San Francisco “Siegfried” undermined by light-voiced hero and heavy-handed direction
When Siegfried is outsung by Mime, you got a problem.
San Francisco Opera’s production of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, has some decisive positives: more stylish and striking visuals by scenic designer Michael Yeargan, another stellar turn by Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and a world-beater Mime by David Cangelosi, who virtually owns this role on today’s opera stages.
Yet Friday night’s performance at the War Memorial Opera House was decisively hobbled by a light-voiced Jay Hunter Morris in the title role and intrusive directorial conceits from Francesca Zambello whose ideas appear to be getting increasingly dubious and bizarre with each successive opera.
Jay Hunter Morris was pressed into service in the title role when Ian Storey withdrew from San Francisco Opera’s Siegfried (the English tenor is now singing the hero only in Götterdämmerung).
Morris has an attractive lyric instrument and brought plangent tone and sensitive expression to Act 2 where he ruminates on his origins and his unseen mother. But even with the greatest indulgence, the American tenor is woefully underpowered for this role. His forging song was nearly inaudible and all of Siegfried’s big moments fell short. In the climactic Act 3 duet, Morris was clearly stretched, dangerously so on top notes. Nina Stemme was a kind colleague, keeping her luxuriant voice down for some semblance of balance but it was clear that she could blow Morris off the stage without much effort.
Zambello’s unsubtle knockabout blocking didn’t help matters, making the young Siegfried even more of an obnoxious frat-boy jerk than usual—as when he douses the deceased Fafner and Mime with gasoline and prepares to set them on fire (I’m not kidding). Never mind the implications of Siegfried twirling about in circles with his mother’s blue scarf. Oy.
In this updated production, Mime’s woodland hut is a dingy trailer on the edge of a landfill underneath garish electrical towers and cables. That, along with the film projections of logging trucks, shuttered plants and smoke-bellowing factories are an attempt to make some statement against man’s despoiling of nature. Fafner’s cave here becomes an abandoned industrial warehouse and the giant operates his “dragon” from inside— a metallic monster half tank-like Sphinx, half Turk Street dumpster.
In Zambello’s most dismal revisionism to date, the Woodbird is here transformed into an onstage presence for much of Act 2. Stacey Tappan sings sweetly but the conception is a disaster. Placed on an overhead scaffold, the Woodbird’s constant miming, warning and remonstrating Siegfried — and later skipping and cavorting about with him — quickly grows tiresome and becomes annoying. A PETA board member would take aim and shoot this bird.
That bit of business also points to a subtle directorial revisionism that has become increasingly obvious as the cycle unfolds. There’s a kind of reverse sexism at play here with Zambello’s staging serving to weaken the male characters and dilute their edge and heroic profile while ennobling and raising the female characters’ authority — even when it means rewriting the operas to do so.
More practically, at every dramatic and emotional peak in the Ring, do the singers always have to shove and push each other, even when it completely goes against their characters’ essences—Erda and Wotan manhandling each other? Enough already.
On the plus side, this Siegfried offers two performances that were first-class in every respect. Nina Stemme built superbly on her Walküre Brünnhilde with quite glorious singing in the radiant Act 3 duet. (While it’s good to have a slender Brünnhilde who can move with agility, Zambello’s busy staging overplays the scene, with Siegfried and Brunnhilde running around and chasing each other so much, you’re not sure if they’re falling in love or working out.)
The remarkable David Cangelosi dominates the show to such an extent that the opera should be renamed Mime. Dressed in shabby outfit and knit cap, Cangelosi inhabits the role completely, singing robustly, creepy and wheedling in his faux solicitousness for Siegfried and joyfully doing cartwheels in anticipation of his gaining the gold and world dominion.
Even with a night off, Mark Delavan still sounded vocally tired as the Wanderer. He seemed to be having fun in the role, however, hamming it up as a scruffy retiree god, taking it easy and helping himself to Mime’s beers, though, like most of Zambello’s ideas in this opera it served largely to trivialize and diminish Wotan’s stature.
Returning as Alberich, Gordon Hawkins impressed anew with his dramatic incisiveness and muscular vocalism. Having Alberich descend into a ragtag street person picking up bottles and putting them in a rusty shopping cart was just silly. (It does hit close to home, however, in a city where one must traverse countless examples of the real thing on the way to the opera house.)
Daniel Sumegi is a workmanlike Fafner. He would have been better cast as Fasolt with Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, the Italian bass possessing the deeper, larger voice. Ronnita Miller remains a vocally imposing but wavery Erda.
Donald Runnicles’ conducting was again idiomatic and kept the long view in mind, though tension occasionally sagged in the long acts on Friday and disarray fitfully surfaced among the brass.
Siegfried will be repeated July 1. sfopera.com/ring; 415-864-3330.