Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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


June 25, 2018

Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen, Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018

On Sunday, the San Francisco Opera closed the second of three performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with a thoroughly enjoyable performance of Götterdammerung. It’s a satisfying performance to be sure if not necessarily a great one. Zambello’s pastiche of themes pulls into the arguable “feminist” phase of the cycle with a focus on the women in the cast – Rheinmaidens, Gutrune and Bünnhilde - gathering together to do what is right. They bring an end to the morally bankrupt order of the gods by returning the gold to its rightful place and offing the likes of Hagen who is suffocated with a bag instead of drowning in the Rhein. All of this is certainly fair game artistically and feminist themes, like the elements of class struggle and the role of environmentalism that permeate Zambello’s production, are interesting, worthwhile interpretative ideas. What’s missing, though, and really what keeps this production from being great in the end, is how painfully spelled out it all is for the audience. Zambello’s direction is often broad and so on-the-nose that there is little room for bewilderment or mystery. Take Act II in this case where the Gibichung men en masse physically assault their wives when the women show support and concern for the wronged and defiant Brünnhilde. It does help set up the role these same women will play in the finale, but it’s also rather labored in its efforts to get the point across. A great production, one that bears viewing over and over, is one that pulls you in but never entirely reveals itself to you. One that always leaves you looking and wondering. One that yields something new on each viewing.

And just as the production fully reveals itself in these final five hours, the musical performance does as well. Donald Runnicles has conducted beautiful performances all week without a doubt. Performances of the Ring have been his hallmark with this company throughout his long association with them. But Sunday, and all of the Ring performances this week, also revealed some changes. His conducting was far less urgent than previously and often more relaxed and methodical. It certainly was an approach that made room for the vocalists on stage, and Irene Theorin continued to deliver real excitement on stage. At times her sound would drift away in the middle range getting lost in the orchestra, but there was never any doubt who was at the center of it all. Daniel Brenna continued to be an energetic and clear Siegfried, and Andrea Silvestrelli was an able Hagen. Perhaps even more important than ideas in an opera production, though, is chemistry. And if the measure is how well all of these artists spurred each other on in a performance is any gauge of success, San Francisco has remounted a Ring cycle that any company should envy.

Waking Up With the House on Fire

June 23, 2018

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018

It’s an unusual distinction, but after its third outing in a decade Francesca Zambello’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen remains consistent - Siegfried is the strongest of the four operas in her vision of the cycle. I was reminded of this on Friday (my third time seeing this particular staging), where I reflected how sad it is that, of all the Ring operas, Siegfried is the most likely to be skipped or overlooked by a general audience. It easily has some of the most beautiful music in the entire work and Zambello’s environmentalist slant fits most nicely here in the deep dark woods. The gods' corruption under Wotan is paralleled by the encroaching forces of a polluted, mechanical world. Zambello's most striking images tie into the coming revolution and rise of the natural world championed by the hero Siegfried and Brunnhilde. In Act II Fafner, now a dragon, is less a prehistoric lizard and more a faceless tank, whom Siegfried destroys by removing crucial circuitry. It’s also oddly perhaps the best take on the dragon I’ve seen. It’s both threatening and a little scary which is saying quite a lot, given the difficulty in staging some of Wagner’s most fairy tale-inspired moments.

American tenor, Daniel Brenna again takes on the role of Siegfried as he did two years ago in Washington, DC. His youthful energy is a natural fit for this most challenging of operatic parts. Siegfried is often criticized as bland and dopey, but Brenna fills him with enough youthful fervor that those criticisms seems less applicable here. Greer Grimsley had a particularly good night as Wotan and David Congelosi’s Mime continues to be a centerpiece to the whole evening. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde awakens after nearly two decades asleep with a questionable blond wig that proves an unfortunate distraction to her remarkably satisfying performance. Apparently one’s hair grows while they are asleep, even if their nails do not. Lucky for this Brünnhilde, the Veronica Lake look still seals the deal with Siegfried, and the love duet that closes Act III is as enthralling as ever.


Hunting Grounds

June 22, 2018


Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018

Opera often seems like a miracle. It’s really just an incredible feat of the hard work of hundreds of artists from different disciplines all working together toward a common goal. But sometimes it still takes some amazing acts of divine intervention for everything to happen when it does.  And much was miraculous about Die Walküre, the second night of Wagner’s Das Ring des Nibelungen as seen in the San Francisco Opera’s current production now on stage. Perhaps the biggest miracle was the substitution of the originally scheduled soprano Evelyn Herlitzius who cancelled just weeks before the opening with the much lauded Iréne Theorin in the central role of Brünnhilde. Finding an artist of Theorin’s stature at the last minute for perhaps the most difficult role in all of opera is one thing; getting her here though was another entirely. Apparently when the current morally bankrupt US administration isn’t busy keeping the county safe from brown-skinned toddlers, opera singers are a close second on their watch list. I’m told every favor imaginable was called in and strings enough for a dozen harps were pulled to get Theorin's visa approved in time under the sad conditions that are increasingly the case in the decline of this once-great nation.

Luckily she did make it and whatever strings were pulled, they were well worth pulling. Theorin was a blazing presence Tuesday, vocally and theatrically. She bounds into Act II with limitless energy clearly pushing all involved from the orchestra and conductor, Donald Runnicles to her Wotan, Greer Grimsley to dig deep. She was thrilling to watch throughout and her fierce, confident tone bore an ease enviable for any vocalist at these echelons of Wagnerian performance. The next miracle was how expertly matched she was with a superb cast across the board. Karita Mattila, an artist with few equals on today’s stage, brought her Sieglinde to town opposite Brandon Jovanovich who reprised his Siegmund from the Ring’s last outing here. Mattila manages frailty, passion, and a growing conviction in her performance that commands everything around her. Jovanovich is noble and warm-toned throughout. Jamie Barton, as Fricka, takes one of the thorniest challenges in all of the Ring's demands. In Act II she manages a mesmerizing, searing turn in straightening out her wayward husband without a decent into caricature. 
These kinds of performances can often go far in making up for a multitude of sins when it comes to a production’s overall quality. But Zambello’s diffuse shifting vision holds steady on this outing. There continues to be enough visual flash and atmosphere to keep things interesting and her parachuting Valkyries excite the crowd as much as they have at any time during the life of this production. The emotional range feels far less telegraphed than it often did during the productions initial run as a confidence and certainty have taken its place. Given that Zambello’s Siegfried has long been a calling care of her Ring production, there is a lot to look forward to this week.


Always Believe in Gold

June 20, 2018


Falk Struckmann as Alberich as Greer Grimsley as Wotan Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2018
Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has returned to San Francisco this June. It’s a welcome return with an excellent cast that I got the chance to catch this week during the second cycle which started last night with Das Rheingold. Wagner is always timely of course so there’s never really a wrong time to reconsider any of his work. And as director Francesca Zambello argues with all the negative going on in the world right now this cornerstone experience of Western art is particularly inviting with its themes of rebirth and redemption. For those of you just now joining the story, Zambello’s Ring was originally a co-production between Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera and was dubbed the “American Ring” in its early development. Of course the original roll out hit a sizable bump in the road following the economic crash of 2008, which nearly finished off WNO, leaving SFO to complete the developmental process on its own halfway through the four premieres. When the completed full version of the work hit the stage in 2011, much had changed and the original American theme had been abandoned half-way through for a more environmentally conscious and concerned one. Still somewhat of a thematic hybrid, the show was a success and eventually arrived in Washington in 2016 to positive reviews and eventually Zambello herself took the artistic helm of that company.

Now, two years later, Zambello’s Ring returns of San Francisco with some tweaking for another run. Das Rheingold more than any other of the operas in this production, still clings to that original “American” conceit. The gods are still dressed like robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th century in contrast to the giants who are clearly denim clad steelworkers invoking a sort of industrial age class warfare. It’s not a radically new concept of course and Zambello does try to even out the thematic issues by crafting some new water and fire video imagery this time around for Rheingold to display during the overture. There are still some issues, however, with overly broad acting and busy stage business between the gods that makes too little of their dignified and regal nature. Still this creakiness doesn’t overwhelm the many great things this Rheingold has going for it and the overall effect still works.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the return of Stefan Margita as Loge. Margita has made this role his all over the world and he has again returned to San Francisco for it. He has mastered the perfect combination of menace, craftiness, and humor to make Loge the central character in this ensemble. Perhaps the other most welcomed return was that of former SFO Music director, Donald Runnicles who conducted the SFO orchestra with real warmth and palpable excitement. Meanwhile familiar faces and voices abounded in the cast with Andrea Silvestrelli, David Cangelosi, Ronnita Miller, Raymond Aceto, Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum all returning from eight years ago.

Of the relative newcomers, the Alberich here, Falk Struckmann was a little slow hitting his vocal stride out of the gate, but by the time he and the others arrived in Nibelheim, he was creepy and powerfully on target. Greer Grimsley, as Wotan, and Jamie Barton, as Fricka, have also joined the cast and did an excellent job of laying the necessary groundwork for the heavy lifting awaiting them in Die Walkure. In the end it was a promising kick off to a reassuringly good production. And isn’t it nice to have something to count on these days?


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