Out of the Ashes, a Goddess Emerges

Jason Victor Serinus on June 6, 2011
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) and Ian Storey (Siegfried)
Photos by Cory Weaver

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Over four and a half hours after the curtain rose on Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, soprano Nina Stemme advanced to the center of an empty stage. With shoulders squared and feet planted firm, she stared into the vastness of the War Memorial Opera House and began the “Starke Scheite.” Starting with, in translation, “Stout logs you must collect for me in a pile on the shores of the Rhine,” her stunning, intensely passionate projection of Brünnhilde’s monumental Immolation Scene affirmed that she is the rightful successor to the great Brünnhildes of the past.

Making her role debut as the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, Stemme sang as if she had owned the role for at least a decade. Capable of far more than sheer decibels, she poured forth sounds that were full, round, seamless, and incontrovertibly gorgeous from top to bottom. Her rapturous exaltations of love were filled with warmth and tenderness. Even when her feelings changed and she sang of battle and betrayal, her far darker tones revealed the aching heart at their core.

It was a magnificent portrayal. The entire race of the gods had burned to ashes by the opera’s end. Yet when Stemme reappeared alone onstage, the collective cheers from a standing audience affirmed her status as a living Wagnerian goddess.

Universal Strengths

Stemme was not the only artist making a role debut. Tenor Ian Storey (Siegfried), bass Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen), soprano Melissa Citro (Gutrune), mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas (Second Norn and Waltraute), alto Ronnita Miller (First Norn), soprano Heidi Melton (Third Norn), and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum (Flosshilde) all excelled in first outings of their respective roles. Together with bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski (Gunther), baritone Gordon Hawkins (Alberich), soprano Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), and mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), they made for one of the strongest casts that General Manager David Gockley has brought us.

Sharing the spotlight with the singers were the final installment of director Francesca Zambello’s and set designer Michael Yeargan’s vision of the Ring, and the glorious sounds of the S.F. Opera Orchestra. Coming full circle from Das Rheingold, which we revisit when the first of SFO’s three complete Ring cycles opens on June 14, scenes transitioned from Brünnhilde’s once-lonely rock and a litter-strewn Rhine to the steel and glass palaces of the corporate oligarchy.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) and Ian Storey (Siegfried) with members of the San Francisco Opera chorus

Inevitably, a few anachronisms surfaced: Uzis sharing the stage with swords, an unseen horse galloping toward skyscrapers, and a hideous, ill-fitting Act 2 gown for Brünnhilde that looked even worse for the warrior boots. Nonetheless, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the destruction of post–Industrial Age capitalism was both vivid and visceral.

In a production abetted by Mark McCullough’s intelligent lighting and a host of video projections by Jan Hartley with S. Katy Tucker, the deeper meanings of the Ring were there for anyone who wished to take them in. The final denouement, which took us full circle to images seen in Das Rheingold, ended with an affirmation that brought tears to the eyes.

Only once, during the Siegfried Rhine Journey, did the video projections seem at odds with the pace of the music. But that was in part because, in an afternoon filled with exceptional playing whose eloquence penetrated as deeply as the singers’, conductor Donald Runnicles momentarily lapsed into autopilot. Traversing purely orchestral terrain that every great Wagnerian conductor and wannabe has recorded, he created the orchestral equivalent of a visitor on BART asking, “Have we reached Civic Center yet?” Pick up the pace, stick to the schedule, keep sight of the goal ... you get my drift. But that sole slip into the mundane stood out only because the rest of the playing was so wonderful.

Hours of Splendor

Storey, the performance’s Siegfried, who sounds as if he has rebounded from the months of illness that left him unable to sing the role in both Götterdämmerung and Siegfried, gained in strength and steadiness as he went along. By the time of his extended scene in Act 3, a slightly pinched nasality was replaced by steady, glistening tone. This was a Siegfried who could keep up with his Brünnhilde, which is no mean feat.

Silvestrelli, singing Hagen, reaffirmed his status as a vocal giant. Towering over his cast mates, even without his made-for-a-giant elevator shoes (see SFCV’s Ring preview footage), his dark, gravelly instrument partnered well with the handsome darkness of Grochowski’s voice. The sounds and postures of both men contrasted wonderfully with Citro’s at times hilarious, yet ultimately sympathetic, Anna Nicole Smith–like Gutrune (complete with a slightly wild top that evened out as the opera advanced). Bring your binoculars for this one.

Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde) and Stacey Tappan (Woglinde) with the Ring.

The three mellifluous Rhinemaidens (Tappan, McNeese, and Tatum), who were perfectly matched in volume and vibrato, provided a distinct contrast with the more individual sounds of the three Norns (Melton, Karanas, and Miller). Melton’s voice seems to have grown in size; with darker tones on top, she gave promise of a thrilling Sieglinde in the third cycle Die Walküre. Miller was steadier than her Erda of last week, the voice rich beyond belief. Although Karanas seemed a mite underpowered for this duo, her beautifully sung Waltraute displayed her finest and most convincing acting to date.

With a running time of over five hours, and a first act that lasts one hour and 50 minutes, Götterdämmerung can seem like an endless exercise in Wagnerian egomania. Yet, thanks to so many exceptionally gifted artists (both seen and unseen), it instead emerged as an ever-enthralling epic that held the audience spellbound. If this cycle comes out on DVD and Blu-ray, with sonics that match the visuals, it will surely reaffirm the company’s status as a world-class institution. Hey, even the critics lingered to cheer at opera’s end.