Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
June 25, 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.
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.
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?