The Ring of the Nibelung, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Mark Delavan as Wotan and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in the climatic moments of “Die Walküre” in San Francisco’s “Ring.”
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Ring of the Nibelung

“Das Rheingold”
“Die Walküre”
By Richard Wagner
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 14-July 3, 2011
(See video clips below.)

To do a complete Wagner “Ring” cycle in one week is a major undertaking, for the spectator as well as the musicians. I have done seven of them: from San Francisco to Seattle, Chicago to New York, with a brief stop in Flagstaff, Arizona (in this country); and in Bayreuth, Germany, and Vienna, Austria (abroad). There are protocols. In Seattle you are forbidden to applaud until a full ten seconds after the curtain comes down. In Bayreuth formal dress is strongly encouraged and you must stand in front of your seat until your entire row is filled. Wherever, certain precautions are advised: eat lightly, drink liquor not at all, exercise whenever possible and take a daily nap—preferably not in the opera house.

Of all the “Rings” I have experienced, Francesca Zambello’s brilliant re-imagining in American terms of this epic tale of gold, gods and greed, humans, treachery and tragic love has been the most exciting. No horned, helmeted Valkyries here: they parachute in from on high in leather aviatrix garb. Alberich, the evil dwarfish Nibelung of the title who renounces love in order to gain a ring of absolute power, enters as a 49er, panning the Rhine River for gold. Later, after Wotan, ruler of the gods, tricks him out of his prize and he falls upon hard times, he is seen as a street person, complete with shopping cart.

Not only does Zambello’s concept move the Nordic myth to these shores, but she moves it through time, beginning in the 19th century and ending up in the not-too-distant future, when the earth has been despoiled of its natural riches by neglect and avarice. Wotan (Mark Delavan) rules from a corporate boardroom in a skyscraper high in the clouds. The incestuous twins of the second opera meet in a cabin in the woods and flee to a junk-littered highway overpass. By the final opera, the life-giving river is clogged with debris and the once green-and-glorious forests have been logged and burned to a sparse dull gray. Point taken.

So how to condense the impressions of such a vast canvas in a few hundred words? I kept a kind of scoreboard. Lots of runs batted in, a few foul balls and no real strikeouts, the end result being a kind of World Series “Ring” championship to match the San Francisco Giants’ win last fall.

Das Rheingold

The first and shortest opera in the cycle moves from the banks of the Rhine, where Alberich (a rather unimpressive Gordon Hawkins) steals the gold from its guardians, the flirtatious Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum, all very pretty and all very good), to the realm of the gods, where Wotan is building a new fortress called Valhalla. Only trouble is, Wotan has promised the builders—the giants Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Fafner (Daniel Sumegi)—the goddess of love and youth, Freia (Melissa Citro) in payment for their work. When the bill comes due, he doesn’t want to pay up and convinces them to take the Rhine treasure (which he doesn’t have) instead. With the help of the clever fire god, he steals the gold from Alberich, who curses the ring of power he has forged. The curse works and Fafner kills his brother for the gold.

Home runs: That first great E-flat chord that goes on forever and hints of the creation of the world; the giants’ entrance, lowered onto the stage on a great steel beam; the crafty, silver-tongued Loge, god of fire (the masterful Stefan Margita, who steals the show); gorgeous fire-red walls in the netherworld of Nibelheim, where Wotan and Loge descend to steal Alberich’s gold (Michael Yeargan’s set design; lighting by Mark McCullough); and beautiful singing from the mysterious Erda (Ronnita Miller), the earth goddess who rises to warn the feckless gods of impending doom.

Foul balls: Maestro Donald Runnicles, an esteemed Wagner interpreter, too often let his orchestra drown out the singers in this, as well as the next two operas; Delavan as a less-than-celestial Wotan; and a strange conceit that implies that the beautiful Freia has fallen in love with Fasolt, one of her brutish captors.

Die Walküre

A couple of base hits, two strikes: Runnicles and the orchestra redeemed themselves with the prelude that depicts Siegmund, Wotan’s human warrior son, fleeing through the forest from pursuing enemies; the bad news was the projections for this scene, excellent elsewhere (Jan Hartley, designer) were positively vertigo-inducing. I guess we were supposed to see the forest from Siegmund’s point of view, but he sure must have been running fast. The man himself was sung by Brandon Jovanovich, who was not up to the challenge of the role. Even the glorious “Winterstürme,” the only real standalone aria in the entire work, was less than thrilling. His acting also was rather wooden. Much better, in the long first act, were Anja Kempe, lovely and limpid-voiced as his sister, soon to be lover, Sieglinde, and Sumegi again, this time as her rough-and-ready frontiersman husband, Hunding.

Now the really good news: Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, the goddess-warrior of the title, is the most valuable player from here on in. From her first entrance in Act II, as a playful teenager romping about the office of Wotan, her father, the Swedish soprano vocally dominated every scene she was in for this and the next two operas—and she was in a lot of them. Stemme, who is slated to repeat the role at La Scala, knocked it out of the park. Also up to bat was Elizabeth Bishop as Wotan’s wife, who calls him to account for defending Siegmund and Sieglinde’s elopement in defiance of the laws of marriage. Her Fricka in “Rheingold” was a bit frumpy and whining, but here she gets glamorous and imposing in her long confrontation scene. It was impressively sung as well.

Then, of course, there were those wonderful flying Valkyries. After Siegmund is slain, in accordance with Fricka’s wishes, Brünnhilde, who has disobeyed Wotan by fighting on the hero’s side, flees to her sisters with Sieglinde in tow. The Valkyries send Sieglinde far into the forest to bear the fruit of her love, the hero Siegfried, who will dominate the rest of the saga. The final scene, Wotan’s Farewell, is one of the greatest in all opera as Wotan puts his beloved daughter to sleep on a rock until a mortal man wakens her, surrounding it with fire so that only a hero will brave it through. One and one, Stemme was wonderful; Delavan less so.


The game gets better and better as Zambello’s vision comes together. This time the projections of the forest during the prelude are lovely and evocative, then they turn to images of logging, clear-cutting and despoliation, reinforcing the message. Mime, Alberich’s brother who covets the ring for himself (a fantastic David Cangelosi), has raised Siegfried since his mother died in childbirth. They live in a rusted old trailer in the woods, near where Fafner, the remaining giant, now rumored to be a dragon, guards the gold.

There is a lot of humor in “Siegfried” as the high-spirited half-savage youth brings home a bear and taunts his foster father unceasingly. But, often, this opera is the most leaden of the four, soaring only in the final love scene. Not here. Jay Hunter Morris, in the title role, is handsome, athletic and sings well, flagging only a little at the very end, which is understandable since he carries the entire work. A bravura performance. Delavan comes into his own as The Wanderer, actually Wotan in disguise, roaming the Earth in search of a way out of his predicament. He actually makes a better bum than a ruler, and his riddle scene with Mime, which elsewhere can bring things to a grinding halt, is well-sung, spirited and fun.

Forging the shards of his father’s sword, Siegfried sets out to slay the dragon. Mime, who plans to poison the boy and seize the treasure for himself, trails along. Enter the dragon, Fafner, inside a tank-like contraption straight out of “Star Wars.” It was the best dragon ever. Another base hit was Zambello’s anthropomorphizing the Forest Bird, who guides Siegfried to the gold and eventually to the sleeping Brünnhilde. Usually it is a soprano who sings offstage, but here it was Stacey Tappan, flitting around, dressed in red, and singing like an angel. Erda rises from the depths once more but has no more wisdom to give Wotan. When the god and Siegfried meet in the woods, the fearless boy shatters Wotan’s spear of power. He will retreat to Valhalla and not be seen again.

But the home run in any “Siegfried” is the long love scene at Brünnhilde’s rock. She awakens from her long (18 years) sleep to find her hero and the human love that will consume her for the rest of the tale. It was gorgeous, the epitome of desire and rather like falling in love all over again yourself, which probably is what Wagner intended.


The name translates to “Twilight of the Gods,” and you can see that coming from the opening projections, swirling clouds in the night sky. The Norns, three sisters who spin the rope of fate, sung by Daveda Karanas, Heidi Melton and Miller again, live inside a giant computer. The motherboard flickers weakly. The circuits are failing. The rope is a fraying cable. At the end of the scene, a prologue to the action, it breaks.

Brünnhilde sends Siegfried out into the world to find adventure (he is a hero, after all). He gives her the ring. A word about Siegfried: he may look the same but it’s a different guy. British heldentenor Ian Storey evidently did not feel capable of sustaining the role throughout the third opera and signed on only for the finale, with mixed results. He bears an almost uncanny physical resemblance to Morris, but his voice, while stronger, is less melodic.

The orchestra excelled in the famous “Rhine Journey,” as it did in all the solo orchestral passages, and then we came up to the Hall of the Gibichungs. Hagen (a commanding Andrea Silvestrelli), Alberich’s son by a mortal woman (evidently the Nibelung renounced love but not sex), and his half-brother, Gunther (Gerd Grochowski), and sister, Gutrune (the lovely Citro, who was Freia and one of the Valkyries), plot to separate Siegfried from Brünnhilde with an amnesia potion, marry Gutrune to Siegfried and Gunther to the now-mortal Valkyrie and seize the ring for themselves. It works, and an enraged Brünnhilde helps Hagen to kill her apparently unfaithful lover before realizing he was duped. She then leaps into his cremation fire, but not before returning the ring to the Rhinemaidens and treating us to one of the most thrilling displays of vocal pyrotechnics in all opera. Stemme was as glorious here as throughout.

In addition to Hagen, a standout was Daveda Karanas as the Valkyrie Waltraute, who comes to beg Brünnhilde to return the ring. A nice touch was a little erotic byplay between Gutrune and Hagen, as well as having the Rhinemaidens wander the riverbed with enormous trash bags, picking up the litter. Hawkins’s Alberich was more sinister and better sung, and the design palate essentially changes to shades of gray, punctuated only by Siegfried and Hagen’s orange hunting jackets in the death scene. The final image was disappointing, a child planting a tree in the midst of all the desolation. Sure, this game may be over, but there’s always going to be another season. No need to hit us over the head with a baseball bat.

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