When French theater director Patrice Chéreau directed Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth, he reworked his conception of the four operas every year from 1976 to 1981. After the fourth year he felt he was getting somewhere, and the result, captured on DVD, was a masterpiece. (I recommend it to anyone seriously interested in theater, as Chéreau manages to turn opera into theater, moment by thrilling moment.) His Centenary Ring in Bayreuth, 1976, has been the gold standard for Wagner’s epic tale about power, love and death.
Recently, director Francesca Zambello took on the Ring cycle with the intention to find places where “American images meet Wagnerian mythology.”Her so-called “American Ring” premiered in San Francisco in 2011 and was so successful that it was brought back this year to everyone’s excitement. Originally a co-production with the Washington National Opera, it marks the transition from opera director David Gockley’s era (he commissioned Zambello’s Ring) to the reign of his replacement, director Matthew Shilvock. Dozens of lectures, Ring introductions for newbies, and other events went into the months-long preparation of the “encore” event. (One “Ring Forum,” for example, discussed the six different endings of Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods.)
The three repetitions of the cycle this summer were a huge success. Zambello’s production—the spectacular stage sets by Michael Yeargan with vast video projections by Jan Hartley, updated by S. Katie Tucker, and the dreamlike perfection of lighting by Mark McCullough—was as riveting as the first time around.
Zambello has indeed found arresting American images: the capitalist enthusiasm of “robber baron” Gods going on a cruise; God Wotan’s sleek penthouse office in the clouds above New York; the dirty no man’s land of a freeway underpass; a rock spectacularly set on fire; and a dilapidated trailer at the edge of civilization’s power grid. Film projections drive the viewer through time, from luscious forests and rivers toward train tracks, deforestation, the rape of nature and ecological apocalypse. Towards the end of the dystopian imagery, the Norns who spin the threads of destiny are laboring to connect heavy cables inside a computer motherboard that fills the stage. The cables snap, and the last hope for remedies ends in the dried-out, garbage-filled riverbed of the Rhine.
You could tell that the audience had no problem with the altogether seventeen hours of opera, applauding every element of the fascinating production—cast and crew, and in particular the conductor, San Francisco Opera’s ex-music director and eminent Wagnerian, Donald Runnicles. Runnicles brought out the overwhelming power of the score with even more apparent gusto than in 2011, with the orchestra of almost a hundred musicians (including the devastating Wagner-Tubas of impending doom) and a rousing seventy-seven–men chorus. But he went just as deeply into the uncanny, delirious, and achingly lyrical parts of the composition and held up the tension in the extended psychological dialogues that make up most of the Ring. Given that this year’s cast of twenty-two singers was excellent (and the sixty-two supers and two dogs impeccable), this whole Ring cycle was a feast for the senses.
New and Old Casts
Perhaps though, the singers were not as revelatory as in the first cast of 2011. Nobody easily replaces Wagnerian star soprano Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, the rebellious Valkyrie daughter of God Wotan, who becomes a human and brings about the end, the “twilight” of the Gods, in Götterdämmerung. Irène Theorin, also a Swedish Wagnerian, acquitted herself admirably, but lacked the rich coloration and top ease of Stemme’s more lyrical voice. Stemme was a cocky tomboy, fisty-cuffing her dad, picking up his phone to announce the threatening approach of his wife Fricka, and riding him piggy-back, shouting her jubilant "Hoia-to ho!" Theorin was a beautiful, older, mature Brünnhilde who was vocally most convincing in her dramatic parts when a more strident tone was warranted. In her (few) piano-sung phrases her voice shone with a lyrical tenderness, and in the long
dialogue of her punishment by Wotan her voice expressed the whole gamut of shame, trembling fear and indignation. Her acting was noble and especially touching in her way of embodying Brünnhilde’s gradual awakening from her magic sleep.
Young tenor Daniel Brenna as Brünnhilde’s lover Siegfried, the hero and innocent fool of the tale, showed vocal stamina and held up under pressure, but was unable to cast a convincing character. He came across as a petulant, pudgy American teen without the necessary charisma. In 2011, tenor Jay Hunter Morris had created a surprisingly powerful, likable character. Brenna was rather charming though in his long, quasi realistic scene of filing, molding and hammering his sword while gustily singing along.
Wotan, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, slowly grew into his character and emotional maturity, singing his good-bye from Brünnhilde with convincing emotion, and he was a blast as the old disillusioned “Wanderer,” a grizzly, crusty tyrant who could have made an impression in any quality Western. Mezzo Jamie Barton with her powerful, rich-toned voice was a triumphant Fricka and later, a moving, disturbed Waltraute. German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was satisfyingly rough and devious as Alberich, and American baritone Brian Mulligan was well cast as Donner and Gunther.
From the old guard in 2011, Stefan Margita made a great impression again as an elegant, satirical Loge; Ronnita Miller was velvety dark-voiced Erda; Tenor Brandon Jovanovich a likable and well-toned, but unheroic Siegmund as well as the God Froh; Raymond Aceto the Giant Fafner and the bully Hunding; David Cangelosi the excellent, acrobatic Mime; Julie Adams the Goddess Freia; Stacey Tappan the nimble Forest Bird; Andrea Silvestrelli a sufficiently sinister-sounding (and looking) Hagen with superb vocal shadings; and Melissa Citro once again the “dumb blonde” Gutrune, all reprising their roles with fresh conviction. (More details in my 2011 Ring review below.)
This year, the one revelation vocally and as an actress, was Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Sieglinde. Mattila is an artist of the same caliber as Nina Stemme, and similarly managed to transcend her age vocally as well as physically, creating a youthful, beautiful, riveting character onstage. Mattila’s renowned power of acting and her silvery voice without any stridency made one forget the weaknesses of the “American” Act I of Die Walküre: the puny clapboard house in the woods, where any idea of mythological relevance has fled into the dear-heads on the walls. Raymond Aceto again vastly over-acted Sieglinde’s husband Hunding, and the fine tenor Brandon Jovanovich lacked conviction as the romantic outlaw hero Siegmund, Sieglinde’s twin brother. There seemed to be no space in this claustrophobic hut for Jovanovich to come into his own and
expand into his destiny as a crucible between Gods and humans. (It didn’t help that the ridiculously placed “hidden” sword in the ash tree, destined for a hero, made the audience snigger.)
Wotan and Trump
Zambello’s Ring had been ten years in the making before the San Francisco debut of Rheingold in 2008 and Die Walküre in 2010 (all reviewed in these pages**). I was curious to see whether she had done a few brush-ups in the interval, but I didn’t notice any corrections. This time around, the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) received an extra touch of actuality, apparently inspired by Margaret Atwood’s bestseller “The Handmaid’s Tale”: the brutal militia men of the Gibichung race (who bring about the final cataclysm) now have wives who are creepy-looking like battered crows, and Zambello alludes to their ritual abuse. In her production notes she also refers to the Twitter feed #metoo, and rightly so. After all, the whole Ring tale of violence and power abuse is kicked off by
Alberich, the dwarf boss of the underworld, when he renounces love for power and fashions the magic ring; his consolation for this sacrifice of love is rape.
Zambello’s American concept molds itself to our present time in more ways than one. Suddenly there seem to be plenty of sly comments on the corruptions of the Trump era and its delusional would-be “God.” In Rheingold, the parallels are most frequent and consistent. Alberich hits upon the gold of the river Rhine by scouting for mining opportunities. The Gods are into real estate. They order a fortress from the Giants, but demand credit. Lacking the means of payment, they use the Goddess Freia as “collateral.” When the Giants take her hostage, Loge, the Fire God (a kind of Mephistopheles) slyly teaches Wotan the “art of the deal”: pay the Giants by stealing the ring and the river gold that Alberich stole from the Rhine. For men, world power is surely worth more than the Goddess of love. The deal succeeds, but then goes south: after cursing love, Alberich now curses the
ring. Whoever has the ring, will be consumed by worries and death; whoever doesn’t have it will be consumed by envy and greed. Trumpism 101.
Art of the Deal
Rheingold ends with the most hilariously “modern” scene Zambello has thought up. The attractive, but corrupt bunch of Gods sets out for the fruits of their speculation, their corrupted Woltan-Tower. A “rainbow bridge” made by thunder and lightning to clear the sultry air leads the way. This “stairway to heaven” is the gangway to an invisible luxury cruiser. It glows in the gayest rainbow colors (once again much appreciated by the San Francisco audience), the Goddesses wear fancy hats à la Greta Garbo’s Hollywood, and everyone laughingly toasts the deal with champaign. Loge comments like a reporter from the Washington Post, “Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu, die so stark im Bestehen sich wähnen.” (“They are hurrying toward their demise, believing they are invincible.”)
The tale is slightly marred, however, when Zambello insists on silly quirks she already presented years ago. When the two ruffian Giants take the petite, blonde Goddess Freia (Julie Adams) hostage, the story is weirdly flipped. Think of Faye Dunaway with two brothers King Kong, and now imagine that Faye stops screaming and starts making eyes at one of the monsters, begging to stay with him instead of being rescued. Really? And the ransom the Giants demand for Freia? Apart from the ring, Alberich has hoarded masses of gold (a good idea at any time) in his mines, but Zambello brings only a puny few grey bags onstage to seal the deal. When Erda arises from the depth of the earth to warn Wotan of the ominous ring, the singer ascends from beneath the stage in modern evening attire with big earrings as if to start a concert recital. Not a very mysterious announcement of the end of time (and Gods). I had the hunch
that the director in these odd moments (there are a few) got tired of her solid, coherent conception and went quite intentionally against the grain, sort of thumbing her nose at Wagner’s mythology, having fun with a few absurdities of her own.
When Wotan, the slightly-built Greer Grimsley, holds his wife Fricka on his knees, trying to sweeten her up for his deals, mezzo Jamie Barton seems to literally overtake him with her voluminous body, making me wonder, quite against Wagner’s intention of suspense, if Zambello’s Wotan is perhaps not man enough to handle the world ruled through the laws he has created? This strange visual omen unwittingly gives away the whole story—the patriarchal gods are undone by their women…
This interpretation is not only extremely timely, but it is exactly what Wagner had in mind. On the day of his death, in 1883, he was working on an essay titled, "On the Womanly in the Human," the continuation of a thought he already had in 1851, when he began the twenty-year work on his Ring. He noted that "true womanliness, which should one day bring redemption to me and to all the world, after male egoism, even in its noblest form, has obliterated itself before her." This “feminist” vision is what Zambello also had in mind, and it best comes to fulfillment in her rousing staging of the “Gallop of the Valkyries”. Here is how I described the scene in an early single performance of Die Walküre in 2008:
“On the Valkyrie rock, Brünnhilde is surrounded by her eight Valkyrie sisters, all in aviator garb—eight buoyant would-be Amelia Earharts, sporting long aviator scarves, caps, and glasses. They hang-glide onto the stage as if coming down with parachutes, bringing the house down. To the stirring, full-orchestra blow-out of their gallop, the sexy-androgynous troop merrily climbs all over the rock in pants that stretch across some hefty backsides. The brief moment of comic relief quickly turns serious, however, when a procession of soldiers from different American wars silently, like in a ghostly vision, moves across the stage —the dead heros Wotan and the Gods collect for their futile protection from evil. Instead of the usual dragging around of corpses, Zambello’s Valkyries gather and carry LP-size disks with the slate-colored faces of fallen soldiers from Irak and
Afghanistan—the same faces we have been watching nightly, in silence, on the News Hour. They attach the portraits to totem-like metal scaffolding, building a strangely compelling memorial to the victims of God and men's ‘holy wars.’ Usually the Valkyries—Wagner's hefty Germanic ‘Amazons’ with breast-plates and horned helmets—are something of a laughing stock; in spite of their rousing, fantastical music they make one smile about their mildly absurd anachronism. Zambello turns the sisters into a serious paratrooper formation under Wotan's command, and their horror over Brünnhilde's exclusion and degradation is played out as a ferocious battle between military, male-type control and unleashed female emotion. For once, the Valkyries are a superbly acted, intense part of the drama between father and daughter, obedience and rebellion, power and love.”
I couldn’t say it any better today, and this brilliant scene is perhaps also the one where Zambello manages best to “meet the Wagnerian mythology.” The more a production goes into modern times and actuality, the more it risks losing touch with that mythological and legendary root of the Ring. A modern “American Ring” cannot be a world Ring: even with Zambello’s spectacular scenic images and ideas, something of the mythic depth and timeless mystery of Wagner’s creation is necessarily lost.
Prior Ring Reviews
Photos - Cory Weaver