Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

It Comes Down to This

June 22, 2011

Nina Stemme and Ian Storey Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Sunday brought the end of San Francisco Opera’s first complete performance of Wanger’s Ring cycle this summer and its first as a company in a dozen years. I don’t have much to add about my comments on director Francesca Zambello’s staging of Götterdämmerung beyond my comments from last week. The second performance of the cycle's concluding opera had changed little outside of Ian Storey’s performance as Siegfried, which crumpled vocally midway through Act II. General Director David Gockley came on stage before Act III to announce Storey was vocally indisposed, but had been treated and would sing the rest of the performance. He carried on with a bit more unsteadiness than before, but he did finish with good energy. Later, Storey was visibly moved to the point of tears as he embraced conductor Donald Runnicles at the curtain call. It was clearly a tough afternoon for him and everyone. There was a sense of exhilarated exhaustion on stage and in the audience when things concluded on Sunday.

The entire cycle appeared to be a huge success judging by the audiences’ reaction. Nina Stemme generated the biggest ovation of all and there were few people I spoke with who were not moved to using superlatives to describe her performance. Already a known Wagnerian soprano, Stemme changed the current landscape for Brünnhildes last week. She completed the tightly packed 6-day performance schedule with a sound a little more humanly worn than it was in the Götterdämmerung premiere two weeks ago. She was a shade harsh in just one or two spots and missed the big concluding note of the Act I duet with Siegfried. But no matter. She’s still unparalleled right now in this role.

The crowd was a perpetually excited one. I saw a number of notables including Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's own Jeffrey Kahane and more than a few national journalists lured out with the promise of seeing Stemme while in town for the meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. Looking at some of the commentary that has appeared under the bylines of the heaviest hitters in classical music writing, it's surprising how little it takes to impress many of them theatrically. There continues to be this strange preoccupation on the need for a sense of humanity in this tale without many actual humans in it. It's as if Narcissus has become the end all and be all of arts criticism with work only rising to the level of importance when we recognize ourselves in it. Ironically, the most "human" moments of Zambello's Ring were categorically the weakest such as the drawn out dull Act III of Siegfried which had mawkish interactions between both Wotan and Erda as well as between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. The calculus is always too obvious and easy: the characters are rolling around on top of one another, ergo they must be in love.

And while the dead tree media was still flexing what’s left of its once prestigious muscles for a company whose management can’t seem to find enough unions to point its fingers at these days, the house was filled with the loving souls of San Francisco’s diverse online opera and music blog community. And really that was one of the best parts for me. I got to see many of the folks whose thoughts and writing I most admire and respect while in town, including Lisa Hirsch, Axel Feldheim, sfmike, Patrick Vaz, John Marcher, and the ever-present Opera Tattler. You should follow them all if you don't already.


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