The second complete cycle of Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelung” ended with a superlative performance of “Götterdämmerung”, conducted by Maestro Donald Runnicles and starring Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Wisconsin heldentenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried.
Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde
Brünnhilde is among the most challenging roles in the operatic repertory. It weaves through the final three operas of the “Ring” and is the most prominent role in “Götterdämmerung”. Theorin provided a spectacular performance of the “Götterdämmerung” Brünnhilde.
[Below: Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In “Götterdämmerung’s” two hour long first act, Theorin’s Brünnhilde manifests a range of emotions – erotic passion and affection for Siegfried, dismay at sister Waltraute’s demand that she give up the ring Siegfried gave her, fear and alarm when overpowered by a man whom she did not recognize.
Theorin exhibited murderous rage at what she perceived was her betrayal by Siegfried in the chilling trio with Silvestrelli’s Hagen and Mulligan’s Gunther that concludes the second act.
[Below: Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, center right) watches as Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin, center) swears on Hagen’s spear that her damning testimony is true; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Theorin’s vocal and dramatic skills were at their most effective in the “Ring’s” final act, when, after Siegfried’s death, Brünnhilde achieves understanding and serenity, and sings the powerful Immolation, sacrificing herself and returning the cursed Ring to the river from which it was stolen.
I have seen Theorin perform the taxing title role of Puccini’s “Turandot” on three occasions [see Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012] and have watched Theorin perform Brünnhilde in each of the three “Ring” operas in which the character appears.
Although Theorin replaced another artist just a few weeks before rehearsals for the San Francisco Opera “Ring” cycles began, she proved to be a major factor in the unambiguous success of the Zambello “Ring’s” revival.
Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried
In my review of Daniel Brenna’s performance two nights’ prior [Review: An Heroic, Passionate “Siegfried” – San Francisco Opera, June 22, 2018] I cited Brenna as one of the best Siegfrieds that I have heard vocally. He is also the most visually satisfactory Siegfried I have seen.
[Below: Daniel Brenna as Siegfried; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francsico Opera.]
I admire any artists who successfully negotiate the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, in either of the two operas (“Siegfried” and “”Götterdämmerung”) in which both characters appear.
When the artists appear in a traditional “six day ‘Ring'” in which “Walkure” is performed on the second day, “Siegfried” on the fourth and “Götterdämmerung” on the sixth, it requires that an artist performing consecutive Siegfrieds must sing in two of the longest operas in the standard repertory in a three day period and an artist performing consecutive Brünnhildes must sing in three of the longest operas in a five day period.
Brenna and Theorin both performed these roles with world class singing and persuasive acting – feats of high artistry and physical endurance that will be long remembered by the audiences fortunate to have seen and heard them.
Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen
Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli has made Alberich’s gloomy son Hagen one of his signature roles (counterbalancing his performances as the likeable giant Fasolt in “Das Rheingold”, another role in which he excels.)
[Below: Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Silvestrelli’s deep, resonant voice soared over those of the men of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in the stirring melody welcoming the bridal couples and ominously joined with Theorin’s Brünnhilde in the savage oath assuring Siegfried’s death.
Brian Mulligan’s Gunther
The already extraordinarily talented 2018 “Ring” cast was made even stronger by the addition of the excellent New York baritone Brian Mulligan in the role of Gunther.
[Below: Brian Mulligan as Gunther; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Mulligan possesses a mellifluous lyric baritone and strong acting instincts. He used them to portray insecurities of Gunther, who is convinced by his half-brother Hagen to allow a drugged and spellbound Siegfried to woo Brünnhilde and Gunther’s ensuing mortification by Brünnhilde in what was to be their wedding.
Gunther (and Mulligan’s earlier role as Donner in this Ring cycle’s “Das Rheingold”) are the most recent collaborations between Mulligan and Zambello. A previous highlight of Mulligan’s opera career, was the role of John Proctor in Zambello’s production of Ward’s “The Crucible” (in which his “Götterdämmerung” colleague Jamie Barton also starred [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.])
Melissa Citro’s Gutrune
Illinois soprano Melissa Citro brought an attractive spinto voice and stylish acting to the role of Gunther’s sister (and Hagen’s half-sibling) Gutrune.
Zambello has given the character of Gutrune some intriguing personality traits, which Citro (who has owned this role in all of the complete Zambello “Ring” 2011, 2016 and 2018 performances in San Francisco and Washington D.C.) amusingly plays to the hilt.
In Zambello’s (and Citro’s) conception, Gutrune flirts with Hagen (with whom she watches TV in bed at the beginning of Act II, even as she awaits her promised husband Siegfried).
[Below: Melissa Citro as Gutrune; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In the third act, in Zambello’s conception, Gutrune’s character is transformed by Siegfried’s death. She reconciles with Brünnhilde and joins her in final scenes in which the world of the gods end and the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens.
Falk Struckmann’s Alberich
German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, prior to the current San Francisco cycles of Zambello “Rings”, had never performed the role of Alberich. He proved a dramatically persuasive and vocally strong Alberich in all three “Ring” operas in which the character appears.
[Below: the sleeping Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, right) receives instructions from his father, Alberich (Falk Struckmann, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Appearing in a single scene in “Götterdämmerung”, he was a chilling presence in what seems to be Hagen’s nightmare.
Stacey Tappan’s Woglinde, Lauren McNeese’s Wellgunde, and Renee Tatum’s Flosshilde
All three Rhinemaidens from the 2011 San Francisco Opera performances of “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdämmerung” – Oklahoma’s Lauren McNeese and California’s Stacey Tappan and Renée Tatum – returned for the 2018 Zambello “Ring”.
[Below: The three Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum, below) implore Siegfried (Daniel Brenna, standing) to restore the Nibelung Ring on his hand to them; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Their most engaging “Götterdämmerung” assignment vocally is their encounter with Siegfried, enchantingly performed in the presence of Brenna’s hero.
In Zambello’s conception the Rhinemaidens deal with the environmental degradation that is one of the consequences of the Ring’s curse, symbolically collecting plastic bottles in garbage bags.
[Below: the curse has made the Rhinemaidens, Woglinde (Stacey Tappan), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) and Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) the worse for wear; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Rhinemaidens ultimately are triumphant, with the return of the Ring, assuring the renewal of life in the post Götterdämmerung world.
Ronnita Miller’s First Norn, Sarah Cambidge’s Third Norn, Jamie Barton’s Second Norn and Waltraute
As history evolves, so do conceptions of how to present different elements of the “Ring”.
In the “Götterdämmerung” first act, where the three Norns weave a rope that connects the past, present and future, Zambello has introduced the idea that the Norns can be a metaphor for the contemporary world’s inter-connectiveness to the Internet.
[Below: the three Norns (Ronnita Miller, Jamie Barton and Sarah Cambidge) act as the guardians of the cyberworld; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Florida mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, who had been a distinguished Erda in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried” performed the deep-voiced First Norn, while Canadian soprano (and San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow) Sarah Cambidge was an impressive Third Norn.
Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton had two “Götterdämmerung” roles. She joined Norns Miller and Cambidge as the Second Norn. As the valkyrie Waltraute, she visited Theorin’s Brünnhilde to warn her of consequences of not giving the Ring she received from Siegmund to the Rhinemaidens.
In both parts, Barton’s rich mezzo brought vocal interest into what were expository roles.
[Below: Waltraute (Jamie Barton, right) has, what at first is a joyful, reunion with her sister Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestro Donald Runnicles, Director Francesca Zambello and the War Memorial Opera House “Ring of the Nibelung” Experience
This is the second time I’ve reported on a complete Zambello “RIng cycle” in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
Any “Ring cycle” can be an illuminating experience. On these webpages I’ve reported on the 2009 and 2013 Stephen Wadsworth directed “Rings” at the Seattle Opera, the Achim Freyer “Ring” at the Los Angeles Opera and the 2006 Gergiev Mariinsky/Saint Petersburg Russian “Ring” performed in Orange County, California.
Each of these “Rings” had its own special features (some salutary, in some cases, deservedly controversial). I especially liked the Wadsworth “Ring” (regrettably retired and dismantled) which I regarded as a “world treasure”.
Those who had the fortune of seeing the 2018 Zambello “Ring” were able to see a “Ring” that transcended most others. The casting was incomparable. The conducting by Maestro Donald Runnicles and the performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and (in “Götterdämmerung”) the San Francisco Opera Chorus was brilliantly executed.
The 89 orchestra members performing in the War Memorial Opera House’s open pit created a “wall of sound” that reverberated in the War Memorial’s superb acoustics, making such iconic sonic moments as Siegfried’s Rhine Voyage and resounding moments of the leitmotiv that accompanies Siegfried’s death all the more powerful.
The projections by S. Katy Tucker and her predecessor Jan Hartley added to the visual wonder, as did the War Memorial Opera House itself, encompassing this grand event with its elegant, lustrous architectural features.
Zambello’s production was conservative in an era in which “non-traditional Rings” are the tradition. She follows the story explicitly, even as she changes the settings in which Wagner placed each scene.
Zambello’s changes in total show us that the relationships in the “Ring” are universal. The power battles of Wotan and Alberich and the heroism required to “make things right” have their parallels in modern times and will continue to do so in the future.
There are a few of the contemporary emphases that we expect from Zambello productions – a concern about environmental despoliation, a faith in the ability of women to “make things right” – but this is not so much a “message” production as one that loves to tell the “Ring” story, adding new insights to the storytelling.
[Below: Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) is surrounded by the women of the Gibichung court who will join her at the end; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
For those with an opportunity to experience any future performances of the Francesca Zambello “Ring”, I enthusiastically recommend that you do so.
For my previous reviews of the Francesca Zambello production of “Götterdämmerung”, see: Glorious “Götterdämmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011 and “Götterdämmerung”: Strong Finish to the First Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2011.