Zambello’s “Ring” Comes Full Circle in SF

Donald Runnicles
Musical America

By Georgia Rowe

SAN FRANCISCO -- The final pieces in the San Francisco Opera’s new staging of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” fell into place over the last two weeks at the War Memorial Opera House. With the opening of “Siegfried” on May 29 and “Götterdämmerung” on June 5, the company finally realized its long-awaited “American” Ring, created as a coproduction with the Washington National Opera. The new stagings join “Das Rheingold” (introduced here in 2008) and “Die Walküre” (2010) in the company’s first complete “Ring” cycle since 1999; conducted by Donald Runnicles, three complete cycles will be presented through July 3.

Director Francesca Zambello’s concept sets Wagner’s epic of greed and redemption in a distinctly Western landscape. In her Gold Rush-era “Rheingold” and post-Industrial “Walküre,” the director gives us Wotan as a captain of industry, Hunding as a gun-toting backwoods survivalist, the Valkyries in aviatrix leather. Zambello brings the American theme forward in the toxic-contemporary “Siegfried,” which opens in a grimy squatters’ camp; a trailer, its side wall cut away, serves as Mime’s cave. Before a landscape of waste dumps and power lines, the dwarf hammers out scraps of twisted metal; his forge is an old barbecue pit. Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, resembles an aging country music star in a long leather coat. They all swill beer – with the “Rheingold” label, of course.

Fafner’s lair suggests a parking structure – square concrete, with metal walkways overhead – and the dragon emerges from an outsized trash compactor. Alberich is a workman pushing a shopping cart. Nature, when glimpsed, is blasted: Wotan meets Erda amid a stand of monumental rocks, where he muscles her to the ground in a show of physical dominance; Siegfried encounters Brünnhilde on a craggy outcropping.

“Götterdämmerung” continues along the same lines. The Norns, in acid-green scrubs, toil inside a giant computer, trying to connect cables amid circuit boards and glowing piles of E-waste. The Gibichungs’ living room – a chilly chrome-and-glass cage strewn with louche leopard pillows – looks over a smoke-belching power plant; Gutrune, a mincing trophy wife, wears a halter dress and long blonde wig. The Rhine maidens return to a riverbed fouled by plastic bottles, old tires and rusty car parts; they collect the bottles in trash bags, throwing them onto the pyre along with Siegfried’s corpse.

The approach both expands the characters and diminishes them. Linking the fall of the Nibelungs with the decline of the American empire is as good a premise as any. But the predominant effect is banal, and the details are often incomprehensible, even risible:  the Forest Bird as a preppy administrative assistant, a Siegfried who might have stepped from a biker bar. And surely Wagner never intended Hagen to die with one of those yellow trash bags over his head.

Yet audiences at the remaining performances will be grateful for Donald Runnicles, who conducted the orchestra in a performance of beauty and unmitigated power, and for the Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme. The Swedish soprano, who makes her complete “Ring” cycle role debut as Brünnhilde this summer (she introduced her Brünnhilde here in the 2010 “Walküre”), emerges as the cast’s sole Wagnerian of unimpeachable credentials; wedding dramatic urgency with potent, laserlike streams of vocal sound, she sang with distinction in “Siegfried” and simply dominated “Götterdämmerung,” even though it was her role debut in the opera.

In the title role of “Siegfried,” Jay Hunter Morris sang with tenderness, but missed much of the role’s heroic heft. Mark Delevan was a suitably dark-hued, if rather muted, Wotan. David Cangolesi was a vibrant, uncommonly agile Mime. Gordon Hawkins voiced Alberich with authority; Ronnita Miller introduced an Erda marked by beautiful tone but insufficient power.

“Götterdämmerung” brought the company debut of Ian Storey in the role of Siegfried; the British tenor exuded muscular appeal, but produced mostly tight, constricted tone. Gerd Grochowski was an insinuating Gunther, Melissa Citro was a lemony Gutrune. As Waltraute, Daveda Karanas offered urgency and variable pitch. Andrea Silvestrelli's menacing Hagen sounded shorn of vocal beauty. Runnicles supplied the consistency that is lacking in concept and casting; in both productions, the conductor led majestic, enveloping, even incendiary performances. He presided over the company’s “Ring” cycles in 1990 and 1999; he’s now music director emeritus, but in these performances, the solid sound of the orchestra suggested he’d never left.