By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch
The first Ring opera I ever saw Live was the Met’s production of Götterdämmerung in 1989. The all-star cast included Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde, Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried, and Matti Salminen as Hagen. The day I went was the actual performance later pressed onto the DVD release, and it was one of the great musical and theatrical experiences of my life. As I approached yesterday’s conclusion of the cycle at San Francisco Opera, I wondered if I would ever have another experience like that one, or if I would ever encounter another Brünnhilde with the vocal power and strength as an actress that I’d witnessed in Behrens (even as I warned myself of the pitfalls of making such comparisons).
Well, I needn’t have worried. Despite my misgivings about aspects of Friday’s staging of Siegfried, the conclusion of the San Francisco Ring Sunday afternoon at the War Memorial was a blockbuster, a home run, a performance to remember, and any other superlative you wish to concoct.
It was, to put it another way, stunning.
Let’s start by talking about the singing. Ian Storey took over the role of Siegfried, presumably to spare the young Jay Hunter Morris a second marathon role in the space of 36 hours. It was a good pairing of Siegfrieds, since the men bear a fair resemblance to each other both physically and vocally. Also, Storey brings a greater gravitas to the role, which is a nice nuance: Brünnhilde tells us she has shared all her wisdom with her lover-hero, and it would indeed seem as if Siegfried has grown up in a very short space of time. I wasn’t particularly blown away by Storey’s performance – until, that is, his final dying monologue, in which he relives a vision of his first meeting with Brünnhilde. It was positively heartbreaking, and I’m not sure I breathed for its duration; as the funeral music began, I had to pull out a handkerchief: my entire face was wet.
Andrea Silvestrelli, whom you’ll recall me raving about in his role of Fasolt in Das Rheingold, returned in the role of Hagen. Once again he was positively astounding: he has all the resonance and darkness of the finest basses, but never at the expense of focus and clarity. His calling of the vassals in the Act II chorus scene was chilling for its power, his manipulation of others was dripping with deceit and veiled malice, and when he strikes at Siegfried and attempts to seize the ring in Act III he becomes positively unhinged with hatred. I cannot imagine a better Hagen, either vocally or as an actor.
I found Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther to be extremely compelling, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. Vocally he was certainly very strong, but it wasn’t the voice that was distinctive. It’s that he found exactly the right tone for the character: the mix of arrogance and insecurity that drives him – and then, when the full extent of Hagen’s treachery becomes apparent, reluctance and even regret for what he’s helped perpetrate. It was the most nuanced take on Gunther I’ve seen, and it added a valuable dimension to the plot.
In a similar vein was the treatment of Gutrune, sung by Melissa Citro. So often Gutrune is sort of a throw-away character, largely in the dark as to what’s really going on, and once Brünnhilde appears at the end, largely pushed aside. In this production she was played as a sort of runway model trophy girl, right down to her slinky evening dress and the long blonde hair. Though I did not particularly care for Citro’s voice (she has one of those vibratos that needs less amplitude and more focus to the pitch), she played the character brilliantly. And at the end, Director Zambello had her and Brünnhilde engage in some wordless reconciliation that I thought was a nice touch: both women were victims of a heartless scheme, and both were there for each other in the end.
But this opera is about Brünnhilde, and its success or failure hinges on the portrayal of that character. Nina Stemme was more than up to the task. Whether we be talking about her as an actor – joyfully and lovingly sending off her hero to explore the world in the Prologue, fiercely denouncing the scheme in Act II, or finding herself again in the Immolation Scene, blissfully proclaiming her fate; or as a singer – nailing the high notes with power, bringing a steely fury to her Act II denials, or tenderly reflecting on her fallen hero at the end, this woman has what it takes. She was absolutely radiant. I’m not up on who else is singing this role right now in the big houses (other than the mixed reviews Deborah Voigt is receiving right now in the Met’s production), but I cannot imagine a finer Brünnhilde. Will she become the new standard by which her contemporaries are measured? I think she very well could.
Now let’s talk production. It was an unseasonably warm day Sunday in San Francisco, and as we entered the historic War Memorial house the air was hot and stuffy. As my Ring companion lamented the conditions for this the longest of all the operas I quipped, “Well, we can just pretend we’re back in Bayreuth for the premiere: I don’t imagine they had air conditioning then, either!”
But of course, we weren’t in Bayreuth, and this isn’t 1876. I mention this because any production of the Ring is as much about the theatrical approach as the music, and as I’ve noted elsewhere a work of this scope and complexity naturally lends itself to a wide range of conceptual frameworks.
One cannot simply stick with the way they did it in 1876.
For me, what makes a concept successful or not is simply whether it meets two standards: it is in sync with the libretto and the music, and does it bring us to a greater understanding of the drama in question. These ends can be accomplished through a traditional staging or an avante garde one, and whether or not I find it successful has nothing to do with which end of the spectrum it originates: I’ve seen traditional settings with stupid blocking that makes no sense or conceits of characterization that contradict basic aspects of the role, and I’ve seen pretty far-out productions that work wonderfully.
And overall this production was a mixed bag: I had some misgivings about aspects of Rheingold, but not to the extent that I felt Zambello had seriously missed the mark. I thought Walküre was pretty much spot-on; I found some aspects of Siegfried particularly unsatisfying. I thought the video montages throughout to be seriously lacking. Such ups and downs are inevitable in a production of this size and compass, and I feel that they succeeded far more often than not. Still, it came down to the final test. As always, it comes down to Götterdämmerung.
Right off the bat, the opening scene with the Norns was nothing short of brilliant: the journey from unspoiled nature to industrial wasteland has been completed: we’re now in a totally digital world, with nature nowhere to be found. The Norns weave electric cables within the innards of a huge computer. A more dramatic contrast with the opening of the cycle, with its three Rhinemaidens in an unspoiled river, could not be imagined – and it struck exactly the right tone and made exactly the point that needed to be made. (With Heidi Melton, Daveda Karenas, and the glorious Ronnita Miller singing the roles, the sound was exquisite as well.) This was a perfect example of how a modern concept can not only “work,” but can enhance our experience of the story; this opening scene was a stroke of genius.
Moving forward from there, the Gibichung Hall was made of gleaming stainless steel: sleek, powerful, and soulless. Outside the sky is completely clogged with noxious clouds. Almost all color has been drained away. And how would they stage reappearance of the Rhinemaidens at the beginning of Act III? After all, with all this industrial waste how are these innocent water nymphs to fit into the picture? Why, they’re hopelessly (but tirelessly) trying to clean up the despoiled river: piles of recycled plastic bottles, tires, and other trash are piled up where they once frolicked in the waves. (A bit heavy-handed, perhaps? But how else is one to stage this scene given the construct? It was another stroke of genius, I thought.)
And there is perhaps not a more challenging set of stage directions than the closing moments of the opera, where Brünnhilde’s pyre burns down the Gibichung Hall, Valhalla goes down in flames, and the Rhine overflows its banks to cleanse the world. How would they stage this, I wondered? In this case, less was more: using projections (and more than a little theatrical smoke), the stage appeared to be caught up in a cleansing whirlwind. The sense of things being wiped clean was stronger than any more literal staging I’ve seen. The stage had already been largely cleared of the crowd, lending Brünnhilde’s funeral oration a more intimate, personal feel (which Stemme played to perfection), and when she commands the pyre to be lit it’s the women who appear to help her (assisted by Gutrune). We get the sense that women have indeed redeemed the story, and as the music relaxes into the “mightiest of miracles” theme (heard only once before, in Walküre), a young child brings out a sapling and plants it, thus starting the cycle of life over again from a clean slate.
Back on Day One of this journey, I said that in order for a production of the Ring to fully succeed one must experience transcendence. For this story is more than dragons and swords, gods and maidens and potions. It’s about the nature of humanity and our place in the world – and to fully enter into communion with those concepts one must transcend the particulars of the setting and grasp something deeper and more significant. It can happen quite suddenly, and when it does everything is changed in an instant. For me, when that child appeared, dressed in white and bearing a new sapling, I had my moment at last.