S.F. Opera ‘das Ende’ is Not the Last Word

By Janos Gereben

Guest reviewer

June 5, 2011, San Francisco Opera

The world ended well, after all.

The premiere today of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s "Götterdämmerung" 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 scene reminiscent of Greek drama.

In the climactic scene, even with Brünnhilde’s torch going out (and no sign of her horse, thankfully), in the conflagration with superb projections, flames leaped up, and ash fell, but then the crowd gathering upstage parted and a young girl (Ella Ledyard) 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 — the original co-producer Washington National Opera staged only the first three operas — was notable for five hours of sustained good performances, and three great ones.

As before, Runnicles’ orchestra was brilliant again, somewhat less consistently powerful than in last Sunday’s "Siegfried," but arriving at a world-class Siegfried’s Funeral March and Finale, with heart-stopping pauses and everything done exactly right.

Stemme’s role debut was an event to remember. Even handicapped with a grotesquely frumpy outfit in the second act (an apparent symbol of Brünnhilde’s shame and her forced marriage), she sailed through the difficult role with ease, her voice covering every bit of the range gorgeously, her big moments coming across huge.

Some listeners may have a problem with the initial graininess in Andrea Silvestrelli’s voice, but I remember precious few Hagens with his kind of scary power.

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, I — apparently for one — preferred his somewhat underpowered, but beautiful singing 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. The men’s chorus sang big, but without the kind of pinpoint focus that resonates in the listener’s midsection.

As in her other "Ring" operas, Zambello mixed excellent stage direction with some mildly quirky and "unhelpful" shtick. Right from the beginning, she changed the Norns’ weaving of the rope of fate to "laying cables" (also changed in the subtitles). 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 (of why?), just as were Hagen’s black-clad men, looking like Seabees (how au courant!), carrying modern weapons.

Michael Yeargan’s sets range from nice and clean (such as the last scene) to confusing, crowded pictures. At all times, projections – designed by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker – were excellent, perhaps could have served as sets all by themselves.

Withal, at the end, one was motivated to start the whole cycle again — which will be possible beginning June 14.

San Francisco Opera

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