Jul 19th 2018

San Francisco Opera - Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

by James Bash


James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy.


Rheingold - San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011 when the Cycle, directed by Francesca Zambello, received its premiere. The wonderfully nuanced singing and acting by the principals and stellar playing from the orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, made this “Rheingold” a memorable occasion.


A Scene from Wagner's 'Das Rheingold - photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera



An impressive array of singers anchored the production, starting with Greer Grimsley’s formidable and powerful presence as Wotan. His full-throttle performance was equaled by Falk Struckmann, who in his San Francisco Opera debut struck fear into the hearts of the Nibelung slaves as the unrelentingly driven Alberich. Śtefan Margita created a smart and cynical Loge, who helped Wotan to capture Alberich, yet refused to join the gods and drink champagne as they walked up the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

Jamie Barton, as Fricka, pleaded passionately with Wotan to save her kinswoman Freia (Julie Adams) instead of giving her to the giants as payment for constructing Valhalla. Wearing Ivy-League-inspired sport jackets, Brian Mulligan’s Donner and Brandon Jovanovich’s Froh blustered about in a futile attempt to counter Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Fafner (Raymond Aceto) who made a terrific entry by setting on an iron beam that was lowered from the ceiling.

Silvestrelli and Aceto enhanced their characters’ camaraderie with humorous gestures that caused chuckles to erupt from the audience. That Freia falls in love with Fasolt was effective but odd. Ronnita Miller’s Erda warned Wotan with firm conviction. David Cangelosi cowered convincingly as Mime, the tormented brother of Alberich.

The three Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum) taunted and teased Alberich mercilessly in clouds of dry ice that billowed about the stage. After the gods made their exit to Valhalla, they appeared in dirty clothing and bewailed their fate for having lost the Rheingold.

A massive rock wall of wavy gold stretched across the width of the stage and from top to bottom as well, representing the mines of the Nibelung. Tall ladders were propped against the wall, and minions of Nibelung slaves scurried about in rags, lifting sacks of gold into mining cars. A slippery toad caused laughter to erupt from all corners of the hall. The scene in which Wotan used his spear to remove the ring from Alberich’s finger was gruesomely effective. Donner summoned the bridge to Valhalla with a double-headed hammer that emitted an impressive shower of electrical sparks. The gods ascended the bridge that obviously suggested their entering the Titanic. It would only be a matter of time before their world would sink to the bottom.

Vivid new projections S. Katy Tucker in the opening scene showered the stage with icy-blue waterfalls. They enhanced the original projections by Jan Hartley, the best sequence of which depicted the narrow and twisty passage that descending through a cavern into the mines of the Niebelung.

The projections and scenery combined well with the story to suggest the environmental degradation of the planet in face of those who care only for money and power, but that statement didn’t slap you in the face. That was one of the best things about this production, it had strong values yet never preachy. Hats off to Zambello and company.


Die Walküre – San Francisco Opera

The opening scene of San Francisco Opera’s production of “Die Walküre” swirled about with vivid projections of water flowing from the Rhine River, reminding the audience at the at the War memorial Opera House (June 13) of the natural beauty left behind in “Das Rheingold.” Supported by a thrilling performance from the orchestra, the imagery gave way to a chase scene with Siegmund quickly moving through a forest before arriving at the house where Sieglinde lived. The gripping opening scene was a foretaste of the strong production, directed by Francesca Zambello, that featured an evening of outstanding performances.

Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglinde (Karita Mattila) convincingly showed their mutual attraction. Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding (Raymond Aceto), pawed Sieglinde and treated her roughly, which raised a palpable sympathy from the audience for her. Brandishing his rifle, Hunding frisked Siegmund before tying him to the Ash tree.

Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde - photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera 



Jovanovich sang with a lovely and resonant voice, and his “Walsas” emphatically filled the hall. Mattila equaled his stentorian volume but her tone got a bit fuzzy. After drugging her husband into a deep sleep, Sieglinde assisted Siegmund in pulling the sword out of the tree, and they ran away together with a full moon in the background.

From his lofty home, Wotan (Greer Grimsley) sat one end of a long, executive table, overlooking a downtown in the distance that suggested San Francisco. Grimsley’s Wotan spared intensively with Jamie Barton’s Fricka. She won over the audience with her defense of marriage against the incestuous love of the siblings, forcefully dismissing Wotan’s arguments, and disdainfully tearing the photo Siegmund in half. Barton’s clear, powerfully emotional voice and acting set a new standard for Fricka interpreters.

The scene in which Siegmund dies took place under a deserted freeway overpass. Before that happened, soldiers paced slowly across the stage, carrying large photos of heroes destined for Valhalla. They were followed by two of Hundung’s dogs, which sprinted across the stage. After Hundung kills Siegmund, he saluted Fricka, and then he is dispatched by Wotan.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, a late replacement for German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, filled the role of Brünnhilde with spunk and verve. Theorin’s voice easily went the distance, but now and then her vibrato threatened to go out of bounds.

The Valkyries (Julie Adams, Melissa Citro, Renée Tatum, Nicole Birkland, Sarah Cambidge, Laura Krumm, Renée Rapier, and Lauren McNeese) parachuted in before making their famous welcoming cries. But they lined up fearfully after a wrathful Wotan arrived in pursuit of Brünnhilde. Grimsley’s voice had a few erratic moments whenever he punched above the din of the orchestra.

The orchestra, under Donald Runnicles, was firing on all cylindars. The sound when Wotan arrived at Valhalla was absolutely urgent and thrilling. Kudos especially to the horns who were spot on throughout the evening.

The fire that surrounded Brünnhilde was one of the largest conflagrations I have ever seen on stage. It was a relief to know that the fire marshal was in the house just in case. The image of Brünnhilde on the rock, surrounded by fire while the orchestra played, is one that I will not forget for a long time.


Siegfried –  San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s production of “Siegfried” (June 29) continued to file its environmental impact statement with projected videos and sets that emphasized an ugly planet. The bleak visuals didn’t detract from the exceptional performances by all of the principals, led by Daniel Brenna in the title role. The singing and acting was enhanced by an orchestra that again played at the highest level. The combined effect brought the audience at the War Memorial Opera House to its feet with cheers and thunderous applause.

The videos (designed by Jan Hartley) showed a landscape of tree stumps and electrical substations, powerlines, train tracks, and spillage from an industrial wasteland. The stark picture was also conveyed in the gritty scenery (designed by Michael Yeargan) that revealed an old beaten-up trailer, car seats, and various debris to a makeshift-forge. In Act II an abandoned warehouse functioned as the lair for Fafner, who was ensconced in an armor-plated, tank-like vehicle that had claws.


David Cangelosi as Mimi and Greer Grimsley as Wotan - photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera


Brenna sang ardently and with great stamina to deliver an exciting performance as the impetuous Siegfried. Brenna’s youthful look was a tremendous asset for this production, and he matched up well in all categories with Iréne Theorin, who embodied Brünnhilde with panache. David Cangelosi fashioned an animated and conniving Mime who was strangely likeable. Mime certainly got some sympathy when Siegfried waterboarded him to force him to reveal something about Siegfried’s parentage, and that didn’t stop Cangelosi’s Mime from executing joyful cartwheels in expectation of getting the ring.

As Fafner, Raymond Aceto’s voice had a unique blend of strength tinged with regret. In the role of The Wanderer, Grimsley exuded a deep sense of resignation. Ronnita Miller’s formidable mezzo issued Erda’s warnings with gravitas. As the Forest Bird, Stacey Tappan poured out a beautiful sound but needed a tad more sparkle. Her character fortunately shooed Siegfriend away from the idea of lighting a match after he poured gasoline on the dead bodies of Fafner and Mime. Falk Struckmann was a terrifically menacing presence when he threated Mime again.

It would be difficult to overstate the outstanding playing of San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The musicians created all of the lush music with great sensitively, but they also incisively revved up the dynamics at the drop of a hat (or baton) with gusto. The French horn soloist played with incredible abandon, which made Siegfried’s calls wonderfully lively. Donald Runnicles deftly paced the orchestra and guided the entire enterprise with terrific verve. It was an exceptional evening and one of the best performances of “Siegfried” that I’ve heard.


Götterdämmerung –  San Francisco Opera

The final installment of San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle came to a close with a superb performance of “Götterdämmerung” at the War Memorial Opera House on Sunday, July 1. The exceptional cast delivered its A game with Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin and American heldentenor Daniel Brenna leading the way, and the orchestra, under Donald Runnicles collaborating with great sensitivity and panache. All in all, it was a terrific evening for the Francesca Zambello production that brought the third and final week of the Cycle to a glorious close.

Theorin plumbed the depths of Brünnhilde with superb singing and acting. She went through the full cycle of emotions from ecstasy to despondency. Her rage against the betrayal of Siegfried was palpable. Brenna created a compelling Siegfried who unknowingly gets duped by the Gibichungs into winning Brünnhilde for Gunther. Brenna’s singing reached incandescent heights all the way to his character’s last breath.

Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn), Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Jamie Barton (Second Norn) - photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera



Andrea Silvestrelli was totally convincing in his role as the evil Hagen, and the scene in which he uses a knife and a spear to hold off the men after stabbing Siegfried in the back was mesmerizing. Falk Struckmann created a darkly sinister Alberich who invades the psyche of Hagen.

Brian Mulligan deftly portrayed the weak yet conniving character of Gunther. His blood-brotherhood duet with Siegfried was powerful and repulsive at the same time. Melissa Citro went over the top in the role of Gutrune, adding a bit of humor when she tried to massage Gunther’s head and when she attempted to get the TV remote to cooperate.

The three Norns (Ronnita Miller, Jamie Barton, and Sarah Cambidge) sang with distinction as they attempted to deal with a massive strand of cables. Their green garb suggested sanitation workers who had to make sure that they didn’t get contaminated.

Jamie Barton pleaded fervently with Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum). That trio tried their best to entice Siegfried to give up the Ring even though they had to swim about the polluted Rhine River, contending with tires and trash bags.

The theme of environmental degradation was placed up front and center with new projections designed by S. Katy Tucker, based on original designs by Jan Hartley and Tucker. The imagery complimented the scenery (Michael Yeargan), which was desolate and ominous. For example, the home of the Gibichungs was a glass-enclosed, modern affair that matched the soulless atmosphere perfectly.

There were some questionable actions that occurred at the end the production: The Rhinemaidens capture Hagen and kill him by putting a plastic bag over his head. Siegfried was unceremoniously carted to the edge of the stage and dumped. Tires and bags of garbage were also thrown over the back of the stage and then gasoline was pitched onto it. It all seemed to be a very ugly way to signal an environmental cleanup and renewal of the earth. All that seemed to be forgotten when a young girl came out on the stage bearing a pot with a sapling, which, of course, signified new life.


The opera chorus sang with gusto, and the orchestra played splendidly, fashioning a marvelous sonic experience under the baton of Donald Runnicles. All of the musicians and many of the technical crew joined the performers for the final curtain call as the audience responded with ecstatic applause and cheering.

After the applause died down, Matthew Shilvock, general director of San Francisco Opera, came on stage to present the San Francisco Opera Medal to David Gockley, who was the opera company’s general director from 2006 to 2016. The medal recognized Gockley leadership in which he co-commissioned 11new works, presented 9 world premieres, and co-produced the Ring Cycle for its inaugural run during the 2011 season.


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