Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
June 2011
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedIan Storey
BrünnhildeNina Stemme
GuntherGerd Grochowski
GutruneMelissa Citro
AlberichGordon Hawkins
HagenAndrea Silvestrelli
WaltrauteDaveda Karanas
WoglindeStacey Tappan
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeRenée Tatum
1. NornRonnita Miller
2. NornDaveda Karanas
3. NornHeidi Melton

Lord of the ‘Rings’

Wagner’s “Ring” cycle has rarely felt so, well, cyclical as it did at the conclusion of Sunday afternoon’s superb performance of “Götterdämmerung” at the War Memorial Opera House. After introducing the individual installments of its new production over three years, the San Francisco Opera is finally set to take things from the top with complete cycles, beginning next week.

Sunday’s success would have whetted the appetite of the most determined naysayer.

In the final opera of Wagner’s epic tetralogy, director Francesca Zambello brought her vision of gradual ecological ruin to a persuasive conclusion, while remaining true to the human dimensions of her story – and “Götterdämmerung” is the most keenly human chapter of the “Ring.”

In the pit, former Music Director Donald Runnicles led a performance of majestic power and sweep, eliciting thrillingly great playing from the tireless Opera Orchestra. And in soprano Nina Stemme, the company can lay claim to a Brünnhilde of astonishing vocal clarity and dramatic pathos.

Zambello’s “Ring,” which began in the Gold Rush and traced a path through a century and a half of American history, arrives with “Götterdämmerung” in the contemporary era, when the debts to Nature are finally called in. While the Gibichungs and their half brother Hagen struggle for power, glory and sexual status, only the bedraggled Rhine maidens – the forlorn inhabitants of a now-filthy river – seem to grasp the urgency of the crisis.

The final moments of the production are aptly faithful to Wagner’s vision of redemption and rebirth. Yet they seem cloying only because the preceding catastrophe is relatively lackluster, with flames far in the background and the chorus shuffling around listlessly onstage.

But that was a lone misstep in a production that crackles with theatrical flair and inventiveness. The Norns, those all-knowing deities, are depicted as the physical embodiment of the Internet “cloud,” their wisdom an accumulation of Google hits.

In Michael Yeargan’s evocative sets, the hall of the Gibichungs – a gleaming penthouse of steel, glass and ugly upholstery – conveys the family’s anxiety and bad taste in an instant. Similarly, the gown and gloves provided by costume designer Catherine Zuber for Brünnhilde’s forced marriage to the feckless Gunther are a perfect symbol of the warrior maiden’s shame.

Stemme’s Brünnhilde, a memorable linchpin in “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” became nothing less than a triumph here. Singing with a combination of tonal heft and laser-like precision, Stemme brought the character to vibrant life, from the love-besotted rapture of the opening to the gleaming final moments of redemption.

Tenor Ian Storey, in his role debut as Siegfried, sang with hooded tone and lacked the ringing top notes for the character’s most heroic passages. But there was a certain bluff, muscular appeal to his performance.

Perhaps the production’s most intriguing performance was the charismatic Hagen of Andrea Silvestrelli, who in Zambello’s conception belied his chilly Nibelung heritage to become a villain of erotic swagger. Soprano Melissa Citro made a vocally attractive if slightly glaring company debut as Gutrune, and Gerd Grochowski was a fine Gunther. As Alberich, Gordon Hawkins made much of his one scene, and the men of the Opera Chorus sang with striking brio and focus.

The Rhinemaidens (Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum) made a winsome trio, and the Norns were superbly sung by Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas (who returned as Waltraute) and especially Heidi Melton, due to sing Sieglinde in the last of the three upcoming cycles.

Joshua Kosman | June 6, 2011

San Francisco Classical Voice

Out of the Ashes, a Goddess Emerges

Over four and a half hours after the curtain rose on Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, soprano Nina Stemme advanced to the center of an empty stage. With shoulders squared and feet planted firm, she stared into the vastness of the War Memorial Opera House and began the “Starke Scheite.” Starting with, in translation, “Stout logs you must collect for me in a pile on the shores of the Rhine,” her stunning, intensely passionate projection of Brünnhilde’s monumental Immolation Scene affirmed that she is the rightful successor to the great Brünnhildes of the past.

Making her role debut as the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, Stemme sang as if she had owned the role for at least a decade. Capable of far more than sheer decibels, she poured forth sounds that were full, round, seamless, and incontrovertibly gorgeous from top to bottom. Her rapturous exaltations of love were filled with warmth and tenderness. Even when her feelings changed and she sang of battle and betrayal, her far darker tones revealed the aching heart at their core.

It was a magnificent portrayal. The entire race of the gods had burned to ashes by the opera’s end. Yet when Stemme reappeared alone onstage, the collective cheers from a standing audience affirmed her status as a living Wagnerian goddess.

Universal Strengths
Stemme was not the only artist making a role debut. Tenor Ian Storey (Siegfried), bass Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen), soprano Melissa Citro (Gutrune), mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas (Second Norn and Waltraute), alto Ronnita Miller (First Norn), soprano Heidi Melton (Third Norn), and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) all excelled in first outings of their respective roles. Together with bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski (Gunther), baritone Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), soprano Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), and mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), they made for one of the strongest casts that General Manager David Gockley has brought us.Sharing the spotlight with the singers were the final installment of director Francesca Zambello’s and set designer Michael Yeargan’s vision of the Ring, and the glorious sounds of the S.F. Opera Orchestra. Coming full circle from Das Rheingold, which we revisit when the first of SFO’s three complete Ring cycles opens on June 14, scenes transitioned from Brünnhilde’s once-lonely rock and a litter-strewn Rhine to the steel and glass palaces of the corporate oligarchy.

Inevitably, a few anachronisms surfaced: Uzis sharing the stage with swords, an unseen horse galloping toward skyscrapers, and a hideous, ill-fitting Act 2 gown for Brünnhilde that looked even worse for the warrior boots. Nonetheless, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the destruction of post–Industrial Age capitalism was both vivid and visceral.

In a production abetted by Mark McCullough’s intelligent lighting and a host of video projections by Jan Hartley with S. Katy Tucker, the deeper meanings of the Ring were there for anyone who wished to take them in. The final denouement, which took us full circle to images seen in Das Rheingold, ended with an affirmation that brought tears to the eyes.

Only once, during the Siegfried Rhine Journey, did the video projections seem at odds with the pace of the music. But that was in part because, in an afternoon filled with exceptional playing whose eloquence penetrated as deeply as the singers’, conductor Donald Runnicles momentarily lapsed into autopilot. Traversing purely orchestral terrain that every great Wagnerian conductor and wannabe has recorded, he created the orchestral equivalent of a visitor on BART asking, “Have we reached Civic Center yet?” Pick up the pace, stick to the schedule, keep sight of the goal … you get my drift. But that sole slip into the mundane stood out only because the rest of the playing was so wonderful.

Hours of Splendor
Storey, the performance’s Siegfried, who sounds as if he has rebounded from the months of illness that left him unable to sing the role in both Götterdämmerung and Siegfried, gained in strength and steadiness as he went along. By the time of his extended scene in Act 3, a slightly pinched nasality was replaced by steady, glistening tone. This was a Siegfried who could keep up with his Brünnhilde, which is no mean feat.

Silvestrelli, singing Hagen, reaffirmed his status as a vocal giant. Towering over his cast mates, even without his made-for-a-giant elevator shoes (see SFCV’s Ring preview footage), his dark, gravelly instrument partnered well with the handsome darkness of Grochowski’s voice. The sounds and postures of both men contrasted wonderfully with Citro’s at times hilarious, yet ultimately sympathetic, Anna Nicole Smith–like Gutrune (complete with a slightly wild top that evened out as the opera advanced). Bring your binoculars for this one.

The three mellifluous Rhinemaidens (Tappan, McNeese, and Tatum), who were perfectly matched in volume and vibrato, provided a distinct contrast with the more individual sounds of the three Norns (Melton, Karanas, and Miller). Melton’s voice seems to have grown in size; with darker tones on top, she gave promise of a thrilling Sieglinde in the third cycle Die Walküre. Miller was steadier than her Erda of last week, the voice rich beyond belief. Although Karanas seemed a mite underpowered for this duo, her beautifully sung Waltraute displayed her finest and most convincing acting to date.

With a running time of over five hours, and a first act that lasts one hour and 50 minutes, Götterdämmerung can seem like an endless exercise in Wagnerian egomania. Yet, thanks to so many exceptionally gifted artists (both seen and unseen), it instead emerged as an ever-enthralling epic that held the audience spellbound. If this cycle comes out on DVD and Blu-ray, with sonics that match the visuals, it will surely reaffirm the company’s status as a world-class institution. Hey, even the critics lingered to cheer at opera’s end.

Jason Victor Serinus | June 6, 2011


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

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.

Lawrence A. Johnson | June 27, 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 351 MByte (MP3)
A production by Francesca Zambello
Possible dates: 5, 19, 26 June, 3 July 2011
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.