Sisters Doing it for Themselves: Götterdämmerung at San Francisco Opera

Wagner – Götterdämmerung

Siegfried – Daniel Brenna
Gunther – Brian Mulligan
Alberich – Falk Struckmann
Hagen – Andrea Silvestrelli
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Gutrune – Melissa Citro
Waltraute – Jamie Barton
Erste Norn – Ronnita Miller
Zweite Norn – Jamie Barton
Dritte Norn – Sarah Cambidge
Woglinde – Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde – Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde – Renée Tatum

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

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Sunday, June 24th, 2018.

And with that, it was over.  The San Francisco Ring, clearly a labour of love for the house is now memory (although with one cycle left there is still a chance for those close by to see it).  Above all this Ring is a triumph for the house forces.  The orchestra, under Donald Runnicles’ direction, has repeatedly proven itself over the past fifteen or so hours to be the equal of any major opera house orchestra in the world.  This Ring is their triumph.  It was a privilege to spend time in the house – the welcome is warm and cordial – and it goes without saying that the city itself, one of the most wonderful places on earth.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There were frustrations – and we should get these out of the way first.  The chief frustration, as was the case throughout the week, was Francesca Zambello’s staging.  This isn’t to say that it was without merits.  As I have repeatedly written, it is undeniably visually impressive.  Zambello not only has the imagination to come up with audacious stage pictures, she also has the ability to transform these pictures from imagination into reality.  That is no small feat.  The sight of the Norns spinning what appear to be computer cables or the imposing Gibichung Hall, all steel and glass, were both most memorable.  More impressive still was the use of video projections to create an air of mystery in the Hagen/Alberich scene.  The projections framed the action on screen as if looking at a badly-tuned television screen.  It was visually fascinating.  Yet, the ability to create these fascinating visuals can only be half the story and where Zambello’s staging has felt consistently disappointing is her seeming unwillingness to develop a cogent theatrical narrative.  For instance, images of pollution in the video projections during the interludes or the Rhinemaidens living in a riverbed polluted by plastic bottles, suggest that she views the Ring as an allegory of the exploitation of nature.  This feels tagged on as an afterthought rather than a consistent thread throughout the work.  Similarly, in a post-#MeToo era, the treatment of women in Götterdämmerung is something that could form the basis of a very interesting staging.  There is the kernel of an idea here.  The women appear to be mistreated by Hagen’s vassals, Hagen himself seems to be mistreating Gutrune, feeling her up just before Alberich appears, and of course there is the forced marriage of Brünnhilde to Gunther.  In the closing tableau we see the chorus ladies and the Rhinemaidens depose of the arms used by the Vassals into Brünnhilde’s pyre.  There is a point here – women making a world abused by men better.  The problem is that, as with so many of Zambello’s interesting ideas, this is just briefly exposed and felt tagged on rather than developed coherently throughout the evening.  The comparison between Bieito’s Stuttgart Parsifal, a staging that takes a similar line, is telling.  There it felt that ideas were developed into a convincing theatrical argument.  Here, it felt like an afterthought.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As in the Siegfried, there were also issues with the placement of singers on stage.  Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried is not the biggest voice to have essayed the role, and the opening duet with Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde sagged in tension as Runnicles needed to keep the orchestra down to allow Brenna through.  Had he been placed at the front of the stage this would not have been an issue.  As in the previous evenings, there was a fair bit of standing and delivering to the front.  The chorus was marched on, then across the stage and back off efficiently.  The gentlemen of Ian Robertson’s chorus made a magnificent noise – big, impeccably tuned, the tenors especially firm, and well blended.  The orchestra was on tremendous form.  There were a few more imperfections than in previous evenings – the strings, whose playing has been impeccable all week, were a little stretched in the fleet tempo Runnicles took for Siegfried’s ‘Rheinfahrt’ – and there were a very few brass slips in a few places.  Despite that, they played like heroes, fully deserving the massive ovation given to them as they took their final curtain call on stage.  Runnicles again led a swift reading, though he pulled back in the ‘Trauermarsch’ to build it up with inexorable tension.  He exploited the full range of colour available to him in the band and the closing pages soared with uplifting hope.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Theorin gave us a glorious Brünnhilde.  It’s true that the voice can sound somewhat shallow on occasion but she commanded the stage not only through her acting, but also through her sheer vocal presence.  The voice seems enormous, pinging out on high with laser-like accuracy.  What will also stay with me is the staggering soft singing she made use of in the Immolation scene, perfectly supported by Runnicles in the pit.  She brought out so much beauty in ‘Ruhe, ruhe du Gott’.  The top of Theorin’s voice is a thing of wonder.  She floated up there beautifully in the opening duet and she had room to spare at the very end where so many before her have run out of steam.  Theorin, just like the orchestra, has been one of the consistent pleasures of this production.  A remarkable assumption.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Brenna’s Siegfried was once again absolutely tireless dramatically.  His energy on stage is breath-taking, throwing himself with abandon into everything asked of him.  The voice isn’t the most glamourous – it can sound somewhat wiry and sandy in places – but his energy and dedication gave pleasure.  In Siegfried, I found him to be consistently musical.  Here, he tired towards the end (unsurprisingly), frequently under the note in Act 3.  His verbal acuity and willingness to use the text was impressive.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen was sung in his smoky, cavernous and somewhat woolly bass.  He’d obviously worked hard on the text and summoned his Vassals with impressive volume.  Falk Struckmann’s Alberich was absolutely magnetic, insinuating through his use of text and bringing an acidity to the tone that was of a piece with his character.  Jamie Barton’s Waltraute was sung in a plush mezzo but I sadly felt that her singing lacked impact due to a lack of colouring of the text.  She does have an impressive chest register that she isn’t afraid to use.  I was particularly impressed by two singers new to me – Melissa Citro’s Gutrune and Brian Mulligan’s Gunther.  Citro is the owner of a big, vibrant soprano that has some serious promise for the big Wagnerian roles.  Mulligan the owner of a very handsome and easily-produced baritone who made Gunther a much more rounded and sympathetic character than we often encounter.  There was a well-matched and mellifluous trio of Rhinemaidens and Ronnita Miller’s fabulous mezzo was luxury casting as the First Norn.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This cycle was a company triumph for San Francisco Opera and the house can stand tall and proud of its achievement.  It reflected precisely the judicious casting, orchestral strength and insightful conducting that the work requires.  If there were frustrations around the production these should not distract from the achievement of the whole.  This was musically a cycle worthy of the work and showed the house as its considerable best.

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