Cher Public

Ring around the Bay

Here goes with the End of the Gods and the End of these Ring reviews: 

Götterdämmerung was more of a mixed bag than the other operas, but still left a powerful impression. This was where Zambello’s choice to steer clear of heavy spectacle was most evident to me. The cost in grandeur was offset by an absence of dumb bombast and a gain in intimacy and character definition. I don’t know how well that last factor would hold up in a revival director’s hands, but on the whole she made the approach pay off handsomely.  

Runnicles is not my idea of a great Wagner conductor, but I have to give him credit for clocking the performance out in a mere 5 1/4 hours, including intermissions, without seeming to rush. The only section I thought dragged this time was Act I after Hagen’s Watch – a difficult stretch to hold together in any case, and not helped by a weak Waltraute (more on her below). There were moments of miscoordination within the band, and the brass bobbled frequently, as they are wont to do in this house. Rather thin sonorities at various times during the cycle, especially in Rheingold and Walküre, initially made me assume Runnicles was working with reduced forces, but the roster shows a full complement of more than 100 musicians. Despite the occasional shortcomings, though, there was still a lot of noble sound to be heard – the conducting didn’t seriously get in Wagner’s way.

Ian Storey has a curious voice, a bit dry and not overly trenchant in the lower registers, but also not leathery or unattractive, and with a solid, penetrating top that carries well even over a Wagnerian orchestra. As I already mentioned elsewhere, he brought off a ringing high C in Act III. He’s also a good actor – not as instinctive and spontaneous as the excellent Jay Hunter Morris, but much better than run of the mill. He reproduced some of the physical mannerisms Morris had built into Siegfried, which also allowed him and Zambello to play up Siegfried’s amusing encounters with the unfamiliar blandishments of civilization chez les Gibichungs. Rather than trivializing him, his delighted reactions to cushy upholstery and swiveling bar stools humanized him and injected a welcome dash of humor into the Gibichung scene, which never dragged as it so often does. They also kept us aware that Siggy is naïve, not stupid.

On top of that, the reserves of goodwill Morris had built up made Storey’s death scene – with its recall of music from Siegfried, of course – all the more moving. I was grateful that rather than staging the Funeral March, Zambello left it entirely to the orchestra to tell the story under a sickly, mournful moon. They did it well. (For an example of just how cheesy and exploitative this moment can get, have a look at the Fura dels Baus version on Youtube. I refuse to link to it here.)

Stemme was a force of nature. The voice might not be as big as Birgit’s, but the middle and lower range are much richer. The pitch is much more secure than Gwyneth’s, and there are no worries about vocal health as there often were with Behrens. She topped off the Prologue duet with a gutsy though ever-so-slightly unsteady C, and even after giving 100% all the rest of the afternoon, she showed no sign of tiring for the Immolation. Hers is certainly the best-acted Brünnhilde I’ve ever seen, and yes, I’ve seen the Chéreau. Every moment is illuminated from the inside – one that especially sticks in the memory is her baffled, heartbroken attempt to get some kind of recognition out of Siegfried in Act II. Her rage makes far more sense if she’s tried to get through to him first: now, rather than just being oblivious, he’s brutally snubbed her. That was shocking, especially after the unusually affectionate, lingering farewell Zambello had staged for the two of them. (Meantime Siegfried’s occasional bouts of wooziness kept reminding us that he was still very much under the potion’s influence.)

But as good as Stemme was, her costumer failed her. Somebody needs to send Catherine Zuber back to costuming school. If Brunni’s leather bodice in Siegfried was merely unappealing, her bridal gown was an atrocity, making the attractive, athletic Stemme look like a stumpy Margaret Dumont (see photo above). Fine, I get the idea: fancy gowns and Brunni do not go together. Being dolled up can be a kind of imprisonment. That’s legit, and Stemme economically made the point by wearing what looked like combat boots underneath and stumbling over the hem at her first entrance. (I don’t doubt that she was also taking Birgit’s advice about being sure you have comfortable footwear for a long Wagnerian role.) But the fancy gown should at least be a good one, even if she wears it uncomfortably – the Gibichungs are nothing if not rich.

Gutrune’s dress was ill-fitted as well, and as the expert Bluecabochon pointed out, the lady was badly in need of a support garment under the clingy fabric. Melissa Citro’s is not a voice I would go out of my way to hear again, but she did a nice job of portraying Gutrune’s slightly airheaded turpitude and her transition to sisterly insight. Gerd Grochowski’s chinless nerdiness was OK for Gunther.

Andrea Silvestrelli’s huge, rock-solid, black bass and strong acting made him a wonderful Hagen, better in fact than my memories of Gottlob Frick. The Summoning of the Vassals was electrifying. And he was especially impressive in the Act II interchange with Alberich – sprawled face down in bed with his head buried upstage, yet projecting solidly all the while, helped a bit of course by the headboard.

The Rhine Maidens sang very well as they dispiritedly labored to clean up the Rhine, now nothing but a dry, trash-choked channel. The banter with Siggy was charming, but marred by a bad surtitle in which Siggy seemingly offered to trade the Ring for sex. There’s no sign of that in the original text, it’s completely out of character (especially for this sweet-natured Siegfried), and it provoked gasps in the audience. True, the scene was also making a point about how Siggy is gradually being corrupted by life with the Gibichungs – now he’s sunk to hunting deer with a semiautomatic – but this particular addition was uncalled for.

Daveda Karanas made an agreeable Second Norn, but the voice, acting skills and presence are all much too lightweight for Waltraute. Instead of a desperate messenger from the doomed gods, Brünnhilde received a visit from a worried Cherubino. The other Norns were very fine, and the idea of making them creepy cable electricians was terrific, the first injection of real uncanniness in the whole cycle.

I thought Zambello’s staging had more wobbles this time than in the earlier three operas. The concepts were generally sound, but it often seemed as though the timing or some other aspect of the execution was slightly off. Given how much she seems to have refined her work between the Washington and SF runs of the other operas, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these adjusted if this production comes back for a revival in her hands.

The opening of Act II – some of the most atramentously evil music ever written, so terrifying you almost wonder how the orchestra can hold on to their instruments to play it – was undermined by a laugh. Hagen and Gutrune are in bed (yes, they have a thing going), channel-surfing on a super-sized TV: you could see the enormous rectangular outline of its picture reflected on the wall behind them. Yet in spite of this stumble in how it was handled at first, the idea isn’t without substance. Gutrune eventually leaves, and Hagen goes to sleep with the TV still playing, a nice comment on the horrible emptiness of these people’s lives. By the end of the scene, as a slightly mystified Alberich warily raised the remote to change the channel, almost like a weapon, you could see the idea’s potential for creepiness.

Later in the same act, the Gibichung Hall was visually impressive but contained a serious design mistake: a very large area dead center stage swallowed up voices. No matter who sang there – Stemme, Storey, even Silvestrelli – it was as though someone had suddenly turned down the volume on them. Only the men’s chorus sounded really good from that location (and by the way, they were magnificent). Yet once again, the overall idea was basically sound: looking at that stainless-steel-and-black environment with its rigid lines and the bleak landscape beyond, along with the regimented movements of the chorus, I wasn’t the only Parterrian who flashed on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I wish Michael Yeargan had found a less baldly utilitarian treatment for the sets throughout, and a more cohesive design vocabulary.

Another place where good ideas felt badly coordinated was, sadly, the Immolation Scene. There was real fire, but far too late – it began after Brunni jumped on the pyre. Walhalla came tumbling down impressively, in a projected rain of heroes’ portraits and broken masonry – but it happened during the Rhine music, not the Walhalla music. Poor Siegfried was unceremoniously dumped from a cart over the upstage edge of the rake, provoking a laugh (I doubt this will ever pan out as a good idea).

It was the Gibichung women and the Rhine Maidens who built the pyre out of bags of trash, and Brunni and Gutrune reconciled before the end – a nice way of reasserting women’s role after so much marginalization in this polluted world. But where at last were the men? Surely part of the whole dilemma of the Ring is the divorce between male and female energies. On its own, female energy is no more constructive than male (see Mr. and Mrs. Wotan). It’s the separation of Brunni and Siggy that leads to the ultimate catastrophe, and Brunni burns herself up to rejoin Siggy. A proper universal resolution demands the presence of both sexes.

But even here there were fine, imaginative strokes: Wotan’s ravens show up ominously at the end of the scene change into the Immolation set. The Rhine Maidens strangle Hagen, that human piece of refuse, with a plastic trash bag. And at the very end, after we’ve spent hours looking at grim, gray, industrial skies in a black-and-gray world, the sun breaks through with a brilliant blue sky, and a little kid comes forward and plants a tiny sapling: the first piece of three-dimensional greenery in this entire Ring.

Back in May, JJ and Oedipe mentioned quite rightly that the real problem with the Lepage Ring is that it seems to have no sense of the work’s larger issues. Zambello’s version does engage with a central theme, and rigorously carries it through to the very last note. There’s nothing earth-shaking in the insight that the Ring is partly about environmental degradation, but Zambello hammers it home so insistently and effectively that the final image of redemption and hope, trite as it may sound in the telling, brought tears. And even now, days later, and even though I live in a part of the country that still has great natural beauty, I find myself looking at our local patches of freeway devastation with new regret.

Do I think this Ring was a success? Absolutely. It’s not the version for all time, and will never satisfy those who insist on winged helmets and real horses. But if you accept it on its own terms, the strengths – most of all the beautiful attention to the interactions between characters – far outweigh the weaknesses. I’ve never seen a Ring that didn’t have serious drawbacks one way or another; I’m not sure such an animal even exists. But this version left me wrung out, thrilled, intellectually stimulated, and yearning for more. Götterdämmerung finished at 6:15 Sunday; I spent Monday in a state of dazed exhaustion; by Tuesday I would gladly have started the whole thing over again.

(Photo: Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera)