could undoubtedly be much worse and far more boring.
Just saw a Dress of Walküre in SF last night and Stemme was a revelation, indeed. Despite all of the conceptual and aesthetic convolution of Zambello's production, it seems rather a relief after NY and LA's.

I'll say that the video effects are a bit heavy-handed, however.
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