War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 17, 2018

Anyone who considers bringing climate change and man’s destruction of the planet into Wagner’s Ring merely a hippie-dippy 21st-century directorial fad need look no further than the poem for Götterdämmerung. As reported by the three Norns, the mutilated world-ash-tree has withered and been cut down, the spring has dried up. Add merciless images of factories and power plants belching acrid smoke and a river bed strewn with plastic bottles and you have the visual background to the final part of Francesca Zambello’s cohesively argued and increasingly impressive production of Wagner’s mighty tetralogy.

Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn), Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Jamie Barton (Second Norn). Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

With an echo of Silicon Valley run wild, the Prologue opens in a burst of visual electronics (S. Katy Tucker’s effective video once again). Here, a trio of visually-impaired engineers grapple with a mountain of unwieldy cabling in a futile attempt to keep up with the rampant advance of micro-technology. Zambello’s Norns (Ronnita Miller, Jamie Barton and Sarah Cambidge) are the hapless ghosts in this machine and they couldn’t be better sung. Impeccable diction and voices of real substance get the opera off to a tremendously powerful start.

Cut to Brünnhilde’s rock, now suffering fatal signs of erosion, and the Valkyrie who sacrificed her once-vaunted wisdom for love is packing her ill-prepared hero off in search of adventure. Zambello gives a strong steer here, for not only is this Siegfried clearly emotionally immature, his increasingly unappetising behaviour – admittedly under the influence of the dreaded potion – reveals how easily the schemes of his calculating Gibichung hosts can bring out the bully and braggart in him.

Daniel Brenna as Siegfried and Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

With three locations and three lengthy musical transitions in the first two hours, to a certain extent Michael Yeargan’s sets have to fall back on the functional. Gunther, Gutrune and Hagen live in an ugly, minimal greenhouse of glass and aluminium, their soft furnishings limited to tacky black leather and leopard print. The Act II bedroom in which Gutrune and Hagen mindlessly channel hop has all the charm of a mid-price, downtown hotel. Gunther is a fatuous dictator verging on the tin-pot, his sister, a typical platinum blond, all coiffure and cleavage. The lustful, brutish Hagen clearly has designs on his half-sister’s embonpoint. It’s an easy cliché to play, and it’s a credit to Zambello and her actors (Brian Mulligan’s preening Gunther and Melissa Cito’s bimbo of a Gutrune) that they manage to salvage sufficient dignity to make us care later when the scales finally fall from their eyes.

Act III opens on a dried-up riverbed, the Rhinemaidens a trio of soiled drabs picking their way through piles of plastic refuse while seemingly desperate to find a drop of water that left in the bottom of a bottle. It’s effective imagery, but rather works against Wagner’s rippling musical accompaniment (in the Prologue, Siegfried’s scorched-earth Rhine Journey had similarly struggled). Although the hunting party engages in some graphic disemboweling, and the solar eclipse that accompanies the funeral march is eminently watchable, Zambello saves her real coup for the epic finale.

Falk Struckmann as Alberich and Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

She’s set things up from the entrance of the Gibichung women, shuffling, subdued, heads down, taking their cue from The Handmaid’s Tale. Brünnhilde’s cry of betrayal had got them getting a severe beating, their menfolk quick to suppress any thoughts of rebellion. As Brünnhilde prepares for her final act of immolation, these women emerge laden with weaponry having clearly overpowered their oppressors. Joined by the three Rhinemaidens and Gutrune – who bonds with her former nemesis in a touching moment of mutual sisterly comprehension – they proceed to jettison everythging, Siegfried’s corpse included, into the dried-up riverbed at the rear of the stage. Pouring on the gasoline they torch the lot, summarily execute Hagen, and watch the photographed faces of the fallen heroes (and most of the male cast) float off into the ether. It’s a powerful image, as is Zambello’s final gesture of renewal, and for all that the director denies that hers is a Feminist Ring, it is clearly the women here who will inherit what’s left of the planet. It’s a moot point whether Gutrune could be safely left to run a chook raffle, but let’s face it, she couldn’t do a worse job than the likes of Wotan, Hunding and Gunther.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde, Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As in the cycle’s previous instalments, acting and vocal standards are high. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin crowns her performance with some superb singing, the voice strong and clear, especially in the upper register. Her dawning realisation of how she has been duped and what she has to do to redeem the world is played with great care and clarity. She is at her very finest in Act II where her betrayal draws a vocal display of great power with dramatic intensity to match. The Immolation scene is only marred by some (easily fixed) piano singing that just fails to come over the orchestra – Ruhe, ruhe du Gott is inaudible. Relationships, especially those with Waltraute and Gutrune, are movingly detailed.

Fortunately, the role of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung seems to suit Daniel Brenna far better than the title role in the previous opera. The voice may not be the loveliest, but he sings with appropriate power and has all the notes bar that ungratefully written top C that Wagner tosses in at the end of Act II. Dramatically he creates a respectable portrait of a half-formed adolescent trying – and failing pretty spectacularly – to find his way in the world. If it comes across as one of the less sympathetic readings of the role, that fits in with Zambello’s panoply of men behaving badly.

Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen (center) and Brian Mulligan as Gunther. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Gibichungs all sing well, though their early scenes could benefit from greater subtlety. The comedy is fine, but it’s sometimes handled a little clumsily. Andrea Silvesterlli’s Hagen – like most Hagens – is happiest in his sonorous lower register, ensuring that his sleeping scene with Falk Struckmann’s nicely sung, endlessly embittered Alberich carries full weight. The Summoning of the Vassals comes off splendidly as well, his dark, brooding bass possessing decibels to spare. As Gunther, Brian Mulligan embraces the increasing dramatic complexities of the role, his attractive, unblemished baritone particularly fine in duet with Siegfried or the Act II trio, which crowns a musically thrilling Second Act. Melissa Citro’s potent soprano does a reasonable job with the sometimes ungratefully written role of Gutrune, coming into her own as she grows in understanding of Brünnhilde’s circumstances in the final act.

Previously impressing mightily for both power and beauty of line as the cycle’ Fricka, Jamie Barton delivers an equally radiantly sung Waltraute. The Rhinemaidens – Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde) and Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) – again prove a distinguished threesome. The San Francisco Opera Chorus sing with power and discipline, the Vassals chorus delivered with a notable ear for inner detail and some particularly fine work by the tenors on their long, held top C.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Jamie Barton as Waltraute. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Of all the operas so far, Götterdämmerung, draws the finest orchestral response from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Always an astute master of dramatic pacing, Donald Runnicles drives a gripping account of the second act, but he’s equally impressive in the many musical interludes with the transition to Brünnhilde’s rock, Dawn on the Rhine and an epic Funeral March standouts. Strings are warmly responsive, woodwind solos deftly shaped, and the brass do sterling work throughout with some fine spatial effects enlivening the Vassals scene and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde with members of the San Franciso Opera Chorus. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

If Runnicles wins the battle, it’s perhaps Zambello who wins the war. As her keenly-argued, consistently intelligent reading reaches its titanic conclusion, one can’t help but feel that the nature-loving Wagner – a man who often preferred the company of a dog to that of a human – would have approved. He might not have fully-endorsed this particular new world order, but as he himself said, “Children! Create something new! Something new! And again something new!” Zambello has done just that.


Three cycles of Wagner’s Ring are playing at San Francisco Opera until July 1

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