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San Francisco Opera ‘Siegfried’ here, ‘Ring’ not far behind

05.30.11
Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Examiner

By Janos Gereben

In a musically superb production, San Francisco Opera premiered the third of Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Ring of the Nibelung” on Sunday in advance of three highly anticipated cycles coming to the War Memorial Opera House stage June 14 through July 3.

“Siegfried” follows new productions of “Das Rhinegold” in 2008 and “Die Walküre” in 2010. Against recent financial challenges and near-disasters for “Ring” productions elsewhere, David Gockley’s company keeps forging the $24 million cycle, directed by Francesca Zambello.

The glory of the performance was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Donald Runnicles, who made his debut here 21 years ago with the “Ring.”

Wagner’s music is both big and intricately nuanced. Runnicles covered the extremes and everything between, leading near-perfect orchestral playing. For five hours, the strings were silk-smooth and together, the woodwinds sang freely and the brass impeccable.

The cast ranged from good to excellent. The latecomer (Act 3) Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme, is on par with storied Wagnerian sopranos of the past. Her scheduled role debut Sunday as the “Götterdämmerung” Brünnhilde is an exciting prospect.

Mark Delavan’s Wotan seemed vocally restrained, but his musicality and superb diction came through again. His duet with Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich provided a rare baritone summit. David Cangelosi’s Mime was vocally right, even against challenges.

Ronnita Miller was a fabulous Erda, a towering presence with a stunning vocal range. Stacey Tappan, the Forest Bird in human form, had an all-around winning performance.

In the title role, Jay Hunter Morris has the best qualities of a heldentenor, with a forward sound, edge and natural high notes. He had a good day, in spite of what was lacking: a voice big enough to be both heroic and able to cut through the orchestra at all times.

Zambello’s “decaying American landscape” and “world ravaged by greed and neglect” — on Michael Yeargan’s sets with piles of garbage, polluted water and smoke-belching chimneys — is OK, given that the production remains focused on the music. The staging is not outrageous, compared to some European excesses, but it is tiresome.

Zambello’s strength lies in her attention to details. Just as Runnicles’ orchestra brings transparency to the big-music score, revealing moments rarely heard, Zambello’s actor-singers focus on gestures, expressions even while Giants stomp, Valkyries fly and fire consumes the world.

The director’s best is in the third-act love duet, supposedly between goddess and hero, but in fact — in the Zambello production — between two awkward people facing their first romance. It works well, as they circle each other, first warily, then at the end in a giddy romp.

Zambello’s worst is making Mime afflicted with St. Vitus’ dance — moving, twitching, climbing, even doing (impressive) cartwheels. Almost everybody in the cast, Wotan included, was required to roll about on the floor frequently. To their credit, they got through it, but why handicap the singers and divert attention from the music?