San Francisco Ring Cycle, June 2018;
Review by Sheena Burnell
Francesca Zambello’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House over three cycles in June, was the second outing at this venue for this production, which was first staged there in 2011. As is usual with a restaging after an interval of several years, this production has received several tweaks, notably in regard to the sets and the use of updated technology to move the dramatic thrust of the production in a decidedly environmentally-conscious direction.
In addition, the production appeared to subtly underscore the bad behaviour of the male characters (both godly and mortal) in contrast to the benevolence, wisdom and perceptiveness of the female characters, providing a much more feminist reading than several of us had appreciated previously. Perhaps not all will agree with either the ecowarrior or the girl-power viewpoint, however in the setting of San Francisco’s progressive culture, both had a certain contemporary resonance.
Although we’re accustomed to thinking of the Ring as a tale of the decline of the gods, Zambello’s production, set as it is in a grimly dystopian world of environmental degradation, alludes starkly to human failings in this regard. The sets underscored this feeling and I particularly enjoyed Mime’s forest lair as a squalid burnt-out caravan against a depressing backdrop of electrical pylons, while the Norns, struggling to wield enormous cables in what looked like the innards of a giant computer, conveyed the unravelling of past, present and future with some poignancy. Alberich’s inferno of a factory at Nibelheim was also suitably grim and the use of children as Nibelungs highlighted the abuse of power and cruelty that underlies this character.
Act One of Die Walküre was particularly memorable visually, with the great tree rising through Hunding’s dwelling and the entire rear wall being whisked heavenwards with the coming of spring. The sky was shot with flashes of lightning as Siegmund (a most convincing Brandon Jovanovich) drew out the sword Notung and Sieglinde (beautifully sung and acted by Karita Mattila) joined him in brandishing it ecstatically.
In contrast the Gibichungs’ hall was a garish nouveau riche affair with shiny white leather and chrome furnishings and animal print bar-stools – a perfect foil for their less than savoury antics, despite their slinky gowns and sharp suits.
Throughout the production, the use of shape-shifting projected images during the preludes and interludes emphasised the feeling of waste and despair, and although not everyone’s favourite, I thought they worked and were a clever way to move the drama forward. That, plus a system of LED floor lighting on the raked stage, lent a three-dimensional richness to many of the more dramatic scenes and provided a Ring which was very visually arresting.
However, the Ring is really about the singing and the music, and neither of these disappointed. From the opening scenes with the Rhinemaidens through to the very end of Götterdämmerung, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by the inimitable Donald Runnicles, played beautifully and tirelessly – in particular, the brass section handling their demands with clarity and ease.
The singing was almost uniformly satisfying and there were very few lacklustre moments. In particular, a fortuitous last-minute substitution of Irene Theorin for Evelyn Herlitzius in the role of Brünnhilde was most welcome as she handled this role with beautiful vocal range and dramatic flair to provide a compelling yet fragile half-goddess/half-mortal. Falk Struckmann was an in-command and entirely unpleasant Alberich and Stefan Margita as Loge was absolutely superb – despite initially seeming a little older than I expected, he brought a chilling air of cynicism to the role which was quite appropriate. Jaime Barton as Fricka (and then later Waltraute and the Second Norn) brought charm and energy to the stage along with an assured and thrilling mezzo voice and Julie Adams was a beautifully sung Freia (who rather surprisingly appeared to fall in love with her giant). But perhaps because there was also some wonderful singing and stagecraft from the giants Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Fafner (Raymond Aceto), the former also handling the role of Hagen with vocal ease. Ronnita Miller as Erda and the First Norn was superbly rich of tone and imposing of appearance and commanded the stage whenever she appeared. Likewise David Cangelosi was a marvellous Mime (and shared at a symposium I attended that he hoped to put his childhood gymnastic experience to good use with some unexpected stage moves).
Less stellar (for me at least) were some of the major male roles. The bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as Wotan has much experience with this role. However, he appeared under-powered at times, although this did give his character a degree of vulnerability which worked well in his scenes with Brünnhilde and gave the Wanderer an air of slight uncertainty which I found congruent with a character undergoing a keen sensation of loss of the old order combined with a knowledge of impending doom. Likewise, David Brenna as Siegfried was initially enjoyable with a firm clear tenor voice; he seemed under strain by the end of Götterdämmerung and I worried he’d get through it all. And although Siegfried is meant to be a somewhat hubristic boy/man, I felt Daniel Brenna in the role missed some of the psychological nuances of this pivotal character and played it rather shallowly – this may be the fault of the director. Fortunately, several other of the male roles were competently sung, notably Brian Mulligan as Donner and Gunther, and again Raymond Aceto as Hunding.
Last but not least, there was the Dragon, admittedly a non-singing role but an entity whose appearance is no less eagerly awaited. I thought the Zambello dragon was a little underwhelming and seemed like a somewhat nightmarish piece of farm machinery come to life; it seemed to fit the overall tenor of the production with its post-industrial malaise.
Overall I found this a visually and intellectually engaging production with intriguing and imaginative sets, creative use of technology which didn’t overwhelm and above all, superb performances from the singers and the Orchestra. Although I felt it didn’t always capture the psychological nuances that Wagner intended, it did fulfil the brief of a drama with music and was ultimately an experience which stayed in the mind – perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to a production of any kind – and once again proved the remarkable plasticity and yet resilience of this extraordinary piece of work.