Wotan – Mark Delavan
Brunnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Brandon Jovanovich
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris/Ian Storey
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Loge – Stefan Margita
Director – Francesca Zambello
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
It’s not uncommon for directors to reinterpret opera productions through the prism of either contemporary or historical events. This can mean everything from the anonymous war-torn landscape and bombed-out buildings to specific references and, or, setting their productions in specific historical periods – actual to the original composer’s wishes, or not.
There are plenty of examples and naturally some work more effectively than others.
Peter Sellars’ use of contemporary settings for the three Da Ponte operas, updating them specifically to then-modern-day New York for example worked well overall. As did his use, with devastating effect, of Death Row imagery in his famous production of Handel’s Theodora.
More recently at the Met, I witnessed a finessed Capriccio set in 1920s France, as well as an Il Trovatore where the only real saving grace were McVicar’s Goya-inspired sets. And closer to home there has been everything from the ‘corporate re-engineering’ of ENO’s recent Simon Boccanegra – which worked with varying degrees of success scene by scene – counter-balanced by their simplistic Germanic view of Faust and their dreadful reinterpretation of Ulisse. It has to be said that when ENO get something wrong, they do so magnificently.
And naturally, Wagner’s operas lend themselves to more than their own fair share of interpretation through the lens of history. And more often than not, it’s own.
Again plenty of examples can be found. For Tristan und Isolde there is everything from the authentic Cornish setting that inspired the Met’ production and countless others, to the starker and as brutally effective settings of Loy at Covent Garden and Marthaler at Bayreuth. And again at Bayreuth, look at the recent Meistersinger which so offended the audience.
And of the The Ring cycle itself, interpretations abound aplenty. For me, LePage’s current cycle at the Met is an uncomfortable combination of the traditional overridden by his personal obsession with technology – a modern day deus ex machina gone mad. Phyllida Lloyd’s often maligned, but to me wonderful, cycle at ENO drew on contemporary events, and sometimes with telling effect. It might have offended some people, but Brunnhilde’s immolation as a suicide bomber seemed ‘so right’ at the time. As did the Rhinemaidens as pole dancers – a reference to the sleaze and greed of the Gods that they served. And if ENO ever does revive the cycle, I’ve no doubt that these images, as well as others throughout the cycle, will remain as fresh and contemporary.
The Ring, with it’s themes including greed and the abuse of power – and Parsifal for that matter with it’s theme of redemption – often give directors the opportunity to develop a narrative centred on particularly difficult, or controversial events in history. Of course the first that come to mind are productions that focus on Germany’s own early Twentieth Century legacy – from the birth of their imperialism through to Nazism. But let’s not forget Chereau’s brilliant cycle – a damning view of capitalism.
Francesca Zambello set her sights high. Arrogantly high. She aimed to create an ‘American Ring’, based on that nation’s history, that would ‘teach’ a lesson and send a ‘warning’ to the audience of the eco-disaster that their continent potentially faced.
She aimed. And missed. Four times.
Das Rheingold was set during the Gold Rush. If greed and avarice were the prime motivations for her narrative, why not the carpet-bagging era after the Civil War and the end of slavery? Or more pertinently a scene of modern day Wall Street, the birthplace of the current recession that has driven so many opera houses in the US into closure. Clearly the racial overtones of the first, and the potential insult the second might cause to people in the audience, made her choice for her.
Die Walküre leapt from the wilderness of Middle America via the boom years of the 1920s and 1930s to the Valkyrie dressed – supposedly – as Second World War fighter pilots. But in reality they more closely resembled a bevy of Amelia Earharts, alas without neither her grace nor her bravado. Weirdly, the confrontation between Siegmund and Hunding seemed to then take place beneath an abandoned section of San Francisco’s own highway. The final act, set on the most traditional of Rocks offered what should have been a subtle touch – images of dead soldiers from wars dating from the Civil War to the current conflict in Iraq – but it simply seemed contrived. Again why not in Die Walküre confront a real issue in America’s history – the current war in Iraq and the events preceding it? Or if that was too real, the Vietnam War?
And so to the trailer park for the opening of Siegfried and the hero portrayed as juvenile ‘white trash’. It didn’t work, as Jay Hunter Morris is simply a wooden actor. The second act transported us to outside what seemed to be a warehouse. Alberich as homeless man in the same vein as Wotan’s Wanderer. Again this hinted at a possible parallel with the current homelessness situation in San Francisco itself but it came to nothing apart from a few laughs from the stalls.
And Fafner’s dragon? A miniature industrial ‘machine’ of sorts – short on menace, and long on the kind of awkwardness felt by at school plays when the dragon is made out of egg boxes. ‘Could do better’. Clearly there were budgetary considerations as the final act – and the opening act of Götterdämmerung – returned us to the Rock. Only this time it had obviously not stood the ravages of time, and looked dilapidated.
The Norns opened Götterdämmerung Matrix-style. In bright green outfits and overlaid with an animated circuit-board, their rope was replaced by cable which they fixed to either side of the stage only to have it explode. Control-Alt-Delete. If only.
And then back to the Rock. Following their adolescent running around at the end of Siegfried, we return to find the hero and Brunnhilde still running around the joyless Rock. Surely they first thing they would have done would be to at least build a shack?
Zambello’s sets trundled painfully on and took us to a faceless silver and black interior. Factory spewing plumes of smoke in the background. Hagen’s own bedroom featured for his dream sequence. A nice touch was the inference that he was, in fact, having an affair with Gutrune but again Zambello took this nowhere. The hunting scene saw the return of the Rhinemaidens and a river filled with refuse that they were clearing up. At last a clear environmental message. Sadly too late.
The Immolation scheme – thankfully – was so blandly directed that it allowed us to focus on Nina Stemme. Using bags of rubbish to create the pyre again seemed contrived but was nothing compared to the ridiculous decision to leave Gutrune on stage with Brunnhilde or having Hagen murdered by the Rhinemaidens.
And connecting all the scenes throughout the cycle, Zambello used a sequence of predictable films. Shots of running through a forest, water, clouds and, of course, factories spewing out pollution. It would have been bearable apart from the fact that Zambello chose to simply rewind them when we returned to previous locations.
It was almost a relief when the curtain came down. And yes there was booing for Zambello on the final night.
So instead of taking an opportunity to do as other directors have done – revisit uncomfortable moments in a nation’s history to make the narrative of The Ring relevant to the audience – Zambello offered her audience a saccharine, shallow, unchallenging Ring that failed to achieve add up to anything.
Why? It took me a while and perhaps I am wrong. But could it be that Zambello either thought her audience would be too stupid to follow a narrative that might ask them to confront a darker side of their history? Perhaps it was a fear that the rich San Franciscan donors would reject any attempt to make them face this reality and therefore she opted form a dumbed-down, Homer-Simpson narrative for her ‘American Ring’. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of Ring that Americans want. Glossy. Shallow. And not requiring any thought at all.
It was also interesting to note that the surtitles skipped along and over the original text, and in my view, dumbed it down. And secondly the audience laughed at those very moments in Wagner’s drama when he challenges us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
However, often a bad production can be negated if the quality of the performances on stage are remarkable or at least consistently strong.
Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for the most part.
Undoubtedly this cycle belongs to, and was saved by, Nina Stemme. In this, her first full Ring cycle, she dominated as Brunnhilde. Her singing, musicianship and sheer stage presence outshone everyone else on stage, as well as Runnicles in the pit. From her opening Hojotoho to her final immolation, Stemme held the audience transfixed as we watched her transform from feisty warrior to woman betrayed to woman redeemer. Striding onto stage for her first appearance, she inhabited the role completely and confidently delivered a performance of the highest standard. Her voice was rich, even and clear throughout her register and she clearly annunciated each and every word of Wagner’s text. The standing ovation at the end of Götterdämmerung was so clearly deserved. I can only think that by the end of the third cycle, she will completely own this role and be heading towards the Brunnhilde firmament. On Stemme alone can be laid the success of this Ring and hopefully the audience realise the privileged of hearing her first full Ring cycle.
However there were other singers in the cast that also stood out. Anja Kampe made her San Francisco debut as an impressive Sieglinde. Having heard her in the past when her voice had a slightly brittle tone, it was good to hear that it had ripened and filled out. Hers was a convincing Sieglinde, with intelligent and nuanced singing and acting skill that brought out the character’s vulnerability.
But the most pleasant surprise was contralto Ronnita Miller as Erda & First Norn. Her deep, resonant voice was ideally suited to Erda, and her diction was incredibly clear. And similarly she stood out significantly among the three Norns. I believe that she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her and hopefully she will be heard in Europe – and hopefully the UK? – before long.
Brandon Jovanovich also made a strong impression as Siegfried. His clarion-like tenor may have tired in places – I think that has more to do with learning pace himself than anything else – but his was a truly credible warrior. He effortlessly, for the most part, rose above the orchestra and he had the character’s arrogance and impetuosity down to a tee.
Stefan Margita’s Loge was also well cast. A strong actor, his bright and light tenor shone out over the orchestra in sharp relief to the majority of his half siblings’ shortcomings.
Mark Delavan was a singularly disappointing Wotan. He had neither the heft nor the flexibility of voice required for the role. This was particularly evident in Die Walküre when he struggled to be heard above the unsympathetic conducting of Runnicles, particularly in the final Act.
Casting Siegfried is often a challenge but the casting in San Francisco was doubly disappointing with Jay Hunter Morris in Siegfried and subsequently Ian Storey in Götterdämmerung. Morris’ attempt to play Siegfried as a surly teenager failed to light the stage and he was hampered by an inability to spin the vocal lines of the role, once again above Runnicles’ band. More of a shame was Storey’s indisposition in Götterdämmerung. Clearly he marked the role in the First Act only to try and compensate in the Second and subsequently damaged his voice. A plea by the opera administration as we entered the Third Act did not bode well, but surprisingly his performance seemed stronger. Perhaps the medical assistance he received in the interval was some kind of vocal steroid. But it wasn’t enough to compensate and overall his was a weak performance. A shame as given the right circumstances, Storey could be an impressive Siegfried.
Additionally Andrea Silvestrelli may have made a strong impression as Fasolt but, despite his rich and mellifluous bass, his Hagen was woolly and unfocused. A shame.
And while the role of Gutrune is often miscast, nothing prepared me for the sharp and brittle voice of Melissa Citro. Clearly she was cast for her looks – although the cheap, two-dimensional Anna Nicole was misplaced – that her voice clearly could not match.
And finally to Runnicles and the orchestra. First and foremost, the brass were frustratingly disappointing on all four nights, but particularly in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, where they have a key role. But generally Runnicles – whom I have always rated and whose conducting I have always admired – delivered a mediocre, lacklustre set of performances. There was little attention paid to either orchestral detail or colour, some wayward speeds but most frustratingly, a lack of sensitivity to the singers on stage which all added up to a consistently bland level of orchestral playing. It took a singer of the talents of Stemme to consistently, and successfully, cut through the noise coming from the pit. Hopefully the orchestra and Runnicles will clean up their act for the remaining cycles.
So, all in all, a disappointing Ring bar Stemme. It promised so much and delivered almost nothing. Zambello aspired to deliver a contemporary narrative but instead produced something that was either ill-thought out and conceived, or simply baulked at confronting some of America’s real demons. Runnicles was pallid and unresponsive in the pit. And Stemme was less than ably supported by the vast majority of her colleagues on stage.
At a time when opera companies throughout the US are scrabbling to survive it’s frustrating to see a major house waste such an unique opportunity. But sadly I think that this Ring will run and run in the city of San Francisco.
Because it made the audience laugh.