Arts & Events

SF Opera’s RING Cycle Ends with a Whimper

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday June 19, 2018 - 09:25:00 PM

In director Francesca Zambello’s revised staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, currently on display at San Francisco Opera, Die Götterdämerung, the final installment of this 17 hour marathon, ends with a nine year-old girl placing a potted sapling of an ash tree center-stage as the orchestral music fades. This is supposed to signify the beginning of a new era after the downfall of the gods. I don’t have much confidence that this ‘new’ era will be any different than the old.  

If in the old regime of Valhalla, both gods and men were power-hungry, scheming, and devious, who says the merely humans who apparently will be led by the Gibichungs will be any different? Gunther, the surviving Gibichung after his evil half-brother, Hagen, is killed, has been party all along to Hagen’s treacherous schemes to gain the Ring and wield power over the world. Hagen in turn was spurred on by his father, Alberich, who at the end of Die Götterdämerung is alive and still conniving to get the Ring. Moreover, Siegfried, who was allegedly the noblest of heroes, has shown himself a callous youth who despised his foster father, Mime, and prior to his death betrayed Brünnhilde, the woman he loved. Siegfried also boasted, once he wore the all-powerful ring, that he too had now enslaved the Nibelungs, as Alberich once did when he held the ring. So why in the world did Richard Wagner see the end of his Ring cycle as a revitalizing new beginning? True, the gold has been returned to the waters of the Rhine where it was when the Ring cycle began. But where it was once vulnerable to be stolen by a greedy human, who says another greedy human won’t steal it anew, and a new cycle will simply repeat this one? 

The answer, I’m afraid, is that Wagner posited his own persona and his own music as the salvation of the world-order. As Peter Conrad noted regarding the Ring, “The myth Wagner works out here concerns his own art. The tetralogy is a history of opera, and of Wagner’s efforts to use it as a revolutionary criticism of society.” To his credit, Conrad also acknowledges, as I do, the failure of that revolution. Instead, Wagner simply places himself and his music at the head of a new temple of worship at Bayreuth, where The Ring and Wagner’s other operas will be worshipped by an adoring, extremely wealthy public who can afford the exorbitant ticket prices. If Brünnhilde’s final act in Götterdämerung is to celebrate the dead hero Siegfried, it is also, and primarily, to celebrate Richard Wagner and his music. 

With Götterdämerung, George Bernard Shaw thought that Wagner reverted to the old operatic conventions he began by despising. Peter Conrad maintains that “Shaw mistook Wagner’s intentions. He was not relapsing into opera but showing how the world had lapsed into it. Rheingold is about the economy which will eventually produce opera, as its chosen means of exhibiting and expanding wealth. Götterdämerung, with its venal and ambitious siblings, reaches the society of ostentation and passionate extravagance. It is about the material splendor of opera….”  

For Wagner, the new Valhalla is Bayreuth. In Bayreuth, Wagner presides over the world of music as a god, as the god, indeed, the only god. (Wagner, unlike Wotan, would allow no other gods but himself.) 

I would never deny that even when he was indulging in pseudo-philosophy at its worst, as in the Ring, Wagner could and did create much beautiful music. For all its faults, the Ring has quite a bit of wonderful music to offer. Even Götterdämerung, if one could blot out the venal plot, contains some of the Ring’s greatest music. In San Francisco Opera’s current production of Götterdämerung, Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was a superb Brünnhilde. Her high notes could shatter even the steel of Siegfried’s sword, so powerful and sharply focused were they throughout this opera. If on occasion when she sang softly, Theorin’s voice was almost inaudible against the orchestra, well, this happens in Wagner’s operas. Tenor Daniel Brenna sang grandly as Siegfried, even if his oafish acting style seemed consistently overdone. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli was an ominous, powerful Hagen, the bastard-son of Alberich. (True to form, Alberich, who renounced love, never renounced lust; and Hagen is the result of one of Alberich’s lustful conquests.) The role of Gunther, Hagen’s half-brother by the same mother but not the same father, was ably sung by baritone Brian Mulligan. Soprano Melissa Citro, making her San Francisco Opera debut, was convincing as Gutrune. Falk Struckmann, who sang the role of Alberich in Rheingold and Siegfried, returns in the same role in Götterdämerung. As the Valkyrie Waltraute, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was excellent; and Barton did double-duty in this opera as the Second Norn. Mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller and Sarah Cambridge were, respectively, the First and Third Norns. The three Rheinmaidens were the same as in Das Rheingold.  

As for Francesca Zambello’s staging of Die Götterdämerung, she gave us the waters of the Rhine fouled by plastic bottles that the Rhinemaidens have to clean up. The Gibichung palace was simply a modern, glassed-in country house. In the hunting-scene, the magic potion Hagen employs to jog Siegfried’s memory seems to be a can of Budweiser beer.  

A word of appreciation is due conductor Donald Runnicles. The task of keeping the vast Wagnerian orchestra always on the same track over 17 hours of music, is a monumental undertaking. Donald Runnicles met this challenge superbly, as did the orchestra. Finally, I can’t resist one last note regarding the phallic symbolism that is associated throughout the Ring with both sword and spear. When Waltraute visits Brunnhilde on her lonely rock in Götterdämerung, she reports that things are going badly in Valhalla. Wotan is in deep depression. “There he sits on his throne,” says Waltraute, “his broken spear in his hand.”