Building a “Ring”: SFO Unveils Wagner’s “Siegfried”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA presents “Siegfried” by Richard Wagner

Siegfried’s Up, Can the ‘Ring’ Be Far Behind?
BY JANOS GEREBEN: May 30, 2011

Special guest reviewer

In a musically superb production, San Francisco Opera premiered the third of Richard Wagner’s four-opera Ring of the Nibelung on Sunday, in advance of three full cycles in the War Memorial Opera House, June 14-July 3.

Notwithstanding recent financial challenges and near-disasters for “Ring” productions elsewhere, David Gockley’s company keeps forging the $24 million cycle, today adding the West Coast premiere of the Francesca Zambello-directed Siegfried.

(The originally planned coproduction of the “Ring” with Washington National Opera fizzled out when the East Coast company ran out of money after Siegfried. )

Following the 2008 Das Rheingold and the 2010 Die Walküre, the company is premiering Siegfried and Götterdämmerung within a week, in advance of the full cycles.

The glory of today’s performance was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Donald Runnicles, who made his debut here 21 years ago with the “Ring,” conducting dozens of productions since here and in Europe.

Wagner’s music, of course, is both very “big” and intricately nuanced; Runnicles covered the extremes, and everything between, leading near-perfect orchestral playing. For five hours, the strings were silk-smooth and together, woodwinds singing freely, the brass impeccable. Sitting stage left, close to the brass, I experienced a few instances of the orchestra overwhelming some of the singers briefly, but I’d like to believe that had to do with my position.

This is production is especially attractive to that relatively small number of people who go to the opera for the music rather than the opportunity to take singers apart or denounce the production. Wagner = music: and that’s what you get out of the wonderful work in the pit here.

This is not to ease into a criticism of the singers. The cast ranged from good to excellent. The latecomer (Act 3) Brünnhilde, soprano Nina Stemme, is on a par with the storied Wagnerian sopranos of the past. Her scheduled role debut next Sunday as the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is an exciting prospect.

Mark Delavan’s Wotan was vocally restrained, but his musicality and superb diction ultimately came through. His duet with Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich provided a rare baritone summit. David Cangelosi’s Mime was vocally exactly right, despite all the stage shtick he was required to perform (see below).

Ronnita Miller was a fabulous Erda, a towering presence, with a stunning vocal range. Stacey Tappan, the Forest Bird in human form, had an all-around winning performance.

And so, to the title role. Jay Hunter Morris is the very definition of a heldentenor, with a forward sound, an edge to the voice, and a natural pitch. He had a good day, in spite of what is lacking: a voice big enough to be both heroic and able to cut through the orchestra at all times (regardless of where you’re sitting). It may be just a personal preference, but I’d rather take a beautiful performance like this (save for instances of “squeezing”) than a great big voice, which might not serve the music as well.

Zambello’s “decaying American landscape” and “world ravaged by greed and neglect” — complete with Michael Yeargan’s sets with piles of garbage, polluted water, smoke-belching chimneys, and every possible reminder to the main theme — is OK if you do the right thing, and focus on the the music. The concept is not outrageous, just tiresome.

Zambello’s strength is not in concepts, however, but in her attention to small details in the midst of this largest of music dramas. Just as Runnicles’ orchestra brings transparency to the big-music score, revealing moments rarely heard in the score, Zambello’s actor-singers focus on gestures, expressions even while Giants stomp, Valkyries fly, and fire consumes the world.

Few directors pay attention to subtleties of the Hunding-Sieglinde relationship in Die Walküre — he is the brute oppressor, all-around bad guy; she is the radiant heroine: what can be simpler? Zambello, however, “humanizes” both by having them standing close, touching each other as an “old married couple” would, even under the extraordinary, symbolic circumstances. The result is flesh-and-blood people, not cardboard figures.

She carries that through in Siegfried, but grossly overdone. Zambello’s best is in the third-act love duet, supposedly between goddess and hero, but in fact – and as seen by the director – between two inexperienced, shy, confused *people*. It works really well, as they circle each other, first warily, at the end in a giddy romp.

Zambello’s worst is making Mime afflicted with St. Vitus’ Dance – moving, twitching, climbing, even doing an (impressive) series of cartwheels. Pace, pace! Cangelosi comes through it all, to his credit, singing well all along. But why handicap the singer and annoy the audience?

On the other hand, the monster machine inhabited by Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) makes a good dragon-variation, and Mark McCullough’s dramatic lighting is excellent.

Attention to detail and a sense of playfulness score frequently, such as having cases of beer outside Mime’s poor-white-trash trailer – they are Rheingold Extra Dry (ugh!), on closer inspection cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (ugh!) with the Rhinegold label pasted over.

Just one more reminder: above and beyond all, there is the music, played so well that it’s well worth swimming through polluted rivers for once or twice more.

For more information visit San Francisco Opera

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