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June 8, 2011 4:54 pm

Siegfried/ Götterdämmerung, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

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Ian Storey and Melissa Citro in ‘Gotterdämmerung

Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde triumphantly strides the littered landscape of the San Francisco Opera’s just completed Ring des Nibelungen, as if she alone possesses the life blood that will infuse the Wagner tetralogy with the authority and grandeur that must irradiate this obsessive work. For the Swedish soprano, the sheer power and dramatic insight exhibited in her first complete venture into the cycle (and this company’s first new production in 26 years) suggests that the assignment will be hers to command in major houses for the next decade.

This Ring has arrived slowly. The Washington National Opera, which had co-produced it piecemeal, quit the project in 2009, leaving San Francisco to contribute the final instalments, before the three integral cycles later this month. With help from designer Michael Yeargan and projection designer Jan Hartley, director Francesca Zambello has conceived the cycle as a specifically American saga, an ecological parable in which pollution and industrial detritus signals the decline of the gods.

In a ravaged natural world, the young Siegfried banters with Mime in an abandoned caravan and, in a crumbling factory, battles a Fafner transformed into a giant trash compactor, a kind of über-WALL-E. Götterdämmerung finds the Norns decrying their fate from inside a computer master board and the Rhinemaidens purging their polluted stream of plastic bottles. This suggests that Wotan might have altered his destiny by recycling.

Possibly indebted to earlier Ring ruminations by Shaw and Chéreau, Zambello’s cleverness wearies; she seems to have found ingenious solutions to production problems rather than devising an organic concept. The tone sometimes misfires. Farce reigns when the intoxicated Siegfried tumbles head over heels in the presence of Gutrune, who has metamorphosed into a knowing blonde sexpot. A hastily appliquéd feminist “Immolation Scene” and a technically inert denouement compromise the final moments.

On its own, Stemme’s informed vocalism works its magic. The artist’s transformation from awakened bride to vengeful fury to redeemer of the universe, a fount of bright, unfaltering musicianship, begs for colleagues on a comparable level, but these two parts of the Ring furnish them only sporadically. For all his understanding of the text and imposing demeanour, Mark Delavan’s Wanderer finds his bass-baritone receding at climaxes. Another role debutant, Andrea Silvestrelli, summons an incisively wiry bass for Hagen’s plotting. David Cangelosi whines and cackles marvellously as Mime. Gordon Hawkins broods ominously as Alberich.

Siegfried prompted a compromise and two role debuts. The young hero emerged in the person of Jay Hunter Morris, a credible stage presence attached to a tenor that makes up in lyrical appeal and ardour what it misses in heft. Götterdämmerung enlisted Ian Storey, whose occluded tone, minimal dynamic range and inert phrasing proved dispiriting until an eloquent death scene. Undercasting in some subsidiary roles did little to uphold Wagnerian ideals.

Those were brandished by Donald Runnicles, the opera’s former music director, who led his erstwhile orchestra in readings notable for lyrical expansion and incisive detail. A few moments faltered, but it was the Ring that introduced the conductor here 21 years ago and he remains an inspiring force in Wagner-mad San Francisco. 

 

Ring cycles: June 14-19; 21-26; 28-July 3, www.sfopera.com

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