Heroes and Villains: Siegfried at San Francisco Opera

Wagner – Siegfried

Siegfried – Daniel Brenna
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Mime – David Cangelosi
Der Wanderer – Greer Grimsley
Alberich – Falk Struckmann
Fafner – Raymond Aceto
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Stimme des Waldvogels – Stacey Tappan

San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Francesca Zambello

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Friday, June 22nd, 2018.

At this point in the week of the Ring, it’s fair to say that it has established its course.  As the previous evenings have demonstrated, both the orchestral playing and conducting are of distinction, the singing ranges from honourable to outstanding, with all of these elements combined into what is proving to be a somewhat frustrating staging.  Frustrating because, as I mentioned previously, Francesca Zambello’s production looks good.  There has clearly been a lot of money spent on it – Fafner appears in what looks like an adapted tank, the stage furniture looks like no expense has been spared, and the video projections that accompany the preludes of each act, as well as scene changes, are most impressive.  And yet, I asked myself repeatedly tonight, more so than in the previous evenings, if all of this was really necessary?  Are the visuals assisting the principals in creating real, flesh and blood characters within a clearly and cogently argued narrative framework?

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The answer, insofar as I can see, is yes and no.  Again, there is far too much reliance on characters singing their lines to the front, with arms aloft.  Then, in another scene, such as the Alberich/Wanderer confrontation, we have two very fine singing-actors in Falk Struckmann and Greer Grimsley striking sparks off each other with dramatic tension.  Both David Cangelosi’s Mime and Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried quite literally threw themselves into action in Act 1 with Cangelosi doing cartwheels and Brenna jumping all over the set with youthful abandon.  As a means of communicating Siegfried’s youthfulness and Mime’s excitement at potentially getting his hands on the ring, it felt appropriate.  There was a charming touch as Siegfried wore some fabric from Sieglinde’s dress as a scarf.  At the same time, the seemingly random imagery that accompanied the scene changes – views of factories, rails, trees, flames – felt disconnected from the action and the narrative being presented to us.  The use of the video did however succeed in creating constantly changing vistas at the back of the stage, allowing the audience to perceive a sunrise or the time of the day changing, for instance, as the scene developed.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This staging is undoutedly the work of someone with a great visual imagination who has the technical facilities to achieve it.  But there were also frequently occasions on which basic stagecraft was left to one side.  Wotan suddenly pulled out his spear from behind Mime’s trailer, even though Mime had been back there a number of times in that scene and could not have missed it.  The closing pages of Act 1 were marred by exploding machines drowning out the orchestral sound.  There were also issues with the placement of singers on the stage – particularly when the singers were singing from the trailer, the voices were absorbed by the texture of that installation.  Brenna is not the owner of the largest voice to have essayed Siegfried and he would have benefitted from being placed downstage much more frequently.  When he was downstage, he was heard easily into the auditorium.  When upstage, he was at times covered by the orchestra, even with Donald Runnicles’ singer-friendly conducting.  Where Brenna gave much satisfaction was in the Act 2 forest scene.  He gave us some exceptionally delicate singing, shading the tone with great beauty.  His German initially sounded quite Anglophone but as the evening developed, he found his form and actually coloured the text in a remarkable way.  His physical and vocal stamina were most impressive, lasting the course of a very long evening vocally and dramatically.  Brenna’s isn’t the most glamourous tenor, the sound is somewhat sandy and raspy in places, but his singing is always musical, never gratuitous.  Clearly a reliable and useful artist.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I did wonder if Greer Grimsley’s Wanderer was suffering from an unannounced indisposition.  He initially appeared to be having intonation trouble and the voice was sounding rather dry.  As the evening developed he rallied and sang an impassioned Act 3.  His scene with Alberich was a high point of the evening, the two colleagues working together, inspiring each other to heights of dramatic tension.  Struckmann’s Alberich was sung in a massive voice, carved from granite.  The tone was pitch black yet, with a slight acidic edge that helped to bring out a maliciousness appropriate to the character.  He commanded the stage also with his use of text.  Ronnita Miller’s Erda once again brought her remarkable voice and verbal acuity to her part.  Miller has charisma to spare, dominating the stage, even when barely moving, with a voice that ranges from a plush and velvety bottom to a clarion top.  Cangelosi’s Mime was something of a tour de force.  His diction was impeccable, his characterful tenor bright and forward, creating a highly believable character.  Stacey Tappan’s Waldvogel (a girl in a red coat that led Siegfried on his journey) revealed an attractive, dusky soprano, nicely placed with an impressive ease on top.  Raymond Aceto’s lugubrious bass was used to advantage as Fafner.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde was definitely worth waiting for, pouring out streams of golden tone.  She gave us some beautiful soft singing in ‘ewig war ich’, pulling the tone right back to a single thread of peaches and cream.  The pain and intensity she found in ‘Brünnhilde bin ich nicht mehr’ was deeply touching.  Her closing C was phenomenal – it felt that she was aiming it right at me, pinning me to the back of my seat with her laser-like precision.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As in the previous instalments, Runnicles and the ladies and gentlemen of his excellent orchestra gave a great deal of pleasure.  There were a very few brass splits and slips during the course of the evening but given the length, completely understandable.  The strings again demonstrated their cleanness of intonation, particularly in those treacherous pages just before Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde, where the violins where impeccably in tune with each other.  If the previous evenings were notable for tempi that were fleet, tonight it felt that Runnicles was more inclined to luxuriate somewhat, with an uncharacteristic drop in tension in the Mime/Wanderer scene in Act 1.  He also took ‘heil dir Sonne’ quite slowly, which gave Theorin the opportunity to allow the voice to flow.  What struck me again, was Runnicles’ ability to exploit the range of colour available to the band, particularly in the slithering brass lines, the sparseness of the opening, or the blaze of the finale.  The beauty of the strings and winds in the forest scene, with playing of ravishing delicacy was most impressive.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This Siegfried in many ways, as I mentioned at the outset, confirmed the trajectory of this Ring so far.  Musically, it’s shaping up to be very satisfying overall.  The singing is consistently offering rewards, considerably so in many cases, and the orchestra and conducting are proving to be excellent.  The main issue, at least for me, remains Zambello’s staging.  While there is no denying that it is visually spectacular, it is hampered by personenregie that is inconsistent and by what appears, again at least to this spectator, to be a lack of an overall narrative thread.  Perhaps all will be revealed in Sunday’s Götterdämmerung.

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