San Diego, June 28, 2011
By David Gregson
Sleep appears to be a major metaphor in Wagner’s "Der Ring des Nibelungen." Erda is sleeping and has to be summoned from a fathomless depth. Fafner sleeps in his cave. Brünnhilde sleeps for several years protected from strangers by a circle of magic fire. Hagen is sleeping when Alberich whispers into his semi-conscious brain. Siegfried may not be literally sleeping, but he is certainly unaware most of the time. He is always a dupe — first deceived by his "father" Mime, and then by the drug of forgetfulness Hagen slips into Siegfried’s drink. When our hero at last wakes up, it’s too late.
Siegfried, to be sure, performs fewer heroic deeds than almost any other hero I know of in literature. Before the famous Immolation Scene, Brünnhilde refers to him as the greatest hero — but what’s he really done but slay a dragon and walk through fire? (Aeneas is a greater hero by far, and what about Hercules who performed so many heroic acts that nobody can recall just what they all were about.) And Wagner clearly thinks Siegfried is a hero because Wagner gives him the most stupendous heroic funeral music ever conceived! Perhaps it is because Siegfried, something of a noble fool to be sure, has unwittingly destroyed the power of Wotan, his own Father (as in God the Father) and the king of the gods.
Because "The Ring" goes on and on for so long, one might sarcastically suggest that Wagner is trying to put everyone to sleep, but there was little opportunity to nod off in San Francisco Opera’s "Ring" (I saw Cycle two) thanks to the fascinating concept and meticulously thought-out stage direction of Francesca Zambello. How she got all these singers to act as if they were in the Moscow Art Theatre, I have no idea. As a friend said to me, "It’s like watching a production of Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ as directed by Stanislavsky." Of course, neither I nor my friend has ever seen the Moscow Art Theatre, but the idea behind the remark remains true. And I might add — the best Chekov productions are usually rather funny. Zambello brings an extraordinary amount of humor into the entire "Ring" cycle. And as for the domestic tragedy — no director in my experience has ever brought out the text and its meaning with such stunning clarity.
Of course, the Zambello concept for the piece was powerfully and unambiguously staged in a fashion that is certain to have spoiled the "Ring" for very many people. Michael Yeargan (set designer) and Jan Hartley (projection designer) give us a world rapidly declining into a heap of rubbish thanks to Man’s greed and lack of respect for Nature. It’s an unrelenting concept — but executed, I think, rather well and generally makes sense within the context of Wagner’s story. Certain details are off — way off! — because of the fusion of mythic acts and modern realities. In a world where people tote automatic weapons, why does Siegfried need the sword Nothung? He shouldn’t be forging steel but amassing machine guns. One has to overlook such logical discrepancies.
Other things work very well. The Rhinemaidens, their gold stolen from them and their world destroyed, are reduced to being bag ladies collecting empty plastic water bottles. Makes sense to me even if it is also more than a bit hilarious.
As for the singing — everyone knows that several Golden Ages of Wagner singing are past, but this particular cast makes part-by-part comparisons a not very tempting activity. Many of the singers (mentioned in my previous reviews) were and are excellent — and Nina Stemme was so good as Brünnhilde, there was no way I had time to meditate on memories of Birgit Nilsson or (from recordings) Kirsten Flagstad.
Perhaps the Siegfrieds were weaker than one would ideally like to hear. But both Ian Story and Jay Hunter Morris wrestled rather well with the nearly impossible.
And nobody has ever beenmore effective or as amusing than David Candelosi as Mime; he made every minute of this often annoying role a total pleasure.
I was surprised to discover that several newspaper critics and Opera-L folks have found fault with conductor Donald Runnicles. Of course the orchestra is not the Met’s! What orchestra is? And, yes, there are more thoughtful, slowly paced "Rings" to be heard here-and-there and on recordings. But Runnicles was thrillingly dramatic — an approach that perfectly fit Zambello’s unique and wonderful production.