Review: Glorious “Götterdämmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011

For the past half decade Francesca Zambello’s vision of  an American Ring – that would present Richard Wagner’s four opera “The Ring of the Nibelung” utilizing images and situations evocative of the history and culture of the United States – has been unfolding.

Conceived as a joint project of the Washington National Opera and San Francisco (with initial discussions that go back to the time when San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley held that position at Houston Grand Opera), budget reprioritization at WNO shifted responsibility to San Francisco for completing the four opera project and presenting the first full Rings. The first three operas of the “Ring” had their initial performances at the Kennedy Center. The fourth opera premiered at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, as will the completed “Ring” itself.

I had seen the Zambello “Die Walküre” in Washington DC, with Placido Domingo’s Siegmund and Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde, and became an instant convert to Zambello’s extraordinarily insightful reading of the “Ring’s” second and most often performed opera. [See Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walküre’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007.]  But I also looked forward to seeing the components of the Zambello “Ring” in San Francisco, where a combination of the brilliant San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Conductor Donald Runnicles, and the felicitous acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House that revel in the sounds of large Wagnerian orchestras, assured an overwhelming experience.

Last weekend the San Francisco Opera performed the Zambello “Siegfried”, which aleady had been seen at the Kennedy Center, for the first time. [See my colleague Tom’s review at Wagner’s “Siegfried” Starts San Francisco Opera’s Ring Season With a Smashing Stunner – May 29, 2011.] But with this new “Götterdämmerung”, the San Francisco company takes over leadership of the “Ring” projects, with three complete “Rings”, each in a six day period , beginning June 14th.

The Zambello Women

In previous analyses of the Zambello “Ring” I have noted that, although one might suspect this or that underlying social or political agenda (some of which is inferred in the program notes), in fact, every image in the “Ring” advances the story that Wagner set out to tell, and yet, at the same time, relates to something, somewhere in American history or in the American experience. But the Zambello inspiration never seems contrived, nor preachy. Everything that each character does, flows out of deep thinking about what the motivations of each of the characters are at every point.

There are characters that one might argue Wagner only sketched, especially the women, into whom Zambello breathes life. We first meet Zambello’s Gutrune as a spoiled airhead, who appears to have a side romance with Hagen, but as the opera goes on, Brünnhilde’s purposive actions after Siegfried’s death, strongly affects Gutrune, and she and the womenfolk (prominently including the three River Maidens) take on the tasks of helping Brünnhilde with the construction of the funeral pyre that will provide the immolation for Siegfried’s body, Brünnhilde and Grane, and Valhalla and the gods.

The Cable Gals

One of the extraordinary outcomes of the Zambello approach to Wagner’s story is how sympathetic she makes most of the characters, and how much humor she finds in the “Ring”. Although I have confessed many times that “Götterdämmerung” is my favorite opera and there is not a measure I would wish to see cut, I’ve known opera goers who do not seem particularly inspired by the Three Norns, who begin the first scene of the prologue to this final opera of the tetralogy.

Zambello makes Erda’s three daughters into green-uniformed technicians with responsibility for keeping a complex of tangled cable wires properly connected and functioning. It’s not a fraying rope that causes the unraveling of the universe. Instead, the Norns become confused and do not make the right cable connection. That’s what causes everything to go amiss.

There is humor in Zambello’s image, but also the darker thought that beneath our complex, high technology society that we depend on utterly there may be three perplexed Norns in green uniforms who must never fail to connect cables in the right order.

[Below: the Three Norns (from left, Heidi Melton, Daveda Karanas and Ronnita Miller) whose work is supposed to keep the world’s technology working properly; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Of the principal characters, only Gerd Grochowski, the Gunther, had played the role before. (Of the smaller parts in this opera, Gordon Hawkins, the Alberich, and two of the Rhinemaidens also had prior role experience.) So Zambello had at her command a group of artists, each with the requisite acting skills and appearance, that she had the opportunity to mold to her vision.

The key roles are the heroic lovers, Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (British actor Ian Storey, the latter in a company debut). These two roles require a stamina and dramatic power, beyond virtually every other role in the operatic repertory – the title roles in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and the Siegfried and Brünnhilde characters in the other “Ring” operas arguably the only comparable assignments. It was a special treat for San Franciscans to hear these artists in role debuts that suggest they will “own” these parts in future years.

[Below: Siegfried (Ian Storey, left) holds Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) prior to seeking adventures in the wider world; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Gibichung residence was an impressive modern structure – with the suggestion of an abundant use of glass and steel. Melissa Citro drew laughs as a ditzy Gutrune in long blonde hair, but, as noted above, she matures over the couple of days that “Götterdämmerung” takes place. Andrea Silvestrelli’s sonorous basso was truly effective for der Grimme Hagen, although Zambello made sure that even Alberich’s kid will have some lighter moments in her production.

[Below: Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, standing in center) outlines his matchmaking ideas for Gutrune (Melissa Citro, left) and Gunther (Gerd Grochowski, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Götterdämmerung” has so many dimensions with its large orchestra and chorus, brilliant orchestral passages, and fascinating storyline, that one can recall singers – even in the larger parts – not quite up to form, or particular scenes that didn’t work so well, and still have a favorable impression of the performance. However, there is something profoundly satisfying about San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Zambello’s concepts.

One can come with one’s memories of how Nilsson or Marton or Eaglen or Jess Thomas or Rene Kollo appeared in the lead roles in this opera house, and yet experience something completely new in this performance. The power of the Wagnerian orchestra – never better, by the way, as the San Francisco Opera Orchestra seems to reach new heights every single year – is there, and one is enveloped by the sweeping melodies of which this opera abounds.

The lead singers are good, with Storey making a fine impression as the gullible Siegfried, who should never have let the Woodbird get away from him.

[Below: Ian Storey is Siegfried; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But it is the drama that is particularly significant about the Zambello “Ring”, and no part of the drama is as effectively presented as the character of Brünnhilde. Here Stemme’s powerful voice over the range needed for this role is an unquestioned asset. She is a very, very good dramatic soprano.

But it is Stemme the actress that I believe transforms her Brünnhilde into a great operatic experience. We are transformed through her range of emotions – love, incredulity, fear, rage and finally, a complete understanding of what has happened and what she must do.

Zambello’s images of the immolation scene are powerful, and it is the calmness that overtakes Brünnhilde as she takes on the most important assignment in the history of the world to that time – returning the Ring to where it needs to be.

[Below: Nina Stemme is Brünnhilde; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The first performance of “Götterdämmerung”, occurring over a week before the first complete “Ring” begins was a virtual sell-out. At opera’s end the stage curtains rose with Nina Stemme standing alone on a bare stage, to accept the immediate and vociferous standing ovation of the entire audience.

There are many details about the production that I will report in subsequent posts, but I did wish to signal that I believe that as the few available tickets are shuffled about that any lover of what is grand about opera should invest in the Zambello “Ring”. It is unlike anything else you have ever seen.