San Francisco “Siegfried” undermined by light-voiced hero and heavy-handed direction

June 25, 2011

Jay Hunter Morris in the title role and David Cangelosi as Mime in San Francisco Opera's production of "Siegfried." Photo: Cory Weaver.

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.; 415-864-3330.

4 Responses to “San Francisco “Siegfried” undermined by light-voiced hero and heavy-handed direction”

  1. Posted Jun 25, 2011 at 5:57 pm by The Unrepentant Pelleastrian


    “When Siegfried is outsung by Mime, you got a problem”


    Being very much a “Mime addict” I am just not sure about that…


  2. Posted Jun 26, 2011 at 11:16 am by Dennis Graves

    From my perspective in the 15th row of the orchestra, Morris’ second cycle Siegfried was not as “light” as some reviewers have indicated. Indeed, I thought he sung beautifully and loud enough. It was the ORCHESTRA that was the problem — overpowering Siegfried and others throughout the Ring. While the orchestral playing and phrasing was very good, it was often just too loud for the singers.

  3. Posted Jun 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm by Steve Aronoff

    Johnson’s review is pretty much spot on. My wife and I and six friends have watched the Ring from about as high as you can get. The loudness of the orchestra is particularly annoying. It does often drown out singers. None of us understands why the orchestra gets such heavy applause.

    We were spared some of the Woodbird’s acting because of the supratitle screen which covered her top half, much as it had obscured all but the the legs of Fasolt and Fafner on their scaffolding, and Fricka on the parapet. This is criminal! We paid good money for seats that provide an obstructed view. The scenic designer should be drummed out of the scenic designing corps, not that any of the designs have been meaningful or inspriring, the one exception being the Wotan/Fricka scene. It was only in that scene as well that the lighting design did what lighting design is supposed to do: light the singers. Throughout the operas the whole stage has been nearly equally lit allowing the eye to be drawn away from the action. The lighting designer should also be drummed out of the lighting design corps.
    I disagree somewhat with the criticism of the embrace of Wotan and Erda (should be Irda). They had been lovers after all.

    I would like to add that the translations seen in the supratitles are not good. The worst was when Rheingold was translated as “river gold”. The fact that the river was the Rhein is critically important to the setting of the story.

  4. Posted Jun 30, 2011 at 8:19 pm by Steve Jackson

    It would be helpful if you mention where you were sitting. I attended Cycle 2 and was in the Orchestra row L and found Morris’s Siegfreid had fuller volume than any of the previous singers I have heard. (this was my fourth Ring). I thought the anvil signing in Act I was thrilling. The people around me seemed to think so as well.

    After reading this review, I asked the people around me before Gotterdammerung what they thought. They all said wonderfully rendered. I asked if they thought he was underpowered, they all emphatically said No, not at all.

    I also noted that when Morris and Stempe came out together at the end about half the audience in the Orchestra seats stood in unison with the rest following. And their applause was given to both (with a moderate edge to Nina) when they bowed separately.

    It may be that his posture tended to direct his voice to the Orchestra seats and not to the rafters. “Underpowered Siegfreid” was not my experience. Please include where you were sitting in your reviews so we can gauge such comments.