'Siegfried' review: SF Opera's Nina Stemme soars

05.31.11
Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

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.