War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 15, 2018

Siegfried can sometimes be seen as the Ring’s scherzo, the leaven in a symphonic cycle that will reach its weighty conclusion five hours later in the seething emotional mass of Götterdämmerung. Francesca Zambello’s provocative take on Wagner’s ‘Second Day’ has its share of humour, to be sure, but the atmosphere is frequently bleak, the story telling sharply focussed on the price of unconstrained industrial development, parental dysfunction, love – or more often the lack of it – and humanity’s tendency to embrace violence and revenge.

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

It’s the 1960s, and the world has taken another turn for the worse. The virgin forests of America have been decimated – S. Katy Tucker’s involving video shows Californian redwoods – their logs carted across the country to power an unchecked manufacturing boom whose acrid by-products clog rivers and streams. Mime and Siegfried swig beer in a classic 1950s broken down trailer plonked in the middle of a fetid-looking scrap heap. The wily dwarf is presumably siphoning the power for his forge from the oppressive electricity pylons that loom overhead. Michael Yeargan’s magnificent sets and Mark McCullough’s acid lighting illuminate the dark side of the American dream, one that any Breaking Bad fan will know is still around today. If David Cangelosi’s skanky-looking Mime turned out to be cooking a spot of ice on the side, no one would be surprised.

The First Act comes complete with moderately convincing bear and an especially persuasive forging scene complete with sparking hammers and hissing steam, but that’s not what it’s really about, and Zambello knows it. Philip Larkin’s famous phrase about a parent’s impact on a child (look it up, if you don’t know it) holds particularly true for the lad Siegfried, here convincingly portrayed as a petulant delinquent with a vicious streak by youthful-looking Canadian tenor Daniel Brenna. The way he clings to the last remaining scrap of his mother’s powder blue dress is a painful reminder that this (at first) unlikable, ungrateful boy has spent an entire childhood being screwed up by the mind games of an outwardly matey Mime.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and David Cangelosi as Mime. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Act II is even darker. Increasingly obsessive, Alberich is holed up in a disused industrial bunker where he makes Molotov cocktails and schemes revenge like some demented terrorist. Outside, video footage of Neidhölle holds all the charm of a nuclear winter. Fafner has turned himself into a mechanised monster, a nightmare car-crusher with a dim echo of the iconic Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space. Siegfried dodge killer bursts of smoke to disable him by ripping the wires out of his guts before plunging his sword into the giant within. Any remaining vegetation is kept well out of sight – the Forest Murmurs produce little more than a dim green glow – to be revealed only when Siegfried runs off at the very end of the Act. One of Zambello’s most touching details is when Siegfried lays his head in the dying giant’s lap, presumably the closest he has ever come to a father figure.

The two most fascinating relationships here are, perhaps, unexpected. In his guise as the Wanderer, Wotan has transformed into a tattered King of the Road, his coat patched with duct tape, his hair grown long, lank and grey. If, as he declares, he is now a free spirit who actively wills the end of the old Gods, he also appears to be enjoying his new-found liberty and a chance to recapture something of his lost youth. Although distrustful of his motives, Alberich can’t help but be drawn to the manifestation of his ‘light-side’. As these two mouldering reprobates peer arm in arm into Fafner’s lair, it’s like watching a dysfunctional Wagnerian version of Vladimir and Estragon.

Daniel Brenna as Siegfried and Stacey Tappan as the Forest Bird. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Siegfried, meanwhile, has found his own ‘friend’ in the form of the Forest Bird. Conjured from his imagination while thinking on his mother, she’s like the nice girl he might have chatted to on his way to school, if he’d ever had the chance. When he eventually encounters his first woman in the form of Brünnhilde, the penny will drop, but for now, this vision in red leads him a merry dance as both friend and conscience, frantically signalling his choices and dissuading him from setting light to Mime’s gasoline-doused corpse. Indeed, the moment at the end of Act II when Siegfried returns to contemplate the remains of his foster-father (and perhaps remember the occasional good time) is one of Zambello’s most powerful images.

The opening to Act III is darkest of all. A video montage pulls together appalling images of pollution before the scrim rises on a dried-up river bed. Here, Wotan confronts first Erda and then Siegfried, both relationships ending in scenes of physical violence – the shattering of the spear – a moment that can often underwhelm – is like a bomb going off! By contrast, the final scene of awakening feels conventional, though Zambello builds a convincingly drawn out denouement, and the image of Siegfried retreating up the rock as Brünnhilde gradually stirs is a memorable one.

Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As in Die Walküre, the acting is on a high level throughout. Greer Grimsley captures the frequent twists and turns of the Wanderer, a man who sees himself paradoxically as in control of the world’s destiny, while professing disinterest, or at least declaring himself a non-combatant. That his weary path to perdition ends in disillusionment comes as no surprise to us – this is a man who cannot resist meddling and can only let go when it becomes clear to him that his time has finally passed. Singing with his trademark power and commitment, he crowns a fine portrayal with a memorable final hurrah.

As the feuding Nibelung brothers, David Cangelosi and Falk Strukmann deserve equal laurels. Cangelosi is among the most attractive-toned singers to make a signature role out of Mime and he’s a fine actor to boot. With fluttering hands and shifty feet, his attempts to charm the young Siegfried are dangerously convincing, and he frequently avoids the obvious nastiness to build a character that is both harried parent, delusional schemer and pathetic loser, all in one. His voice carries cleanly over the orchestra and although he doesn’t have the top notes in two or three places – stage business can only cover so much – he makes up for 99 percent of that thanks to admirable diction and musical intelligence. Struckmann gets equally high marks for diction, his Alberich running the gauntlet from muttering madman to crazy-eyed prophet of the apocalypse. His powerful, cut-through baritone makes up in intent and potency for what it lacks in sheer beauty, and his chilling yet oddly-touching exit as he shuffles off pushing a shopping trolley laden with weaponry gets to the heart of this small-time wannabe’s sorry dilemma.

Falk Struckmann as Alberich and David Cangelosi as Mime. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde continues to impress, singing with power when required, but also scaling down the voice to deliver a raptly exquisite Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich. Top notes are clearly no problem, but she is also in full control of the line, all of which bodes well for Götterdämmerung. She also captures the sense of this brand new world in which this former immortal finds herself, one that unlike the more instinctual and ‘innocent’ Siegfried will involve some very careful navigating. Raymond Aceto’s Fafner is decently sung and acted too, though perhaps the subterranean dragon sits in a less exciting part of the voice than his exceptional Hunding. It’s always a treat to hear Erda sung by a true contralto, and Ronnita Miller’s voice is magnificently rich and dark with an exceptional power in the fruity lower register. A shout out too for the exceptional Forest Bird of Stacey Tappan. Of course, it helps that she’s physically onstage rather than off, but her attractive soprano and admirable diction are spot on and she delivers some refreshingly effective phrasing in what can come over as little more than a cough and a twitter.

All of which leaves us with Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried. On the plus side, he’s clearly an intelligent actor, and he negotiates the transition from unlikable brat with permanent ‘bed hair’ and a killer tendency to unbuttoned force of nature with skill and attention to detail. It should also be said that he has all the notes, indeed he’s strongest at the challenging top of the voice. However, the instrument itself is neither sizable not especially warm, and it flags badly in the forging scene. What should be a chance for a singer to relish a big sing feels more like someone eager to get it over with. Stamina is always an issue in this opera, but with Brenna too many long notes are cut short and there’s some awkward parlando singing required to get to the end of Act III. From a dramatic standpoint he’s never less than convincing, and intent can go a long way, but Siegfried is Siegfried, and this one needs something more heroic in the vocal mix.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Daniel Brenna as Siegfried. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As in the previous operas, Donald Runnicles conducts with a strong sense of the overall architecture of the piece, pushing on to ensure matters never flag. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra are with him all the way, particularly memorable in the powerful musical preludes to each Act. With the gods grown old and nature annihilated, looted and shipped off to the cities, it remains to be seen what sparks of hope Zambello can kindle to warm her final installment. What is a given, though, is that this particular ride is one well worth the ticket.

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


Don't miss out 200th issue, subscribe today