Tristan und Isolde

Date: October 13, 2016
Location: Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Tony Stevenson
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Carsten Wittmoser
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: René Pape
Shepherd: Alex Richardson
Steerman: David Crawford

Metropolitan Opera
Simon Rattle, conductor
Mariusz Treliński, production

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic tale about love and death, returned to the Met after an eight-year hiatus. The previous production, by Dieter Dorn, was as less well-remembered for its lego-colored background as the dynamic duo who propelled the run: Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. Mariusz Treliński’s new production, premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden, could well be remembered as much for its dark staging as the stars who lit it: Stuart Skelton, and Nina Stemme.

Treliński’s set was dark – so poorly lit that from the balcony seats one could barely make out the characters if not for the clarity of their voices. Militaristic costumes drowned in a a set painted with objects of grey and rusting metals. The stone-cold setting was made alive, albeit only marginally, by a screen at the back of the stage. As visual narrator in chief, this screen dabbled between genius and (mostly) clichés. For example, a crosshair radar was projected early on to reveal and enforce the place of action, even though the set was clearly one of a ship’s deck. While Isolde lamented Morold’s death, the screen offered to flash back the murder in utmost physical brutality, as if the grief in her voice alone would not suffice. Act 2’s start was cued by an impressive feat of stagecraft, where the entire stage spun about 180 degrees to reveal a Starship Enterprise-like structure, from which Tristan and Isolde professed love to one another. But the movements were so labored and long that the voice seemed secondary to the theatrical development. These sorts of visual narrative walked the fine line between enhancement and unnecessary distraction, and here, even if the visual cues were not found to be overwhelmingly clichéd, they could at times be distracting to the musical presentation.

Nina Stemme is a convincing Wagnerian heroine not least because of her vocal power, reliability and unbound stamina, but because that power and reliability allow her to focus a great deal of her attention on her theatrical acting, which proves time and again to be immersive and efficacious. Treliński’s staging did not provide a great deal for her to work on, due mainly to its plainness and darkness, but that did not seem to deter her: she clearly relished the opportunity to focus singularly on Tristan. Each twitching of her eye brows and each hypnotic glance towards Tristan seemed to unveil a great deal about the sort of Isolde that she wanted us to believe: as Tristan started to peel away the initial bitterness of Isolde’s lifeless armor, passion would resonate to the core. Vocally, her output flowed naturally like a gentle Alpine stream that sounded fresh, even after four hours and onwards to Liebestod. Her voice beamed with cinematic detail and heartfelt passion. Unlike many of Stemme’s contemporaries who relied on an outrageous, hedonistic build up towards and during Liebestod, to the point where the voice could be too excessively loud but lacking a sense of place and purpose, Stemme submitted something that was sublime, with nourished phrasings, crisp diction and a voice that found peace amidst all the commotion and ultimately the inevitable death. At the musical cue where Isoldes of the past simply died or left the stage, she rested her head gently onto the shoulder of Tristan sitting by her side, as though the pair has found eternal love in a manner where death no longer matters. Here, Treliński’s direction was brilliant and savvy, where he clearly reacted to the metaphysical implication without being excessively directorial.

Stuart Skelton, heard this year as Siegmund in Hong Kong, portrayed a soldier with a deep sense of loyalty and a deeper sense for love. Stemme clearly found protective and warm comfort next to the towering and muscular body of Skelton. Skelton presented a springy, agile voice that nevertheless sounded nursed and delicate. From the beginning, he did not show an inkling of restraint, even inside the Met’s gigantic hollow. That perhaps explained why he sounded tired and slightly hoarse towards the end (the high notes in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben” was audibly overparted), but that was not entirely unexpected of a dutiful Tristan who gave everything from the beginning till the very end.

René Pape presented one of the finest King Markes I have ever witnessed: a dignified character whose charity at the end shaded with paternal kindness. Vocally, Pape was sensitive with his words and phrasings, but, as stentorian a bass as he reliably has been, seemed a bit off in production volume this evening. Ekaterina Gubanova offered a fiery portrayal of Brangäne, and arguably was more spectacular vocally and dramatically than she was in Berlin back in June. Simon Rattle’s reading of the score was not as hypnotic as Karajan’s. Nor was his as dramatically surging as Böhm’s. But what Rattle gifted  us was intimate and delicate. If one cuts any random 10-second snippet from the evening, one would find great balance and perfect legato. Over four hours, Rattle did not seem to offer any particularly personal or definitive ideas. If there was nothing here that could point to a Rattle-ian identity, there must be something genuine and genius, with his modesty in not imposing his own color, and in allowing the singers to shine and Wagner’s music to speak for itself.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde, New York. Photo credit: Met Opera.

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.

Fidelio

Date: June 25, 2015
Location: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

Jaquino: Nicholas Phan
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Leonore: Nina Stemme
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

concert performance

Beethoven’s only opera is not an easy one to conduct: beginning effectively as a singspiel, its orchestration becomes denser and more complicated, eventually finishing off in a lengthy, majestic choral finale. A measured and gradual buildup, spanning the entire performance, could pay off handsomely. The San Francisco Symphony found solid leadership in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led with great patience and control. The septuagenarian conductor put a tight leash on Beethoven’s dynamics and dramatic dynamism until the end, where choral and orchestral wildfires finally spilled all over Davies in their full and unabated glory.

But first, the soloists. If Nina Stemme was not to be as widely acclaimed a Wagnerian specialist as she already is, she would surely be suffixed as the Leonore of our times. Very few sopranos could pull off the tessitura challenge of the role, but Stemme handled it with superb care and the sort of ease that characterizes all top singers in their prime (Stemme is most definitely in her prime right now.) Even without a production set to project onto, her dramatic instincts were genuine and emotionally fulfilling, without an inkling of forced acting. With “Abscheulicher”, she made meanings — of Leonore’s despair, hope, consolation, and steadfast resolution — out of mere words. Brandon Jovanovich, as Florestan, came off at his entrance sounding slightly hoarse and dry, but for obvious reasons that only enhanced, not hindered, his characterization of Beethoven’s imprisoned and impoverished hero. As the night wore on, it seemed clear that Jovanovich’s voice, purely on lyrical terms, was not at its most behaved; but his fearless approach to Florestan’s high notes revealed a committed musician who was willing to risk it all for his audience. In that respect, Jovanovich was Fidelio, and Fidelio was Jovanovich. The tenor would win the hearts of the audience, and the audience showed their love at his curtain call. Not everything portended perfectly: Beethoven’s robust Overture (first version) sounded stale and weighed on the deep lull of San Francisco’s summer. Crisp timpani action was dulled by the occasionally lifeless and mechanical upper strings, while the mostly brilliant horn playing was sometimes negated by a few parched notes.

Beethoven first premiered Fidelio at Theater an der Wien in November 1805, a few months after he debuted (in April of that year) his Third Symphony, in the same hall. The two pieces, written and presented at a time of Napoleon’s dramatic rise, represent a coherent vision of Beethoven’s political ideology: Fidelio exhibits the composer’s great passion for the common man’s liberty and freedom, while Eroica presents a hero who champions democratic and anti-despotic ideals. Both pieces require, in my opinion, a similar structural understanding of this ideological subject matter, the execution of which probably prefers an overarching ensemble control and orchestral narration over bursts of fiery brilliance. Here, Tilson Thomas showcased the sort of steady nobility and unwavering control that remained regrettably unfulfilled in van Zweden’s Eroica a fortnight ago.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony's Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony’s Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Götterdämmerung

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

If an honest attempt was made to find stylistic unity in the first three evenings, Götterdämmerung most certainly rendered that endeavor impossible. If the sets and mimes of the first three evenings provided plenty of figurative conduits, the realism in Götterdämmerung almost served to repudiate them. Here, stage actors no longer mimed anything. They simply became costumed stage hands or Gibichung subjects who loitered aimlessly in the Gibichung Palace. These folks inhabited the same space as our Wagnerian characters, but served no specific story-telling purpose other than being merely ornamental.

In Götterdämmerung, everything was real, wherein the depiction of capitalism’s excesses and perhaps its crisis-inducing inevitability was realistically displayed – a primly-styled, multi-leveled glass-cladded building was the Gibichung’s abode and the source of all excesses. Multiple glass cases displaying agricultural products revealed that the enterprise was possibly a biotech powerhouse in the mold of Monsanto, suggesting that the Gibichung’s rise to power most certainly had to do with monopolizing and profiting from the sales of some of these agricultural products. The quest for Nibelung gold and power was proxied by the quest for capitalist glory. Hagen and Gunther were two relentless owners who took pleasure physically and sexually abusing their staff. Gutrune was the Lindsay Lohan-type who in her free time rode with orgasmic joy on a rocking wooden horse in the shape of the Euro sign, as if her entire existence rested upon deriving material pleasures from money. Kriegenburg offered no serious solutions to the real-world Euro problem (but then, in the real world, who does), only that whoever rode the Euro to its last breath would derive, as Gutrune would attest, the greatest pleasures from it.

The extrapolation of a Gibichung-as-modern-business idea had many stage contemporaries, though this one only had circumferential relation with the setup of the prologue, which seemed to foretell a nuclear disaster in waiting as the Norns spun the inevitable. It was unclear whether this nuclear disaster would eventually cause or exacerbate the Euro’s demise. The most controversial bit of stage direction was Gutrune’s omnipresence during Immolation. Anna Gabler’s Gutrune oozed with an afflicted desolation, though why she would be so distraught, over a malady that she neither owned nor should be responsible for, was unclear. On the scale of superfluous excesses, this Götterdämmerung reigned supreme. Three mechanical bridges spanning the entire width of the proscenium moved up and down, but were severely underutilized either as part of the storytelling or as a sensational dramatic apparatus. If it was not the mechanical equivalent of burning millions of bailout money on stage, it most certainly was a poorly thought-out effort to impress the Company’s patrons. Several “doormen” were deployed at the various doors at which the bridges would connect to the Gibichung building structure either side of the proscenium. If these fine actors did not add to the story-telling (other than being proxies for excess), and if the Bavarian state government workers safety department did not mandate the Company to hire these doormen for safety, why add to the cost of production?

One unexpected advantage of engaging shared Brünnhilde duties was that the Götter Brünnhilde could start singing Act 1 without the long mileage of the previous evenings (Iréne Theorin and Catherine Naglestad sang the other two). Nina Stemme did just that, simultaneously being zealous, savory and fresh in her duet with Stephen Gould’s Siegfried. Stephen Gould had moments of helden brilliance sandwiching the occasional squeals in the upper registers. The trio of Rhinemaidens continued to shine, while the Norn trios of Jill Grove, Jamie Barton and Irmgard Vilsmaier swung between inspiring excellence and mere adequacy. The Waltraute of Michaela Schuster was visually and vocally animated as well as a joy to listen to.

As I have said here and here, no Ring is a bad Ring unless the production severely impedes the music or the singers who attempt it. Kriegenburg’s vision does not strictly speaking violate this rule, but as the abundance of non-singing actors moved about on stage, thereby creating noise and oft unnecessary distraction, Kriegenburg came dangerously close to the breach line. A case in point: as the actors were fleeing the collapsing Gibichung Palace after Zuruck vom Ring, their footsteps created a symphony of bewailing cacophony, at precisely the singular moment in the Ring when the audience should be drawn entirely to the efforts in the orchestra pit. What makes this production not a particularly memorable one was not because the human body concept was not in itself memorable, but because the execution did not provide ample interesting imagery to make it worth recollecting. The actors’ gyrations as the Rhine waves and Fafner’s dragon were notable exceptions, but the bulk of the effort seemed petty. The many superfluous concoctions mentioned in the reviews were not by default a perversion of Wagner’s intent, though in this age of dwindling art funds, the return on their investment seemed abysmal. Götterdämmerung remains stylistically detached, while the stage constructs in Walküre – the moving view finder concept in particular – were not fully exploited in the other evenings. This production could have been an unmitigated disaster elsewhere, if not for the uniformly top-notch singers and musicians in Munich this summer who lifted it.

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.

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.

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.