By Robert Markow
Can any city in North America besides New York boast such a long and distinguished history of performances of Wagner’s Ring as San Francisco? As far back as 1891, Emma Juch’s touring company performed Die Walküre there. In 1900, Maurice Grau brought a stellar Ring to the city with names like Lillian Nordica, Johanna Gadski, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Edouard de Reszke. In 1935, thirteen years after the present, permanent company was founded, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave its own first Ring cycle with a cast to lust after: Flagstad, Melchior, Schorr, List and Rethberg among them. There was not another cycle given until 1972, but all four individual operas were presented periodically in the meantime. The 1956 Walküre starred Birgit Nilsson in her American debut; Nilsson also sang all three Brünnhildes in the 1972 cycles, alternating with fellow Swede Berit Lindholm. Further cycles were given in 1985, 1990 and 1999. In all, prior to the most recent cycles given in June 2011, the company had presented 33 Rheingolds, 73 Walküres, 21 Siegfrieds and 19 Götterdämmerungs for a total of 146 individual performances, many featuring leading interpreters of the day in their roles.
These impressive facts and figures were gleaned from the splendidly produced program book SFO provided to attendees of its latest Ring adventure, so it is all the more disheartening to report that this Ring, seen June 14-19 in the first of three cycles, showed such a marked decline in artistic standards.
Many reviews of the Ring begin with a lengthy exegesis on the production itself. I propose instead to get right to the heart of the matter – the orchestra, which Wagner himself considered the most important element of his Ring.
It seems almost inconceivable, in this day and age, when conservatories are churning out ever-more brilliant instrumentalists by the truckload, that a major city like San Francisco could not find better musicians to put in the pit. Despite the full complement of woodwinds and brass and a sizable string section of 51 players, the orchestra sounded feeble, undernourished and lacking in confidence, even though it had been delivering performances of the individual components of the Ring over the past few years. A few bobbled notes among the millions in the fourteen-hour marathon could be accepted. What was not acceptable were the frequently foul intonation (I actually found myself wincing at times), the sloppy rhythms, the misplaced accents and the inability of sections to blend. The principal horn sounded blatty, the trumpet blared, the timpani thudded. Cellos were so thin as to be barely audible when they were needed most – as the river begins to flow at the beginning of Das Rheingold, in Act I of Die Walküre, at the outset of the Rhine Journey, etc. Mere volume does not replace power, depth and weight of sound. Throughout, the orchestra sounded like it was struggling. Only the double basses had real body to their sound. Out of curiosity, I checked my notes for the cycle I attended back in 1985. I thought the orchestra then was outstanding.
Donald Runnicles is highly regarded in many circles not only as one of today’s leading conductors but a Wagner specialist as well. Not in my circle. The opening of Das Rheingold set the pace for all that was to follow. This was a Rhine slathered in sludge. By the time the Rhinemaidens began to sing there was still no motion in the waters, at last audibly (visually was another matter – see below). So much of the music lacked momentum, drive, passion, and above all tension. There was never a sense of the long line. Or even the short line. Every time we heard the Treaty motif it sounded more like the musicians had simply run out of notes to play rather than arriving at a destination upon hitting the lowest note of the long, descending scale.
The singers were a mixed lot, as they almost always are in a production requiring over forty characters. Far too many were miscast. Some had good voices but not for Wagnerian roles. The Siegfried Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, had a well-focused sound but was more of a light lyric than a heroic tenor. Making matters worse, he was required to sing his Forging Song from the back of the stage, rendering it next to inaudible. The Götterdämmerung Siegfried, Ian Storey, was suffering from an intestinal flu that left him badly dehydrated and unable to show his true worth. (He gamely pushed on to the end, but where was the understudy?) Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) lacked bite and menace (his curse sounded more choked than threatening), Wotan (Mark Delavan) had nowhere near the vocal heft or commanding presence required for the role, Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) was afflicted with a vocal idiosyncrasy that rendered his voice pinched and nasal, Hunding (Daniel Sumegi) bellowed in the upper range but had no projection in the lower. Likewise, Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) was strong on top, even heroic at times, but weak at the bottom. Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) was appropriately sweet and caring but tended to sing with a single color. Melissa Citro, in the roles of both Freia (note: the goddess of youth and beauty) and Gutrune (here tarted up to resemble a Playboy bunny) ironically had a most unappealing, raspy edge to her voice.
And now (finally!) for the good news. A great new Brünnhilde has arrived. In her first complete Ring cycle, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, following in the glorious tradition of fellow Scandinavian Brünnhildes like Flagstad, Varnay, Nilsson and Lindholm, poured forth stream after stream of luscious, golden sound, never forcing or shouting, regal yet human, displaying endless stamina and rightly earning the audience’s near-delirious applause. The high notes gleamed, the low ones cut effortlessly through the thick orchestra. By turns Stemme exuded joy, terror, exultation, fear, defiance, rage and tenderness at a level of intensity unequalled by any of her colleagues.
There were other fine voices. Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) displayed a large, plump sound that carried well and conveyed outraged righteousness without shrillness. David Cangelosi’s Mime was another standout, especially in Siegfried, with his wide range of expressive detail and well-honed acting skills. One almost felt sorry for him when Siegfried struck him dead. Then there were the Norns, another vocal highlight of this Ring, individually delivering their strands of the narrative with richly-textured nuance and collectively constituting a well-blended trio. The First Norn in particular (Ronnita Miller) could easily have served as a Jessye Norman stand-in.
This brings us to Francesca Zambello, the first American woman to direct the Ring. An American Ring it was, to some extent, and a woman’s Ring to be sure. The Rhine became an American river bed where Gold Rush 49ers went panning for the precious metal. In Die Walküre, Hunding and Sieglinde’s abode was a neatly-kept country house furnished in American Colonial style (though with an Ash Tree growing through it). Wotan and his crowd ruled from a skyscraper. Mime scraped out a meager existence in a cramped trailer home on a construction site, while Gunther and Hagen lounged about in a spiffy high-rise apartment building overlooking a disgusting oil refinery. Clearly the message here was that rapacious oil barons (all men) are wrecking our environment and quality of life, while it is left to the women to clean up their misadventures. By Gotterdammerung, the Rhinemaidens were collecting endless bags of refuse and taking the whole concept of Euro-trash to new depths.
It requires only minimal reflection to realize that there are no truly honorable or respectable male characters in the Ring other than Siegmund and perhaps Fasolt, while it is a woman (Brünnhilde) who redeems the world with a little help from her female “friends”: the Rhinemaidens, the Norns, a Forest Bird, Erda and Sieglinde, who even helped Siegmund wrench the sword from the tree trunk. And why not? She’d been living with the thing far longer than he had! Gutrune and the Rhinemaidens join Brünnhilde in watching Valhalla burn. I have no problem in watching a Ring with a feminist twist. And was it purely coincidental that Zambello’s cast was far stronger in women’s voices than in men’s?
Where Zambello fell short was a certain lack of consistency and in the interpolation of irrelevancies. In the opening scene of Das Rheingold, Alberich wandered in clutching a map (doesn’t he live there?). The giants gently descended from the flies sitting on a construction beam, totally at odds with the ponderous music that accompanies their entrance. There was a massive amount of gold lying about Nibelheim waiting to be carted away, yet only a few measly sacks of it were brought up to ransom Freia. The most realistic bear I have ever seen in Siegfried was wasted when it ambled into Mime’s trailer camp – bears don’t hang around urban construction sites.
Whatever one may have thought of Zambello’s work, it certainly could not be faulted for lack of visual stimulus. Complemented by Michael Yeargen’s imaginative sets and Mark McCullough’s colorful lighting designs, there was almost constantly something visually engaging, even arresting, either from the characters or in the form of video projections (swirling clouds, water, industrial wastelands, construction sites, etc.), which at times, especially during the orchestral transitions, flowed with cinematic effect (intentionally so, as Zambello freely admitted to influences from iconic films like Mad Max and Deliverance). The Rhinemaiderns frolicked amidst a wondrous watery world of sweeping currents and gushing fountains. Nibelheim was positively hellish, with its great wall of rock at which a small army of Nibelungs chipped away amidst a sickly red glow. It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic swordfight at the end of Act II of Die Walküre, or a more energetic brood of Valkyries in Act III. Brünnhilde went to sleep surrounded by so much real flame that she and Wotan had to wear fire-retardant clothing and a fire marshal’s presence was required. There was a good deal of physical contact, which at times things got out of hand, as when Freia became attracted to one of her abductors (Fasolt), or when Hunding and Sieglinde inexplicably showed genuine affection for each other, or when Wotan roughly shoved Erda around in Siegfried. In one of Zambello’s most egregious departures from Wagner, she had Gutrune in bed with Hagen as the curtain went up on Act II of Götterdämmerung, resulting in snickers from the audience and total sabotage of the mood. Take it or leave it, this was the very antithesis of a stand-and-deliver production.