Der Ring des Nibelungen in San Francisco

The final curtain down at last on the second cycle, the audience leapt to
its feet and roared. What was all the fuss about?

The delights of the San Francisco Ring were myriad. The cycle
played out over a mere six days during which Wagner’s drama did not seem to
stop. It was an immersion Ring rather than episodic one as the Freyer
Ring in L.A. seemed over its ten long days, not to mention the Berlin
Philharmonic Ring in Aix-en-Provence that was spread over four

Conductor Donald Runnicles slid into the initial E flat pedal tone
and relentlessly sustained Wagner’s orchestral deliberation for its seventeen
hour duration. The maestro drove an orchestral continuum that was imperceptibly
fleet (it was actually fast), its speed though was calibrated to the careful
articulation of Wagner’s score, the conductor knowing that Wotan’s plight
and designs give rise to riveting music only when they are musically exploited
to the maximum.

Mo. Runnicles achieved a rare transparency of orchestral sound in the War
Memorial, the percolating inner voices of the continuum often shining
brilliantly in the vast space of the hall as they can never do in the
recordings we use to learn and casually listen to the Ring. And too
the vast spaces of the War Memorial allowed huge fortes to roll forth,
immersing the hall in mighty sound, Even the quirks of the hall contributed,
its “golden horseshoe” overhang magnifying the eight horns and double
timpani for those of us seated on the right side of the orchestra.

The careful musical exposition was subject to the largest arc of Wagner’s
myth, the orchestral climax of the entire Ring occurring about sixteen
hours into it, only at the end of the second act of Gˆtterd‰mmerung
when Mo. Runnicles unleashed it all for Br¸nnhilde’s pact with Hagen to
murder Siegfried. This Ring was bigger than its pieces, and we
understood that the usual frenzy we missed at the conception of Siegfried was
measured against the hugely complex dilemma of his death.

It is futile to discuss the concept of the production, San Francisco Opera
touting it as “an American Ring.” There were indeed vibrant
American images, like redwood trees. like American industrial wastelands, but
the Gibichung headquarters was well beyond the 1930’s American skyscrapers
director Francesca Zambello cites in her program book apology, and much more on
the scale of Austrian expressionist Fritz Lang’s immense Metropolis
of his 1927 film. And too the light green behind Br¸nnhilde’s fire seemed
more like a weird color choice that an evocation of escaping industrial

Gott-DR2-3.gifMelissa Citro (Gutrune), Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) and Gerd Grochowski (Gunter)

All these specific images however quietly dissolved into the careful
storytelling that was the hallmark of the Zambello production. Not a musical
motive was left without a corresponding movement on the stage, no musical
interludes were left on an abstract imaginative level but accompanied by moving
projections — clouds, water, trains, fire, more clouds, etc. It was a fully
illustrated Ring (take it or leave it) that (if you took it, and that
took a while) eased you, even gracefully, inside the Ring’s musical

It was an easy, engaging Ring that deflated Wagnerian philosophical
pomposity at every turn with surprising, sometimes funny twists — Alberich
attached to his homeless supermarket cart searched for Faftner with infrared
binoculars, the forlorn Rhine maidens hopelessly picked up plastic bottles from
a dried up river bed, beer guzzling buddies who were actually sworn enemies
downed cases. Not to mention the purely comic book, utterly delightful visuals
for Fafner and Fasolt, or the Valkyries parachuting onto the rocks of Valhalla
(this image said to have been borrowed from a Swedish commercial for a
detergent powder).

Finally the Zambello Ring maybe even arrived at tongue-in-cheek
with the black covered Arab-esque women cowering in the wake of their men,
black uniformed fascistic soldiers of Hagen’s evil army. Not to intimate that
Mme. Zambello did not somehow make all this bring Wagner alive. She did.

Gott-DR2-9.gifNina Stemme (Br¸nnhilde), Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen), Ian Storey (Siegfried) and Ensemble

San Francisco Opera promoted a number of seminars to accompany its
Ring, Anti-Semitism was a big topic, though it was put in succinct
perspective by the Mime of the production, David Cangelosi who rhetorically
asked “haven’t we turned the page on all that?” Distinguished lecturers
examined the Ring in Schopenhauerian terms, a former Buddhist monk
delineated the Ring’s roots in Buddhism. The most convincing of the
philosophical analogies described the Ring in purely Sartrean
Existential terms. (I might also mention a concert of Wagner transcriptions on
the 5000-pipe organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral — the Ride of the Valkyries
executed by four hands and four feet and those 5000 pipes).

Well, none of that for the San Francisco Ring. While there were two
real dogs portraying wolves, a bear played by a real man and a number of
fantastic and dead animals involved, there was no horse at all for Brunnhilde
to ride into the flames. The flames were fed by the downtrodden Gibichung women
and the Rhine maidens throwing the plastic bottles picked up from the riverbed
(tossed there by males in the context of this production). Gutrune, a
male-victimized “moll” embraced Br¸nnhilde and we understood that she was
redeemed. Photographs of the fallen heros rescued by the Valkyries showered
down and at last a young girl planted a tree. Mo. Runnicles had had his fun
with the murder pact, the usually spectacular ending instead was musically
rather resigned.

This was not a minimal Ring created by veteran opera designer
Michael Yeargan. There were four superimposed prosceniums and a sentient floor
(lighted from underneath) that served as the stage mechanism for the Wagner
mega-drama, with full stage screens flying in and out at all depths of the
stage to capture the inexhaustible catalogue of projections developed by Jan
Hartley and her associates. If the freeway interchange under which Wotan saw
Siegmund die and where he murdered Hunding was not life size it seemed so.
Hunding’s mountain cabin was as good as real as was Mime’s wrecked
Airstream trailer.

What, you may ask, held all this together. It was the Br¸nnhilde of Swedish
soprano Nina Stimme who brought bonafide Teutonic style to rock solid vocal
production and muscular physicality to her indefatigably energetic Valkyrie.
This Ring was Br¸nnhilde’s personal story, placed in even higher
relief by the pallid portrayal of Wotan by American bass Mark Delavan, a
performance that effaced the Wagnerian complexities and emotional stature of
this human father cum transcendent being. The suspicion lurks that this was the
intention of Zambello, a suspicion founded on the portrayal of Siegfried as one
step above the village idiot, charmingly rendered by Jay Hunter Morris in
Siegfried, and less vividly but vocally far more convincing by English
tenor Ian Storey in Gˆtterd‰mmerung.

Gott-DR2-14.gifLauren McNeese, RenÈe Tatum and Stacey Tappan (The Rhinemaidens).

There were several performances that stood out among the universally good
performances of the entire cast. The Siegmund of American tenor Brandon
Jovanovich was disarmingly charismatic and Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli
created Zambello’s arch villain Hagen with supreme testosterone gusto.
American tenor David Cangelosi as Zambello’s creepy hobo Mime succeeded in
making the first two acts of Siegfried high points (well, among many)
of the entire cycle.

San Francisco Opera does not seem to have been a competitor in
who-can-spend-the-most-for-a-Ring contest. Still, there went a pile of
gold. One assumes costumer Catherine Zuber was well rewarded for what was an
heroic and immensely successful effort, as was the complex lighting of Mark
McCullough — both seasoned opera pros, like Zambello and Yeargan and their
supporting teams.

It was not a prestigious Ring, like the Aix Ring with the
Berlin Philharmonic in the pit (by the way with the six harps Wagner requires
— San Francisco made do with two) with its elegant, minimalist staging by
StÈphane Braunschweig. It was not an arty Ring imagined in a rarefied
visual language like the splendid L.A. Achim Freyer Ring, nor was it a
big, international house Ring with proven big name interpreters and
the flavor-of-the-day producer (by the way that would be the Robert Lepage
Ring at the Met).

The San Francisco Ring was a good Ring, if a wacky one
that seemed at times like it might even be a spoof. It was however, perhaps
therefore absolutely understandable. The experts may debate how it betrayed or
illuminated Wagner’s musico-philosophic treatise, but they too will admit
that those seventeen hours in the War Memorial Opera House were full of fun and
richly rewarding.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Nina Stemme (Br¸nnhilde) and Ian Storey (Siegfried). [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
product_title=Richard Wagner: Gˆtterd‰mmerung
product_by=Click here for cast and other information.
product_id=Above: Nina Stemme (Br¸nnhilde) and Ian Storey (Siegfried).

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera