Der Ring des Nibelungen

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
June 2018
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



There was plenty of great singing in the return of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera. The big roles — Wotan, Alberich, Brünnhilde, Sieglinde, Siegmund and Siegfried — were more than capably handled. Director Francesca Zambello’s compelling production called particular attention to the women characters and amplified an underlying concern with despoiling the environment.

But in the first of three complete cycles, completed last Sunday afternoon, the star of the show was the guy with a spotlight on him in the orchestra pit. Donald Runnicles shaped the music with breathtaking pulse and attention to both broad sweep and fine details of the score. The San Francisco Opera orchestra responded with magnificent playing, its finest work in the 35 years I have been attending regularly. Communication with the singers on stage resulted in nearly every word reaching the audience without losing an ounce of thrust and sheer richness of sound from the orchestra.

Runnicles conducted complete Rings every time the cycle was mounted here starting in 1990, which has clearly enhanced the bond between him and the musicians. It was thrilling to behold, and not just in the often-extracted orchestral set pieces such as the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music.’ The connections among orchestra, sets, props and singers in the Siegfried forging scene made the hair on the back of my head stand up, to name just one example. The long musical arcs breathed like a live being in each act and throughout each opera.

This is the first return of Zambello’s production, a co-commission with Washington Opera that made its San Francisco debut in 2011. She has revised some of the details, mostly in video projections, to expand upon Wagner’s underlying theme of encroaching environmental destruction, adding a layer of rampant industrialization. Over the four operas, the Rhine River diminishes until it is virtually gone, and electrical towers replace forests. The clearing where Siegmund fights Hunding is the space under a concrete highway interchange. The monster that Siegfried downs to win the gold is not a dragon in a cave but a sort of proto-Transformer steam shovel in an abandoned factory. (He kills it by severing one of its internal wires.)

Zambello also emphasizes any mistreatment of women. We witness Hunding manhandling Sieglinde and see her bruises, for example. But we also see Freia gaze longingly at Fasolt when she is returned to her family of gods in Das Rheingold, a response not likely to appear in other productions. The villain in Götterdämmerung, Hagan makes a clumsy pass at his sister Gutrune when he is momentarily alone with her. If anything, these glosses deepen the characters, giving something extra to ponder. They never get in the way of Wagner’s narrative or, more importantly, the music.

The whole cast of Das Rheingold got the vocal side off to a brilliant start. Just as Wagner establishes leitmotifs, the building blocks of Rheingold, the array of characters introduce themselves to us and propel the drama that will unfold over the saga’s 20 hours (including intermissions)—from the trio of Rhinemaidens splashing in the river up to the chief god Wotan and his adversary, the Nibelung leader Alberich.

We also see some of the singers for the first time in Rheingold and, as is traditional (and practical), a number of the them come back to handle different roles in later operas.

In Rheingold each created vivid personalities, none making more of an impact on the first night than Štefan Margita’s oily, insinuating Loge, the trickster god Wotan calls upon for advice on how to handle his contracts and weasel the Rhine gold from Alberich. Margita’s nimble stage presence, often at the periphery, and his cutting, sinewy tenor made him the most compelling figure whenever he was on stage.

As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made up for a less than fiery personality with magnificent vocal tone and musical presence, both here and in Die Walküre. The voice of the evening was mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, whose serene presence and rich sound made the role of Erda especially compelling, both here and in Siegfried. Barton also returned as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, beautifully sung but not quite there dramarically. Joined by current Adler Fellow Sarah Cambidge, Barton and Miller returned as Norns in a seamlessly done first scene in Götterdämmerung.

Baritone Brian Mulligan unfurled a resplendent baritone as the thunder god Donner and returned in Götterdämmerung as a weak-willed but smoothly sung Gunther. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich first appeared as Froh, the god of spring and happiness, saving his vocal resources for the bigger role of Siegmund the next evening. He made a nice pairing with Karita Mattila’s Sieglinde, an example of dramatic soprano making the most of her resources. They looked and sounded fine together, both voices tilting toward the lyrical side, but delivering enough power to ride the orchestra’s waves of passions into a terrific finale.

Character tenor David Cangelosi may have overplayed Mime a bit, both in the first and third operas, but he sang with more suppleness and precision than many have done in this role.

Soprano Stacey Tappan and mezzos Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum brought brilliant vocalizing to the three river nymphs, finding a polished blend infused with rhythmic vitality. The trio returned in the last opera, their corseted dresses dusty and gray, for another fine scene. Tappan returned in Siegfried as the Forest Bird; in this production she’s a full-fledged ‘free spirit,’ rather than an offstage voice. In Zambello’s words she’s ‘a girl [Siegfried] meets on the way to meeting a woman.’

Julie Adams’ soprano made Freia as alluring as she needed to be, vocally and physically, and she returned later as a Valkyrie.

Basses Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Raymond Aceto (Fafner), hulking in bulky costumes, delivered chocolate resonance and some welcome comedic gestures in their roles as the giants who built Valhalla for Wotan. Aceto’s Fafner returned in Siegfried and Silvestrelli lent his luxuriant voice and powerful stage presence to Hagan, the bastard son of Alberich who devises a plan to regain the gold and ends up murdering Siegfried, the hero Wotan hopes will regain it for him. He commanded the stage and delivered the music flawlessly.

As Siegfried, tenor Daniel Brenna reprised the role in which he triumphed in 2016 when this production was revived at Washington Opera. His clear, plangent voice never tired over the course of two long operas in as many days (Götterdämmerung being a matinee). Hair tousled, galumphing like a bratty teenager, Brenna created an indelible character—his voice never strident, always wielding an affecting sweetness. When it came time to power up, he was equal to the task, in a smart, riveting performance.

The other major characters who span several operas include Wotan and Alberich, the chief antagonists, and Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie who attempts to save Siegmund only to be thwarted by Wotan. Before he banishes her to years of sleep behind a wall of fire, she saves Sieglinde and the unborn Siegfried—who then rescues her and marries her. (Incest runs rampant in this saga.)

Making his company debut, bass-baritone Falk Struckmann created an indelible presence as Alberich. He rose to the occasion for his renunciation of love – so he could steal the gold for the titular ring – and rang out the curse on it after Wotan wrests it from him. He played a nasty foe to Wotan in their confrontation at Fafner’s cave. Much of his singing had a rough edge to it—disappointing if you agree with Wagner that the vocal music of the Ring should feel like bel canto singing, but great if you’re ready to see Alberich as an unalloyed villain.

No character is entirely bad or good, and the most memorable performances revealed that ambiguity. Greer Grimsley did exactly that with Wotan (and the same character named The Wanderer in Siegfried), delivering a tireless torrent of pointed sound. The bass-baritone’s stony black tone never wavered, not even at the end of Die Walküre’s long Act II monologue, nor at the very end of the final scene with Brünnhilde, when often the best Wotans struggle. And he could pare down his voice to a soft, affecting caress in quieter moments—at the start of his Act II narrative and in an affecting farewell to Brünnhilde.

He was engaged with whomever was on stage with him. We could feel the ups and downs in emotion from moment to moment, and he created a long arc from Das Rheingold’s clever optimist to The Wanderer’s defeat.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin stepped in for an indisposed Evelyn Herlitizius as Brünnhilde only a month before this first cycle. Not quite as volcanic as some big-voiced dramatic sopranos nor as indefatigable, she managed her voice by powering down on lower notes, especially in the marathon that is Götterdämmerung, so that the shining high notes could sail out freely and thrillingly. She matched the lyricism of Brenna’s sound, especially in their Siegfried love duet. Her curse scene in Götterdämmerung never quite caught fire, even though Silvestrelli was doing his part.

The Immolation Scene, which concludes the saga, brought together all of the production’s positive elements. Theorin caressed a calm central section before nailing thrilling high notes in her final phrases. Zambello populated the stage with women — the Rhinemaidens, several of the Gibichung wives, including Gutrune — building Siegfried’s (and Brünnhilde’s) funeral pyre with plastic trash from the litter-clogged Rhine, lighting a real fire that flared upstage, clumsily suffocating Hagen to death.

After all that, with Runnicles guiding the orchestra through a glowing ‘redemption’ leitmotif — the most affecting music of the entire cycle — a nine-year-old girl brings an ash tree sapling to plant in a small patch of soil downstage. And the curtain falls on one this opera company’s true triumphs.

After the singers took their bows at the very end, a scrim rose revealing the entire orchestra and chorus to a thunderous ovation. Runnicles personally brought co-principal horn Kevin Rivard, who played Siegfried’s horn music flawlessly from backstage, into the light for a solo bow.

Harvey Steiman | June 2018

The Mercury News

Why SF Opera’s ‘Ring’ festival has been a stunning revelation

This is how it ends: the world in flames, the Rhine overflowing to wash away the curse of the ring, ending the reign of the gods and redeeming all of humanity.

With the opening of “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung,” the final pieces of San Francisco Opera’s Ring Festival have fallen into place. The month-long revival of Wagner’s four-opera “Der Ring des Nibelung,” has been a revelation — a gloriously sung, intensely dramatic and thrillingly theatrical immersion into what is arguably the greatest operatic masterpiece ever created.

Like the thousands of others who attended, I’m still under its spell.

Having reviewed the cycle’s first two operas – “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” I returned for the opening performances of “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” (performances continue through July 1.)

First performed in 1876, the “Ring” explores themes that are still with us today – family dysfunction, loyalty and betrayal, the destruction of the environment, and what happens when we choose power over love. It’s a timeless story, and a feminist one, too – the work’s hero is Brünnhilde, the fierce Valkyrie whose battles seem to anticipate the #MeToo movement. Watching Francesca Zambello’s remarkable productions, which set the action in the American West, it’s hard not to be struck by the parallels to our time.

Staged with insight, ingenuity and technical panache, the “Siegfried” scenes span squatters’ camps, industrial wastelands and a verdant forest. “Götterdämmerung” begins with the three Norns (Ronnita Miller, Jamie Barton, Sarah Cambidge) inside a giant motherboard, trying to avert the meltdown that will doom the planet. The Gibichungs’ louche palace overlooks a hellish power plant.

Those touches are illuminating. Still, any opera begins and ends with the singers, and the company has assembled first-rate casts. In the title role of “Siegfried,” tenor Daniel Brenna undertakes the character’s journey from callow youth to maturity in a magnetic performance.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin is a stunningly strong Brünnhilde, fierce and focused, with a voice of soaring allure. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sings with authority and pathos as the uber-god Wotan/The Wanderer. German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, another company debut, exuded menace as Alberich, and David Cangelosi was a vibrant Mime. Miller sang with authority as the Earth goddess Erda, Stacey Tappan was a captivating Forest Bird, and Raymond Aceto was a sonorous Fafner. “Götterdämmerung” brought Brian Mulligan’s sturdy Gunther, Andrea Silvestrelli’s looming Hagen and Melissa Citro’s sleek Gutrune. Barton’s warm mezzo was an asset as Waltraute, and Tappan, Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum blended prettily as the Rhinemaidens.

Leading these performances is conductor and former San Francisco Opera music director Donald Runnicles. One of the world’s great Wagnerians, he has complete mastery of this music, and in each opera, he drew the best from the singers, the orchestra and, in “Götterdämmerung,” the San Francisco Opera Chorus. The “Ring” is always compelling, but this “Ring” is a once in a lifetime experience.

Georgia Rowe | June 25, 2018

Revived Staging, Revivified Concept Sharpen S.F. Ring

Deep down inside, was Wagner really a feminist? I seriously doubt it, but in the end, San Francisco Opera’s revival of Francesca Zambello’s conception of Der Ring des Nibelungen seems to steer the conclusion of this mighty four-opera cycle – still the biggest show on earth – in that direction. Just in time for #MeToo, but planned well before the birth of that movement, of course.

Yet the main thrust of Zambello’s production – first seen as a whole here at the War Memorial Opera House in 2011, again at Washington National Opera in 2016, and most recently back at War Memorial in the first of three cycles on June 12, 13, 15, and 17 – is something else, though not unrelated. When I saw her first version of Das Rheingold here in 2008, the concept was rooted in the California Gold Rush. But as Zambello’s ideas evolved, the gradual destruction of nature by humans – and Americans in particular – became the focus (John Adams’ Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West did much the same thing at San Francisco Opera last November).

In her program note, Zambello disowns the idea of a “feminist approach” while adding in the same sentence, “It suggests the power of female leaders to heal the scars of destruction.” So it is that in Brünnhilde’s culminating Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung – spoiler alert! – an army of women, assisted by Gutrune and the three Rhinemaidens, toss assault rifles, old tires, the body of Siegfried, and other debris from male-dominated “civilization” into the abyss where they are doused with gasoline and lit aflame. The world is cleansed to the sounds of some of the most eloquently apocalyptic symphonic music ever penned, and a nine-year-old girl (Simone Brooks) silently plants a shrub trimmed to look like a sapling from the world ash-tree. If that ain’t feminism at work, I’m Germaine Greer.

Credit technology (and projection designer S. Katy Tucker) for the main difference between the 2011 production and the present one – vastly improved projections that have changed the look of the San Francisco Opera Ring yet again. The colors are deeper, richer, more complex; the images are both more graphic and more suggestive of the ways in which nature is being attacked.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is accompanied by a blue wonderland of ice crystals and flakes that gradually morph into the water of the Rhine in its pristine state. On the other end of the cycle, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” finds the gushing Rhine waters giving way to a parched river bed and ultimately to a set of grimy smokestacks, lending a bleak, pessimistic tinge to the music that is a surprisingly good fit. The descent into Nibelheim in Rheingold is a spectacular collage of red rock and molten gold; we ride the rails cross-country from the redwoods to a boardroom overlooking New York City in Act 2 of Die Walküre. The panels on the stage floor now have LED lights instead of incandescent bulbs, yielding a much greater variety of color. Overall, despite the gathering gloom and increasingly modernistic, desolate settings as the cycle moves on, this is a beautiful Ring for the eye, more so than ever, a place in which to immerse oneself. I was sorry to leave at the end.

Those who saw Zambello’s 2011 Ring will recognize many of her directorial touches – cinematic references like the Siegmund/Hunding rumble underneath an urban freeway viaduct (hello, West Side Story?); occasional weird humor like the cases of Rheingold beer near Mime’s trailer, and Siegfried slaying Fafner the dragon – a two-ton, scrap-metal compactor – by sticking his sword Notung into the works and short-circuiting the monster. The Norn scene in Götterdämmerung finds the three ladies spinning cables instead of rope; even the supertitles refer to “cables.” That makes a lot of sense since cables, like Wagner’s rope, are today’s conduit for transmitting information, and when the cables break, the images of printed circuits on the scrim turn to static.

Zambello continues to deviate from Wagner when she has no less than three female characters feeling attraction to a captor (Freia to Fasolt), abusive husband (Sieglinde to Hunding), or evil alpha-male (Gutrune to Hagen). It’s the Stockholm Syndrome in action, a recognition that there are complexities in relationships in a male-dominated society that have to be dealt with. But the great majority of the time, Zambello is remarkably faithful to the composer’s wishes as spelled out in his libretto and stage directions. She also has the cast engage in all kinds of detailed stage business that corroborates the storyline and adds depth to the characters’ personalities and motivations. We feel free to care about these characters, perhaps even more so when transplanted into environments that Americans are familiar with.

A highly-experienced Brünnhilde, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin came riding Grane to the rescue when the original Brünnhilde, Evelyn Herlitzius, pulled out of the production a month ago for “health reasons.” Swedish sopranos have historically made some of the best Brünnhildes – Nina Stemme from the 2011 San Francisco Ring and of course, the incomparable Birgit Nilsson. Yet the first name that came to my mind upon hearing Theorin’s Brünnhilde was Gwyneth Jones, who sang the role here in 1985. It’s the vibrato – a wide quivering thing that sometimes threw the line off the pitch at high volume – that was the common link. Yet Theorin, who celebrated her 55th birthday the day after completing the first cycle here, showed a fiery temperament and improved accuracy in Götterdämmerung, as well as touching delicacy in the Immolation Scene. All told, she came through in a pinch.

Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried looked like a boy throughout the cycle – which, frankly, the character is – but his singing was underpowered in Siegfried; one could barely hear him from the eighth row on the orchestra level in the Forging Scene. We were left to contemplate the physical reality of a Brünnhilde-Siegfried final duet in which it looked as if Siegfried had fallen in love with his aunt (yes, that’s what the story says if you take it literally). This Siegfried never grew up, not even near the end of Götterdämmerung where he remained a rather arrogant, corrupted, anti-heroic kid.

Greer Grimsley’s Wotan gradually grew in stature – from the young, somewhat debonair, chief god in Rheingold to an all-American CEO who offered an unusually riveting monologue in Act 2 of Walküre, finally assuming full command in graver, grander, more sonorous voice as the Wanderer in Siegfried. Jamie Barton was a terrific, formidable Fricka, rolling her Rs with relish as she laid down the law. Falk Struckmann played Alberich as a prospector at first – the most conspicuous leftover from the original Gold Rush concept – but he soon becomes a brutal mine owner and in Siegfried, a homeless strong-voiced terrorist armed with an assault rifle.

Brandon Jovanovich sang Siegmund at San Francisco Opera in 2011, and since then, his performance has matured and ripened, capped by a beautifully-sung “Winterstürme” in Act 1 of Walküre. Karita Mattila sounded glorious as Sieglinde, and this combination should have produced a knockout coda in Act 1 to compete with memories of Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer from the 1985 SF Opera Ring. Yet for some reason, the musical tension slackened after Siegmund pulled the sword out of the tree.

Andrea Silvestrelli’s rich, sinister, true basso, hiding behind an almost amiable exterior as Hagen, was a returnee from 2011, and he doubled as a blunt, dark-timbred Fasolt in Rheingold. Also returning from 2011 was Melissa Citro, whose Gutrune matured from a bored blonde vamp into a high-minded partner in solidarity with Brünnhilde (indeed, they looked like white-clad, long-lost twins); Štefan Margita’s oily, clever Loge; and the Mime of David Cangelosi, who really sings the part without a hint of caricature or whining. Raymond Aceto, who was in the stand-alone 2010 Walküre but not the 2011 Ring, repeated his impressively imposing Hunding and doubled as Fafner, giant and dragon. Ronnita Miller personified the dignity of Erda, and Brian Mulligan (also Donner in Rheingold) sang Gunther with the voice of a king masked by a softness in physical presence that made him easy prey for Hagen. Stacey Tappan’s Forest Bird, delightful as always, was depicted as an idealized young woman (not a hippie) from the 1960s.

Donald Runnicles has conducted `Rings’ in San Francisco since 1990.

The biggest ovations for all four operas were given to a longtime favorite in Bayreuth-by-the-Bay, Donald Runnicles, who started leading Ring cycles here in 1990 and continues to do so even after stepping down as San Francisco Opera music director in 2009. If you categorize Ring conductors as either race car drivers or lingering philosophers, Runnicles tends toward the former, but he always knows where he is going and usually nails the high points. Overall, his Ring has become slightly faster in tempo than it was in 2011 (as well as in his 2008 Rheingold and 2010 Walküre). In Götterdämmerung, Runnicles’ finest outing among the four operas, there was a broadening of tempo and expansion of richness, resulting in a spine-tingling Dawn passage. Once again, Runnicles took off like a rocket at the start of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” to thrilling effect. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played with luscious collective tone and airy clarity throughout the cycle, luxury-class all the way.

As usual in San Francisco, there are two more Ring cycles to go. Cycle Two started with Rheingold June 19 and Walküre June 20; it continues with Siegfried June 22, and Götterdämmerung June 24. Cycle Three opens the following week with Rheingold June 26, and continues with Walküre June 27, Siegfried June 29, and Götterdämmerung July 1.

Richard S. Ginell | June 21, 2018

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A production by Francesca Zambello (2009/2011)