Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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“Götterdämmerung”: Strong Finish to the First Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2011

June 20th, 2011

This is the fourth report on the first complete performance of the tetralogy of operas that comprise Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Although most of concept director Francesca Zambello’s ideas for staging the work have surfaced over the past five years, as the first three of the four operas debuted with Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, and “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” had been seen in San Francisco in previous seasons, neither the final opera “Götterdämmerung” nor the “Ring” in its entirety has been staged to date in the nation’s capital.

These latter projects – the presentation of the final opera and of the “Ring” as a whole – became the mission of the San Francisco Opera and its General Director David Gockley, now in the sixth year of his tenure, who proved to have the will and the ability to raise the revenues to complete and mount the final product.

Seven previous reviews of the individual operas of the Zambello “Ring” have been posted on this website prior to this first complete “Ring”. Added to these seven reviews are my reports on the three previous operas of the first of three scheduled “Rings” (presented on the first, second, fourth and sixth days of the six day period June 14-19, observing the classic “six day ‘Ring'” format). Thus, this review is the 11th in this series to appear on this website.

Those past reviews have expressed a deep appreciation for Zambello’s ideas and their implementation, so readers should not be surprised by a final judgment that Zambello has achieved an unqualified artistic success.

My reports on the previous performances of this first “six day ‘Ring'” may be read at “Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011

and Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011

and Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring: Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011.

The week prior to the first “Ring”, I also reported on San Francisco Opera’s first performance of the fourth opera in the tetrology, “Götterdämmerung”. Because that performance and this being reviewed are the same production with the same cast, I reference my previous review at: Glorious “Götterdämmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011. The remarks relating to the June 5th performance remain unchanged, and what follows is intended  to supplement and illuminate my earlier thoughts.

My Broad Reactions to the Completed Work

In my review of the June 14 2011 “Rheingold” (and, indeed in my “Walkuere” reviews of 2010), I raised the point that the Zambello “Ring”, certainly more than any of the previous “Rings” (a respectable number) that I had attended, came to be built around a heightened understanding of the motivations of each individual character throughout the four operas. I use the term came to be, because I suspect that the original sketches for this “Ring” approached the subject from broad social or economic themes (in the way certain European productions of the “Ring” throughout history have been derived).

Imagine if the characters start out to be a symbol of something – say, Alberich, Mime and Hagen represent some concept and Siegmund and Siegfried something else and Sieglinde and Bruennhilde yet another idea – and a student of Stanislavsky or Lee Strassburg or some other school of method acting – has stopped the process and said “You’re not an idea, you’re a person. What would a person with your concerns do at this point? And if  you do that, how will the other artist onstage with you react to what you do, and then you to that other artist’s reaction?”

Obviously, this is stating in very elemental terms a particular approach to theatre – one not necessarily associated with Wagnerian opera. And even concept directors who are determined to move Wagner performance away from the “stand and sing (stereotypically holding a spear)” ways of old, may move in very different directions from a desire to articulate theatrically what makes that particular character tick. (For an example of a Wagnerian production where “method acting” is banished entirely, see: “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway?.)

Building a Character Throughout the “Ring”

There are 11 characters in the “Ring” that appear in two or more of the four operas. “Das Rheingold” introduces the River Maidens Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde (returning in the fourth opera), Alberich (also in the third and fourth opera), Fricka (second opera), Wotan (second and third operas), and Fafner, Mime and Erda (third opera). The second opera, “Walkuere” introduces the valkyrie Waltraute (back in the fourth opera) and the third opera “”Siegfried’s” title character also appears in the fourth opera.

It was obviously the decision of Zambello and/or the San Francisco Opera to use the same artist throughout the “Ring” every time that artist’s character appears. Circumstances led to the character of Siegfried being divided between two artists, each singing the role in one of the two operas in which he appears, but this was not the original intent.

It’s rather more common for the roles of the “Rheingold” and “Walkuere” Wotans to be split, as the Siegfried roles often are. It’s rather more extraordinary to assign the same artist the Waltraute roles in “Walkuere” (one of eight valkyries whom even veteran attendees of “Ring” performances may have trouble identifying as individuals as they move around the stage) and in “Götterdämmerung” (a character in an extended scene with Bruennhilde, requiring a large voice). But Daveda Karanas performed both and deserves kudos for an immensely successful effort).

[Below: Waltraute (Daveda Karanas, left) brings Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme) news of the decline of Valhalla; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

High Drama in the Second Act

I have long believed that a strong case can be made that the two best acts in all of opera are the second and third acts of “Götterdämmerung”. The second act begins with Alberich’s appearance to Hagen in a dream, continues through the rousing choruses greeting what will be the aborted double wedding ceremonies, and concludes with the oath between Hagen, Gunther and Bruennhilde to destroy Siegfried.

One would imagine that a production designer tasked to lighten up the second act’s usually dour first scene, while not departing from the storyline, would find the task daunting. But Zambello adds light-heartedness to even this scene, beginning it with Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) sharing his bed with Gutrune (Melissa Citro) as the two watch a TV, switching channels with their remote control. She scampers off, while Hagen downs a sleeping pill.

In Hagen’s dream, Alberich ascends from beneath the floor and exhorts him to continue on his part in with the strategic initiatives that Alberich has set in motion for the family business. After Hagen drowsily assures Alberich that he will do as his father asks, Alberich uses the remote to turn off the TV and the scene ends.

[Below: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins, top) demands assurance that his son, Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) will do what he needs to do for Alberich to regain control of the Nibelung Ring; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This scene is followed by one of the grandest choruses in all of opera, in which Hagen summons the Gibichung vassals (whose weapon of choice seem to be AK-47 assault rifles, but a couple of whom are content with steel cross-bows). But one of the great hochdramatische scenes of the “Ring” occurs when the disconsolate Bruennhilde, overcome by force by a drugged Siegfried wearing the magic Tarnhelm, suddenly discovers that he and she are both to be in a double wedding, but not to each other. Perhaps there are scenes of confrontation in Wagner and the rest of opera that match this, but I believe none excels it.

[Below: the wedding part assembles in the Hall of the Gibichungs; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Siegfried, his memory obliterated by a magic potion, cannot understand the accusations of him she is making, and assures that the Nibelung curse will take his life also, by swearing that she accuses him falsely on the point of the spear that will kill him.

[Below: Siegfried (Ian Storey, left) who believes he is about to marry Gutrune (Melissa Citro) is astonished at Bruennhilde’s charge that he is already married to her instead; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

(Ian Storey, the Siegfried, who had been ill earlier in the day, was exhibiting obvious vocal distress in this scene, but with proper medical attention and rehydration in the intermission between the second and third acts was able to complete the opera with reasonable success).

The act ends with the great trio between Bruennhilde, Gunther and Hagen in which they join forces to bring about Siegfried’s death at a hunting party the next morning.

[Below: an oath of vengeance is sworn by Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, front left) and Gunther (Gerd Grochowski, right) on the point of the spear of Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There is an antidote to the potion that produced Siegfried’s memory block, that had led him to betting his life on not having done the deed of which he is accused. That antidote is another potion that not only restores his memory, but prompts him to tell the assembled hunting party how he did what he had sworn on his life that he had not done. This proves to be a fatal error, and begins the series of events that lead to the destruction of the world of the gods.

[Below: Siegfried (Ian Storey, in orange hunting gear in center) reveals that he made love to Bruennhilde when he awakened her from her sleep; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

No orchestral interlude in all of of opera exceeds the power of the Siegfried’s Death music. Here Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra were masterful, evoking the heroic force and inherent beauty of Wagner’s consummate achievement.

When Siegfried’s body is returned to the Gibichung abode, Zambello brings forth yet another brilliant idea, in which Gutrune comes to understand the situation and bonds with Bruennhilde to bring about the final resolution. Joining the two women are the three River Maidens, who now are fully aware that Bruennhilde will restore the Nibelung Ring to them, and who participate in the funeral arrangements.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, left) is aided by the three River Maidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum) and Gutrune (Melissa Citro)in preparing Siegfried’s funeral pyre; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Stemme’s Bruennhilde descends into the funeral pyre to be at one with Siegfried, and to bring about the prophecied end of the gods, she returns the Nibelung Ring to the only persons that can both destroy its curse and assure that it will not come into the evil hands of Alberich – the chastened, now much wiser River Maidens. One expects they will never let things get out of hand as they did 16 or so Ring hours previously.

[Below: the River Maidens Woglinde (Stacey Tappan), Flosshilde (Renee Tatum) and Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) rejoice as the Nibelung Ring is restored to their possession; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

One regrets that the Nicholas Lehnhoff “Ring” that graced the San Francisco Opera stage in whole or part between 1983 and 1999 no longer exists, but the creative forces behind the current “Ring” had nothing to do with the decision to destroy Lehnhoff’s masterwork.

However, the Zambello “American Ring” is far more than a consolation. It is an extraordinary achievement, brilliant in its conception and even more brilliant in its realization. Zambello again proves that she is a theatrical genius.

Runnicles demonstrated once more that, be it the Lehnhoff Rings of 1990 or 1999 or the Zambello “Ring” of 2011, he and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra are incomparable forces, now better than ever before.

The San Francisco Opera company, steered by David Gockley, has proven, in a time of severe economic stress, that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the final outcome is a sensation!

More to Come

Over the next few weeks, I will complete the comparative analyses of the Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco/Washington DC “Rings”. (For the first two parts, see: Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Rheingolds”, and also,

Gods and Nibelungs on the Pacific Coast: the Three Ring “Walkueres”.)

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