Bungling Norns in green lab coats and welders' goggles, powerless to reconnect the cables of some vast computer grid. A Gutrune who lolls on a bed with Hagen, trying to coax a picture from the television with a broken remote. A Brünnhilde with two left feet, dragged by Gunther into a hall of glass and steel in a dumpy evening dress and long black gloves that make her look like the farmer's wife dolled up for the governor's ball. Rhine Maidens awaiting Siegfried in a gulch choked with plastic water bottles. And at the final cadence, a little girl planting a tree. These are some of the defining images of Francesca Zambello's new Götterdämmerung, unveiled in early June just ahead of the first cycles of her "Ring for America," as the show has been called.
Conceived as a bicoastal coproduction, Zambello's Ring has taken six seasons to complete. Yet it plays as if it had been thrown together in six weeks, with clunky blocking, sketchy ensemble work, and masses of fog and video to cover the holes in the action. Here and there images of the ocean, of railroad tracks, slashed forests, and clattering freight cars loaded with timber capture the imagination. For the rest, we might be watching handheld outtakes from The Blair Witch Project.
Beset by delays, personnel changes, and money trouble, the Washington National Opera embarked on the project with Das Rheingold in 2006 but pulled the plug after Siegfried in 2009, offering two concert performances of Götterdämmerung as a coda in 2010. Working with independent musical forces, the San Francisco Opera got the ball rolling in 2008 and stayed on track to the bitter end. Supposedly the theatrical emphasis shifted from power and its abuses in Washington to failures of environmental stewardship in San Francisco. Exhibit A: the little girl and her tree.
For some time now, the production has been labeled a Ring for America. Catering to her constituencies (nothing wrong with that), Zambello traces the rape of the continent from the Gold Rush to our current mess of smokestacks, pollution, tangled power lines, and carelessly discarded recyclables. Alberich assumes the guise of an old-time prospector. Hunding inhabits a tidy little house on the frontier. Wotan's seat of power is the corporate boardroom on an upper floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. The Valkyries parachute in from the sky. Mime occupies a battered trailer in the backwoods. For her final scene, Erda dresses as a squaw.
Only a pedant would complain that swords and spears have no place in these surroundings. Any Ring has its incongruities. What dooms Zambello's is not a concept but feeble invention. It is true, all the same, that by the time we reach Götterdämmerung, the American spin is gone with the wind. The Brünnhildenstein consists of jagged concrete chunks and discs that might have been seen in any number of generic German productions of the past 60 years. The Fascist look affected by the Gibichung gang is likewise old hat, with nothing remotely American about it.
The most striking stage image of Zambello's Ring comes in Die Walküre. As Brünnhilde foretells Siegmund's death, a military funeral march passes by, each marcher bearing an oversize portrait. In the cataclysm of Götterdämmerung, these same portraits rain down like confetti even as Wotan's skyscraper comes tumbling down. The program notes will tell you what the portraits themselves cannot: these are the faces of fallen American soldiers. The patriotic appeal—at the same time both coy and too easy—is ultimately a distraction.
Musically, the big news was Nina Stemme's supercharged first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde. Earlier in the cycle, she combined the rich, broad vocality of a Golden Age contralto with the jubilant, clarion splendor of the born heroic soprano. Expressively, she had been cheerful and brisk but somehow unthinking. In Götterdämmerung, she added chords of tragedy and introspection, rounding out a portrait of radiant authority.
Mark Delevan, the Wotan of previous chapters of the San Francisco Ring, completed the tour of duty with his debut as the Wanderer. Formerly a singer apparently unconcerned with legato but blessed with occasional huge notes of primal beauty and power, he has evolved into a small-scale master of parlando. Alas, he seldom projected beyond the footlights. The gruff Alberich of Gordon Hawkins was in much the same boat.
The three principal tenors—all new to their roles—showed varying degrees of promise. As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich conveyed a deep instinct for the part and an ideal array of colors, from somber to golden. Jay Hunter Morris, the likable young Siegfried, would surely be more at home as Tamino, but at least had the good sense not to push. Ian Storey, the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, had the instrument and the bravado for his part but lacked persuasive direction. (His death scene was excellent.) Anja Kampe, a seasoned Sieglinde, supplied foreboding and élan in equal measure. The pitch-black, gnarly basses Daniel Sumegi (Fafner, Hunding) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt, Hagen) caught the requisite notes of menace and cruelty. As Mime, Daniel Cangelosi overacted as energetically as he oversang. In Rheingold, Elizabeth Bishop played Fricka as a feisty, easily flustered housewife, in Walküre as a vulgar, nouveau-riche termagant. Unfortunate choices, but her singing had point and luster. Ronnita Miller sang Erda with noble poise. Stefan Margita lent Loge full-bodied voice and supple phrasing but not much in the way of guile.
Donald Runnicles, the former music director of the company, was on the podium. The tentative brass section and wan strings did him little credit. The eloquence of the occasional instrumental solo only highlighted what was missing from the ensemble. Suspense, flow, and meaningful articulation were in short supply. Mostly, the playing was very loud. Apart from Stemme and Kampe, few in the cast could stand up to it.