Deutsche Oper/Runnicles: Tristan und Isolde

Date: June 18, 2016
Location: Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Attilio Glaser
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Kurwenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
King Marke: Matti Salminen
Shepherd: Peter Maus
Steerman: Seth Carico

Deutsche Oper
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Graham Vick, production

When Wagner conceptualized the music drama, he was heavily influenced by the works of Schopenhauer. The central theme of Schopenhauer –to achieve inner peace through renouncement of desires – seems most evident in Act 3, when Tristan longs for release from his tormented longing for Isolde, or in Act 2, when both Tristan and Isolde seem willing to obtain fulfilment through death. The metaphysical realms of these depictions are a boon to experimental theatrical directors, who to portray these realms use a variety of fantastical devices, whether color, as in Dieter Dorn’s production at the Met; or video, as in Peter Sellars’ production in Paris; or even geometric shapes, as in Katharina Wagner’s production at Bayreuth. Photo-realism is mostly avoided.

Paul Brown’s set in this Graham Vick production is contemporary, reminding us of a luxurious cabin in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. This photo-realism robs the audience of a chance to experience, perhaps through fantastical stagecraft or music, the unknowable reality. Tristan’s death is handled with the hero leaving the stage by going through a door and into a crowd of zombies. After Liebestod, Isolde likewise enters that door, signifying her rejoining with Tristan. In Acts 2 and 3, when the two lovers utter anything in the libretto that points to or sounds like death, stage extras would walk across the stage and scatter flowers on a casket, placed prominently in the middle of the stage. Or, before the first note is sounded, Tristan’s coffin is nailed. Or, in Act 1, the shepherd’s herd is reenacted by actors crawling in four limbs. Or, throughout the entire evening, a lamp the size of a SMART car is used to literally highlight a part of the stage relevant to the ongoing libretto. Even if light (and darkness) has symbolic meaning in the story, why does this have to be labored to such repetitious pathology? These depictions seem almost all too overt and pictorially descriptive, in stark contrast to an ambiguously (deceptively?) represented world or, to a false representation of what we believe as the physical world (?). The production here seems insensitive to the background history behind the piece.

But Tristan und Isolde shines or dies with the vocal cast and the orchestra. With that, the star that outshone all others was Stephen Gould, whose imposing voice, as Tristan, impressed immensely. His handling of the libretto’s words was deutlich, with the kind of regal clarity befitting the voice of a professorial Bundestag politician. Tristan’s fiendishly long phrasings and endings were handled with care. Unlike many North American heldentenors, Gould’s diction was natural and unforced. His top rang with the sort of metallic gloss one finds on a sports car freshly wheeled off from the factory. Compared with his Siegfried I heard in 2009, Gould seemed much more willing to control and pace his vocal output at the outset to avoid coarse shouting closer to the end. Significantly, he probably now owns one of the densest and most stentorian outputs at the lower end of Tristan’s tessitura, not just among his contemporaries but every recorded Tristan I have come across. By the midpoint of his great monologue in Act III, it was clear that he still had plenty of reserve power and did not sound tired at all. A high A-natural was ever-so-slightly mishandled in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben”, in his monologue lamenting his betrayal of Marke, but it neither disturbed the audience nor the singer himself.

Nina Stemme has perhaps the most reliable and steady Wagnerian voice today. She never shouts, and even if it sounds like shouting she does not look uncomfortable or overparted. One of her greatest gifts is a consistently perfect pitch, which allows more of the intricate chordal and chromatic interplay between Isolde’s voice and the orchestra’s to come through. Her legato passages, especially as the drama built up to the extinguishing of the light, oozed like warm cheese. The reliability of her voice could present a liability as well, as it lacks that tiny bit of fragility that, in my opinion, could be desirable in Isolde: after all, Isolde has to face loneliness, as well as a dying/dead Tristan all by herself. Her calm and steady “Mild und leise” at least added to, though not definitively, a proof of that theory. That being said, singing with reliability is miles better than singing with an undisciplined shrill.

In the Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder”, the vocal outputs were equally matched. Their melodic lines were handled with sincerity and aplomb, all the while navigating together with heart-melting unity. The overall musicianship of the rest of the cast was of the highest caliber. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne carried the day with vocal purity and dramatic persuasion. Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal was rather invisible in Act 1 but warmed up enough to voice clearly and resolutely in Act 3. Jörg Schörner, as Melot, sounded properly angry and stole some luster from Tristan, as it should be. Matti Salminen starred triumphantly as Marke, portraying the king with regal composure in Act 1 and wretched devastation in Act 3. At curtain call, there was a short ceremony in which he was feasted with applause and flowers, as the evening’s performance turned out to be last stage performance.

Donald Runnicles, usually a reliable Wagnerian, conducted an orchestra who, for the most part, lingered without much to say. Passages that are supposed to sound ruhig came out lifeless. Heftig passages appeared grotesque. Solo violins and violas had no problem pumping out the right phrases but sounded coarse and tired. The star of the evening, crucially, was Chloe Payot, whose handling of the cor anglais passages was magnificently klipp und klar. In the orchestra’s defense, the general lack of a cohesive soul in the playing could be due to an exhausted orchestra having done evenings of Mozart (Abduction), Verdi (Trovatore) and Puccini (Tosca) on consecutive days prior to this Tristan performance.

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo copyright: Bettina Stöß.


Bayerische Staatsoper/Nagano: Das Rheingold

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

This year’s Munich Opera Festival features two Ring Cycles. If Francesca Zambello’s American Ring offers to test the audience’s analytical competence by providing a parallel American historical narrative, Andreas Kriegenburg’s production is decidedly more subdued, without any particular inclination to provoke or proselytize (other than an insignificant attempt at it in Götterdämmerung). What remains is a nuanced though not particularly memorable depiction of Wagner’s story.

As audience filed into the National Theatre, even before a note of Wagner was heard, they became aware of roughly a hundred actors on stage, leisurely picnicking in white gowns – perhaps to present a world uncorrupted by the dark powers of the Ring. As the light dimmed and the sound of gurgling water effused from the speakers, the actors stripped to their underwear and started to paint themselves with broad swipes of blue paint. As they slowly moved towards the stage apron, Kent Nagano’s E-flat began to hum from the pit. The music crescendo was matched on stage by the actors miming the waves of the Rhine in rhythmic unison. As the music making became more intense, so was the energy on stage: male-female couples started to frolic in passionate embrace. An actor, whose body was painted in gold and cladded with little else, emerged from the waves of blue human bodies. Also emerged from the waves was Alberich, who broke through the bodies to reach and carry away the golden body. For the rest of the Cycle, Kriegenburg’s concept, if it could be called that, was to deploy human bodies as a descriptive art form, either as mimed physical props (the waves of the Rhine, and the gold), or as metaphorical solutions for abstract problems (the energy of the Rhine’s breaking waves).

In theory, the thesis of using body as an art form was genuinely exciting, not least because Kriegenburg was willing to stay away from the tried-and-true, though somewhat conservative, usage of high-tech and stage gimmickry. In practice, however, some of these depictions were either too frivolous or distracting. When the giants were depicted by the two brothers standing on two cubes, whose volumes were filled with doll workers, the metaphor of two labor managers crushing their sorry subjects in the name of progress was unmistakable. Troubles began when the giants moved about on stage. As the cubes had to be rolled from one facet to another like two rolling dice, the two brothers had to balance themselves like Dumbo on a ball. The friction and resultant noise caused by moving the two cubes, as well as the genuine concern about Dumbo falling onto the stage floor, was a bit too distracting even though the metaphor had its analogical merits. In the Nibelheim scene, workers toiled in the background a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Weak or dying workers were rolled across the stage and thrown into two pits, after which a blow torch would shoot vertically upwards to seemingly depict the reincarnation of Alberich’s worker army. Here, the metaphor had legs, but the movements created so much noise – the blow torch emanated an annoying hissing sound, while the rolling of the dead bodies against the stage floor resulted in more unnecessary noise – that any attempt to focus on the juicy and all-important monologues of Alberich and Wotan became difficult. Even Wolfgang Koch, playing Alberich, seemed visibly disturbed by the randomness of the hissing sound. The list could go on.

Johan Reuter depicted a Wotan who was more angry than furious. As a voice, Reuter came across as subdued and lyrical, but lacked the graininess of a hefty baritone. Koch’s Alberich gushed with a tormented fury, and his rugged voice of untamed anguish only made his portrayal more thoroughly believable. When the Ring was taken away from him in Nibelheim, Koch was properly distraught, thereby setting the inevitable course for the curse and the gods’ demise.

Sophie Koch was dressed as and acted the part of an angry Barbie Doll. Curiously, instead of feeling shame, she expressed a malicious satisfaction when the gold was taken away from the gods by the giants. Vocally, she was perhaps a sliver too light for the role, and her performance often verged towards spitting out rather than delivering her libretto. Stefan Margita was even more magnificent here in Munich than he was in San Francisco a year ago, perhaps because his ringing voice did not have to cut through Runnicles’ overworked orchestra that was so desperate to generate enough sound to fill the War Memorial. In Munich, Margita’s Loge was less calculating and more all-controlling, as if he planned everything all along.

The cerebral, lyric-inclined Kent Nagano did not, on paper, seem to be an ideal Ring conductor, yet he did an admirable job here, perhaps because the sweeping music at the distal ends of Das Rheingold was perhaps Wagner’s most Italianate in the entire Cycle. Fantastic singers made up the trio of Rhinemaidens: Eri Nakamura, Cardiff ’09 finalist, delivered Woglinde’s lines with care and fluidity. Angela Brower, who did a fabulous job as Dorabella earlier this year in Hong Kong, sang a playful and expressive Wellgunde. Okka von der Damerau, as Flosshilde, poured lyrical abundance.


SF Opera/Runnicles: Götterdämmerung

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

In the final day of drama, the Norns labored in a high-tech company unwinding cables and seemingly connecting them to other circuitries. As they touched the cables, information seemed to be dictated through this wired connection to the world. Projecting against the stage-front scrim was a heat map of a printed circuit board, which lit up in melting fashion after the Norns reached history’s end point. Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas and Heidi Melton, in green drapes and black leather gear, were the information facilitator of this system. Their curt movements on stage were compensated by contemplative eye contacts made to each other, speaking volumes as they analyzed the course of history depicted in the previous three evenings. Vocally, they all sang with conviction and robustness.

The Gibichung Hall was a chrome-wrapped penthouse overlooking an expanding empire of industries, and adorned with curvaceous Ethan Ellen furniture. Melissa Citro sang the role of Gutrune with continued shrill, though her acting compensated brilliantly: her character seemed to be this spoiled, Lindsay Lohan-type who partied too much and yearned for something that neither money nor power could easily buy her (drugs apparently will, though Gutrune had more luck drugging Siegfried, not herself). The character of Gutrune also introduced two side plots that on the surface seemed unnecessary: her frolicking in bed with Hagen at the beginning of Act II, and her reconciliation with Brünnhilde in the Immolation scene. While the role of Gutrune was sometimes portrayed to exhibit incestuous tendencies, the direct linkage of Gutrune with Hagen with such physical obviousness was genuinely a progressive interpretation by Zambello. Gutrune’s presence as a sidekick to Brünnhilde seemed to introduce a minor concept associated with this American Ring: that of renewal, women shall rule.

Ian Storey’s Siegfried looked a lot like Morris’ – in fact, the two actors were physically built very much alike. The split duties of Siegfried also worked perfectly in this Cycle as Morris’ vibrant and youthful voice was chronologically followed by Storey’s slightly darker and more mature voice. The big Hoihe was sung off stage, muffling what seemed to be a tight, passionate, and strong delivery by Storey.

At first glance, as Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was escorted into the Gibichung Hall, looking horribly mismatched in silver-blue gown and Valkyrie military boots, costume designer Catherine Zuber seemed to have committed a serious faux pas. But clearly Zuber had other ideas: the mismatch perfectly encapsulated Wagner’s vision and the psyche of Brünnhilde as she was unwillingly and forcibly embroiled in the fixed marriage.

Andrea Silvestrelli played an outstanding Hagen, with a menacing and authoritatively-sung bass. The chorus had pockets of brilliance but sounded small whenever they sang deep in the stage work and away from the audience. The orchestra was in top form, and showed why despite my brief moments of disagreement with their playing in the past few days I still find the group to be one of the finest in the world. In the Funeral March, the strings soared with an earnest determination, while the brass set ablaze the War Memorial with brilliance and decadence. Runnicles led a well-balanced orchestra, and took care to modulate pace to great emotive effect.

In the final moments, a child came on stage to plant a tree, as if to realize Wagner’s vision of redemption and rebirth. In Zambello’s version, the rebirth of America despite all the excesses seemed certain; the details, other than the tree planting, were less described and up to the audience to ponder.

Some of the direction was unfortunate: the unceremonious “dumping” of Siegfried into a garbage pile, to be drenched in kerosene and lit alive, seemed to be a disrespectful treatment of a Wagnerian hero. After all, Siegfried was the crucial free hero in this epic Cycle. The Immolation fire was tepid, and comparatively much weaker than the circle of flame surrounding Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. As a rhetorical question, did it take much more to protect and imprison a status quo than to reset the status quo?

If the relentless pursuit of absolute power shall eventually meet its Wagnerian due, the fate of America in Zambello’s vision seemed effectively foretold: nothing less than a total redemption would result in a rebirth. As environmentalism became a side plot borne out of this quest for power, the responsibility to clean up the environment and return what’s “owed” to mother earth, by deduction through Zambello’s storytelling choices, rests squarely with America itself. The feminism line with which this American Ring was associated seemed less clear. While it seemed abundantly clear that several men screwed up (Wotan, Hunding, Alberich), it wasn’t clear why only women (and not just Brünnhilde) were allowed to and responsible for kick-starting rebirth. In the critical moments of the Immolation scene, by way of example, Brünnhilde was assisted by the Rheinmaidens, the misplaced Gutrune, and none of the men. Men only showed up towards the end, when the child planted the tree, as if suggesting that this sexual category of mankind would wind up being merely a spectator/benefactor of any redemption.

Zambello’s nod to California: the gold rush, the Presidio, and Silicon Valley, was appropriate, fitting, and smart. Some elements were lazy: a simple and stale ramp to depict the rainbow bridge to Valhalla; and a giant version of a WALL-E-like machinery, as Fafner’s dragon, with no particular design relevance to the Americanized world of Siegfried. Other elements seemed clichéd but in retrospect cerebrally deft: a decaying of Brünnhilde’s rock and its surroundings suggested a passing of time and highlighted an important plot point; the use of hung portraits as a symbol of fallen heroes; and the planting of a tree to express renewal. There were moments when the plot seemed unnecessary (e.g. Gutrune’s incestuous behavior with Hagen), but they neither infringed upon nor inhibited the singing or the locomotion of the storyline. Zambello’s vision, despite some small flaws, was a laudable achievement. But it was the strong cast, especially Stemme, Jovanovich, and Margita, which ensured a Ring to be immortalized for the ages.


SF Opera/Runnicles: Siegfried

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

Jay Hunter Morris was not expected to sing in this production. As the cover for Ian Storey, the original two-evening Siegfried, Morris was supposed to stand by and be ready if Ian Storey became indisposed. But such a call up came a few months early, at a rehearsal in March of this year, when Storey decided he was not ready for the first evening’s duties. Morris, debuting the role, came through and, more importantly, showed nary a sign of exhaustion at the end.

Morris seemed to have skimmed through some of the high notes at his entrance, and noticeably saved firepower for the long evening. As the evening progressed, he opened up poco a poco, culminating with his duet with Nina Stemme’s well-rested and full-powered Brünnhilde in his final scene. While his voice sounded somewhat pinched, he made up with pitch and rhythmic precision. By the third Act, his voice opened up ably and, without sounding fatigued, produced a suave, sweet sound with the sort of vivacity not commonly found at the fourth (or fifth!) hour of most Siegfrieds. His golden blond hair looked like Neil Robertson’s on an explosive hair day. After five hours of him, he simply looked like the boyish-looking snooker star’s twin brother! Under a radiating charm and plenty of youthful energy hid a boyish tenderness that compelled the audience to dish out parental forgiveness, even as his character was this disrespectful, ungrateful brat.

Stacey Tappan delivered one fine forest bird: her voice was tender and playful but without so much trill as to kill the role. Her portrayal of the feathered animal in human costumes was slightly more problematic. Costume designer Catherine Zuber dressed Tappan in a radiant burgundy orange dress, into this Eva Marie Saint lookalike. However, her humanized presence, even if merely figurative as she led Siegfried to Brünnhilde, somewhat negated the logic of Siegfried’s interjection as he first discovered Brünnhilde. Ronnita Miller’s Erda provided dramatic heft with her arresting stage presence and her secure vocal athleticism. David Cangelosi’s Mime was more vocally penetrating than Morris’ Siegfried, but dramatically didn’t inhabit the role as much as Morris did. While Cangelosi worked some of the mandatory squealing and wheeling into the role, his portrayal was rather bland and unremarkable as compared with other contemporary Mimes such as Wolfgang Schmidt at Bayreuth and Herwig Pecoraro in Vienna. If anything, his singing felt like a butcher working on a carcass with professional speed and adequacy, albeit with neither dramatic fanfare nor excitement.

Delavan improved further as Wotan. Vocally, his voice was penetrating and fearsome. Theatrically, he seemed more comfortable portraying a God in decline than as the ruler of all Gods in the previous evenings.

Fafner’s cave was set in an abandoned factory. The dragon appeared as a huge, tank-like machinery with flat claws that were imposing in size but looked practically harmless. Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich wore a pair of infrared goggles as he waited for his opportunity. Jan Hartley’s projections continued to daze and awe, and gave much context to the impending decline of the status quo. Deforestation, trains loaded with timber, overstretched electricity grid were some of the projected images that served to bolster two of the central themes – environmentalism and the cost of greed – of this American Ring. The Act III stage in Die Walküre  was transformed into a ruinous rock pile, suggesting that Zambello was ready to highlight the passing of time and more importantly, the degeneration of the world outside it. While that seemed to be a deviation of Wagner’s intent (the circle of flame in my opinion was supposed to surround and protect Brünnhilde in perpetuity, impenetrable to the effects of the passing of time), the dramatic outcome of such deviation seemed to tuck neatly into Zambello’s vision of gradual decay and impending downfall.


SF Opera/Runnicles: Die Walküre

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

Day One of the Ring saga began with a Blair Witch-like scene whereby Jan Hartley’s projection onto a stage-front scrim suggested a romp through uncharted woods. The scrim then rose to reveal Hunding’s abode which, with manicured shingles and perfectly aligned window screens, looked slightly more pristine than one would imagine to be a real estate of Hunding’s soon-to-be-revealed, thug-like character. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was imprisoned in such thug life, slightly bewildered but more agitated by a Siegmund stumbling onto her porch and into her life, as if foretelling the imminent collapse of the status quo. Inside Hunding’s lodge were aged hunting gear, winnings from hunting trips, sporting trophies and decorative china wares that gave clues as to Zambello’s targeted place and time for this Act: a mountain lodge, perhaps in the Mountain West, in the Depression Era.

In Zambello’s vision, Sieglinde was an abused wife, trapped in a loveless marriage and suffering from Stockholm syndrome as she willingly submitted to Hunding at his presence. A slightly more realistic reading would entail her knowing that any seeming rebellion, in the face of Hunding’s thuggish recklessness, might jeopardize her life and, when his twin brother arrived in this one fine evening, Siegmund’s. Kampe’s vocal chops were refined and conscientious. She navigated the more lyrical passages in Acts I and III with clarity and ease. Daniel Sumegi’s Hunding seemed to be the kind of person who physically and mentally overwhelmed his wife in regularity, and in so doing probably took plenty of pleasure too. While Sumegi’s voice was stentorian, the carefulness of his delivery revealed the character of a physically big yet mentally calculating man.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund was a revelation: his voice was bright and persuasive, with an electrifying top and a juicy mid-range timbre. His “Wälse!” cries not only seemed to last forever, but easily penetrated past the rousing orchestra. In Winterstürme, Jovanovich built a strong case of why he would soon become the next superstar, whether helden or lirico spinto: crisp delivery of individual notes was nonetheless smothered into fine melodic arches of lyrical beauty. The roundedness of his voice was akin to grated cheese oozing on top of a baking pizza, or butter slowing melting away on top of warm bread. But I digress. The slight blemish in Jovanovich’s fine squillo appeared to be an occasional overshooting of top notes. As an actor, Jovanovich was intense: the serious eye contact made to Sieglinde was fiery and genuine, while his body language in Winterstürme imparted a lover boiling with desire. In his dying moments, Jovanovich gazed tenderly and innocently at his father, dispensing a poignant moment of human kindness. After raving about his Jose earlier this year, I feel that, with some additional refinement of vocal delivery, especially a more regulated access to his squillo, Jovanovich has potential to carry the baton left by the likes of Lauritz Melchior and James King.

Mark Delavan had a better outing as Wotan compared with his lackluster performance in Das Rheingold. His voice was audibly stronger and sturdier, especially in the mid-range, but markedly tapered off at the higher registers and towards the end of the evening. The unleashing of reserve firepower in Leb’ wohl was therefore and nonetheless a pleasant and welcoming surprise.

When Nina Stemme appeared on stage with her Valkyrie cries, she sounded a little forced: the four sets of Hoyotohos were rendered as “Hoyotooo-ah” with an extremely short fourth syllable and a raucous glide between the third and the fourth. Her Brünnhilde’s comedic interaction with Wotan garnered some of the best laughs of the evening. Later in the Act and in Act III, her warmed-up voice displayed a full range of dynamics and coloration. By the end of the evening it seemed clear why Stemme has a natural gift to excel in the role: she owns a confident top that easily rings over the orchestra. She also seems so comfortable with and confident of her vocal delivery that she could actually spend time acting the role as well.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka transformed from a subservient mother deferring to her husband in Das Rheingold to a serious woman confident of her moral superiority and suasion over her husband’s questionable antics. Her singing, surprisingly first rate, especially at Ich vernahm Hundings Not, gathered a rabidly enthusiastic reception at her curtain call.

The Valkyrie sisters were fine, though Melissa Citro, as Ortlinde, continued to sound shrill, just like her Freia in Das Rheingold.

There seemed to be better balance in the orchestra, perhaps due to more focused conducting in the Cycle’s first night of serious music (but more possibly, due to the fact that as the night wore on, I was finally accustomed to my seat’s and the War Memorial’s quirky acoustics). But whatever cured balance was then ruined by Runnicles’ wild tempi: his conducting felt like a drive down San Francisco’s own Market Street: occasionally smooth under synchronized traffic lights, but at times jerky and achingly slow due to horrible traffic. At Ein Schwertder Vater, Runnicles’ pacing was a snail’s drag compared with Böhm’s much faster and upbeat pace, and sounded more pedestrian and flat compared with Solti’s more cerebral reading. There were small mistakes from the brass section, most notably during Brünnhilde’s first entrance in Act II and then at Walkürenritt, but they were not so glaring as to spoil the evening of the average listener.

Michael Yeargan’s set continued to convey that American look, with Hunding’s Depression Era mountain lodge, and a highway underpass in Act II (as an afterthought, if the entire Die Walküre was meant to be set in the Depression Era, the idea of having convenient highway overpasses, before the dawn of the Interstate era, seemed slightly premature). Brünnhilde’s rock was depicted as a round, dial-like rock surrounded by an awkwardly shaped fortress. Zambello’s historical reference appeared to be the Presidio, which would fit nicely into her notion of a world where men and women were sacrificed as megalomaniacs fought to consolidate power.


SF Opera/Runnicles: Das Rheingold

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

The idea of an American Ring, whereby Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is retold in the context of snippets of American history, is quite an alluring concept. The immediate questions, then, are serious and find no easy answers: what happens after Immolation? Is Francesca Zambello, the production director, prepared to foretell the end of American history? Who, then, is Wotan?

To be sure, some of these questions will remain unanswered by the end of Götterdämmerung. In what seems to be the most unfortunate moment of Schadenfreude, the real life saga of the Washington National Opera, a co-producing partner with San Francisco until the east coast partner bailed due to insufficient funds, even seemed to fit the description of a once-mighty empire falling into disarray. But any further deductions would be unfair and premature.

The first scene of Das Rheingold was set in the Gold Rush era, where Alberich’s power-hungry character reigned supreme. The second to fourth scenes were set at the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gatsby era as America learnt how to build skyscrapers and rushed to erect them all over the country. The Wagnerian parallel would be an enterprising Wotan eager to finish hisValhalla. The English surtitles in the early going revealed further “American-ness” of the production, whereupon Alberich referred to the Rheinmaidens as “sluts” while the three sisters joked about Alberich being a “blob”.

The Rheinmaidens, Lauen McNeese, Renee Tatum and Stacey Tappan, dressed and danced as if they were in Minnie’s polka saloon which, in the context of Zambello’s American experiment, was not inappropriate. Their succulent and warm trio foretold the rest of the Cycle’s excellent singing, though Tappan seemed willing to save her voice by skimming through some of the passage’s high notes (she would later sing a  sumptuously satisfying forest bird). Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich was as menacing and mean as any gold rush entrepreneur who wanted it all.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka, humanized as a dependent, portrayed a homely wife in an era before the feminist and women rights movements. Vocally, Bishop delivered her lines with ease, and seemed to reserve vocal power for her more demanding role in Die Walküre. Melissa Citro was shrill as Freia, but had enormous stage presence with her good looks and giddy acting. Mark Delavan’s voice was fine if not slightly too light and lacking penetration as Wotan. He would probably excel in cleaner, lighter roles like Hans Sachs. More troubling, though, concerned Delavan’s portrayal of the ruler of God, which in the face of Loge and Fricka looked all too human. Ronnita Miller, as Erda, sang gorgeously with a supple and well-supported voice.

Since Froh is not typically well casted in any production, it was a pleasant surprise to hear Brandon Jovanovich in the role. Jovanovich, who came to San Francisco mainly to sing Siegmund, delivered the short but difficult lines of Froh. More importantly, he paraded his acting skills by providing the evening’s comedic relief.

Stefan Margita as Loge gave perhaps the most commanding delivery of the role I have heard in years. His crisp, trumpet-like execution projected easily across the pit, and at his curtain call he earned the loudest round of applause of the evening.

A swirling golden fabric held by the sisters to represent the Rhine precious metal was visually stunning. The design proved dramatically effective when Alberich conveniently snatched it away from the sisters and escaped to Nibelheim. The transformation of Alberich into the giant serpent and the toad, effectuated by puffs of smokes and sparks, looked like cheap tricks from a Penn-and-Teller show. The toad was a stuffed toy that Loge playfully juggled before securing it and leaving Nibelheim, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. Otherwise, Michael Yeargan’s stage provided very few excitements and/or novelty.

Jan Hartley’s visual projections provided a rich counterpoint to Wagner’s orchestrations and a story-telling complement to Michael Yeargan’s set. Soft focused imagery of America’s natural heartland provided a dream-scape depicting the distance and geology separating Nibelheim and earth. At times, however, the projections seemed too literal (the depiction of liquefied gold to suggest Alberich’s gold mine), or flawed (the depiction of Rhine with swerving, ocean-like waves).

At the conductor podium was Donald Runnicles, who was San Francisco Opera’s music director from 1992 to 2009. Runnicles was no stranger to Wagner music in San Francisco, having previously led two series of Ring Cycles at the War Memorial in the 90s. Runnicles’ time keeping was not strictly speaking, tight, and provided plenty of breathing room to the singers. Balance tilted in favor of the upper brass (at least where I sat – orchestra center), and the strings, underpowered — there were only 8 cellos to do the work of twelve scored by Wagner — were often drowned out. If there remained one other thing to complain about, it was the tentativeness of the horns at the beginning’s E-flat chord. The output sounded slightly timid and unrehearsed, but otherwise nothing to be scoffed at.