Though an unfortunate need to accept realities of time and money kept me from seeing a full Ring Cycle at SF Opera last month, I did get to see the first cycle Gotterdammerung thanks to a very kind and generous host (muito obrigado, caro Primo!), and so I did end up piecing together a full cycle over the years (here are my thoughts at the time on Rheingold, Walkure, and Siegfried; it’s certainly possible, especially with the first two, which I saw a year or two ago, that director Francesca Zambello adjusted the staging for the full cycle). As predicted, if I couldn’t attend a whole cycle it was sure to be a smashing success, and indeed everyone has been raving, so, you know, you’re welcome, everybody.
This was of course supposed to be the American Ring, but that bit of branding has gradually dropped off and now it’s mostly described as an environmental Ring. To me it’s been more of a grab-bag Ring, with bits and pieces of various other concepts or stagings from the past couple of decades; there’s some Americana, some eco-awareness, some feminism, some updating, some bleak-post-industrial settings, some capitalist critique, some concentration on character psychology; if there’s a presiding bird it is not Wotan’s ravens but rather the magpie.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The Ring is capacious and there’s nothing wrong with a staging that is more of a synthesis than an innovation. In short, there’s something for everybody except those trolls who feel that any staging that alters Cosima’s sacred writ is a blighted travesty, and even they get the pleasure of denouncing the sacrilege and its implied destruction of all that is good and holy in the sacred realm of art etc etc. The audience was mostly enthusiastic and attentive, though there was one horrible old woman directly behind me who bore a startling resemblance to Dame Edna’s bridesmaid Madge, though unfortunately unlike that perpetually silent companion she did speak at least once each act before lapsing back into a more considerate silence.
The long prelude and first act (insert here the obligatory reference to its being longer than Tosca/Rigoletto/Boheme) were very nicely staged. The three eloquent Norns (Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas, and Heidi Melton) were outstanding as they wandered wondering among the blinking computer lights and cables that cleverly took the place of their threads of destiny.
Ian Storey was a fine Siegfried and he even looks like a slightly older version of Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the title role in his eponymous opera. I was at the performance in which Storey lost his voice in the second act (I heard he was having some health problems that left him seriously dehydrated) but he was restored for the finale. I’ve already noted that for me the duet at the end of Siegfried is the one part of the Ring that always drags; its continuation in the first act of Gotterdammerung is starting to feel the same way to me (on the other hand, I’m always riveted by the scene in which Waltraute begs Brunnhilde to surrender the ring).
I think the problem is that Wagner originally intended the erotic conjunction of Siegfried and Brunnhilde to be the source of the world’s regeneration but as he grew older gradually switched his focus to the more interesting matters of Wotan’s struggle and Brunnhilde's evolution, so we’re left with beautiful (but psychologically conventionally operatic) love duets that can’t really bear the thematic weight put on them. After composing the sublime and destructive love of Tristan and Isolde, how can you pretend that a love duet is going to save the world, or even the burning lovers themselves?
So all was going well up to the first intermission. The usually sure-fire second act starts, and immediately there’s silliness: the scrim shows what turns out to be the snow and static of a TV set, and it rises to reveal Hagen with a remote control, lounging on a bed, flirting with Gutrune. There’s no real reason for the remote control, which is the sort of arbitrary “Look Ma, I’m updating!” gesture common twenty years ago, when you’d see Hamlet pull out a cellphone for no reason – that sort of thing. Then Hagen took a pill. “I’ll bet it’s Viagra!” announced Madge behind me. Thank you, Dotty Parker, and I guess with a zinger like that you just can’t wait for intermission cocktails at the Algonquin round table.
But that was the kind of jokey atmosphere set by the staging. And that was a consistent problem throughout the cycle; whenever Zambello could go for horseplay and hijinks, she would. This too is a frequent occurrence in contemporary staging; I realize there is a fear of old-fashioned “park and bark” or “stand and deliver” stagings, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with gods and heroes, the appropriate and natural thing really is for them just to stand there and sing. The tomfoolery set the wrong atmosphere and there was much laughter during the act, from people who are clearly more easily amused than I, your haughty correspondent. I’ve never seen the usually terrifying and menacing scene between Hagen and his father Alberich fall so flat.
The problem I had with the "degradation of the environment" theme was that most of the evidence of degradation was frankly too beautiful to seem a shame: those black-and-white projections of tall thin factory smokestacks looming up through the swirling smoke and mist seemed mysterious, silvery, and evocative instead of depressing. Mime’s trailer in Act 1 of Siegfried, its shelves lined with brightly colored packages of processed food, looked like a fun piece of pop art. Gotterdammerung Act 3 opened with the disheveled Rhine Daughters, now in brown rags, picking up empty plastic water bottles from the piles littering the riverbed. Madge behind me seemed to feel this was the ne plus ultra of regie-theater outrages. My problem with it was that with the strong white light shining behind the clear bottles, they were glowing and sparkling with light in a way that made them look like an installation at MOMA; I half expected to see a label announcing that the work “raised issues of the commodification of natural resources” so we could nod sagely before heading down to the museum shop.
The characterization of Gutrune (Melissa Citro) was quite interesting; she was kind of a blowsy sex kitten, heading past her prime, instead of the usual mild average woman manipulated and crushed by Hagen’s machinations. This was an intriguing idea, but the more traditionally gentle version would have worked better for Zambello’s conception of the finale, when Gutrune, who now is rather arbitrarily compassionate about Siegfried and Brunnhilde, joins the other women in the cast in the whole burning/inundating/regenerating finale. That music takes your soul and wraps it around your viscera and squeezes until you can hardly breathe, and the thing is that just about anything you stage to it will, in the moment, look not only convincing but moving and profound.
After the immediate glow, however, you become more aware of faultlines in the staging: it’s inherent in the material that it is women (Brunnhilde, with the help of the Rhine Daughters) who redeem the world, but it's not just any women; whatever Wagner meant by redemption, and whatever audience members take it to mean, it is simply not coming from the Gutrunes of this world, who will continue to long for and chase after power and social success, or at least the possessors of power and social success, as they always have. To effect the sort of change Brunnhilde effects, you must be extraordinary, well above any Gutrune in understanding and generosity – a hero, in fact. Flattening the distinction between the two completely misses the point. But then I've sometimes wondered about the depth of Zambello's understanding of the Ring.
I’ve saved the best for last: not just Runnicles’s perfectly balanced leadership of the indefatigable orchestra, but mainly the noble and radiant Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme. Sure, there was the occasional minor mishap but of the sort one mentions only to show that one is not uncritical. On the whole she was powerful and gleaming throughout. It was quite a coup for San Francisco Opera to have Stemme’s first full Ring cycle, and if she’s not the current world-wide gold standard for the role, I’d love to hear the woman who is. When people boast in future years that they were at this cycle, it will be because they heard Stemme's Brunnhilde.