Götterdämmerung: having sex with Valkyries is hazardous to one's health and can turn you into a zombie

Silvestrelli and Citro: "Drink this- it will make your boobs even bigger."

Seeing Götterdämmerung performed live is really unlike any other opera experience. Yesterday was my fourth time, and as I walked away from the War Memorial I had this warm feeling seething through my entire being. There is something immensely satisfying about witnessing the end of the world, even if the world's end is done on the cheap and not all that spectacularly staged.

The prologue where the Norns catch us up on all that's happened and hint at what's to come was probably the most imaginatively staged bit of the entire Cycle. I loved the concept of the Norns as a kind of cloud repository of the history of the world manipulating the mother of all motherboards, though I thought the use of "cables" in the surtitles instead of "rope" or "thread" was annoying. It was also the most well-executed, thought-through part of the afternoon, though I imagine it was particularly challenging for the singers. All three (Heidi Melton, Daveda Karanas and Ronnita Miller) did a fine job and I was paying particular attention to how large Melton's voice is as I plan on seeing her sing Sieglinde in the 3rd Cycle- no problem on that count- she can fill the house with her voice.

As the Prologue ended and we picked up where we last left Brunnhilde and Siegfried, my initial thought on seeing Ian Storey a week after watching Jay Hunter Morris in the same role was "Wow. Banging a Valkyrie for a week will really age a man!" Morris' youthful vigor was now replaced with an older, greying, Siegfried with a beer gut who had none of the swagger which made Morris' performance so engaging despite the lack of vocal heft required to really sell it. Storey's voice is bigger, though not too much, but it's also much deeper, bordering the baritone range, and for me this was problematic. Nina Stemme seemed determined not to sing over him, so the first act was kind of a repeat of last Sunday's performance which left me wondering to where the Brunnhilde of last summer's Walkure had disappeared? It also made me ponder how much time has supposedly elapsed between the events of Siegfried and the opening of Götterdämmerung? More than I had originally thought, based on appearances.

During the first act the orchestra sounded still not quite engaged, even under-rehearsed, with some sections seeming to lag noticeably behind even though Runnicles never took anything at a tempo one could describe as unexpectedly fast- in fact, there were parts of the afternoon where the tempos seemed almost too slow, which allowed for great exposition and clarity, but worked against the drama of the score (especially during the Funeral March). Thankfully this problem largely disappeared after the first act and the rest of the afternoon was musically superb, slow tempos aside.

Ian Storey and Gerd  Grochowski: "I want to sleep with your wife, so drink this and I'll let you bang my hot sister."

The weaknesses in director Francesca Zambello's "American Ring" concept surfaced again upon entering the unhappy home of the Gibichungs. Not only was their lair uninteresting and cheap looking, but it said nothing about them and what part of this world they represent, unless the idea is to say they're just shallow, dull, fools who take all of their decorating ideas straight from the ads found in 7x7 or some other vacuous rag. That's not very interesting. Nor is it interesting to portray Gutrune (Melissa Citro, debuting with the company in this role) as an empty-headed tart whose raison d'ete appears to be little more than running around the stage shaking her tits in a low-cut orange dress. Sure she looked great in that same tawdry way certain hookers on the street do,  but is that the most you can say about her character? Actually, Gutrune undergoes an interesting evolution under Zambello's direction in the 3rd act, but since the starting point is so base, so low, it takes longer than it should to see how her character evolves and I daresay it would be easy to miss entirely. Gerd Grochowski's Gunther doesn't leave too much of an impression in the role, thankless as it is.

Andrea Silvestrelli's Hagen started out rough vocally and from the first row of the Balcony Circle he bore more than a passing resemblance to Ron Jeremy, and neither of these observations is a good thing. Vocally he found himself by the end of the act, but for me the damage was done. His Hagen didn't work for me at all- way too over the top and his voice is too Italaniate for the role- besides, every time he opened his mouth all I heard was Fasolt- who is a chump, while Hagen should be evil incarnate. Hagen, perhaps the most interesting character in the entire story, in my opinion should also be the most nuanced in performance and Silvestrelli brought none to the role. It was all flash. Maybe that's part of the "American" concept- Hagan as the playboy huckster, but really, I would have preferred him to be less Bob Guccione and more, I don't know, like Osama bin Laden- someone whose evil is disguised by their quiet, surface demeanor rather than wearing it on their sleeve.

Also during Act 1 Siegfried is a dolt once he sees Gutrune even before he drinks the potion, and while that's pretty much Siegfried and thus unavoidable, once he drinks the potion he becomes an uber-dolt and quickly becomes tiresome, not at all helped by Zambello's seeming insistence of adding an ick-factor to each opera- here it's when Siegfried pries the ring from Brunnhilde ala what she did with Wotan and Erda in Siegfried. Why does she have to go there?

The highlight of Act 1 was the scene with Brunnhilde and Waltraute, which Karanas delivered with impressive urgency and mesmerizing grace.

At intermission I had the good fortune to run into Rosine Stoltz, whom I last espied at the LA Ring and we caught up and laid plans for a future rendezvous.

"I'm the only one who apparently isn't getting laid in this story, unless my dad counts!"

Okay so so far I know this reads like I'm not really enjoying this but it is Götterdämmerung and all this aside, I actually am enjoying it, though perhaps not as much as I'd like. All this changes in Act 2, which I think is just brilliant from almost start to finish. Not quite from the start, as it begins with Hagen and Gutrune watching television on his bed, which for some reason brought to my mind "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." More Zambello ickiness. This is even more pronounced when next thing you know Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) climbs into Hagen's bed for their one scene together and Hawkins just isn't doing it for me- his voice is no match for Silvestrelli's, even though Silvestrelli is singing into his pillow. After these little bits of nastiness, totally unnecessary for the story, Hagen gets to make his announcement, perhaps the most thrilling part of the opera, my favorite part at least, and his call summoning the Gibichungs is thrilling.  The choreography in this scene is superb visually and the male chorus sounds fantastic. This is what I wanted to see and hear. Stemme enters the scene and finally lets her voice loose and it soars gloriously. It's also during this act that Zambello illustrates the parallels between Siegfried and Hagen, both bred for the same purpose, which actually worked, and the orchestra finally got it together and everything came together fabulously. Siegfried is a total douche and Brunnhilde gets really, really pissed off.  When Stemme reveals that she left Siegfried's back vulnerable to attack she's chilling in her vengeance.Everyone onstage is doing their bit and doing it well.  That is until Brunnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther all swear an oath on Hagen's spear to bring Siegfried down and suddenly the three of them just stand and deliver. Ugh. Two steps forward, now go back, all they way back to 1965. Jane Eaglen would have moved more during this moment- everyone just turned to stone. And yes, as you may have read elsewhere, Stemme's costume during this act is a disaster of the first order- and why they hell was she still wearing boots with it?

Stemme and Storey: "You're sleeping with her?"

During the second intermission Rosine bought me a drink, claiming she owed me one from LA last spring. I didn't argue and listened attentively while she shared her thoughts with me on what we had just seen and heard, all of which I agreed with, mostly because she's brilliant.

Act 3 opens with the Rheinmaidens collecting plastic bottles from the banks of the river and visually it's pretty arresting. Sadly, that's the last great visual for the rest of the show as all of a sudden the lack of money and concept are laid bare for all to see during the final act. This is ameliorated in no small degree by the fact that the singers and orchestra are now going full-bore, so it's not as bad as it could be, but conceptually Act 3 is a total failure and small mis-steps and errors litter the path all the way to the end of the world as we know it. Also, there's more silly license with the translations as "ich geb' ihn euch, gonnt ihr mir Lust" doesn't really translate into the English equivalent of "... if I can bang the three of you."

The hunting party scene has swords and rifles, but that's been done before. Hagen plunges his spear into Siegfried's back and when we get to the Funeral March... there's nothing. The scrim comes down and there is nothing to see but clouds or something- I don't really remember because I was watching the orchestra during this part because during one of the most important, poignant parts of the opera Zambellow gives us NOTHING to watch. On top of that, Runnicles decides to play the march slowly, robbing it of a lot of its dramatic effect.

Back at the Gibiching hall, Siegfried's body is unceremoniously wheeled in on a cart and Gutrune gets to start her evolution into a real character, thankfully no longer dressed as Anna Nicole. For the remainder of the opera, Gutrune acts as Brunnhilde's attendant, which is an interesting feminist statement on Zambello's part and it works rather well, redeeming a character who has been interpreted pretty shabbily up until this point.

Siegfried's body is literally dumped over the edge, which is kind of cool, and then doused with gasoline (like he did Mime and Fafner) and lit aflame, but then every one in the balcony got to see Siegfried in his bright orange hunting outfit get up and scamper offstage. Wait- isn't he supposed to be dead? Please, please, don't let us see Siegfried become a zombie and run offstage!

At gotterdammerung, when Brunnhilde takes a torch to burn down the house (there is no horse, naturally), the torch went out before she made it across the stage (distracting), but then when everything is supposed to burn, the world erupting, dissolving into flame, the ending is just so-so, with no real sense of catharsis visually. Then a boy enters bearing an Ash sapling (how symbolic!) and plants it in a hole on the stage. The end.

Still, Stemme's final moments were stunning and when she appeared onstage alone for the first curtain call I don't think I've ever heard a more thunderous round of applause in the house. It was huge. The ovations lasted for several minutes as the production team and the entire orchestra appeared onstage for applause. Despite all of its shortcomings, and no "American" theme present at all during the final chapter, it was mostly a fantastic performance. All in all, the new San Francisco Opera Ring is a winner.

Brian- it was great to see you.