Wagner: Siegfried

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 20 June 2011 3.5 stars


Francesca Zambello's Siegfried, the third instalment of the 2011 San Francisco Ring, presents a more complicated mixture of social and historical themes compared to the previous operas. As the director had promised, environmental issues are brought to the fore more and more as the production unfolds. At the same time, they intertwine with additional social themes with results that are sometimes unclear.

During the prelude, images of a forest are projected on the screen at the front of the stage, as in Die Walküre. However, in this case, images move slowly and unnatural camera angles define the space. This combination conveys a sense of disorientation and artificiality. Finally, the silhouettes of trees are transformed into utility poles, representing the mutation that nature has undertaken in the corrupted and degraded world that this Ring represents. Utility poles then become the background for Act I, in which Mime's and Siegfried's home is a rusted trailer, abandoned in what appears to be a garbage dump. The acid green and blue lighting (by Mark McCullough) that dominates the scene – and the whole opera – illuminates a post-apocalyptic, inhumane environment.

SiegfriedAct II, set in what seems like a deserted underground space, offers a somewhat confusing social commentary: Alberich was depicted as a homeless, but aggressive recluse (he pushes a cart containing his possessions, including a rifle), while Fafner, emerging from enormous metallic doors, was a mechanical monster.

David Cangelosi offered a rounded portrait of Mime: he successfully emphasised the most farcical aspects of his character, coming across as ruthless and selfish, and yet pathetic. His voice wasn't ideally resounding, especially at the beginning. As he warmed up though, he became more solid, especially in the lower tessitura.

Unfortunately, for me the least convincing performance was Jay Hunter Morris' Siegfried. Admittedly, Siegfried is famously one of the most difficult roles to interpret, requiring incredible vocal stamina and strong acting skills. Morris was expressive, but he could not sustain the demanding vocal lines.

Moreover, the choreography by Lawrence Pech (excellent elsewhere in the production) produced perplexing effects win combination with Zambello's stage directions. For instance, this Siegfried was a mixture of overtly puerile mannerisms and violent authoritativeness – not only with Mime, but also, awkwardly, with Brünnhilde.

Like Alberich, the Wanderer was characterized as a fiery and impetuous homeless person. Mark Delevan masterfully gave life to this solitary and powerful figure. As in his previous performances, his timbre was very soft-edged and, at times, the orchestra swamped his muted resonance. Yet, his expressiveness is always remarkable and makes up for a certain lack of density in his voice.

SiegfriedOnce again, Nina Stemme was precise, passionate and touching in her interpretation, on both the vocal and on dramatic sides. Brünnhilde's awakening was one the most intense moments of the performance – rightly so - with the orchestra and Stemme collaborating in the creation of an intimate and yet majestic sense of wonder and renewal. It was impressive to see her on stage engaging her whole body and voice with the action.

Gordon Hawkins' Alberich was also very convincing in his insistence on conquering the ring at any cost. His vocal performance, too, improved considerably, and he successfully exploited his somewhat blunt tone. Stacey Tappan as the forest bird was enchanting, with her bright timbre, and a tender, rigorous approach to her part. Ronnita Miller's Erda was a somewhat cold characterization; yet she was vocally flawless, and her dense, dark timbre is wonderfully apt for this role.

The orchestra seemed less secure that the previous performance, showing perhaps some Ring fatigue. And, sadly, periodic uncertainties in the brass section continue to mar the textures of Wagner’s inspired tone painting. As in Das Rheingold, Donald Runnicles tended to favour an intimate approach rather than extreme gestures. And once again, this was achieved at the expense of exploring a wider expressive palette. Nevertheless, under his baton, the musicians wonderfully brought to the fore all the quieter passages – such as Brünnhilde's awakening, as mentioned above.

By Marina Romani

Photos credits: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera


RheingoldRelated articles:

Review of Das Rheingold from the SFO Ring Cycle (2011)
Review of Achim Freyer's Die Walküre at the LA Opera (2010)
Review of Die Walküre at the SF Opera (2011)
Interview with Nina Stemme