World’s end compels experiencing Wagner’s ‘Ring’ again

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Examiner

By Janos Gereben

The world ended well, after all.

Sunday’s premiere of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco Opera production of Richard Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”) concluded with the rapturous Redemption Theme soaring from the orchestra pit, under Donald Runnicles’ baton, and not much else mattered at that moment.

On an otherwise empty stage (thank goodness for no symbolic trash strewn about), Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), Gutrune (Melissa Citro) and the three Rhine Maidens surrounded Siegfried’s body (Ian Storey) in long dresses — a tableau reminiscent of Greek drama.

The climactic last scene, ending the four-opera cycle, was a conflagration with superb projections, with flames leaping up and ash falling. Then the crowd gathering upstage parted and a small girl entered, carrying a sapling. In a simple, moving gesture, she planted the young tree, and the curtain fell — a new beginning after the end.

This world premiere — original co-producer Washington National Opera staged only the first three operas of “The Ring of the Nibelung” — was notable for five hours of sustained good performances, and three great ones.

As before, Runnicles’ orchestra was brilliant, somewhat less consistently powerful than in “Siegfried” on May 29, but arriving at a world-class Siegfried’s Funeral March and Finale with heart-stopping pauses.

Stemme’s role debut was an event to remember. Even handicapped with a grotesquely frumpy outfit in the second act (to make her less attractive to Siegfried?), she sailed through the difficult part with ease, her voice covering every bit of the range gorgeously, and big moments coming across hugely.

Some listeners may have a problem with the initial graininess in Andrea Silvestrelli’s voice, but precious few Hagens have his kind of scary power, and sonorous, wall-shaking low notes.

Storey’s performances ranged from fine passages, especially in duets, to somewhat squeezed or forced notes.

In spite of the general critical uproar about the lack of volume in the “Siegfried” title role by Jay Hunter Morris, his somewhat underpowered but beautiful singing, was preferable to Storey’s voice and performance.

Gerd Grochowski as Gunther and Gordon Hawkins as Alberich did well.

Norns (Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas, Heidi Melton) and Rhine Maidens (Stacey Tappan, Laurenc McNeese, Renée Tatum) gave fine ensemble performances.

Men of the opera chorus have only one scene in the cycle, during the wedding, and they made the best of the opportunity.

As in her other “Ring” operas, Zambello mixed excellent stage direction with some mildly quirky shticks that didn’t add to the proceedings.

Right from the beginning, she changed the Norns’ weaving of the rope of fate to “laying cables.” Creating sexual situations between Hagen and half-sister, otherwise-engaged Gutrune might have been OK, but why the two in bed must use a remote control, heaven only knows.

Zambello’s Gutrune was definitely too much: her Barbie/teenybopper prancing around was begging the question — why? — just as were Hagen’s black-clad men, looking like Seabees (how au courant), carrying modern weapons.

Michael Yeargan’s sets ranged from nice and clean, as in the last scene, to confusing, crowded pictures. Projections designed by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker were excellent at all times, and could have served as sets all by themselves.

The ending left patrons motivated to start the whole “Ring” cycle again — which will be possible beginning June 14.