Review: Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring – Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011

San Francisco Opera’s first complete performances of “Der Ring des Nibelungens” in a dozen years, continued with “Siegfried” in Francesca Zambello’s reconceptualization of Wagner’s tetralogy of operas, based on American images. In reflecting on Zambello’s concept, one of its striking features is portraying  the tetralogy’s major characters as “downwardly mobile” – exemplified in “Das Rheingold” by the appearance of the River Maidens (Rhine Maidens for those who cling to the West German geographical nomenclature of the original work) in dirty, ragged garments at opera’s end.

Only at three points in the Zambello Ring do we see people in magnificent surroundings – the temporary home of the gods in “Rheingold” while the construction worker giants build Valhalla;  the Valhalla, Inc. corporate offices of the second act of “Die Walküre” and the elegant Hall of the Gibichungs in “Götterdämmerung”. And in each of these cases we are glimpsing the characters (Wotan and Fricka; Gunther and Gutrune) at the height of their fortunes, from which they will inevitably descend.

Cangelosi’s Mime

The first “down and out” character is Mime, brother of the dwarf Alberich who, for a few moments in “Das Rheingold” had an opportunity to become the most powerful person in the world, if he had realized what power existed in the Tarnhelm, which he had just completed to Alberich’s specifications. But Alberich realized Mime’s intentions and enslaved him until Alberich himself lost control of the Nibelung Ring. Mime had moved to the East to establish a ramshackle residence in an old trailer.

Mime’s second opportunity to gain an advantage in the Ring Quest, came when he provided refuge to the dying, pregnant Sieglinde, and agreed to raise her son, Siegfried, and guard the shards of the shattered sword, Notung. As before, talented artisan though he was, he had not the skill to be able to forge the sword that would have killed the monster that guarded the Ring.

[Below: the excitable Mime (David Cangelosi) plots to gain control of the Nibelung Ring; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The role of Mime is the second longest in “Siegfried” and is, indeed, a longer role than several of the most famous lead tenor roles in opera. It is unquestionably David Cangelosi’s signature role (see my interview at Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi) and he dispatched it vocally with distinction. But it was not just his singing and acting that made his performance so memorable. He also proved to be an astonshing athlete, doing cartwheels and somersaults (including a gymnastic move on top of the trailer).

Hawkins’ Alberich and Delavan’s Wanderer

Five characters in “Siegfried” appear as past, present or future owners of the Nibelung Ring: Alberich, Wotan, Fafner, Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In the case of the first two, their rivalry propels all the action in the four operas. By “Siegfried” the fortunes of both have receded, with Alberich in this production camping out in a large, abandoned industrial building that houses the machine into which the current Ring-holder, Fafner, has transformed himself. He is in a hobo’s rags with an old grocery cart, but possesses night-vision goggles and an assault rifle.

The Wanderer, the disguise Wotan uses to travel on Earth, is also raggedly dressed. The image of these two adversaries having the first extended conversation since Alberich’s curse – now as equals more or less – is one of the great touches in the “Ring” and in the Zambello production.

[Below: the Ring’s two past possessors, Alberich (Gordon Hawkins, left) and Wotan, the Wanderer (Mark Delavan) exchange thoughts on who will kill its current owner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It also reminds one what a heroic feat it is for these artists with multiple “Ring” assignments to participate in three consecutive weeks of six night “Rings”. Hawkins’ Alberich’s biggest nights are the Tuesday “Rheingolds”, but he also sings the Friday night “Siegfrieds” and Sunday matineee “Götterdämmerungs”.

Delavan’s three Wotan roles are a killer assignment. Each week he has a Tuesday night “Rheingold”, Wednesday night “Walküre” and Friday night “Siegfried” with only three days rest before beginning the ordeal again.

Whereas, many opera companies would cast separate performers for the “Rheingold” and “Walküre” Wotans, there is a theatrical advantage in having the same person in each “Ring” opera (recognizing, of course, that the artist will be required to adopt strategies for conserving one’s voice as much as possible, to be able to survive the week vocally). Delavan’s ability to maintain his high level of vocal quality, to produce the requisite power for the big moments (such as breathtakingly beautiful scene with Erda) and still to demonstrate the attention to detail in his acting that one expects of a Zambello performer is an achievement that should not be underestimated.

Morris’ Siegfried

Jay Hunter Morris, the American heldentenor, was the cover of the role of Siegfried for the Seattle Opera in 2009 and was originally scheduled to cover the current San Francisco Opera performances. British tenor Ian Storey was cast as Siegfried in both of the two operas he appears. However, illness set back Storey’s available time to learn the two roles and he decided to concentrate on Siegfried’s part in “Götterdämmerung”. Morris, who has appeared at San Francisco Opera in several roles, including Walther in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”, got the call to take over all four performances in the title role of “”Siegfried”.

It proved a felicitous assignment for Morris, who is an intelligent actor with the requisite voice for the part. I have described the plot of the opera as rather like “the adventures of Prince Charming earlier in the day that he awakens the Sleeping Beauty”.  Wagner always thought “Siegfried”, rather than “Walküre“, would be the most popular “Ring” opera, and the heroic episodes of the first two acts – the forging of Notung and the slaying of the dragon, Fafner – provide abundant opportunity for a stage director to bring forth an absorbing mise en scene.

Again, Zambello’s imaginative stagecraft added new levels of interest to the story. That Fafner has transformed himself into an ominously dangerous machine (no safety features appear to have been required for this monstrosity) is, of course, a tour de force. But, when slain by Siegfried, the dying Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) in his “Rheingold” giant’s costume, becomes part of a truly poignant scene of bonding between these two successive vicitms of the Ring’s curse.

[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris, center, standing) shows compassion to the dying Fafner (Daniel Sumegi); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Another brilliant stroke of staging is the Woodbird of Stacey Tappan, who first appears in a mute, but skillfully acted appearance on the upper floor of the industrial building in a bright red cocktail ensemble. With birdlike cocking of her head, she attempts to communicate with Siegfried, sometimes consulting a book for translating between German and birdsong. But when Siegfried tastes dragon’s blood, he instantly becomes hardwired with the skills to understand all of the critical information that the woodbird is able to provide him.

Miller’s Erda and Stemme’s Brünnhilde

There was over a decade and a half hiatus between Wagner’s composition of “Siegfried’s” Acts I and II and its Act III.  The latter act begins with the scene in which Wotan seeks out the final prophecies of Erda, the Earth Goddess, then bids her farewell; and has the inevitable confrontation with their grandson Siegfried that will before too long end the reign of the gods. It ends with the awakening of Brünnhilde by Siegfried’s kiss and their declaration of mutual love. Both scenes of the act are bathed in Wagnerian melody at its most luxurious.

The role of Erda requires the deep chest tones of a contralto, one of the rarest of operatic voice types. The San Francisco “Ring’s” Erda is Ronnita Miller, who shows early promise of an extraordinary career, bringing power, not heard that often, to the notes deep in the character’s range, intentionally designed to evoke the depths of the earth.

[Below: Erda (Ronnita Miller) determines to return to eternal sleep; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Over the past two years, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who had sung only Senta in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” previously (2004), has taken San Francisco by storm, now arguably the artist most closely associated with the success of the Zambello “Ring”. Like Delavan’s Wotan, this is a grueling assignment – she performing the three Brünnhildes on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for three successive weeks.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) is overjoyed that Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) is the hero who has awakened her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Zambello “Ring” has proven to be an artistic triumph, with the “Siegfried” – in which comedy, heroic deeds, and one of the performing arts’ great love affairs – are combined with some of the most beautiful melodies in opera, magnificently sung and played by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under Donald Runnicles. It’s a wonderful way to spend a pleasant summer Friday evening in San Francisco. [See also my colleague Tom’s review of an earlier performance at: Wagner’s “Siegfried” Starts San Francisco Opera’s Ring Season With a Smashing Stunner – May 29, 2011.]

See also: Achim Freyer’s “Siegfried” at Los Angeles Opera: John Treleaven Heads Impressive Cast – September 26, 2009, and also,

An Imaginative “Siegfried” Continues Seattle Opera’s Spectacular Cycle – August 12, 2009, and also,

Kirov’s “Siegfried” Slays Dragon, Conquers Orange County – October 9, 2006.

Americans in the American “Ring”

The presence of the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and Australian basso Daniel Sumegi were invaluable additions to the “Siegfried” cast, but it is worth noting that other cast “Siegfried” members hail from the United States, testament to the ability of American companies to cast major roles in Wagnerian operas with American-trained artists. Nor are any of these American artists exclusively associated with the Wagner roles, but perform in Italian, English, French, Russian and other German operas as well, as my following reviews of non-Wagnerian operas in which they appeared suggests.

For other reviews of performances by Jay Hunter Morris, see: Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008, and also,

Humanizing “Wozzeck”: Hawlata, McAnuff, Brill Create a San Diego Opera Masterpiece – April 17, 2007, and also,

Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007.

For other reviews of performances by David Cangelosi, see: World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011, and also,

Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010, and also,

Kaufmann Astonishes, Dessay Enraptures, in McVicar “Manon”: Lyric Opera of Chicago – October 15, 2008, and also,

S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.

For other reviews of performances by Mark Delavan, see: 21st Century Verdi: Radvanovsky Leads World Class Lyric Opera “Ballo” Cast – Chicago, November 15, 2010, and also,

Gripping “I Pagliacci” Revival at Lyric Opera of Chicago – February 25, 2009, and also,

Guang Yang a Stellar Santuzza in Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria” – Chicago, February 25, 2009, and also,

French Connection: Friedkin’s Cinematic “Tabarro” – L A Opera September 6, 2008.

For other reviews of performances by Ronnita Miller, see: Korchak, Coburn and Meachem Illuminate Alternate “Barber of Seville” Cast – Los Angeles Opera, December 5, 2009.

For other reviews of performances by Gordon Hawkins, see: Seattle’s “Trovatore”: Standing Ovations for Antonello Palombi, Lisa Daltirus – January 16, 2010, and also,

The Zambello “Porgy and Bess” An Historic Success at Chicago’s Lyric – November 18, 2008.