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.

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.

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.