San Francisco Opera’s modern-set, 21st-century production of Wagner’s massive 19th-century masterwork “Der Ring des Nibelungen” concluded Sunday with a bang, with the company’s former music director Donald Runnicles having guided the orchestra throughout 17 hours of music with agility and sensitivity.
After opening Tuesday with “Das Rheingold,” the troupe’s revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2011 production of the four-opera “Ring” cycle continued its epic journey Wednesday with a moving “Die Walküre,” which introduced new heroes and heels to the four-part tale — and a fair share of heroic performances.
As in all of the SFO’s “Ring” operas, water is a prominent element in the video projections for “Walküre,” but a sylvan forest and wildlife, specifically a wolf, also appeared, evoking the fight-for-survival circumstances that unfold in Act 1 as ill-fated twins Siegmund and Sieglinde innocently crossed paths at the rustic homestead of the latter’s brutish husband Hunding.
Soprano Karita Mattila was a largely intense, if not entirely lustrous vocally Sieglinde, who falls for the traveler who turns out to be her brother Siegmund, sung by polished, energetic tenor Brandon Jovanovich.
Matilla and Jovanovich’s palpably fervent affection made one almost forget they were igniting an incestuous relationship, a concern for the jealous Hunding –sung with menacing stylishness by bass Raymond Aceto — who also wanted to settle a blood feud with Siegmund’s Volsung clan.
Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was a molten-voiced goddess of marriage, determined to uphold the tradition, as Wotan’s wife Fricka, unhappy with her husband’s penchant for being a baby-daddy that resulted in the out-of-wedlock births of the Volsung twins,
Subjected to Fricka’s wifely moralizing, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley again was vocally commanding as chief of the gods Wotan, displaying unrelenting power and stamina, particularly memorable through extended exchanges with his daughter Brünnhilde, who disobeyed him to try to save Siegmund.
Soprano Irene Theorin offered a dynamic, resonant portrayal of Brünnhilde, soaring vocally in defense of Siegmund or Sieglinde or in defiance of her father. Despite the girl-power, crowd-pleasing arrival via parachute of her flying Valkyrie sisters, Brünnhilde cannot avoid Wotan’s spell, which put her to sleep (amid fire) until the eponymous hero awakened her in “Siegfried.”
Friday evening, “Siegfried” — the opera in which the sword that slays a dragon is forged — began without noble trappings. It started in a dreary, rundown trailer park, home to Nibelung Mime, who raised Siegfried since the deaths of his parents Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Tenor David Cangelosi was a lively Mime, vocally and dramatically, proving an entertaining irritant to the growing, impatient Siegfried, who took matters into his own hands, making the shards of his father’s magical sword whole and useful again.
In his SFO debut, tenor Daniel Brenna was superb as Siegfried, a role he has sung in Europe, Asia and the U.S. Though he didn’t boast the biggest of voices, he had clarity and energy, and acting chops, his character illustrating a compelling love for Brünnhilde.
Grimsley as the Wanderer (Wotan) and bass-baritone Falk Struckmann as the ambitious Nibelung lord Alberich and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller as the goddess of wisdom Erda again offered vocal heft and dramatic tension.
A stentorian Aceto made for an arresting giant Fafner (ready for battle in a huge Transformers-inspired contraption that filled the stage) who ultimately lost his life and golden treasures to Siegfried.
In a role typically sung offstage, soprano Stacey Tappan sweetly warbled as the Forest Bird, poised on a high walkway at the back of the stage, dressed in a red coat and pants.
“Götterdämmerung,” the long denouement of the “Ring,” began Sunday afternoon with the three Norns, mezzo-sopranos Miller and Barton and soprano Sarah Cambidge luminously recapitulating events amid greenery and a jumble of rubber cables.
At five hours and 10 minutes, the cycle’s fourth installment is as unforgiving of its characters’ fates as it is long. Deeply sonorous bass Andrea Silvestrelli was Alberich’s son Hagen, who hatched the plot giving Siegfried a potion that made him fall in love with Hagen’s half-sister Gutrune, sung by clear-voiced soprano Melissa Citro.
The plot cleared the way for Hagen’s half-brother Gunther, ably sung by baritone Brian Mulligan, to marry a despondent Brünnhilde, unaware Siegfried has been drugged. Notwithstanding the spell and feelings of betrayal, Theorin and Brenna had a fiery chemistry, seemingly ready to rekindle Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s love at any moment.
An urgent Struckmann, as Alberich, returned to egg on his son Hagen to recover the Ring from Siegfried, while Barton also sang a brooding Waltraute, who warned her sister Brünnhilde that the ring must be returned to the Rhinemaidens.
It was, leaving the audience with a sense of hope, as did director Zambello, whose vision closed with a little girl planting a tree in the wake of the gods’ death and destruction.
At Sunday’s finale, hundreds of artists, including Ian Robertson’s mighty chorus and the splendid musicians in the orchestra, flooded the War Memorial stage to take their final bows in front of an adoring capacity crowd for a few joyous moments.
They have just a few days to rest, with two more “Ring” cycles running through July 1 in the opera house.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: June 19-24 (Cycle 2); June 26-July 1 (Cycle 3)
Tickets: $100 and up (single); $190 to $3,420 (cycle), $10 standing room (starting at 10 a.m. day of show)
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com/ringfestival
Das Rheingold: 7:30 p.m. June 19, June 26
Die Walküre: 7 p.m. June 20, June 27
Siegfried: 6:30 p.m. June 22, June 29
Götterdämmerung: 1 p.m. June 24, July 1
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