This Sunday past, a beautiful day by any measure, found me along with most of the other Bay Area Wagnerites seated in the War Memorial Opera House for 5 hours of Siegfried. It's a good thing I had a ticket, because weather like that would never get me to agree to doing standing room, thus exposing me as perhaps an imperfect Wagnerite. So be it.
Like many, I find Siegfried to be the least convincing of the Ring tetralogy, though I remember when I attended the 1999 Ring at SFO I was clearly impressed that each performance was better than the previous, building to a thrilling climax with Gotterdammerung, so there was a time when Siegfried didn't disappoint me. What happened since then? I'd say the third opera in the cycle is the hardest to get right, for almost myriad reasons, perhaps chiefly because of its complexity of where the main characters exist at this point in the story. So imagine my surprise that yesterday's performance proved to be the most cohesive yet of director Francesca Zambello's vision for SFO's (and WNO's) current Ring.
Is it perfect? No, not by any measure, but for the first time in this cycle what was happening onstage was truly interesting, leaving me with a sense that Zambello has something to say about Wagner and her conception of an "American Ring," isn't as empty as the first two installments left me believing. If only two of the four main leads were up to the task at hand vocally I would say it was fantastic. Alas, that wasn't the case yesterday. However, those two may come up to snuff in later performances, and I for one do plan on seeing this again because it really has the potential for greatness. Ah, but potential's an elusive quality, is it not?
So let's take it from the top. Note: there are what some would call "spoilers" below.
Again, as in the previous operas, we begin with images projected across a scrim during the creepy, Fafner-dwelling-in-cave-with-the-gold/let-us-return-to-the-pit-where-the-Nibelungs-toil intro. Clouds swirl menacingly and evolve into what looks like Detroit or Cleveland circa 1972 with pollution-spewing smokestacks. Nice touch, the first of many, as the scrim rises to reveal a fifth-wheel that looks like a bomb once went off inside of it, leaving its denizens exposed to and stuck with the menacing high-tension power lines seen in the background. Great imagery, but now here's a problem: where the fuck is this supposed to be? It looks like Wagner meets Cormac McCarthy on The Road.
This setting would have been great for the part in Gotterdammerung where Siegfried encounters the Gibichungs for the first time, and would have been a hoot as Valhalla, but as the home for Mime and our hero it ignores some key elements of what's really going on- or at least makes the characterizations harder to believe. Mime is supposed to have raised Siegfried far away from other people- he's never even seen another human being besides his adopter as the story begins and this fact fuels Siegfried's contempt for his malevolent benefactor/babysitter. Yet how does that happen in a trailer stuck under power lines and filled with canisters of potato chips? Someone had to make a trip to Safeway for those Charles Chips, right? Who took them to the check-out line?
Okay, so I'm willing to suspend disbelief and go with it because the set (by Michael Yeargan) looks terrific. Enter Mime, played by David Cangelosi doing his best Fagin impression and until he meets his death in the second act, Cangelosi sings the hell out of the part and gives us a Mime I for one had never thought of before- cunning, interesting, robust, intelligent, even somewhat sympathetic. He owns the stage during the first act in much the same way Arnold Bezuyen's Loge did during the initial performances of Rheingold in Achim Freyer's LA Ring. In other words, it's an unexpected focus that actually works, because while traditionally we tend to view Mime as a pawn to the larger story, until he's knocked off two hours later he's actually the prime mover of the story and Zambello's production brings that to the fore.
Unfortunately, at least in his initial performance as the title character, Jay Hunter Morris hasn't a large enough voice to compete against his nemesis. That's a damn shame, because as far as looking and acting the part, Morris is perfectly convincing- in fact, take away that one major flaw and we're looking at a terrific choice. Um, except it's opera and I know I'm being bitchy, but the main character should be cast with someone whose voice can make it over the orchestra, even if the orchestra isn't being very helpful, which it certainly wasn't, but I'll get to that in a bit. On the positive side, apart from acting and looking the part, Morris's voice was beautiful and clear all afternoon- it just wasn't loud enough and he was frequently completely drowned out by the orchestra. He did, however, have on a great coat and for some people (I'm talking to you, Dr. Hank) this may have mitigated the vocal shortcomings- I'm just not one of them.
Mark Delevan's Wotan was another vocal shadow where there should have been sunlight, and his appearance in rags and greasy long hair as The Wanderer made him look like he had somehow wandered in from a 30 year-old Molly Hatchet video. Delevan, who was impressive in last summer's Die Walkure, gave a performance that bode ill for the full cycles when they start next month. If this is the state of his voice at the moment, Rheingold and Walkure are going to be very disappointing.
Almost as troublesome was his scene in the beginning of Act 3, where from where I sat at the side of the stage, it looked like he was trying to first rape Erda from behind, then strangle her (!), leaving me to think Wait a minute- what the fuck is Wotan doing raping and then strangling Erda? I know she's not giving him what he wants but really- does he have rape and kill her? Doesn't she have more to sing? Did Calixto direct this part?
Ugh. Speaking of Erda (I know, I'm in Act 3 and I haven't even discussed Act 2 yet, but I'll get there- it was a long afternoon), Ronnita Miller sang impressively but looked a little too healthy to be the Erda-in-decline that's actually supposed to be on the stage. And again, wtf with the Native American inspired costume? A missed opportunity in an otherwise fine performance on Miller's part- but blame Zambello and costume designer Catherine Zuber, not Miller, for the mis-step.
Back to Act 2- the part where the dragon/Fafner gets knocked off. That was brilliant. That big-ass, Road-Warrior/Darth Vader/District 9 dragon was cool. There is simply no other way to put it. Daniel Sumegi didn't impress me particularly as Fafner, but on the other hand I didn't find him lacking- and since it's not a huge part consider it a wash. I wouldn't, couldn't, say the same about Gordon Hawkins' Alberich, who despite having Molotov cocktails at hand, failed to ignite any menace in the role- a tough assignment in light of what Eric Owens brought to it at the Met recently, which set a new standard in how to interpret the dwarf who sets everything in motion. Depsite that, I loved every moment of the second act, including the uber-creepy spooning of Fafner and Siegfried as the giant expires, Siegfried dousing Mime and Fafner's dead bodies with gasoline (okay, who else thought of David Bowie's "Cat People" during this moment?), and best of all, the last part where Siegfried returns to the corpses before running off with the bird to find Brunhilde.
Speaking of the Bird (Stacey Tappan), why does the Bird have a purse? I guess for the same reason Brunnhilde had a purse in Walkure- though for the life of me I don't understand why. What exactly is in the purses, Francesca and Catherine? Why do you subject us to these annoying touches we don't need and you can't explain?
Tappan's anthropomorphic embodiment of the bird onstage was touching. I haven't seen the part done this way before and I found it beautiful and moving. Stupid purse aside, Tappan's costume was stunning in its color and appropriate simplicity. Lovely- nicely done.
The disaster which begins Act 3 was actually preceded by the orchestra sounding better than it had all afternoon, at least in the brass section, which seemed to finally find the gear it couldn't locate for its life in Acts 1 and 2. Unfortunately it was a short-lived shift (more on this in a moment). After the bizarreness with Erda bit, Delevan's Wotan has his showdown with his grandson in a scene neither had the vocal prowess to navigate with anything near what is called for and the orchestra just pummeled both of them. It was the most disappointing moment of the afternoon. At least after that we arrived at the moment most of us had been waiting for all damn day- Siegfried and Brunnhilde meet, play pussyfoot, then hook up.
Well, that's the shorthand version of what happens during the last 45 minutes. Nina Stemme has already created a small firestorm in the opera world singing Wagner heroines and her initial appearance as Brunnhilde floored me and most other people who saw and heard it. I felt that way after hearing her as Senta in the much maligned Dutchman SFO staged during the Rosenberg era (2004), which I thought brilliant. Stemme is fantastic- no doubt she has the goods to be the pre-eminent Wagner soprano of the day and will leave a lasting legacy, but on this afternoon I though she was just okay. Her voice was clear, her Brunnhilde was no longer the daddy-longing imp from Walkure (thank god), and she had great physical energy onstage. I felt however, that she held back to accommodate the lack of power in Morris' voice and thus short-changed the audience of the the full-throttle Brunnhilde I expected based her last appearance here. That's all I'm going to say, except that since she took off her jacket this time, and I think that costume is pretty damn sexy.
Which leaves to me end with the music. Few people miss Runnicles in the pit more than I do. However Sunday's performance wasn't all it could be, mostly because of the brass section tanking it in more than a few key musical moments. The winds, especially the flutes and oboes, were magnificent, as were the strings. Runnicles kept a steady and exciting tempo all afternoon and the music never flagged (is that even possible with Siegfried?). But the brass pretty much sucked all afternoon, to the point that thanks to where I was sitting, I noticed that when Runnicles was dishing out props before he left the pit to take his bows onstage, with the exception of the first trumpet, the entire brass section received no love from the Maestro- and none was deserved.
Still, this cycle is starting to gel and if Ian Storey has the vocal chops for the role, the last part may finally deliver the goods in full. We'll know next Sunday. There you have it.