Saturday, July 16, 2011

The closing of the Ring

Thoughts about the San Francisco Ring

This summer the San Francisco Opera presented a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the gargantuan composition by Richard Wagner. Although there is nothing else like it, Wagner's Ring has somehow become the archetypal opera: the statuesque lady with horned helmet and spear is the iconic image that evokes grand opera.

As opera aficionados go, I'm rather eccentric. Rather than worshiping Italian divas and swooning over coloratura fireworks, I prefer the Sturm und Drang German repertory. I like Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. The only Italian opera I've ever seen in live performance is Puccini's Tosca. The only French opera I've seen is Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. The great standards, like Bizet's Carmen and Verdi's Aïda, I know only from recordings and broadcasts.

But really: if your favorite opera composer's masterwork takes over fifteen hours to perform, how much else do you actually need?

The San Francisco Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen in three complete cycles. I attended the first one, which started on Tuesday, June 14, and came to a close on Sunday, June 19. It was my fourth Ring—and my best Ring.

Previous San Francisco productions of the Ring were more traditional, and I confess to being partial to faithful recreations of the composer's intent. Wagner left detailed stage directions for each of his operas, but almost no one pays any attention to them anymore. The 2011 Ring was a modern interpretation by producer Francesca Zambello. Despite my skepticism (and disdain for some of the production's details), the overall production and performances had me applauding with enthusiasm at the close of each installment.

During the Ring cycle, I sent regular reports to some interested friends. (Not so interested that they wanted to go with me, but interested enough to skim through lengthy e-mail messages.) I've reworked those reports into the following commentary on Cycle 1 of the San Francisco Ring. Reading this post will be a marathon in its own right, but here you can get an avid amateur's perspective on a gargantuan work of operatic art without leaving the comfort of your computer room.

Brace yourself. Here we go, into a patchwork quilt of descriptions, reactions, and quasi-insightful analysis.

Das Rheingold

The new production had several clever and quirky ideas, most of which worked pretty well. The opening scene in the Rhine river was introduced with a beautiful projection of wave swells and splashing water. In many productions the stage is enclosed by a sheer fabric—the “scrim”—which is all but invisible when the stage lights are turned high but which becomes opaque when the stage lights are low and the video projectors are using it like a movie screen. In San Francisco there was an actual screen behind the scrim which was whisked up into the flies when a scene began.

When the lights came up, the three Rhinemaidens were playing among the rocks and currents of the river bottom, with waves of stage fog concealing the ground. The evil dwarf Alberich appeared dressed as a vagabond with backpack and map, as if he were a treasurer-seeker. It's all part of Zambello's “American Ring” concept: Alberich is a gold-rush prospector seeking his fortune. I presume the part of the Rhine is being played by the American River near Sutter's Fort.

The entire floor of the stage lit up with golden lights when the maidens began singing the praises of the Rhine gold, the magical gold they're supposed to guard from malefactors. I immediately started wondering where the Rhine gold was, since the scene is supposed to end with Alberich stealing it. How could he steal the entire stage floor? This is how: At the climax of the maidens' celebration of their sacred gold, they reached down into the fog and lifted up a great glittering sheet, like cloth-of-gold, one Rhinemaiden at each corner and a bewildered Alberich groping for and finding the fourth corner. The maidens mocked him because only someone who renounces love forever can master the gold and wield its power (by forging it into a magic ring). He was so obviously desperately in love (or at least lust) with them that the gold had no meaning for him. Or so the foolish maidens assumed. Enraged, he ripped the sheet of gold from their grasp, renounced love, and stole away with their “precious.” (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

The gold sheet was a new gimmick that I've never seen in any earlier production of Rheingold, so I imagine it's original to this producer. Clever and effective. It also makes for a more dramatic exit for Alberich, rather than having him march off stage with a lump of gold-painted styrofoam held overhead.

Right near the end of the scene, Loge appears stage left and witnesses the theft of the gold. That's not in the stage directions, so it's another new touch cooked up by the producer. Loge is the demigod of fire and a master of deceit and trickery. In a later scene he will relate his encounter with the Rhinemaidens, so this cameo appearance is consistent with subsequent developments. It was a harmless production gimmick.

Scene 2 seemed to be set on the rear patio of a posh country home, with outdoor furniture (mesh-work chaise longues) and the gods dressed in the preppy outfits of the idle rich. Donner (Thor) had a croquet mallet instead of Mjolnir (the hammer of thunder & lightning). His brother Froh looked even more effete, with slicked-back blond hair and the aspect of someone stepping out of a garden party in The Great Gatsby, white duck trousers and all. Fricka and Freia were in long gowns, the former's outfit more flowery and matronly, consistent with her senior status. Wotan was rather more butched-up, as befits the king of the gods, in knee-high boots and a double-breasted blazer. The traditional eyepatch was in place.

It was odd that Donner and Froh were onstage from the start of the scene, since there's a musical cue later when they're supposed to rush in from the wings to save their sister Freia from the evil giants. The producer's decision to put them onstage early meant they had no lines to sing and no essential functions to perform, so they just hung around looking decadent, which they did pretty well. The whole scene is a marital spat between Wotan and Fricka, the latter upset that Wotan has promised Freia to the giants as payment for their construction of Valhalla. Wotan assures her that it was all a ruse, and that he plans to cheat the giants of their payment through some loophole. The giants made their entrance on a huge steel girder, which was lowered from the flies. They were in bulked-up overalls to make them look like big-ass construction workers as they demanded their payment. It was a good entrance, even if there were reduced to dangling legs from the perspective of those in the balcony seats.

Since the entire troupe of gods was already onstage, Freia didn't get to run frantically in from the wings, screaming that the giants are threatening her. Since the entire troupe of gods was already onstage, Donner and Froh didn't get to rush in heroically from the other side of the stage to attempt to rescue their sister from the advances of the giants. Zambello instead had them bound up from their seats on the lawn furniture and act upset, Donner fiddling (threateningly?) with his croquet mallet. (“Look out, you giants! I'll pop you a good one! See if I don't!”) It was not the most effective stage work possible, but they all sang well.

At this point, things got very interesting: Loge finally shows up. An irritable Wotan demands to know if Loge is ready to deliver on his promise to void the contract with the giants through some trickery. Loge replies that he agreed only to find a loophole in the agreement if one existed, but the giants had fully satisfied their end of the bargain. How then, could he be expected to find something that does not exist? Wotan is furious, but Loge remains coolly unperturbed. (The casting of Loge was superb. Stefan Margita was as smooth and slippery as Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister.) Wotan's power is based on the oaths and vows—including the contract for Valhalla—inscribed on the shaft of his mighty spear (hewn from the World Ash Tree). He cannot go back on his word without destroying the source of his divine strength.

Oh, is this rather phallic? I never noticed.

With Wotan and the gods at the point of despair, Loge plays his trump card: The giants want Freia because they crave some love in their lives (Freia is the goddess of love, just as Fricka is the goddess of marriage; funny how they're not the same). However, there is something even more desirable than love and he has witnessed it: the lust for the power of the Rhine gold. Would the giants accept the gold in lieu of love? The giants confer and agree they do not want Alberich to be ruler of the world (he is apparently their enemy, too) and they crave the respect that the power of the Rhine gold would give them. They tell the gods that they will hold Freia in captivity for the day as they await the outcome of Wotan and Loge's effort to steal the Rhine gold on their behalf.

Scene 3 in the depths of Nibelheim was appropriately hellish. Alberich has forged the Rhine gold into a magic ring and enslaved his people, forcing the other Nibelung to mine more gold on his behalf, which they are stacking up in mine carts, which they push about a stage lit with fiery red lighting. Alberich has forced his clever brother Mime to create the Tarnhelm, which gives a person the power to transform himself in various ways. Alberich uses it to turn invisible and strike the mineworkers by surprise, keeping them anxiously hard at work. Wotan and Loge show up and meet Mime, who laments that he wanted the ring for himself but wasn't able to master the Tarnhelm that he himself had built. Alberich appears and demands to know what Loge is doing there. Loge makes nice, reminding Alberich that he gave the Nibelungs the gift of fire, thereby enabling their forges. Alberich remains suspicious, especially when he recognizes Wotan. The king of the gods says that he and Loge have heard of Alberich's power and just wanted to see his accomplishments for themselves. Alberich preens. Loge intimates that Alberich's great power is insecure: What if someone steals the ring while he sleeps? Piqued, Alberich puts on the Tarnhelm and turns himself into a dragon, to demonstrate that no one could overpower him.

The dragon transformation was introduced with a flash of stage pyrotechnics, enabling Alberich to vanish offstage while the projection system fired up and displayed a sinuously oscillating pattern on the stage's backdrop, making it look like the stage was enclosed in the coils of a giant serpent. Loge and Wotan acted appropriately impressed, but Loge expressed further doubts when Alberich resumed his normal form. Turning into a big thing like a dragon was probably pretty easy with the Tarnhelm. It would presumably be much more difficult to become tiny, like a frog, and slip away through a narrow crack to elude one's enemies. Rising to the bait, Alberich demonstrates than nothing would be easier. Another flash of light and Alberich vanishes again, this time to be replaced by a small toad hopping in a spotlight on the stage. Loge gleefully grabs him and the gods leave Nibelheim with their captive.

Scene 4, the final scene, is back up at the country house. Alberich is back in mortal form. He is forced to use the ring to summon his minions to deliver his gold, which is stacked up on stage. Wotan then wrests the ring from him, whereupon Alberich curses the ring and flees. The giants return with Freia. In a new (to me) piece of stage work, she is obviously now smitten with Fasolt, the kinder giant who sings the praises of her beauty and gentility. His brother Fafner cares only about getting the gold. Fasolt says he won't be able to part with Freia unless she entirely vanishes from his sight.

Wotan (in a serious moment of weakness) agrees that Freia's own body will be the measure of the ransom and that the Nibelung gold must conceal it entirely to satisfy the bargain. (Loge should have objected, obviously.) In other productions, I've seen Freia standing in the middle of the stage while the other participants stack ingots of gold in front of her until she's no longer visible. In this production, she instead lay on the floor in the middle of a big square of cargo net while her brothers dragged over bags of Nibelung gold and stacked them around and atop her, concealing her. Given how many mine cars of gold were in Scene 3, I have to say that someone got gypped in Scene 4, because Freia doesn't vanish completely. (They should have been able to smother her many times over.) Fasolt cries out that he can still see one of her eyes peeking out from the stack of gold. (Actually you could see her entire face. At least, those of us in the balcony could.) Fafner sees the ring that Wotan took from Alberich and declares it's part of the hoard and must be put over Freia's face so that his brother can no longer see her eye.

Wotan objects, of course, but is eventually prevailed upon to surrender the ring. A brief appearance by the earth goddess Erda helps, since she warns Wotan of doom if he does not relinquish it. The moment the giants have the ring, they fight over it and Fafner kills his brother to take sole possession. (The curse is working!) While Freia weeps over the body of the dead Fasolt, her brothers help Fafner gather up the cargo net of gold, which is attached to a cable and hauled up off the stage. (I've never seen it done that way before!)

Donner now has his big moment, when he summons the storm clouds to clear the hazy path to Valhalla, smiting the ground with his hammer and causing a huge thunderclap. Mercifully, the croquet mallet has been set aside and in this scene he has a sledge hammer, which he picked up from the construction site. (Remember the I-beam? There was also a wheelbarrow and a couple of other construction accoutrements in Scene 2. If I were seeing this production again, I'd look for the placement of the sledge hammer for use in the final scene. I'll bet it was there somewhere.) With a nice bit of timing, the audience learned that the sledge hammer was wired with pyrotechnics, which Donner set off with a great flash of light at the moment of climax. (At least, I assume it was his job to set it off.) Froh then invokes the rainbow bridge (an actual bridge—or gangway, really—in this production; are they going to Valhalla or taking a cruise?) and the gods all merrily sip champagne as they promenade up the gangway into their glorious new home.

Loge, however, hangs back. He's thinking of whether there's new mischief he'd like to do.

And curtain.

Huge applause and lots of cheering. The biggest cheers of the night went to Loge. (I admit that I yelled “Bravo” when Margita took his bow.) The producer was not brought on stage to take a bow, which surprised me a little. Perhaps she was not in town. Normally a new production's creator is brought out so that the audience can boo and cheer (there are always guaranteed to be a mix of both).It turned out that she was saving it up for the final night of the cycle.

Die Walküre

I have seen Die Walküre more often than any other Ring opera, as it is frequently staged independently of the complete cycle. Back in 1981 I was privileged to hear the great Birgit Nilsson in the role. The new Walküre had a splendid cast giving a splendid performance. It was a rocking event.

The main gimmick in Zambello's production is that the valkyries are dressed up like early 20th century aviators (think Earhart) and arrive during the famous/infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” via parachutes, scooting across the stage dangling from lines and apparently landing just offstage in the wings, then running onstage to sing their lines. Pretty impressive. Too bad the actual dialog is full of references to horses (though the supertitles were careful to omit those so as not to conflict with the visual aspects of the staging).

Act I

Bereft of weapons, Siegmund flees into the woods to escape his enemies, finds shelter in a house occupied by Sieglinde, whom he does not recognize as his long-long twin sister. Sieglinde's husband returns and eyes Siegmund with suspicion and anger. Hunding had been summoned to aid his clan pursue an enemy, whom he now finds sheltering in his house. Hunding tells Siegmund that the code of hospitality protects him for the night, but they will fight in the morning. Later, when Hunding is in a drugged sleep (Sieglinde spiked his beer), Sieglinde comes back to Siegmund to point out that a sword is embedded in Hunding's ash tree, left there by a mysterious old man (Wotan in disguise) and clearly meant for the use of the hero who could pull it from the tree's trunk (and Hunding had not been able to). Siegmund and Sieglinde are already crazy in love with each other, initially not recognizing that they are siblings, but later realizing it when too far gone to care. Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree, claims Sieglinde as his bride, and they flee into the woods.

The San Francisco production was full of effective touches in Act I. Sieglinde's arms bore the bruises of domestic violence, underscored by Hunding's boorish treatment of his wife during the action, occasionally pawing at her or peremptorily bossing her about. Hunding's behavior was dialed back a notch from last year's debut of this production and was not distracting as it had been before.

For some reason, Zambello decided it would be a nice effect to have Hunding shackle Siegmund to the ash tree to await the morning's duel—as if it was likely that the hero would run away during the night. It would have been easier to dismiss that decision as a quirky choice by the producer had not Siegmund's fetters included a length of chain that kept clinking through his soliloquy. It seemed to me at one point that the tenor was minimizing his movements—whatever the stage directions might have been—to stop the damned noise. If so, good for him.

I have never been able to figure out why it is so difficult to set up the bit with the sword. It's supposed to be embedded in the ash tree in the middle of the stage. Siegmund isn't supposed to recognize it until Sieglinde expressly points it out, although at one point before her entrance Siegmund sees something glittering in the tree trunk but dismisses it without investigation. Zambello chose to keep the sword completely out of sight and then pop it into view when Siegmund is about to ruminate concerning the sword once promised to him by his father. If you're looking at the tree at that moment, you actually see it spring out. Boing! It's laughable, and I heard titters in the audience.

The business with the sword in the tree awaits an imaginative producer who will finally score a coup de théâtre by suitably dramatizing its revelation. It could be as simple as partially concealing the sword beneath low-hanging foliage, letting it glitter within the leaves during Siegmund's soliloquy and then blazing in the light when Sieglinde tears away the concealment. It's not rocket science, folks.

Act II

Fricka confronts Wotan over the incest of the wanton twins, telling Wotan that as goddess of the sacredness of marriage she must obtain vengeance for Hunding. She's had no luck protecting the sanctity of her own marriage, but she's damned if she won't try her best for those of others. Fricka recognizes the twins as Wotan's own offspring by a mortal woman and further understands that Wotan set up the sword to provide Siegmund with a weapon in his hour of need. Wotan explains that Siegmund is supposed to be a free agent who can wrest the magic ring from Fafner, which Wotan himself cannot do because he gave the ring to the giants as payment for Valhalla. Wotan is bound by his own bargains and cannot go back on them without diminishing his power. Fricka points out that Siegmund is Wotan's pawn, and not a free agent. No matter what her husband's plans might be, she cannot let his bastard son commit adultery and incest without punishment. Completely against his will, Wotan acknowledges that Fricka has the power of law on her side. He finally agrees that Hunding will strike down Siegmund—the opposite of his original plans.

Wotan instructs his daughter, the valkyrie Brünnhilde (yet another of his illegitimate children), that as arbiter of the battle she is to see that Siegmund loses and then escort him to eternal bliss in Valhalla. She is shocked at the change in plans, but reluctantly aquiesces in her father's command. She confronts Siegmund in the woods (or, in this production, under a derelict freeway overpass), where he is standing guard over a sleeping Sieglinde, and informs him that he is to die. He asks if Sieglinde will accompany him. Learning that she is to remain behind, he defies the valkyrie and says he'd rather go to the underworld than go to Valhalla without his true love. Brünnhilde cracks and agrees to go against Wotan's command. Hunding appears and the men fight. Brünnhilde calls to Siegmund to trust in his magic sword and smite his opponent. Wotan appears, discovering his daughter's treachery, shatters Siegmund's sword and allows Hunding to kill him. Brünnhilde seizes Sieglinde and the shattered sword and flees her father's wrath.


The noisy “Ride of the Valkyries” opens the act. The eight valkyries wonder where their sister Brünnhilde is. She then rushes in with Sieglinde and begs for help. Her sisters are horrified to discover she is fleeing from Wotan. They refuse to help her against their father. Sieglinde bewails her fate and begs for death, until Brünnhilde reveals that she is carrying Siegmund's son. How Brünnhilde knows this is unclear, but she is the daughter of the earth mother Erda and presumably inherited some of her mother's powers of divination. Sieglinde is given the shattered sword to keep in trust for her child, who will become a great hero (Siegfried); she thanks Brünnhilde and flees.

Brünnhilde remains to face her father's wrath. Wotan arrives in a fury and denounces Brünnhilde's disobedience before her sisters. He decrees that she will be banished from the ranks of the gods and from Valhalla. He condemns her to become a mortal housewife. (He really does. It's explicit in the libretto.) Brünnhilde shrieks in horror at the prospect of domesticity and her sisters flee in terror, quaking at the thought of sharing her dreadful fate if they do not abandon her.

Brünnhilde pleads for mercy and claims to have done only what Wotan really wanted her to do. Wotan eventually softens (but, like everything in Wagner, this takes a long time), but will not revoke the penalty of mortality for his daughter. He will, however, ensure that only a hero will be able to claim her as his bride. He puts her into a magic sleep, surrounds her with magic fire, and leaves her to be discovered by a hero brave enough to penetrate the flames and discover the sleeping maiden.

The End (except for two more operas)

The parachuting valkyries in Act III were theatrically effective and jollied up an audience jaded by cinematic special effects. It was engaging live action. The disjunction between what the women were actually singing and the supertitles was slightly irritating to those of us who knew the meaning of the German libretto, but much can be forgiven when you're being richly entertained.

The first scene of Act II had Wotan and Fricka confronting each other in a corporate boardroom, presumably in Wotan's skyscraper offices high above the high-tech world he rules. The anachronistic spear lay on the conference table and made one wonder whether CEOs would be more effective if they carried such weapons into staff meetings. I'm guessing yes. Brünnhilde jumps up on the table and teases her father with the spear, Nina Stemme being one Wagnerian soprano who can do that without collapsing the table.

The second scene of Act II was staged under a decrepit freeway interchange, with a conveniently abandoned car seat providing a perch for a moment's rest by the fleeing twins. Hunding's hunting dogs ran across the stage a few moments before the climactic duel, but the hounds were clearly well-trained animals who ran their course without dillydallying or causing the audience to coo over the puppies. Zambello may have removed the horses from Act III, but she added dogs to Act II. Does that balance things out?

The flames that surrounded Brünnhilde's resting place were the real thing, blazing up on three sides of the stage while projected fire danced on the stage smoke that billowed about. The fire marshal must have had an anxious night (or the opera management might have had an anxious night fearing he might shut them down). The word is that flame-retardant gloves and cloaks were used in abundance in the final scene.

The ovation at the end of the opera was thunderous. The audience screamed and pounded its hands to a pulp. Soprano Nina Stemme won rapturous acclaim from the attendees for her Brünnhilde. She established herself that evening as the unchallenged star of the evening and raised everyone's expectations for the rest of the Ring


Siegfried is a problematical work. The first half has no female voices at all (in fact, Scene 1 consists of two tenors), raising the risk of a bland monotony. Not so in San Francisco. The characters were well contrasted and the musical dialog was a constant to and fro, combative and stimulating. (No, it wasn't a boxing match, but sometimes it nearly came to blows.) The tenor in the role of Siegfried was a change from the originally announced cast. Ian Storey got cold feet about trying to master the role for the two concluding operas of the Ring cycle and withdrew from Siegfried, choosing to focus on Götterdämmerung alone. Jay Hunter Morris stepped into his shoes.

Morris was taking on a big job. In the eponymous opera, Siegfried forges a sword in Act I, slays a dragon in Act II, and sings a love duet with a Wagnerian soprano in Act III. Guess which task is more frightening? As the libretto makes clear, Siegfried knows not fear until he meets Brünnhilde.

Sounds about right.

Act I

Mime, Alberich's brother and the clever artificer from Das Rheingold, is upset because he can't repair the shattered Notung, the sword that Siegmund wielded in his death-battle in Act II of Die Walküre. Mime has the fragments because he gave shelter to the pregnant Sieglinde, who died giving birth to Siegfried. (Sieglinde had received the shattered sword from Brünnhilde, who carried it away from the battlefield.) Mime fosters Siegfried, thinking to raise the boy into a hero who will be beholden to him. The plan is to use him to destroy Fafner, the giant who has used the Tarnhelm to turn himself into a dragon to guard the ring and the hoard of Nibelung gold from Das Rheingold.

The Ring is full of people who try to manipulate others to do their bidding. Wotan does it because he wants to do things forbidden to him by the divine law inscribed on his spear. Mime does it because he is not brave enough to accomplish his goals himself. Fricka and Loge are the most successful string-pullers, Fricka because she has law on her side and Loge because he knows its loopholes. Wotan and—as we shall see—Mime are less fortunate.

Siegfried grows up into a restless young man who despises his guardian, but without quite understanding why. He's unaware of Mime's schemes and knows only that his foster-parent can't seem to live up to his reputation as a skilled craftsman. Why can't the little man provide his “son” with a proper weapon? Every new sword that Mime gives him shatters on initial use. Siegfried is too strong for Mime's handiwork. Under pressure, Mime finally reveals that Siegfried's real father was a warrior slain in battle and that he has the father's broken sword. He just can't repair it for Siegfried.

Siegfried tells Mime to try again and rushes off into the forest. While he is gone, Wotan shows up in disguise. He is now a vagabond who calls himself “The Wanderer” and makes himself at home despite Mime's efforts to shoo him away. Wotan challenges Mime to a question contest, the loser to lose his head. Mime asks Wotan three questions. In answering them, Wotan summarizes the plot of Das Rheingold. In return Wotan asks Mime three questions. In answering the first two, he summarizes the plot of Die Walküre. (So why did we have to go to those two operas, huh?) The third question, however, is “Who will forge Notung anew?” Mime doesn't know the answer. He recognizes Wotan now and realizes he is trapped. Wotan tells him that Notung will be reforged by the man who knows no fear, and that man will also be the one to kill Mime. The Wanderer departs.

Siegfried returns (there's some incidental business with a bear he drives before him) and finds Notung still in pieces. Mime is rather in pieces, too. Siegfried impatiently chooses to reforge Notung himself, which succeeds brilliantly (as expected). How can mere expertise compete with bumptious self-confidence and super-strength? Mime tells Siegfried that the boy is now ready for adventure and a quest against the dragon Fafner. Siegfried is intrigued, especially when Mime tells him that Fafner can teach him the meaning of fear, something Siegfried has never experienced. Mime hopes to kill two birds with one stone: If Fafner teaches Siegfried fear, he will no longer match Wotan's prophecy of Mime's future killer. If Siegfried kills Fafner, Mime will have an opportunity to steal the ring as well as some gold. It's a brilliant plan!

Act II

Siegfried kills Fafner (a bizarre mobile trash-compactor in this production), but doesn't learn fear. He accidentally tastes the dragon's blood, however, and suddenly can understand the conversation of birds. A little bird tells him to take the ring and the Tarnhelm from the body of Fafner, for the ring will make him ruler of the world. Siegfried also discovers that the taste of dragon's blood enables him to understand Mime's intent, which is to murder Siegfried and take the ring for himself. When Mime offers him some refreshment, Siegfriend understands that the drink is poisoned and strikes down Mime with his sword Notung. Wotan's prophecy is fulfilled. The little bird tells Siegfried that a bride awaits him atop a fire-encircled mountain and will lead him there. Off they go.


Wotan visits the earth goddess Erda to inform her that the reign of the gods is at an end. Erda is deeply disturbed to learn that Wotan has punished their daughter Brünnhilde for disobedience. How can a god who counsels defiance punish someone who takes his counsel seriously? Dismayed, Erda descends back into the earth.

Wotan is keeping watch over Brünnhilde's sleep when Siegfried encounters him. Wotan is initially pleased to see his grandson in person for the first time, but not does reveal their relationship. He at first intends to let Siegfried proceed freely, but then takes offense at Siegfried's casual dismissal of him as just another interfering old man—just like Mime. When Wotan tries to teach him a lesson by barring Siegfried's way with his spear, Siegfried cleaves the spear in two with Notung, reversing the outcome of the last encounter between Wotan's spear and Siegmund's sword. Defeated, Wotan stands aside. Siegfried plunges into the magic fire, finds the sleeping maiden, awakens her, and then learns fear. (Be afraid! Be very afraid!) They have a passionate love duet (at some length) and the opera ends in jubilant celebration. Happy ending! Happy ending! (But only for now.)

Complaints and quibbles

The tenor missed a horn cue in Act I. No big deal, but after missing the first phrase, he raised his horn to his lips and pretended to play the second phrase. No need. When he realized he had missed the cue, he should have ignored the rest of it. Letting the horn theme play in the orchestra was enough, as punctuation to Siegfried's statement that he had a splendid hunting horn. Yeah, we get it. Miming the playing of it was unnecessary.

The bellows in the forging scene was anemic, moving only a few inches when Siegfried pumped it. When you have a big-ass set of bellows on the stage for the forging scene, make that sucker travel, make it move. You want to make the audience believe it could pump up the forge to the heat necessary to reforge a sword that an expert like Mime could not handle. That detail was kind of sad. I did, however, like the sparks that were thrown off by the anvil during the hammering.

The tacky house trailer that served as the residence of Mime and his ward was perfectly consistent with the production and somewhat amusing. At one point Siegfried was sitting at the table in the trailer and pushed a mug toward Mime, which Mime trepidaciously accepted and began to sip. It was an action underscoring Siegfried's words that he had tried his best to endure Mime's company, but could never find him anything but irksome and irritating. Since Wagner's stage directions have Siegfried constantly abusing his foster parent, it is all too easy to make Siegfried appear as nothing more than a muscle-bound thug who terrorizes his diminutive companion. I appreciated that moment, which was an effective tonic for Siegfried's otherwise aggravating behavior. Yes, we're supposed to sympathize with Siegfried as the good guy because Mime is plotting his downfall, but Siegfried does not know that yet and it detracts from his character to have him behave purely as a bully.

The forest bird in Act II appeared onstage as a young woman. It is a soprano voice, but most productions have her singing from offstage, as Siegfried looks up into the branches of the stage set. While it added to the action onstage and made things visually more interesting, it took away some of the impact of the next act, where Siegfried is supposed to be shocked at seeing a woman for the first time in his life. Not in this production. He spent half of Act II playing around with a pretty girl. Brünnhilde is just more of the same. (In fact, the forest bird was prettier.) Some reviewers liked the added stage action, but I put it down as one of the production's major mistakes. If you really want the forest bird to appear on stage, put her in a giant chicken suit. (Now you know why they don't normally put her on stage.)

In Act III the supertitles were screwy. When the Wanderer announces to Erda that her “waker” has come to rouse her from her slumber, the supertitle said, “Wotan has come to wake you.” No, no, no, and no. Wotan says “waker” in the actual text because he is in disguise. Erda does not initially know who he is. By explicitly putting Wotan's identity in the supertitles (though not, of course, in the sung dialog, which is sacrosanct), the production obscured the parallels between Acts I and III, in both of which Wotan shows up in disguise and starts asking questions. In both cases, Wotan's respondent eventually recognizes the king of the gods and realizes that big matters are afoot. While the singers onstage in Act III were acting out one scenario, the supertitles were misleading the audience into thinking that it was another—just a reunion between old friends. Only we opera cognoscenti understood that it was a partial replay of the Act I drama. Ach! (Of course, need I add that it gave us opera cognoscenti a warm feeling of superiority over our less-enlightened neighbors? Maybe they did it deliberately so that we could enjoy our snooty disdain for their faux pas.)

The shards of Notung were wrapped in a strip of cloth that presumably came from Sieglinde's dress, as it matched her outfit from the previous opera. Siegfried often wears this token of his mother's memory as a scarf after Mime recounts the story of Siegfried's parents. It was an effective touch, linking the young hero with his heritage. (This device carried over into the next opera, too.)

There is a bit of dialog in which Erda specifically says that her vision of the future is clouded by earthly matters because she was “once” mastered by a conqueror (mich Wissende selbst bezwang ein Waltender einst). The conqueror was Wotan and the result was the birth of Brünnhilde. So where did the other valkyries come from? Anna Russell famously assumes that they are all Erda's daughters (“She then bears him eight daughters!”). This mysterious eight-daughter-gap in Wagner's Ring mythos remains unexplained.


The fourth and final Ring opera was mercifully offered as a Sunday matinee, saving everyone from a post-midnight final curtain. (I'm sure concerns about overtime pay had something to do with the scheduling decision.) We emerged into the bright afternoon light following the performance, our heads spinning from the experience.

Briefly, Nina Stemme blew the doors off the production and left the rest of the cast blinking in astonishment—and doing their best to keep up. Unless she blows a gasket (damaged vocal chords being an occupational hazard in the world of Wagnerian singers), Stemme is on track to be the Brünnhilde of her generation. Perhaps she already is.

This opera begins with a prelude in which the three Norns (the “Fates”) recap the plot while spinning the web of fate. The result of the spinning is usually portrayed as a long rope, which the Norns pass to and fro during their weaving. In this “modern” Ring, however, the Norns are dressed in green clean suits like those that workers would wear in a high-tech fabrication facility (not quite the spacesuits of a microchip fab, but still complete with caps and goggles). Instead of weaving rope, they are laying electronic cable. There were lots of sparks when the cable broke and the scene came to an end. In the actual stage directions by Wagner, the rope of fate does break, indicating that the future is no longer predictable. Here it was apparently a short-circuit.

Act I

Brünnhilde and Siegfried remain madly in love since the end of Act III of Siegfried. Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring as a token of their love (the curse!). Brünnhilde gives Siegfried her horse, which—although it can no longer fly through the air as when she was a divine valkyrie—should be useful in Siegfried's career as a world-famous hero. We don't get to see the horse, of course, but it's nice that they're now acknowledging his existence after pretending in Die Walküre that parachutes sufficed.

She sends him off adventuring, because her true love for him forbids her from shackling a hero with domestic bonds. (Big mistake!) He goes gallivanting off, promising to return after performing more great feats. All he's done so far is slay the dragon, so his résumé is still rather thin for a hero. The new tenor, Ian Storey, was heftier than Jay Hunter Morris in Siegfried, although there was a marked resemblance to his predecessor. Apparently one night with Brünnhilde is enough to stimulate a significant growth spurt—and some aging.

The scene switches to the stately hall (a big glass and steel edifice) of the tribe of the Gibichung. Gunther and Gutrune want their half-brother Hagen (the son of the evil Alberich!) to tell them how to increase their fame among the other tribes along the Rhine. Hagen points out that Gunther lacks a wife and Gutrune lacks a husband. He proposes a two-bird-with-one-stone solution: Offer Gutrune to Siegfried and in return get Siegfried to breach the fire protecting Brünnhilde's mountain peak and obtain her for Gunther (since Gunther is not brave enough to do it himself). The Gibichung apparently already know that Siegfried is a great hero (perhaps Alberich has been feeding Hagen information), but they don't know that Siegfried has already found, freed, and bedded Brünnhilde. Gutrune expresses doubt that she can endear herself to Siegfried (even if she does dress in blood-red gowns and wears her pale blonde hair straight down to the middle of her back). Hagen reminds them that they have a love potion that will do the trick.

In a masterpiece of timing, Siegfried shows up, asking to meet Gunther, the son of Gibich. He wants to fight Gunther or be his friend. It appears to be a requirement of the hero business that you go along knocking over the more famous tribal leaders or making alliances with them. The somewhat cowardly Gunther agrees to be Siegfried's friend and ally—and offers him a drink. Gutrune brings Siegfried the spiked brew and he immediately forgets Brünnhilde and proposes marriage to Gutrune. (Gutrune, by the way, unlike Brünnhilde, is not Siegfried's aunt, so this is the Ring's biggest departure from its incest theme.) Gunther agrees that Siegfried can have his sister if Siegfried will obtain for him the hand of Brünnhilde. Siegfried is astonished to hear about the sleeping warrior maiden surrounded by fire atop a mountain peak, just as if he had never heard of it before. He agrees to disguise himself as Gunther (using the Tarnhelm) and woo Brünnhilde on Gunther's behalf. Siegfried and Gunther swear blood brotherhood, promising faithfulness to each other or hope to die (no, really; they declare themselves worthy of death if they break faith with their brother; Hagen does not participate, but now has an excuse to slay Siegfried).

Brünnhilde gets a visit from her sister Waltraute, who has fled from Valhalla to tell her that some mysterious hero has shattered Wotan's spear and his spirit. The heroes of Valhalla have, per Wotan's instructions, chopped down the World Ash Tree and heaped its timbers about the home of the gods, preparing it as a funeral pyre. The only way to forestall the impending disaster is for the ring to be returned to the Rhinemaidens. Brünnhilde recoils at the thought of giving up the token of Siegfried's love and declares she'd rather see Valhalla burn than relinquish the ring. (The curse!) Waltraute retreats in wailing despair. No sooner does she leave, then Siegfried appears in the guise of Gunther—to Brünnhilde's horror—and wrests the ring from Brünnhilde's hand. He tells her he is Gunther and that she is now Gunther's bride.

Act II

Except for the electronic environment of the Norns in the prelude, nothing is particularly shocking about the production of this opera to this point. Now the producer gets a bit cute. Hagen is usually depicted at the beginning of Act II as standing night watch. Zambello has him instead dressed in his jammies, lying on a big bed, and watching television, clicking a remote control impatiently. Gutrune is on the bed next to him, demonstrating an excessive coziness with her half-brother (and renewing the Ring's incest theme). Hagen shoos off Gutrune, turns off the TV, pops some sleeping pills, and passes out on the bed. Alberich appears and counsels his son in his sleep to remain true to the quest for the ring. Hagen drowsily swears it is his highest goal. Alberich then uses the remote control to lower the scene-changing curtain and the audience burst into laughter.

In the morning, Siegfried arrives to inform Hagen that their mission was a success and that Gunther will soon arrive at the Gibichung hall with his new bride. Hagen sounds the alert and the tribe's vassals assemble in a multitude, fearing that they are being attacked. Hagen lets them worry awhile, and then springs the news of Gunther's acquisition of a bride. He orders preparations for a double wedding. Gunther shows up, dragging a reluctant Brünnhilde along. (Stemme wore a very unflattering gown—with long gloves—that made her look matronly, quite a contrast to the flight gear that had been her earlier costume.) She is horrified to see Siegfried standing next to Gutrune and takes the opportunity to denounce him as a traitor. She also sees the ring on Siegfried's finger and demands to know why he has it, since it was presumably Gunther who had taken it from her the night before. No one has a good explanation.

Brünnhilde figures out it was really Siegfried in disguise and then tells Gunther to avenge her honor, since Siegfried sexed her up before turning her over to him. (Of course, that was the night before, but she doesn't clarify the timeline for the hapless Gunther.) Still befuddled by the magic potion, Siegfried is wounded by the accusation, since he deliberately remained faithful to his pledge to his blood brother the night instant. He no longer remembers having claimed Brünnhilde for himself earlier. Hagen conveniently points out that death is the price for betrayal of the oath of blood brotherhood, which Gunther and Siegfried entered into so hastily. To make things more dramatic, Siegfried swears on the point of Hagen's spear that he did not break trust with Gunther. Enraged, Brünnhilde seizes the same weapon and swears that he did. (At this point, the tenor singing Siegfried was losing his voice and Stemme's oath blew away his. The poor man was quite outgunned.)

Siegfried whispers to Gunther (just as well, that's all the tenor could do now) that he is upset at how Brünnhilde penetrated his disguise, although he reiterates his claim of innocence. Blithely telling his blood brother that everything will work out, he tells everyone it's time for the big double-wedding feast. He takes Gutrune by the hand and leads her into the hall, followed by the Gibichung vassals. Hagen, however, hangs back with Gunther and Brünnhilde, and the trio sings a song of vengeance against Siegfried and vows his death. Brünnhilde tells Hagen that Siegfried is particularly vulnerable in the back, since he lacks magical protections there (since he would never turn his back and run from an enemy).


The San Francisco Opera's general manager appeared onstage—never a good sign—and told the audience that the lead tenor had voice problems. (We knew!) However, the opera's staff physician has treated him and the tenor would bravely try to perform Act III. We braced ourselves for what followed and hoped that the tenor was exaggerating his distress (and correspondingly exaggerating his success if he did a decent job for the rest of the opera).

The Rhinemaidens are reduced to bag ladies in this production, stuffing plastic bottles into plastic bags for recycling. The Rhine is a dry bed littered with debris, including tires and a pickup truck's camper shell. Intentionally tacky. The debris was unfortunately noisy as the maidens stuffed it into crinkly trash bags. Quieter props, please!

Siegfried shows up and greets them, saying he's hunting with the Gibichung and got separated. The Rhinemaidens try to get Siegfried to give up the ring. He seems tempted when they ask him nicely, but recoils when they warn him the ring is cursed. He won't give them the gift as a ring if they threaten him. So there! The Rhinemaidens run off and Siegfried is joined by the rest of the Gibichung hunting party.

Hagen suggests that Siegfried cheer up the downcast Gunther by telling some amusing stories from his childhood. Sure enough, Siegfried launches into yet another recap, telling of his forging of the sword, slaying of the dragon, discovery of the ring, and slaying of Mime. Hagen then offers Siegfried some refreshment, having spiked the drink with a restorative that would bring Siegfried's memory back. Not realizing what was going on, Siegfried tosses back Hagen's drink and blithely continues his storytelling with his discovery of Brünnhilde and spending a rapturous night with her.

Gunther cries out in horror, believing that Siegfried has now confessed to betraying him. (Gunther is a bit dim, not realizing that Siegfriend's brain was scrambled by the love potion, despite having participated in the scheme to drug the itinerant hero.) Hagen takes advantage of the “confession” to stab Siegfried in the back with his spear. Mortally wounded, Siegfried takes some time to sing of his love for Brünnhilde. Wagner may have been a revolutionary in many respects, but he could not resist the tradition that fatally wounded characters must be allowed one more rousing song. (The tenor was struggling at this point, but he did a reasonable job of his last lines. Despite the curse!)

The passage known as “Siegfried's Funeral Music” accompanies the scene change back to the hall of the Gibichung. Hagen calls Gutrune to come greet her dead husband. She denounces him for treachery, since she was not part of the plot to kill Siegfried. Hagen goes to take the ring from Siegfried's body, but Gunther forestalls him, accusing him of trying to steal Gutrune's inheritance. Hagen strikes him down, so now Gunther is dead. (The curse!)

Brünnhilde appears, chiding the Gibichung for their petty behavior in the presence of the body of the world's greatest hero, conveniently forgetting that she conspired in his death. (She's now wearing a long coat that conceals her unflattering gown. The gloves are gone, too. It's a big improvement.) She orders the creation of a funeral pyre. In this production, the womenfolk of the Gibichung proceed to bring out trash bags and toss them into a landfill (presumably) which lies at the back of the raked stage (that is, they're tossing it over a cliff). Gutrune and the Rhinemaidens participate.

The cart bearing Siegfried's body is trundled to the back and he is dumped over the edge. That bit was rather perfunctory, unfortunately at odds with Brünnhilde's immediately preceding rebuke of the insufficiently grief-stricken Gibichung. (Those of us in the balcony were easily able to glimpse the tenor walk off into the wings after his dumping. Too much light backstage, folks!) It would have been so easy to position Siegfried's funeral bier center-stage rear, a guard of honor on each side, and then decant him rather more ceremoniously as Brünnhilde brandishes her torch overhead. But no. The staging had all the solemnity of dumping the old couch by the side of the frontage road when you think no one is looking. Ouch.

Brünnhilde sang the Immolation Scene, took a torch, and marched slowly to the back of the stage, going over the edge as the flames begin to rise from the landfill. No dramatic jump into the funeral pyre in this production, but Stemme's final notes were still ringing in our ears and they were good. Hagen dashed out for one last try to seize the ring but the Rhinemaidens put a trash bag over his head and suffocated him. He died surprisingly quickly for such a robust guy, but this is one of the few places that Wagner doesn't linger.

The maidens then rushed backstage as the flames died down (and the music of the river Rhine came up in the orchestra). They returned with the big gold bedsheet, the ring having been transformed back into its original form as seen in Das Rheingold. The gold has been restored to its river guardians and all is once again as it was.

At this point, Zambello decided to rub our noses in the symbolism just a little. A small girl appeared at the back of the stage holding a small sapling. She solemnly proceeded to the front of the stage and gently placed it in the ground, planting it to begin cycle of renewal. I sure hope it was an ash tree!

Several reviewers and commenters noted that Zambello had created a feminist finale to the Ring by keeping the men off stage for the Immolation Scene (except for Siegfried's body and Hagen's libretto-mandated final line). The producer also elevated Gutrune's role in the final scene by having her directing the Gibichung women in the preparation of the funeral pyre. Then, of course, there was the decision to have the Rhinemaidens appear before their customary musical cue of the Rhine's leitmotif in the score.

I was not unduly perturbed, although I think the Rhinemaidens have more dramatic impact if they arrive at their usual moment, revealing at the last minute that the river is about to reclaim its gold. They have no lines to sing at the end of the opera, so their impact is in their appearance. Zambello reduced them to extras as they prepped the pyre and then stood around waiting for their cue to grab the ring.

Having women take care of the Immolation Scene is unique to this production, as was the little girl with the sapling (not in Wagner's stage directions).

During the curtain calls, the first was reserved for Nina Stemme, standing by herself. The audience jumped to its feet and shouted its approval and gave her thundering applause. It took some minutes before it died down enough for other cast members to take their bows. Even the poor Siegfried got some sympathy applause. He wasn't bad (when we could hear him). Only when the producer came out did you hear booing from those who disliked the production. A group of especially noisy detractors were near me in the balcony. They did not hold back. Overall, though, I think the producer enjoyed the audience's approval.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Freia is the goddess of love, just as Fricka is the goddess of marriage; funny how they're not the same.

They aren't the same in many mythologies - Aphrodite/Hera, for instance.

The production sounds ... interesting. I expect I'd have to see it to know if I liked it or not. The only full Ring I've seen was in Germany (Wurzburg) back in the early 80s. It was quite traditional - horses, lumps of gold, etc.

Barry Leiba said...

«The only Italian opera I've ever seen in live performance is Verdi's Tosca.»

Did you like it better than, or not as well as, Puccini's of the same name?

Zeno said...

How did the horses work out, Ridger? American productions never put them on stage anymore—unless you count the famous Seattle production of Walküre that had life-sized horse models suspended on wires.

Zeno said...

Ha! Good catch, Barry. All fixed now.

I think it was in Santa Fe in 1978 that I saw Tosca with Clamma Dale in the title role. They also did Salome that summer with Josephine Barstow in the title role and the amazing Astrid Varnay in the final years of her long career in the role of Herodias.

The Ridger, FCD said...

They worked fine - large and rather phlegmatic carthorses as I recall. I remember reading about a production in Vienna that borrowed a Lipizzaner who coubetted across the stage with a startled tenor who fell off halfway across. Who said "don't work with kids or animals"?

PhysicsGradStud said...

Saw this today and this :