Tuesday, June 21, 2011

San Francisco Opera's "Siegfried"

June 17, 2011

The third installment of San Francisco’s lively American Ring Cycle is a knockout, a “Siegfried” of unparalleled physicality and imagination. Director Francesca Zambello and her forces have created a five-hour opera that plays like a two-hour action flick.

The sense of theatricality is evident from the rise of the curtain, in the incredible level of detail in Mime’s trailer-trash abode: burned-out camper (check), propane tanks (check), stacked cases of Rheingold beer (check), engine block that serves as an anvil (check?). The oddly hateful relationship between Siegfried and his foster father is amped up by the hyperactivity of its players. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris comes across as a big-boy football player, rambling around the acreage and sitting with his legs out to either side as he threatens his “daddy.” (I’ll leave this place forever, happy to be rid of you!”)

Tenor David Cangelosi, meanwhile, turns Mime’s nervous energy into a kinetic sideshow, dancing on the trailer roof, performing cartwheels and generally being a goofy evil gnome. He also delivers vocally, with a deliciously acerbic tone that suits his character. The scene is also helped by an ingenious bear suit, allowing super Christopher R.T. Smith to look so authentic it’s a little unsettling.

Wotan makes his appearance as The Wanderer dressed as The Big Lebowski meets Jack Sparrow. Mark Delavan continues a remarkable evolution in the role, singing the part as roughly as Wotan is looking.

Act II rises on an industrial garage, Alberich (baritone Gordon Hawkins) watching over the place as he prepares Molotov cocktails for an attack on the ring-holder, the giant-turned-monster Fafner (bass Daniel Sumegi). Two remarkable innovations mark the scene. The Forest Bird that provides Siegfriend with all his covert information appears in the form of a brightly clad young woman (delightful soprano Stacey Tappan). Fafner appears as a scary 5,000-pound military tank, letting out fearful blasts of steam. The final encounter between Siegfried and Mime – in which the latter’s every lie is uncovered by the Tarnhelm – is as funny and slapstick as an old Lewis and Martin routine.

The first half of Act III brings Wotan back with Erda, played by contralto Ronnita Miller with the same earth-mother presence she brought to “Die Walkure.”

The final scene was another chance to see the unofficial queen of the city, Nina Stemme, as Brunnhilde. Her emotions upon waking from her years-long slumber follow a rollercoaster that feels quite genuine: the joy of seeing her her rescuing hero, the anguish of remembering her powerless state, a dip into hopelessness (the heartbreaking monologue, “Ewig war ich”). Morris plays off of this beautifully: Siegfried’s first taste of fear, a touch of shyness, followed by a recovery into his basic courage and his desire to win Brunnhilde. Morris was also conducting a battle with his voice, and eventually won out. Michael Yeargan’s set was a convincingly eroded ruin of the hilltop bunker that finished “Die Walkure.”


A joke that few people would get: Guy runs into Brunnhilde and Siegfried at a bar, isn’t sure what to say. “So, umm… How’d you two meet?”

Mime’s forge is equipped with a sanding drum that generates sparks when struck with a hammer. Very cool.

Through July 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com

Image: David Cangelosi (Mime). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel/CD “Operaville,” available at amazon.com.

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