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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Runnicles’

Served On A Silver Platter.

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Review – Salome (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 30 August 2014)

Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Burkhard Ulrich – Herod
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

Den Kopf des Jochanaan.

The very first time that she magically floated that terrible line was the moment that Nina Stemme nailed her characterisation of Salome.

From her first appearance to what can only be described as her final – and visceral – transfiguration, Nina Stemme took the audience in the Royal Albert Hall on a singularly intense and gratifying journey – both emotional and musical. Indeed, as with her performance as Brunnhilde last year, Ms Stemme captivated the audience and kept them in rapt attention.

So often singers don’t so much sing the notes that Strauss committed to paper as charge through them. Notes are blurred, phrasing is unbalanced and often singers revert to performing parts of the role as if it were Sprechstimme.

Nina Stemme performed the role with impressive musical intelligence and authority. Each note, each phrase and each word was delivered with an attention to detail that created a sense of vocal spontaneity – the conversational tone that is so often sadly missing when others perform Strauss’ heroines. It was almost as if the ink was still wet on the page.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ms Stemme perform a couple of times – including Ring cycles in San Francisco and at the Proms as well as in Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. And every time, vocally she went from strength to strength.

And as Salome she was simply resplendent. Totally secure throughout her range she demonstrated technique, a depth of tone and a range of colours that is simply enviable. She impressively demonstrated the ability to scale back her voice to almost a whisper while retaining the clarity and precision but when required she ramped her voice up in terms of both volume and range. In the final scene, she soared above the orchestra, filling the entire hall with thrilling sound.

It was difficult at times not to just focus all the attention on Nina Stemme, but she was for the most part supported by a very strong cast, especially the women. Doris Soffel simply reveled in the role of Herodias. Stalking across the stage, she delivered the role with confidence and finding a vocal timbre that perfectly suited Herodias’ atavistic and cruel nature. And it was good to see Ronnita Miller as her Page. I remember her from the San Francisco Ring as both Erda and Norn. She has a rich mezzo and there is a sensual growl in her lower register that is thrilling. I hope to see her on stage again soon. Hopefully in London if not Germany.

Samuel Youn was committed as Jokanaan, but personally I would have preferred more resonance and vocal security in his performance.

Both tenors – Burkhard Ulrich as Herod and the Narraboth of Thomas Blondelle – were impressive. Blondelle’s bright, bell-like voice was perfect for the pleading, love-lorn soldier and Ulrich compellingly inhabited the role of Herod both vocally and temperamentally.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but he drew archly beautiful and characterful playing from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Opera is always tricky at the Proms but unerringly he balanced the demands of ensuring that Strauss’ overtly orchestral score in Salome was sufficiently transparent and ensuring that the singers could be heard. I would have preferred the Dance of the Seven Veils to have been ‘dirtier’ rather than ‘precise’ but it was a small price to pay for playing of this excellence.

And at the end, the audience showed their appreciation. First and foremost for Nina Stemme, but overall for a memorable and electrifying Salome.

Kaufmann der König

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I have to admit that I have taken rather longer than most to appreciate Jonas Kaufmann.

While his debut at the Met as Siegmund was, as I said at the time, on the whole impressive, he didn’t always have the heft nor complete mastery of the vocal range required. I am not fortunate enough to be able to get to Manhattan to see his debut as the lead in Parsifal but – avoiding reviews as much as I can – the Twittersphere is alive with plaudits. Sadly I have to wait until March to experience it in high definition in the cinema but I am definitely more excited by this Parsifal than others that I have attended. Suffice it to say I find it a difficult opera.

However here is a disc that demonstrates that he is a singer – and in particular a Wagner tenor – of both vocal prowess and musical intelligence.

This recital doesn’t cover old ground in terms of segments of Wagner included in his previous disc – here he performs the In Fernem Land in the unedited version for example – and the extracts from the operas are chosen with intelligence.

The recital opens with that magical moment in Die Walküre when Siegmund is left alone to consider his fate as he awaits the dawn in Hunding’s abode. Rhythmically alert brass and agitated strings create an immediate sense of tension and his opening entry is full-bodied and eloquent. Each and every word is crystal clear and he switches to sustained lyricism with ease at ein Weib sah’ ich, wonnig und hehr. The dynamic control into Wälse! Wälse! is impressively handled yet I do think that the second cry of Wälse is a tad indulgent and you can even perceive a slight flutter in Kaufmann’s singing as he pushes on slightly too long. But a peevish criticism I admit as it remains electrifying. And again at Selig schien mir der Sonne Licht Kaufmann’s trademark lyricism. Throughout the monologue Kauffman slips from the more declamatory, heroic passages to the lyrical sections with incredible ease.

Next from father to son for Siegfried’s Daß der mein Vater nicht ist. Over gentle murmuring string, Kaufmann again launches into this monologue and against effortlessly slips between dialogue and lyricism. How touchingly and in hushed tones he sings Das kann ich nun gar nicht mir denken … ein Menshenweib for example. Anyone who has read Eve Rieger’s recent book will relish interpreting the ‘masculine vs feminine’ phrase construction at this point I would imagine.

The mastery of Wagner’s orchestration is very much to the fore at this point and beautifully played by the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin. All credit in particular to the cor anglais player – as a former oboist I know how difficult it is to play badly and the player does so magnificently!

But personally the highlight of the disc is Rienzi’s Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab! I cannot remember the last time I listened to this sung – or performed for that matter – with such rapt intensity. Kaufman’s first entry is a study in vocal control both dynamically and legato phrasing which continues through his delivery of the first iteration of ‘Rienzi theme’ and maintain the emotional momentum through its repeat and into the closing bars. Marvellous.

Next is Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration that demonstrates the rich texture and colouring of Kaufmann’s voice throughout its range. Kaufmann’s musical intelligence ensures that he moulds what can sometimes be a relentlessly difficult monologue to maintain in terms of interest and momentum into a compelling, dramatic scene. Just listen to the way he bends and colours his voice at Hast du so böse Lust geteilt. Simply chilling and again menacingly underpinned in the orchestra and in stark contrast to the lustful – full throated – singing with which Kaufmann closes the extract.

Kaufmann returns to a nobler, more lyrical characterisation for Walther’s Am stillen Herdin Winterszeit before ending his operatic selection with the full Grail Narration from Lohengrin. He captures perfectly the ‘other-worldly’ sense of the opening bars and matches vocally the timbre Wagner creates in the orchestra, once again floating effortlessly to the top notes even when singing in the most hushed tones. Wagner may have decided to cut the second stanza but Kaufmann makes a compelling argument for its inclusion if it can always be sung with such purpose and grandeur.

And in both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Kaufmann is most ably supported by Markus Brück and the chorus of the Deutschen Oper Berlin.

And so to Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. Call me a traditionalist – and much as I wanted to love these performances as much as the extracts from Wagner’s operas – after repeated listening I came to an opposite conclusion. Do not misunderstand me. Kaufmann sings this extended love letter to Mathilde Wesendonck beautifully, with great eloquence and sensitivity.

Yet they do not convince. It has nothing to do with the songs being sung by a tenor – not even one as talented as Kaufmann – but simply that they lose some sense of their sensuality and purpose overall. But there is no disputing that Kaufmann makes an almost convincing argument for their performance by a male voice here but not quite enough. Not even the Tristan-inspired Im Treibhaus where the orchestra pull out some incredibly transparent and chamber-like playing can ultimately convince.

But not surprisingly they do not detract from what is an impressively performed and constructed recital disc. And as I have already mentioned, the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin play with great beauty and conviction. All the more so surprising as I have in the past not rated Donald Runnicles. Perhaps his rapport with this orchestra is greater than with any other as he does coax incredibly playing, colour and warmth from this ensemble.

But this is very much Kaufmann’s disc. It furthers his position as the leading Wagner tenor performing at the moment. And if all accounts of his Parsifal at the Met are correct, then his position is cemented as tenor regnant.

A Very Shakespearean Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Lohengrin, Bayerische Oper, Munich, July 2011

• Kristinu Sigmundson – Heinrich der Vogler
• Lohengrin – Peter Seiffert
• Elsa von Brabant – Emily Magee
• Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin
• Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
• The Herald – Martin Gantner

• Director – Richard Jones
• Designer & Lighting – Ultz
• Conductor – Kent Nagano

The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Oper, is a beautiful building. The impressive exterior, and marble halls hide an exquisite gold gilt auditorium contrasted with pinks and reds. It was the perfect setting for this memorable performance of Lohengrin.

Admittedly I initially came for this performance to see two of my favourite sopranos – Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier – but on the night the role of Elsa was performed by American soprano, Emily Magee.

I best start with the production itself. This was by Richard Jones and his common production partner, the singularly-named Ultz. I’ve seen many productions directed by this pair. The most memorable was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at English National Opera. It was an unusual choice and, despite what many said, a brave and creative decision. If only ENO would take creative risks like that now rather than assuming or rather hoping that plucking a random director will work. Not only did Petra capture a real sense of ‘a time’ but Jones’ trademarks – attention to detail and most importantly, a real effort made to engage with and work with the singers to analyse their characters and develop real, tangible personalities – was evident throughout. And the same attention to detail shone through brightly in Munich.

The production itself was – to say the least – quirky, another Jones/Ultz hallmark – but enjoyable and thought-provoking. When it premiered it drew a great deal of criticism. I can’t pretend to have unlocked Jones’ intention so what I write here is my own interpretation.

This definitely wasn’t a ‘traditional’ production of Lohengrin. In a sense this was a ‘voyeurs’ production. From the start, even as the audience came into the auditorium, Jones had the action unfolding on stage. Before the prelude, a single draftsman working on a building plan; Ortrud alone before the Second Act; and finally a fully completed shell of a house, complete with flowery border. All that was missing was the white picket fence. But I’m pretty sure it was in the audiences imagination as it was so clearly in mine.

In a sense the stage was also ‘naked’. There was a single curtain backdrop towards the front of the stage to create the King’s court. As a result everything felt ‘temporary’ which of course is, in some ways, a theme of the opera. Lohengrin never intends to stay. He is merely the catalyst for events that need to happen to ‘cleanse’ Brabant.

Because in Jones’ mind, Brabant is a damaged place. The Orwellian Herald further underlined Brabant’s sinister aspect. Gottfried, Elsa’s brother is missing. After the prelude, the chorus shuffle on. The setting is anonymous. The costumes made hints at eras but nothing is clear, nor clean cut. The men are in branded Brabant jackets, some in suits, some in t-shirts. The women are similarly attired – only their multitude of A-line skirts skirts suggesting any sense of matronly uniformity. Only the main characters, and Telramund’s conspirators – in their sharp grey suits – stand out.

The King, with his sense of almost forced optimism is in sharp contrast to Telramund and Ortrud – the magnificent Waltraud Meier. With them Jones has gone beyond mere cyphers determined to take charge. Ably abetted by Meier and Nikitin, they are a couple of pure malevolence who stalk the stage. Indeed they are Macbeth-like in their calculated evil, and like their Shakespearean counterparts it is Otrud who until the last is the stronger of the two. A foil to Telramund’s own weakness and mental frailty.

Elsa, as expected, is detached, almost catatonic. But Jones delves deeper. From her first appearance, her shuffling gait as she carries white bricks across the stage and through the doors to the set concealed by the single backdrop of two doors below a set of arcane heraldic symbols says it all. Elsa is ‘damaged goods’ and suspected of murder. She carries a folded poster of her brother, like those used when a child is missing. No one is able to interrupt her catatonic march until she is forcibly restrained by one of the King’s guards. Even then she does not immediately register the reason.

And it is only when the entire stage is revealed that we understand the significance of the lone draughtsman. It is Elsa who, in her workman’s overalls, is building a home, the significance of which didn’t become clear to me until the final act.

Interestingly Jones downplays the arrival of Lohengrin himself. In other productions this is often the dramatic focus of the opening act. Granted, Lohengrin arrives carrying the necessary – and animatronic – swan, but this is not ‘a moment’ in the dramatic sense. Indeed, could they have made Lohengrin look any less the hero in his grey trousers with their silver stripe and blue shirt?

For Jones the attention is in the detail. There is no single dramatic moment in the first act. Even the attempt to burn Elsa at a hastily built stake has a surreal-like quality. Ortrud stalks the stage in her suit and management-look hair style, watching everyone. A sharp contrast to Elsa in her workman’s outfit. Women versus child. Telramund, with his overly excited manners, is a man on the edge. Dangerous. Lohengrin is not a hero. Rather he looks like an accidental tourist.

Even Telramund’s challenge, Lohengrin’s defence of Elsa’s honour and the ensuing sword fight had a strange detached, pantomime quality. Indeed the only act of real aggression is when the King rips the symbol of Brabant from Telramund’s coat and throws it on the ground at the close of the First Act.

Interestingly as the main curtain fell, the audiences response was polite and somewhat muted. But the characters had been set and, I believe, Jones deliberately lulled the audience into a false sense of security, almost making us, by extension, placid participants in the drama itself.

The Second Act opens, as I have already mentioned, with Ortrud alone, seated at the far side of the stage. She sits there like a coiled spring exuding menace and her thoughts are only broken when her husband storms in. He is clearly a broken man. Gone is the smart, buttoned-up noble of the preceding act. Here, shirt undone (and displaying Nikitin’s impressive tattoos), he stumbles and sways across the stage, every so often spying on events behind the backdrop through spy holes in the door. Jones does not have him depict anger as the key driver for revenge, but rather abject humiliation. Pulling a pistol from his pocket he attempts suicide, only to be stopped by Ortrud. Icily calm, she lays out their new plan to destroy both Lohengrin and Elsa. And here, Jones suddenly ratchets up the tension. The audience was suddenly rapt, pulled forward into the drama.

What followed – spurred on by the incredible vocal and acting talents of Meier and Nikitin – was momentous. Again I was drawn to a comparison with ‘the Macbeths’ in the evil motivation that drove them both. The interplay between husband and wife was electric. More than once Telramund attempted to hurt his wife and Ortrud’s reaction made it cleat that this was, at heart, an abusive relationship. And each time he failed. Not through weakness but because it was clear that she was in total control of him. Ortrud was all about control and Meier’s portrayal was faultless. Her call for revenge – to Wotan and Fricka – was chilling and again the only moment in the whole opera where Jones/Meier allowed the character to seemingly lose control.

This was the turning point in the drama and Jones now ratcheted up the momentum inexorably. The backdrop rose to reveal the house much closer to completion, Elsa surveying her creation. The subsequent scene between the two leading ladies – watched by Telramund – was brilliantly acted by Meier and Magee, with the former’s calculating approach to confuse and thereby befriend the bride-to-be all the more chilling by Ortrud’s stealthy movements.

The tension of wedding scene itself – and the confrontation between the key protagonists – was almost unbearable. Changed into her bridal gown, Elsa seemed to find a new inner strength, if only momentarily, as she faced up to Otrud, who once again stalked across the stage as if hunting prey. Typically the arrival of Lohengrin marks a shift in the balance of power as the hero takes the leads and sees off Ortrud. Not in Jones’ production. Again Lohengrin was made to seem weaker and – most tellingly – he played into Elsa’s own insecurities. Never have I seen an Elsa so unconvinced about being a bride.

The curtain went down and the audience – particularly when Meier appeared – went wild.

It was only during the Final Act, and the completion of the house, complete with bed, baby’s cot and high chair that the potential significance of Elsa’s building programme occurred to me. It was therapy. Therapy for Elsa to help her cope with the guilt of her lost brother. But it was also an act of atonement. Elsa building a home, and creating a family to replace him. Almost as if a house, family and child would make it all seem better. I don’t know if it was coincidental or not, but the picture of her missing brother was placed on the wall directly above the high chair. Jones’ attention to detail makes me think it was anything but that.

The Third Act played out traditionally – despite the almost comedic dance routine during the prelude – for the most part, bar two significant reinterpretations. First – and I accept that this is open to debate – it seemed to me that in the scuffle with Telramund, it is Elsa and not Lohengrin, that kills Ortrud’s spouse. To me this was a plausible and significant decision by Jones. First of all the death is accidental but secondly, Elsa now begins to unravel. Her retreat back into her original catatonic state is not so much to do with Lohengrin’s departure but her own association with death. As she is led onto the stage we are back at the beginning – Elsa being suspected of murder.

And secondly, neither Otrud nor Elsa die at the end. Lohengrin exits stage left and touchingly returns carrying ????. Elsa, momentarily revived by the return of her brother, slumps down onto a seat, once again withdrawn from the world. Ortrud, despite seeing the corpse of her dead husband, does not break down. She watches and continues to stalk.

And when the curtain closes it is Ortrud who has her her arm maternally around the young prince. But most chilling, the chorus all seated on the collapsed stage, putting pistols into their mouths.

Brabant has not been purified. Far from it. Brabant is in a worse place than at the start.

So, an incredibly thought-provoking production. Jones’ intellectual bent, his attention to detail, and his clear direction to all the singers never once threatened to swamp the story-telling. Instead it offered a fresh, and to me completely plausible reappraisal of the original story.

And the singers and chorus, so ably led by Nagano in the pit, rose to the occasion. The chorus – despite some dodgy acting – were superb. Their sense of ensemble and precision was brilliant. Nagano led the orchestra and singers like a master, bringing out a burnished quality in the orchestral playing – especially the brass – that was so sadly lacking when I attended The Ring in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Runnicles take note.

Kristinu Sigmundson as Heinrich der Vogler and the Herald of Martin Gantner were clear voiced, with excellent diction. However it was the four principals who made the evening not great – but in my opinion – momentous.

Peter Seiffert is a fine Lohengrin although not a strong actor. He has both the heft and stamina for the role and while he clearly sailed through the role, there were times when a little more finesse and lightness in the vocal line would have made a real difference.

The Friedrich von Telramund of Evgeny Nikitin was simply amazing. He captured perfectly how unbalanced the character really is, portraying with clarity his breakdown from First to Third act. His interactions with Meier – especially in the Second Act – were, as I said, almost Shakespearean in their delivery. Again he is able to carry above the orchestra and s attention to the words, the light and shade of his voice, made his Telramund a real character – not simply a man after power but a man whose pursuit of power was for evil.

Emily Magee had a shaky start but she did not warrant the booing at the end. Initial problems with intonation slowly disappeared so that by her confrontation with Ortrud she was in fine voice. And her acting was superb, capturing the vulnerability as well as the childishness of the character perfectly. At the end – and quite clearly the intention – this Elsa was not a girl to expire but rather to continue suffering.

But it was Waltraud Meier’s Ortrud who stole the evening. This Lady Macbeth in Wagnerian cloth was both consummate actress and superlative singer. Her mere presence on stage was enough to raise the temperature as she stalked and hunted out the other protagonists. Her abusive relationship with Telramund was at the core of her character and the decision not to kill her at the end was telling. Ortrud had – in all senses of the word – won. She had destroyed Elsa. Did not grieve the demise of her abusive husband. And she had the child. And her singing was simply breathtaking. I have seen her in other Wagnerian roles – Isolde in Paris for example – but Ortrud was made for her. The role sits comfortable in her range, and she negotiates the role with vocal precision married with clear and meaningful diction.

So a memorable, brilliant Lohengrin. Jones delivered an intelligent production that took a new but clearly deliberate look at the story. The characters – one and all – were three dimensional and not your typical stand-and-deliver cyphers. And the quality of the singing was of the highest standard. In fact I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and challenging productions I have seen in years.

So it does beg the question. If this can be achieved in Munich why can’t it happen in London, New York or San Francisco?

An Apple-Pie Ring – High on ‘doh!’, low on ambition. Saved by Stemme.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

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.

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