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
SiegfriedDaniel Brenna
BrünnhildeIréne Theorin
GuntherBrian Mulligan
GutruneMelissa Citro
AlberichFalk Struckmann
HagenAndrea Silvestrelli
WaltrauteJamie Barton
WoglindeStacey Tappan
WellgundeLauren McNeese
FloßhildeRenée Tatum
1. NornRonnita Miller
2. NornJamie Barton
3. NornSarah Cambidge
Stage directorFrancesca Zambello (2011)
Set designerMichael Yeargan
TV director?

Episode IV – A New Hope

Earlier parts of The Ring demand patience for their slow-moving action and self-indulgent scores. In Götterdämmerung, events race along, with plots and counterplots, disguise, sex, greed, assassination and the burning of the world. It’s the one Ring opera that is dramatically gripping from start to finish, especially as presented at San Francisco Opera. This is the crowning achievement of a cycle that has brought together a peerless cast, the finest Wagner conducting and playing, and a dynamic staging.

The prelude is pure early 2000s cyberpunk. The Norns, dressed in green and black with caps and goggles, work to untangle fiber optic cables and plug them in. They sing their knowledge – Ronnita Miller with huge access of sound, Jamie Barton with a chesty middle register, and Sarah Cambidge with resounding top notes – until the node for the cables falls in a shower of sparks. Barton also makes a second appearance as a painfully desperate Waltraute, cutting straight to the heart with her “Wehe! Wehe!”.

In keeping with the pessimistic future theme, the Gibichungs live in a steel-and-glass tower with tasteless leopard print touches. Gunther and Hagen sport head-to-toe leather, while Gutrune lounges around the house in evening gowns. The followers of the Gibichung house look ominous in all black. The women cringe as they are pushed around and beaten by men carrying rifles. In the end, they get their revenge on Hagen, the center of this misogynistic society.

Andrea Silvestrelli sang the villain Hagen with his distinctive sandpaper sound, sometimes wobbly but incredibly powerful in its lowest reaches. His “Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht…” soliloquy overwhelmed. In contrast to his half-brother, Gunther was surprisingly sympathetic, thanks to Brian Mulligan’s dark, chocolatey sound and obvious reluctance to betray Siegfried. (It didn’t hurt that he and Siegfried sounded perfectly matched when swearing their oath.) Melissa Citro’s delightful Gutrune struck poses, blew kisses, and literally threw herself onto a couch in her efforts to attract Siegfried. The strength and focus of Citro’s bright sound stood out among the Valkyries in Die Walküre, so it was a treat to hear her again, at greater length.

At the opera’s heart, Iréne Theorin and Daniel Brenna made a sizzling doomed power couple. Sweet gestures and great chemistry in the prologue established their deep love. This Siegfried is still a creepy frat boy – chugging blood, embracing the Gibichungs’ misogyny, and lusting after every woman in sight – but at least he adores Brünnhilde. Brenna sang with bright high notes and a dry edge, sometimes straining at the top. His voice flowed most smoothly during his final scene, for his boastful storytelling and soaring death aria. Theorin’s Brünnhilde continued to amaze. Her “Betrug” and “Jammer” emerged in rolling waves that pinned me to my seat. Her voice for the immolation scene was diamond, a sharp, focused stream of sound that dazzled.

Throughout the cycle, conductor Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra have made glorious music. Runnicles’ sense of dramatic arc in this repertoire gave the score detailed shape and color. The sheer energy the orchestra threw into the music swept me up. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was a highlight, the Act 1 prelude tumbling out at infernal speed, then giving way to mellow, eerie chords. It was clear from the music that these Gibichungs were wildly treacherous even before they opened their mouths. The large brass section in particular deserves applause for their precise and (literally) floor-shaking delivery of Wagner’s music.

In Francesca Zambello’s staging, the world’s deterioration has continued since Siegfried. The grimy Rhinemaidens (their harmonies beautifully sung by Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum) vainly try to clear the riverbed of plastic bottles and other trash. There’s a vague sense that technology, broadly defined, is responsible. Behind the Gibichung skyscraper, we see factories spewing waste. Between scenes, grainy black-and-white television images seem more retro than futuristic.

While the details are fuzzy, the impact on nature is clear. When Brünnhilde calls for a fire, there is no wood left to burn. Siegfried’s funeral pyre is a pile of tires and weapons, doused in gasoline. Heroes’ portraits fall from the sky to signify that Valhalla is burning, too. As the flames clear to the strains of the “redemption” motif, a young girl plants a tree downstage. There is hope, even after terrible destruction.

Ilana Walder-Biesanz | 25 Juni 2018


Theorin, Brenna Triumphant in Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung”

The second complete cycle of Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelung” ended with a superlative performance of “Götterdämmerung”, conducted by Maestro Donald Runnicles and starring Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Wisconsin heldentenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried.

Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde

Brünnhilde is among the most challenging roles in the operatic repertory. It weaves through the final three operas of the “Ring” and is the most prominent role in “Götterdämmerung”. Theorin provided a spectacular performance of the “Götterdämmerung” Brünnhilde.

In “Götterdämmerung’s” two hour long first act, Theorin’s Brünnhilde manifests a range of emotions – erotic passion and affection for Siegfried, dismay at sister Waltraute’s demand that she give up the ring Siegfried gave her, fear and alarm when overpowered by a man whom she did not recognize.

Theorin exhibited murderous rage at what she perceived was her betrayal by Siegfried in the chilling trio with Silvestrelli’s Hagen and Mulligan’s Gunther that concludes the second act.

Theorin’s vocal and dramatic skills were at their most effective in the “Ring’s” final act, when, after Siegfried’s death, Brünnhilde achieves understanding and serenity, and sings the powerful Immolation, sacrificing herself and returning the cursed Ring to the river from which it was stolen.

I have seen Theorin perform the taxing title role of Puccini’s “Turandot” on three occasions [see Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012] and have watched Theorin perform Brünnhilde in each of the three “Ring” operas in which the character appears.

Although Theorin replaced another artist just a few weeks before rehearsals for the San Francisco Opera “Ring” cycles began, she proved to be a major factor in the unambiguous success of the Zambello “Ring’s” revival.

Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried

In my review of Daniel Brenna’s performance two nights’ prior [Review: An Heroic, Passionate “Siegfried” – San Francisco Opera, June 22, 2018] I cited Brenna as one of the best Siegfrieds that I have heard vocally. He is also the most visually satisfactory Siegfried I have seen.

I admire any artists who successfully negotiate the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, in either of the two operas (“Siegfried” and “”Götterdämmerung”) in which both characters appear.

When the artists appear in a traditional “six day ‘Ring’” in which “Walkure” is performed on the second day, “Siegfried” on the fourth and “Götterdämmerung” on the sixth, it requires that an artist performing consecutive Siegfrieds must sing in two of the longest operas in the standard repertory in a three day period and an artist performing consecutive Brünnhildes must sing in three of the longest operas in a five day period.

Brenna and Theorin both performed these roles with world class singing and persuasive acting – feats of high artistry and physical endurance that will be long remembered by the audiences fortunate to have seen and heard them.

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen

Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli has made Alberich’s gloomy son Hagen one of his signature roles (counterbalancing his performances as the likeable giant Fasolt in “Das Rheingold”, another role in which he excels.)

Silvestrelli’s deep, resonant voice soared over those of the men of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in the stirring melody welcoming the bridal couples and ominously joined with Theorin’s Brünnhilde in the savage oath assuring Siegfried’s death.

Brian Mulligan’s Gunther

The already extraordinarily talented 2018 “Ring” cast was made even stronger by the addition of the excellent New York baritone Brian Mulligan in the role of Gunther.

Mulligan possesses a mellifluous lyric baritone and strong acting instincts. He used them to portray insecurities of Gunther, who is convinced by his half-brother Hagen to allow a drugged and spellbound Siegfried to woo Brünnhilde and Gunther’s ensuing mortification by Brünnhilde in what was to be their wedding.

Gunther (and Mulligan’s earlier role as Donner in this Ring cycle’s “Das Rheingold”) are the most recent collaborations between Mulligan and Zambello. A previous highlight of Mulligan’s opera career, was the role of John Proctor in Zambello’s production of Ward’s “The Crucible” (in which his “Götterdämmerung” colleague Jamie Barton also starred [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.])

Melissa Citro’s Gutrune

Illinois soprano Melissa Citro brought an attractive spinto voice and stylish acting to the role of Gunther’s sister (and Hagen’s half-sibling) Gutrune.

Zambello has given the character of Gutrune some intriguing personality traits, which Citro (who has owned this role in all of the complete Zambello “Ring” 2011, 2016 and 2018 performances in San Francisco and Washington D.C.) amusingly plays to the hilt.

In Zambello’s (and Citro’s) conception, Gutrune flirts with Hagen (with whom she watches TV in bed at the beginning of Act II, even as she awaits her promised husband Siegfried).

In the third act, in Zambello’s conception, Gutrune’s character is transformed by Siegfried’s death. She reconciles with Brünnhilde and joins her in final scenes in which the world of the gods end and the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens.

Falk Struckmann’s Alberich

German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, prior to the current San Francisco cycles of Zambello “Rings”, had never performed the role of Alberich. He proved a dramatically persuasive and vocally strong Alberich in all three “Ring” operas in which the character appears.

Appearing in a single scene in “Götterdämmerung”, he was a chilling presence in what seems to be Hagen’s nightmare.

Stacey Tappan’s Woglinde, Lauren McNeese’s Wellgunde, and Renee Tatum’s Flosshilde

All three Rhinemaidens from the 2011 San Francisco Opera performances of “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdämmerung” – Oklahoma’s Lauren McNeese and California’s Stacey Tappan and Renée Tatum – returned for the 2018 Zambello “Ring”.

Their most engaging “Götterdämmerung” assignment vocally is their encounter with Siegfried, enchantingly performed in the presence of Brenna’s hero.

In Zambello’s conception the Rhinemaidens deal with the environmental degradation that is one of the consequences of the Ring’s curse, symbolically collecting plastic bottles in garbage bags.

The Rhinemaidens ultimately are triumphant, with the return of the Ring, assuring the renewal of life in the post Götterdämmerung world.

Ronnita Miller’s First Norn, Sarah Cambridge’s Third Norn, Jamie Barton’s Second Norn and Waltraute.

As history evolves, so do conceptions of how to present different elements of the “Ring”.

In the “Götterdämmerung” first act, where the three Norns weave a rope that connects the past, present and future, Zambello has introduced the idea that the Norns can be a metaphor for the contemporary world’s inter-connectiveness to the Internet.

Florida mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller, who had been a distinguished Erda in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried” performed the deep-voiced First Norn, while Canadian soprano (and San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow) Sarah Cambridge was an impressive Third Norn.

Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton had two “Götterdämmerung” roles. She joined Norns Miller and Cambridge as the Second Norn. As the valkyrie Waltraute, she visited Theorin’s Brünnhilde to warn her of consequences of not giving the Ring she received from Siegmund to the Rhinemaidens.

In both parts, Barton’s rich mezzo brought vocal interest into what were expository roles.

This is the second time I’ve reported on a complete Zambello “RIng cycle” in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

Any “Ring cycle” can be an illuminating experience. On these webpages I’ve reported on the 2009 and 2013 Stephen Wadsworth directed “Rings” at the Seattle Opera, the Achim Freyer “Ring” at the Los Angeles Opera and the 2006 Gergiev Mariinsky/Saint Petersburg Russian “Ring” performed in Orange County, California.

Each of these “Rings” had its own special features (some salutary, in some cases, deservedly controversial). I especially liked the Wadsworth “Ring” (regrettably retired and dismantled) which I regarded as a “world treasure”.

Those who had the fortune of seeing the 2018 Zambello “Ring” were able to see a “Ring” that transcended most others. The casting was incomparable. The conducting by Maestro Donald Runnicles and the performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and (in “Götterdämmerung”) the San Francisco Opera Chorus was brilliantly executed.

The 89 orchestra members performing in the War Memorial Opera House’s open pit created a “wall of sound” that reverberated in the War Memorial’s superb acoustics, making such iconic sonic moments as Siegfried’s Rhine Voyage and resounding moments of the leitmotiv that accompanies Siegfried’s death all the more powerful.

The projections by S. Katy Tucker and her predecessor Jan Hartley added to the visual wonder, as did the War Memorial Opera House itself, encompassing this grand event with its elegant, lustrous architectural features.

Zambello’s production was conservative in an era in which “non-traditional Rings” are the tradition. She follows the story explicitly, even as she changes the settings in which Wagner placed each scene.

Zambello’s changes in total show us that the relationships in the “Ring” are universal. The power battles of Wotan and Alberich and the heroism required to “make things right” have their parallels in modern times and will continue to do so in the future.

There are a few of the contemporary emphases that we expect from Zambello productions – a concern about environmental despoliation, a faith in the ability of women to “make things right” – but this is not so much a “message” production as one that loves to tell the “Ring” story, adding new insights to the storytelling.


For those with an opportunity to experience any future performances of the Francesca Zambello “Ring”, I enthusiastically recommend that you do so.

William | June 28, 2018


The truly tragic moments of this long history rich in humanity behind us we embark on the sordid tale of the Lord of the Gibichungs’s marriage to Brünnhilde and the cowardly murder of Siegfried, to arrive at some sort of conclusion where Brünnhilde sacrifices herself to somehow empower women. Or something.

The Zambello Ring is big, and particularly Götterdämmerung is huge. There is a lot of video — Wagner’s musical interludes are always fully illustrated. Some of this surprisingly successful video was newly created for this revival by S. Katy Tucker, earlier created videos were by Jan Hartley.

There is a lot of architecture — abandoned warehouse buildings of some post-industrial era, monumental civic structures, crumbling elevated cement roadways, there are tons of plastic bottles that litter a dried up river bed. In this re-mounting of the 2011 San Francisco Ring the sets designed by Michael Yeargan have become fully absorbed into the telling of the saga, and fully achieve Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwert where words and music are one with sight, an achievement to be savored as it is indeed rare.

The Donald Runnicles Ring is big, well exploiting the full resources of the eighty-nine players of the admirable San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Seated on the left side of the theater the magnitude of sound flowed gloriously across the expanse of the theater to fully absorb me into its myriad of leitmotivic detail and massive ensemble. The Wagnerian Rhine, its reality and its myth, was fully present in the Runnicles reading.

The signature image of the Götterdämmerung is the massive computer mother board and the three norns who plug and replug cables until one snaps in the famous orchestral clap and we enter the pitiful world of the Gibichungs (FYI fourth century Burgandians) whose leader is the unmarried Gunter, his sister Gutrune is also unmarried. Alberich’s son Hagen manipulates these two weak creatures into disastrous marriages to further his goal of becoming lord of the ring and possessor of the massive hoard of gold.

San Francisco Opera’s house bass Andrea Silvestrelli sang Hagen. Mr. Silvestrelli’s extraordinary height plus his dark, rough and powerful voice gave a strong presence to this cunning personnage who cruelly orchestrates the marital disasters. Though you might wish for more elegance of sound and subtlety of character, Mr. Silverstrelli certainly did the job, playing the role to the hilt.

San Francisco Opera house baritone Brian Mulligan sang Gunter. Mr. Mulligan possesses a very beautiful, Italianate voice without supplying a persuasive presence. This worked for establishing a certain character for Gunter though you might have wished for a less lyric voice and a more forward personality. Mr. Mulligan did succeed in making Gunter pathetic, evoking my reluctant sympathies for such a weakness.

We first encountered mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as a contemptuous Fricka. In Götterdämmerung she sings Waltraute, Brünnhilde’s valkyrie sister who comes to Brünnhilde to beg her to return the ring to the Rhine, to break its curse and perhaps save the gods. It is our last reference to Wotan before his annihilation in the opera’s last moments. Unfortunately Mlle. Barton was unable to achieve the angst and the gravitas that might have moved Brünnhilde to save her father. The complexity of the pathos of this scene were lost in its pallid reading.

Soprano Iréne Theorin perservered through it all. In firm Brünnhilde character she ferociously denounced her marriage to Gunter, and together with Hagan and Gunter she swore revenge on Siegfried, this spectacular marriage scene set in the monumental architecture of the Gibichung Hall. She remained in equal vocal radiance for her immolation. Tenor Daniel Brenna’s Siegfried perservered through it all to make, finally, his scene with the Rhine maidens one of the memorable moments of the entire Ring. Maestro Runnicles brought earth shattering pathos to Siegfried’s death, freezing for eternity the complex emotions of this climactic moment.

After much sublime poetry over sixteen or so hours of one of the finest Rings I have ever seen, the immolation of Brünnhilde and the gods of Valhalla was strangely prosaic. Inexplicably, or maybe as victimized sisters Gutrune, Siegfried’s wife, stood by Brünnhilde’s during the valkerie’s invocation to the ravens (unseen) to fly to Valhalla. The female chorus joined the Rhine maidens and Gutrune on stage for Brünnhilde’s horseless immolation. The radiant calm of the Ring’s final music was captured by the Rhine maidens energetically swirling great swathes of gold cloth.

Michael Milenski | 23 Jun 2018

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1920×1080, 4.4 Mbit/s, 8.0 GByte (MPEG-4)
Webstream (SFO)
Possible dates: 17, 24 June, 1 July 2018
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.