Revived Staging, Revivified Concept Sharpen S.F. ‘Ring’

Erda (Ronnita Miller) and Wotan (Greer Grimsley) confront the inevitable in Francesca Zambello’s reconsidered
production of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ for San Francisco Opera. The cycle repeats twice more. (Photos by Cory Weaver)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN FRANCISCO – Deep down inside, was Wagner really a feminist? I seriously doubt it, but in the end, San Francisco Opera’s revival of Francesca Zambello’s conception of  Der Ring des Nibelungen seems to steer the conclusion of this mighty four-opera cycle – still the biggest show on earth – in that direction. Just in time for #MeToo, but planned well before the birth of that movement, of course.

Yet the main thrust of Zambello’s production – first seen as a whole here at the War Memorial Opera House in 2011, again at Washington National Opera in 2016, and most recently back at War Memorial in the first of three cycles on June 12, 13, 15, and 17 – is something else, though not unrelated. When I saw her first version of Das Rheingold here in 2008, the concept was rooted in the California Gold Rush. But as Zambello’s ideas evolved, the gradual destruction of nature by humans – and Americans in particular – became the focus (John Adams’ Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West did much the same thing at San Francisco Opera last November).

In ‘Götterdämmerung,’ it’s the women who toss civilization’s debris into the abyss.

In her program note, Zambello disowns the idea of a “feminist approach” while adding in the same sentence, “It suggests the power of female leaders to heal the scars of destruction.” So it is that in Brünnhilde’s culminating Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung – spoiler alert! –  an army of women, assisted by Gutrune and the three Rhinemaidens, toss assault rifles, old tires, the body of Siegfried, and other debris from male-dominated “civilization” into the abyss where they are doused with gasoline and lit aflame. The world is cleansed to the sounds of some of the most eloquently apocalyptic symphonic music ever penned, and a nine-year-old girl (Simone Brooks) silently plants a shrub trimmed to look like a sapling from the world ash-tree. If that ain’t feminism at work, I’m Germaine Greer.

Credit technology (and projection designer S. Katy Tucker) for the main difference between the 2011 production and the present one – vastly improved projections that have changed the look of the San Francisco Opera Ring yet again. The colors are deeper, richer, more complex; the images are both more graphic and more suggestive of the ways in which nature is being attacked.

Wotan (Grimsley) bids daughter Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) farewell.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is accompanied by a blue wonderland of ice crystals and flakes that gradually morph into the water of the Rhine in its pristine state. On the other end of the cycle, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” finds the gushing Rhine waters giving way to a parched river bed and ultimately to a set of grimy smokestacks, lending a bleak, pessimistic tinge to the music that is a surprisingly good fit. The descent into Nibelheim in Rheingold is a spectacular collage of red rock and molten gold; we ride the rails cross-country from the redwoods to a boardroom overlooking New York City in Act 2 of Die Walküre. The panels on the stage floor now have LED lights instead of incandescent bulbs, yielding a much greater variety of color. Overall, despite the gathering gloom and increasingly modernistic, desolate settings as the cycle moves on, this is a beautiful Ring for the eye, more so than ever, a place in which to immerse oneself. I was sorry to leave at the end.

Those who saw Zambello’s 2011 Ring will recognize many of her directorial touches – cinematic references like the Siegmund/Hunding rumble underneath an urban freeway viaduct (hello, West Side Story?); occasional weird humor like the cases of Rheingold beer near Mime’s trailer, and Siegfried slaying Fafner the dragon – a two-ton, scrap-metal compactor – by sticking his sword Notung into the works and short-circuiting the monster. The Norn scene in Götterdämmerung finds the three ladies spinning cables instead of rope; even the supertitles refer to “cables.” That makes a lot of sense since cables, like Wagner’s rope, are today’s conduit for transmitting information, and when the cables break, the images of printed circuits on the scrim turn to static.

Zambello continues to deviate from Wagner when she has no less than three female characters feeling attraction to a captor (Freia to Fasolt), abusive husband (Sieglinde to Hunding), or evil alpha-male (Gutrune to Hagen). It’s the Stockholm Syndrome in action, a recognition that there are complexities in relationships in a male-dominated society that have to be dealt with. But the great majority of the time, Zambello is remarkably faithful to the composer’s wishes as spelled out in his libretto and stage directions. She also has the cast engage in all kinds of detailed stage business that corroborates the storyline and adds depth to the characters’ personalities and motivations. We feel free to care about these characters, perhaps even more so when transplanted into environments that Americans are familiar with.

Swedish soprano Theorin was a last-minute substitute as Brünnhilde.

A highly-experienced Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin came riding Grane to the rescue when the original Brünnhilde, Evelyn Herlitzius, pulled out of the production a month ago for “health reasons.” Swedish sopranos have historically made some of the best Brünnhildes – Nina Stemme from the 2011 San Francisco Ring and of course, the incomparable Birgit Nilsson. Yet the first name that came to my mind upon hearing Theorin’s Brünnhilde was Gwyneth Jones, who sang the role here in 1985. It’s the vibrato – a wide quivering thing that sometimes threw the line off the pitch at high volume – that was the common link. Yet Theorin, who celebrated her 55th birthday the day after completing the first cycle here, showed a fiery temperament and improved accuracy in Götterdämmerung, as well as touching delicacy in the Immolation Scene. All told, she came through in a pinch.

Siegfried (Daniel Brenna), forging his sword Nothung, remains a kid in this cycle.

Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried looked like a boy throughout the cycle – which, frankly, the character is – but his singing was underpowered in Siegfried; one could barely hear him from the eighth row on the orchestra level in the Forging Scene. We were left to contemplate the physical reality of a Brünnhilde-Siegfried final duet in which it looked as if Siegfried had fallen in love with his aunt (yes, that’s what the story says if you take it literally). This Siegfried never grew up, not even near the end of Götterdämmerung where he remained a rather arrogant, corrupted, anti-heroic kid.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan gradually grew in stature – from the young, somewhat debonair, chief god in Rheingold to an all-American CEO who offered an unusually riveting monologue in Act 2 of Walküre, finally assuming full command in graver, grander, more sonorous voice as the Wanderer in Siegfried. Jamie Barton was a terrific, formidable Fricka, rolling her Rs with relish as she laid down the law. Falk Struckmann played Alberich as a prospector at first – the most conspicuous leftover from the original Gold Rush concept – but he soon becomes a brutal mine owner and in Siegfried, a homeless strong-voiced terrorist armed with an assault rifle.

Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglinde (Karita Mattila) sounded glorious.

Brandon Jovanovich sang Siegmund at San Francisco Opera in 2011, and since then, his performance has matured and ripened, capped by a beautifully-sung “Winterstürme” in Act 1 of Walküre. Karita Mattila sounded glorious as Sieglinde, and this combination should have produced a knockout coda in Act 1 to compete with memories of Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer from the 1985 SF Opera Ring. Yet for some reason, the musical tension slackened after Siegmund pulled the sword out of the tree.

Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) hovers over Siegfried (Brenna) and Gunther (Brian Mulligan).

Andrea Silvestrelli’s rich, sinister, true basso, hiding behind an almost amiable exterior as Hagen, was a returnee from 2011, and he doubled as a blunt, dark-timbred Fasolt in Rheingold. Also returning from 2011 was Melissa Citro, whose Gutrune matured from a bored blonde vamp into a high-minded partner in solidarity with Brünnhilde (indeed, they looked like white-clad, long-lost twins); Štefan Margita’s oily, clever Loge; and the Mime of David Cangelosi, who really sings the part without a hint of caricature or whining. Raymond Aceto, who was in the stand-alone 2010 Walküre but not the 2011 Ring, repeated his impressively imposing Hunding and doubled as Fafner, giant and dragon. Ronnita Miller personified the dignity of Erda, and Brian Mulligan (also Donner in Rheingold) sang Gunther with the voice of a king masked by a softness in physical presence that made him easy prey for Hagen. Stacey Tappan’s Forest Bird, delightful as always, was depicted as an idealized young woman (not a hippie) from the 1960s.

Donald Runnicles has conducted `Rings’ in San Francisco since 1990.

The biggest ovations for all four operas were given to a longtime favorite in Bayreuth-by-the-Bay, Donald Runnicles, who started leading Ring cycles here in 1990 and continues to do so even after stepping down as San Francisco Opera music director in 2009. If you categorize Ring conductors as either race car drivers or lingering philosophers, Runnicles tends toward the former, but he always knows where he is going and usually nails the high points. Overall, his Ring has become slightly faster in tempo than it was in 2011 (as well as in his 2008 Rheingold and 2010 Walküre). In Götterdämmerung, Runnicles’ finest outing among the four operas, there was a broadening of tempo and expansion of richness, resulting in a spine-tingling Dawn passage. Once again, Runnicles took off like a rocket at the start of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” to thrilling effect. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played with luscious collective tone and airy clarity throughout the cycle, luxury-class all the way.

As usual in San Francisco, there are two more Ring cycles to go. Cycle Two started with Rheingold June 19 and Walküre June 20; it continues with Siegfried June 22, and Götterdämmerung June 24. Cycle Three opens the following week with Rheingold June 26, and continues with Walküre June 27, Siegfried June 29, and Götterdämmerung July 1.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.