Stemme soars in Zambello’s inane, politically correct “Götterdämmerung”

June 27, 2011

Nina Stemme is Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera's "Götterdämmerung." Photo: Cory Weaver.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Francesca Zambello’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for San Francisco Opera went completely off the rails into bizarro land.

Maybe it was the orange-suited Wood Bird as alter ego mime in Siegfried. Or the gender-neutral Norns that opened Götterdämmerung Sunday afternoon dressed in green lab coats, rubber aprons and goggles as a post-nuclear hazmat crew. (Instead of the rope of destiny, they instead weave the electric cable of destiny with the supertitles clunkily rewritten to reflect that — “Sisters, the cable must be reconnected.”) Or the Rhinemaidens who appear collecting water bottles in large trash bags. Or opening Act 2 with Hagen and Gutrune in bed watching television and fighting over the remote control.

Perhaps it was the feminist revisionism that completely took over the latter half of Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde forgives a contrite Gutrune, and they embrace. The Rhinemaidens and an ensemble of Gibichungen women who appear as silent sentinels in sisterly solidarity build Siegfried’s funeral pyre and usher in a brave new world no longer dominated by earth-despoiling men. Do you want to hear about the Rhinemaidens killing Hagen by suffocating him with a plastic bag? Or the week-long cycle closing with a small child walking to the center stage and planting an ash tree as we all hope for a new more environmentally sensitive planet? I didn’t think so.

For all its updating and revisionism, this politically correct Götterdämmerung is about as risk-taking and audacious as a campfire rendition of Kumbaya. There’s nothing that would offend the sensibilities of right-thinking people — vegans even get props when Hagen’s hunters bring in carts with a dead cow and other animals, revealing them not only as rifle-toting mercenaries but meat-eaters as well. Some probably own goldfish and support circumcision.

More practically, there’s a jarring dissonance between the nudge-nudge low-brow humor and the epic grandeur of the final opera painting Siegfried’s death, the gods’ demise and Valhalla’s downfall. At times, Zambello seems to be treating Götterdämmerung as a comedy. Before her abrupt conversion to the sisterhood, Gutrune is a blond-tressed bimbo in slinky dresses, sashaying around as if she waltzed in from a cable sitcom (variably sung by Melissa Citro who is encouraged to mug in a distracting way). After Gordon Hawkins’ dramatic singing as Alberich in Act 2, Zambello ruins it by having him pick up Hagen’s remote control and look at it in confusion for another cheap laugh.

You take your pleasures where you can. The good news is that in her role debut Nina Stemme is revealed as this generation’s great Brünnhilde, as was made clear Sunday by sensational vocalism of a standard one infrequently encounters in this repertoire.

The Swedish soprano was impressive in Walküre but she has gone from strength to strength in this cycle. On Sunday Stemme sang with gleaming tone, dramatic thrust and expressive detailing, doing all that one could possibly wish for. Her Immolation Scene was remarkable, not only for its searing intensity but the expressive nuance and sense of stoic regret she brought to her performance, transcending the surrounding staging idiocies. Several veteran Wagnerians in attendance with long memories of many great sopranos say they’ve never heard a better sung Brünnhilde and it’s hard to disagree.

As Siegfried, Ian Storey fared better in the role than the over-parted Jay Hunter Morris on Friday night. The English tenor largely delivered the goods with virile tone and vibrant timbre. He appeared to suddenly run out of steam at the end of Act 2 but regained enough to close the opera respectably. Storey got little help from the confused staging, which seems to make Siegfried more consciously complicit in Brünnhilde’s deception than is actually the case.

After his fine Fasolt in Rheingold, Andrea Silvestrelli was a worthy Hagen, the towering Italian bass gamely entering into the wayward production. The villainous role seems to need a more focused and saturnine color than Silvestrelli’s burly, booming voice. Gerd Grochowski was an inspired and notably well sung Gunther, though the weak character suffered at the hands of the production.

Daveda Karanas was a workperson-like Waltraute also making up part of an uneven trio of Norns with Ronnita Miller and Heidi Melton. Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum returned as the well-sung Rhinemaidens, though the staging made the trio appear silly and venal rather than ethereal and tragic.

Michael Yeargan’s bleak postmodern sets remain striking and effective. The Gibichung’s palace is here an icy stainless-steel condo with glass walls and tacky contemporary furniture. Catherine Zuber’s purposely ugly outfits for the Norns and orange hunting garb for Siegfried and Gunther did what they were supposed to. But couldn’t she have found a more flattering evening gown for Stemme?

Donald Runnicles’ conducting remains one of the principal assets of San Francisco Opera’s Ring. Balances were not always sensitive to the lighter-voiced singers and some brass ringers in the pit continue to struggle. But for the most part, this was a rich and luxuriant rendering of Wagner’s score, alive to the intimate moments as well as the grand set pieces with a notably weighty and dramatic account of Siegfried’s Funeral Music.

Götterdämmerung will be repeated July 3.; 415-864-3330.

4 Responses to “Stemme soars in Zambello’s inane, politically correct “Götterdämmerung””

  1. Posted Jun 27, 2011 at 9:44 pm by Bill Walter

    Couldn’t agree more. While I share most of Zambello’s political views, using the Ring as a vehicle for her ideology is inappropriate. I wanted to see the Ring cycle, not a critique of modern society. And please, the little child planting the tree…

  2. Posted Jun 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm by Jonathan Caves

    Thanks for making this comment: “After Gordon Hawkins’s dramatic singing as Alberich in Act 2, Zambello ruins it by having him pick up Hagen’s remote control and look at it in confusion for another cheap laugh.”

    This was both the best and worst version of this scene I have seen – the bed, the arrival of Alberich and the initial interaction worked so well. Why, oh why did she have to ruin it all by going for cheap laughs?

  3. Posted Jun 29, 2011 at 11:00 am by Chiedu Egbuniwe

    Whatever one’s feelings about the Zambello’s point of view, I think it remiss of the reviewer not to mention that Zambello’s direction of the interaction between the characters was excellent throughout. Instead of the usual and dreaded park-and-bark, this felt like true theater, full of detailed movements. Even when I was irritated by some of the cheap laughs and silly mistranslations, there was generally true drama on stage.

    But the wonderful, incredible news is Stemme. I’m too young to have seen the legends and I’d given up hope I would ever hear or see a truly great Brunhilde live. Stemme is the real thing.

  4. Posted Jun 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm by sdiver43

    Zambello also committed what is (IMO) one of the worst directorial errors – playing entire scenes behind a scrim. I have yet to see a scene that is improved by making it harder for the audience to see what is happening on stage. Thankfully (?), she must have decided that no staging could possibly match the grandeur of Siegfried’s Funeral March, so the audience was treated to a blank stage instead. At the end, I thought for a minute that we were watching Tannhauser when the child with the pope’s staff/tree wandered in.