Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
June 2011
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedJay Hunter Morris
MimeDavid Cangelosi
WotanMark Delavan
AlberichGordan Hawkins
FafnerDaniel Sumegi
ErdaRonnita Miller
BrünnhildeNina Stemme
WaldvogelStacey Tappan
San Francisco Classical Voice

A Glorious Prelude to Collapse

Mortal love is about to blossom in Siegfried, though you’d never know it from director Francesca Zambello’s vision of Planet Earth. From the desolation that dominates her San Francisco Opera coproduction of the third of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), you’d think the end of the world had already come. On Michael Yeargan’s opening set, Siegfried and Mime’s home looks like the post-holocaust ruins of a trailer park, while Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker’s projections during the orchestral interludes are choked with the refuse of humankind’s destruction of the natural world. If Zambello’s vision is so stark as to make Wagner’s apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung) seem like an afterthought, the overwhelming impact of Wagner’s music nevertheless makes us eager to return for more.

Siegfried’s grimness is not merely physical. Young Siegfried hates Mime, the despicable dwarf who has raised him in hopes of eventually seizing the ring. Mime, in turn, despises his brother Alberich, who stole the ring from the Rhinemaidens many, many hours ago in the first of the four Ring operas, Das Rheingold. The giant Fafner, here disguised as a monstrous trash compactor, is dedicated to annihilating anyone who may want to steal the ring. And the God Wotan, well on his way to ruin, seems equally down in the mud in his sometimes brutal interaction with the wise-in-all-things-except-men Earth Goddess, Erda. Wagner conveys all this with unflinching directness and brutal force.

Thank Goddess for the Women
Besides the longed-for heroic glint in Siegfried’s voice (tenor Jay Hunter Morris), as well as the glories of the orchestra under SFO’s former music director Donald Runnicles, the only light in Mark McCullough’s masterfully lit Siegfried came from costume designer Catherine Zuber’s scarf for the departed Sieglinde and two female leads: the Forest Bird (debut soprano Stacey Tappan) and the former Goddess, Brünnhilde (soprano Nina Stemme). Both were extraordinary. Tappan sang clearly, with great beauty and carrying power, and moved with a restrained, birdlike lightness and curiosity. Everything about her was a joy.

Stemme sounded marvelous, being in even better form than when she debuted as Brünnhilde in SFO’s Walküre last June (while suffering from a sinus infection). Possessing the biggest voice onstage, she easily negotiated her character’s huge range. She also summoned forth multiple colors to make believable her character’s wide range of human emotions. With Flagstad, Nilsson, and Varnay no longer with us, we Wagnerites can rejoice that we have another great Brünnhilde to maintain the tradition. Stemme did cut her final high climax short, but that seemed out of respect for Morris, the tenor, who was especially overpowered as she rose higher in her range.

Making his debut in the role he initially expected to cover for Ian Storey, Morris has made no secret of the fact that he first sang Siegfried through from beginning to end about a week before the performance. Although he paced himself well in this ultimate test for heldentenor (heroic tenor), his instrument rarely rang out. The bottom was shallow, the lower middle range a bit gravelly, and the lovely top clear but less than imposing. The thrill was absent.

Yet his youthful physical buoyancy, near-heroic posture, and convincing naivete amid brutality (how American!) were a delight. Perhaps by the time he essays the role a second time on June 17, in the first of SFO’s three complete traversals of the Ring, he will have found the means to forge his sword with the power of a hero.

In particular, he came up short when sharing the stage with the sensational Mime of tenor David Cangelosi, whose cutting, intentionally niggling instrument was far more compelling. Cangelosi’s acrobatic physicality dwarfed Morris’. When your hideous dwarf is turning cartwheels and dancing up a storm while your strangely gray-bearded “youth” is having trouble being heard, you’ve got a problem.

Further balance issues arose in the confrontation between Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins, making his SFO debut) and The Wanderer/Wotan (baritone Mark Delavan). Hawkins’ beautiful, dark voice simply carried better than Delavan’s occluded instrument. While Delavan continues to display a winning gravitas, his power came more from emotional depth than sheer decibels.

Also making her SFO debut, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, as Erda, displayed a rich voice that grew stronger as the opera progressed. Although she did not fully produce the weighty midrange that conveys ultimate Earth Goddess wisdom and profundity, she gave signs that the means are within her.

Splendors of SFO’s Orchestra
Far from playing a supportive role, Wagner’s orchestra is an essential component of his message. In the War Memorial Opera House, where it can sing out with far more power than in the covered pit of Wagner’s Bayreuth, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra sounded superb. Runnicles may not be the most rapturous of conductors. Yet when he went for the gold in the final act, and unleashed the orchestra to convey the full glories of Wagner’s mature, post-Tristan und Isolde writing, the results were irresistible. Morris may have suffered as a result, but we in the audience were the winners.

Despite falling short of the ideal, San Francisco Opera’s Siegfried delivers a powerful experience. With much glorious playing from the orchestra, plus a Brünnhilde and a Mime that rank with the best, it remained gripping throughout its nearly five-hour length. Now we shall see how it stands in the context of June’s total Ring.

Jason Victor Serinus | May 30, 2011

SF Opera’s Nina Stemme soars

Brünnhilde’s job in the “Ring” cycle is nothing less than the redemption of the world. She made a good start by redeeming the San Francisco Opera’s performance of “Siegfried” at the War Memorial Opera House on Sunday afternoon.

It’s not that the undertaking was in dire need of rescue. The performance had plenty to recommend it, including some interesting scenic ideas, strong showings in a number of the smaller roles, and a powerhouse contribution from the pit from former music director Donald Runnicles, whose mastery of Wagner’s music remains a thing of wonder and admiration.

But it wasn’t until the arrival of soprano Nina Stemme, some 45 minutes before the end of Sunday’s five-hour stretch, that the afternoon really began to soar.

Here at last was the combination of assured, muscular vocalism and focused theatrical vibrancy that Wagner’s music dramas require. As the rebellious Valkyrie roused at last from her magical slumber, Stemme unleashed a stream of potent, silvery sound that pierced the orchestral texture without a hint of strain.

And for anyone with memories of last summer’s magnificent production of “Die Walküre,” which introduced Stemme’s Brünnhilde to the company, witnessing her awakening was like greeting an old friend. The character seemed soberer and less impetuous after her long enchanted nap, but her distinctive brand of tomboyish grandeur remained intact.

Sunday’s “Siegfried” – a stand-alone offering before the full cycles begin June 14 – found us roughly midway through the tetralogy. The overarching theme in director Francesca Zambello’s conception is American history seen through an ecological lens; this is a “Ring,” to put it too simply, about the management and mismanagement of natural resources.

So after the Gold Rush era of “Das Rheingold” to the early 20th century industrialism of “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried” arrives in a contemporary world of oil refineries, scrap metal and natural despoliation – a combination of the worst of New Jersey and East Texas. Projected images during the Act 1 prelude set the scene with gently roiling clouds that morph into toxic fumes.

The wittiest element in Michael Yeargan’s set design comes in Act 1, which imagines Mime’s dwelling as a rusted-out trailer in the shadows of an industrial park. What this “Siegfried” needed most urgently, though, was a stronger vocal ensemble to match Stemme’s glorious final contributions. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, undertaking the title role for the first time, was adequate but never quite electrifying, his singing tender and thoughtful but one or two sizes too small for the task.

What Morris did accomplish, though, was to inject a welcome note of humanity into a character who can too often seem thuggish and crude. The afternoon’s most worrisome aspect was the performance of bass-baritone Mark Delavan, who after a commanding “Walküre” Wotan seemed vocally hazy and physically ill-at-ease as The Wanderer (Wotan’s undercover identity). Even for a moribund god, this was a less than authoritative showing.

That left tenor David Cangelosi, as the malevolent Mime, to dominate the first half of the opera, which he did with a dark, fluid and vividly imagined performance. As Alberich, baritone Gordon Hawkins sounded more petulant than malign; bass Daniel Sumegi was an insinuating Fafner.

Mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller made a compelling company debut as Erda, her low notes resplendent with moral authority. The Forest Bird – who in Zambello’s version becomes a young woman, a “bird” in the Carnaby Street sense – was sung with beautiful gaiety by soprano Stacey Tappan.

Joshua Kosman | May 30, 2011

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

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.

Lawrence A. Johnson | June 25, 2011

Francesca Zambello’s Siegfried, the third instalment of the 2011 San Francisco Ring, presents a more complicated mixture of social and historical themes compared to the previous operas. As the director had promised, environmental issues are brought to the fore more and more as the production unfolds. At the same time, they intertwine with additional social themes with results that are sometimes unclear.

During the prelude, images of a forest are projected on the screen at the front of the stage, as in Die Walküre. However, in this case, images move slowly and unnatural camera angles define the space. This combination conveys a sense of disorientation and artificiality. Finally, the silhouettes of trees are transformed into utility poles, representing the mutation that nature has undertaken in the corrupted and degraded world that this Ring represents. Utility poles then become the background for Act I, in which Mime’s and Siegfried’s home is a rusted trailer, abandoned in what appears to be a garbage dump. The acid green and blue lighting (by Mark McCullough) that dominates the scene – and the whole opera – illuminates a post-apocalyptic, inhumane environment.

SiegfriedAct II, set in what seems like a deserted underground space, offers a somewhat confusing social commentary: Alberich was depicted as a homeless, but aggressive recluse (he pushes a cart containing his possessions, including a rifle), while Fafner, emerging from enormous metallic doors, was a mechanical monster.

David Cangelosi offered a rounded portrait of Mime: he successfully emphasised the most farcical aspects of his character, coming across as ruthless and selfish, and yet pathetic. His voice wasn’t ideally resounding, especially at the beginning. As he warmed up though, he became more solid, especially in the lower tessitura.

Unfortunately, for me the least convincing performance was Jay Hunter Morris’ Siegfried. Admittedly, Siegfried is famously one of the most difficult roles to interpret, requiring incredible vocal stamina and strong acting skills. Morris was expressive, but he could not sustain the demanding vocal lines.

Moreover, the choreography by Lawrence Pech (excellent elsewhere in the production) produced perplexing effects win combination with Zambello’s stage directions. For instance, this Siegfried was a mixture of overtly puerile mannerisms and violent authoritativeness – not only with Mime, but also, awkwardly, with Brünnhilde.

Like Alberich, the Wanderer was characterized as a fiery and impetuous homeless person. Mark Delevan masterfully gave life to this solitary and powerful figure. As in his previous performances, his timbre was very soft-edged and, at times, the orchestra swamped his muted resonance. Yet, his expressiveness is always remarkable and makes up for a certain lack of density in his voice.

SiegfriedOnce again, Nina Stemme was precise, passionate and touching in her interpretation, on both the vocal and on dramatic sides. Brünnhilde’s awakening was one the most intense moments of the performance – rightly so – with the orchestra and Stemme collaborating in the creation of an intimate and yet majestic sense of wonder and renewal. It was impressive to see her on stage engaging her whole body and voice with the action.

Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich was also very convincing in his insistence on conquering the ring at any cost. His vocal performance, too, improved considerably, and he successfully exploited his somewhat blunt tone. Stacey Tappan as the forest bird was enchanting, with her bright timbre, and a tender, rigorous approach to her part. Ronnita Miller’s Erda was a somewhat cold characterization; yet she was vocally flawless, and her dense, dark timbre is wonderfully apt for this role.

The orchestra seemed less secure that the previous performance, showing perhaps some Ring fatigue. And, sadly, periodic uncertainties in the brass section continue to mar the textures of Wagner’s inspired tone painting. As in Das Rheingold, Donald Runnicles tended to favour an intimate approach rather than extreme gestures. And once again, this was achieved at the expense of exploring a wider expressive palette. Nevertheless, under his baton, the musicians wonderfully brought to the fore all the quieter passages – such as Brünnhilde’s awakening, as mentioned above.

Marina Romani | War Memorial Opera House, 20 June 2011

Wagner’s “Siegfried” Starts San Francisco Opera’s Ring Season With a Smashing Stunner

Arriving at the War Memorial Opera House before this season’s wildly extraordinary “Siegfried”, San Francisco was treated to colorful flags all over the city proclaiming this 2011 Ring Festival, continuing a long tradition in San Francisco of presenting full-scale Ring productions for decades – as in 1935, 1972, 1985, 1990, 1999. But the first full cycle here was in 1900 – imported by puffer-train from New York with tickets said to be in the $2 – $7 range.

Note well: the first presentation with Wagner himself conducting was at Bayreuth in 1876, just 24 years before the Ring hit San Francisco – then certainly the cultural capitol of the Golden West (i.e. everything west of St Louis) at the time! It was just six years later when the 1906 earthquake shook up that world-famed tenor Enrico Caruso, singing here the evening before, staying at the fabled (and still here) Palace Hotel, fled the wreckage hurling ghastly epithets in Italian, vowing never to return – he didn’t ! But you will with opera like this !

And you ask how come this Wagner Summer Festival starts with the Third Opera in Wagner’s colossal Tetralogy? It doesn’t really start until three cycles of all four operas are presented, first one commencing June 14, 2011, next June 21, and final June 28. In fact this “Siegfried” of May 29 and the “Goetterdaemmerung” of June 5 conclude the years-long SF Opera project to present the entire Francesca Zambello Ring with “Rheingold” and “Die Walkuere” having already debuted (see your website host William’s reviews, cited at this review’s end.)

This “Siegfried” production, and the two previous “Ring” operas in the Zambello cycle were first seen at the Washington National Opera, in co-production with San Francisco. However, budgetary issues at the WNO, resulted in the San Francisco Opera agreeing to develop and premiere the “Goetterdaemmerung” production, with the entire Zambello “Ring” to be seen for the first time. But San Francisco has never seen a Ring like this. All prior readings here (your website host and I have seen most, but not the 1900 nor 1935 versions!!) have been very traditional. Ms Zambello – well known all over America – has re-conceived this world-scale masterwork. She places it in America, in essentially recent (and contemporary) times, highlighting the rape of America’s environment in this industrial age. Thus the costumes are generic and the scenic-filmed backgrounds are nascent American growing industrial-age genre. We clearly saw this in both of the first two presentations, and this ambience definitely appears in Acts I and II of this Siegfried, yet Act III is very traditional and hardly departs at all from all the earlier Rings seen here.

As the curtain ascends in Act I of Ms Zambello’s conception of Siegfried, we see power lines and metal support-structures amidst swirling industrial smoke. On Stage Right is this auto-trailer (you’ve seen thousands on the road) open to audience view with a stove out front, a beach chair, a stack of beer cases, jeep-cans of fuel and other very familiar trappings of our youth- and now.

Suddenly a bounding Yosemite-emigre’ bear arrives (great antics) with Siegfried – whose “father & mother combined” erstwhile colleague/ instructor/ guide/ keeper Mime cowering in the background in fear of this strapping Siegfried. This wonderfully animated act develops with Siegfried and Mime hurling insults, brandishing weapons and fists – plus an operatic first for me as Siegfried gives Mime a head-first dunking in the water trough (audience roars). Yet Ms Zambello underlines actual warmth between these two – rarely seen these days.

Momentarily Wotan (marvellously presented by Mark Delavan) arrives on the scene which gets underway with the famed Riddles (like 20 questions) – a bout which Mime flunks. Again Zambello shows us real warmth between these two as they pop open a beer in the trailer, sharing a bag of potato chips.

Mime finally digs out the shards of the great sword Nothung. After Mime’s pathetic attempts to forge it – as Siegfried lambasts him repeatedly, Siegfried takes over – having been presented his Mother’s blue scarf (i.e. Sieglinde) which he caresses with huge emotion (so do we!). He wears this throughout the balance of the opera, including as he successfuly re-forges Nothung, holding its hilt wrapped in that scarf – to me a coup de theatre for the emotions before us – a Zambello Magic-Moment! Oh yes, he had a couple more beers while on the job!

Our Mime is David Cangelosi – beyond any doubt whatever the best acting I’ve seen anywhere in the world for this very fun – and challenging role. Our Siegfried is Jay Hunter Morris giving his all in a wonderfully lyrical, quite lush reading, but not looking remotely like a youth. But does Siegfried have to be an ungainly Geek-teenager?

Act II is almost identical to Zambello’s Act II Scene 2 of her “Walkuere” which was under a freeway – this is under a bridge. Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) is on the scene with an AK-47 shoved along with his booze in a shopping-cart.

Shortly the Forest Bird (wonderfully sung by Stacey Tappan) from the high metal bridge hanging over the trash-scattered scene, appearing in bright orange costume -cueing Siegfried what to do, where to look, where to go, etc. Hearing her magic flute (a la Mozart), he tries to create one for himself using industrial tools, to no avail (audience roars).

At last it’s time for him to meet Fafner the monster whose got the Ring, the gold and all the other goodies. Suddenly the doors open and here comes a gigantic German Panzer-tank style Scrap-Metal Compactor which gyrates about the stage, assaulting Siegfried with hissing jets of steam. Siegfried wins, gets the Ring and loot, and runs off to the Forest Bird’s directions in pursuit of The Sleeping Beauty.

Act III is totally traditional – and totally sublime with luscious music fabulously transmitted to us by SF Opera’s world-class orchestra under Donald Runnicles’ excellently-in-command baton. The Earth-goddess Erda (wonderfully done by Ronnita Miller) lectures Wotan who ultimately seeks – and receives – her blessings. Rising up from her rock resting place surrounded by the industrial-chemicals-colored magic fire only a Super-Hero can penetrate, after that inevitable kiss to awake The Sleeping Beauty, Bruenhilde (brilliantly sung – shaking the chandeliers – and garnering the biggest, standing applause – Nina Stemme) slowly rises, blinded by the sun, whom she greets Heil dir Sonne – from here on it’s pure, unadulterated Mega-ecstacy as this monumental work ends – preparing us for The End in “Die Goetterdaemmerung”.

Special kudos – and applause – should go to the lighting director Mark McCullough and Projections (fabulous !!!) Director Jan Hartley – both utterly superb.

All this whipped together made for a San Francisco Opera – Zambello triumph with a world-class cast, orchestra, conductor, back-stage troops drenching us with an afternoon of absolute operatic delight worth the price of the ticket (now, a century and a decade later, more than $2) and vastly more. By all means see this Ring – your ears will be ringing with it for years!!

Thomas Rubbert | May 31, 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 322 MByte (MP3)
A production by Francesca Zambello
Possible dates: 29 May, 17, 24 June, 1 July 2011
Jay Hunter Morris replaces Ian Storey as Siegfried.
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.