Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: GOTTERDAMMERUNG--A Breathtaking and Meaningful Wagner, a fulfilling marathon

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday June 07, 2011 - 09:50:00 PM
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) and Ian Storey (Siegfried) with members of the San Francisco Opera chorus.
Cory Weaver
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen) and Ian Storey (Siegfried) with members of the San Francisco Opera chorus.

When I was a child in a small Pennsylvania town, back when Christianity was part of public grade school, a traveling show came through on Easter Week and we were all ferried to the high school auditorium to see it. It was a play about the Passion of the Christ from Germany, and it was called Gotterdammerung. A devout little Catholic boy, I was entranced and transported. Those same feelings came back yesterday afternoon, at the SF Opera at Francesca Zambello’s interpretation of the last chapter of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. 

When you tell a story about the gods, you’ve got to think big. Words like Olympian and Marathon came to mind while watching it. Five and a half hours (including intermissions) could have been as grueling and twice as long as a crucifixion, but every moment was packed with a visual, musical and emotional wallop. Only once, in a monochromatic and underlit moment in an extended monologue between Brunnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Waltrute (Daveda Karanas) did I nod.  

Ordinarily, I loathe a lecture, but Zambello’s metaphor of our current impending global climatic disaster likened to this Teutonic tale was impressive and gave it a connection that hit home.  

Since it is the last installment of the Cycle, the songs fill you in on the history and twists and turns of this magical story, though I might have been lost if I hadn’t seen “Die Walkure” last summer. The same role of Brunnhilde—the Promethean, proto-feminist figure in this mythology—was sung in both productions by the same dramatic soprano dynamo, the diminutive Nina Stemme, whose voice is (or should be) named a Deutsche National Treasure. 

Donald Runnicles and the orchestra made the hair stand up on the back of my head and filled me with emotion. The interlude music is Romantic and thrilling, Sturm und Drang, and you can visualize man—and woman—on the mountaintop shaking the fist at the gods and at nature. We don’t have to imagine, since the fashion is to provide an imagistic light show by video projection for the interludes, and it is included masterfully in the scenes themselves. In this cinematic world of “Thor” in IMAX 3D, these rank right up there and are all the more exciting when paired with real-life and real-time. The visual effects of the miasma of factory pollution, the roiling clouds, the sun breaking through in an Easter-like vision, are fascinating. 

I come to the opera not as a complete rube, but with a different eye. The staging, acting, and spectacle are as important as the singing. Of course, the ultimate touchstone is if my interest is piqued and it can keep me awake.  

The interior sets are majestic and pure Bauhaus with hard-edges, steel and glass with gray smokestacks in the vista. They are set in counterpoint to Nature—the rock upon which Brunnhilde is chained, the forest, the mountaintop. The indubitable message is Industry vs. Nature. Zambello’s staging is the best I have ever seen in this grand setting, particularly in the wedding scene with a cast of many.  

The color scheme is monochrome right down to the black leather trench coats and riding boots that seem de riguer for Wagner set after 1945 but always with just a splash of color to set it off.  

The acting is engaging with realistic and humorous touches in this heroic drama: when Siegfried (Ian Storey) the rustic hero enters the boardroom, he is wide-eyed and smiling when he sits on the cushy chairs; blonde Gutrune (Melissa Citro) who gives him the potion so he will forget Brunnhilde and love her walks in mincing little steps like a ditzy blonde, and is a sex goddess in orange décolletage 

couture; Alberich the dwarf (Gordon Hawkins) curls up on his sleeping son Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli) in a picture taken from Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, and Nina Stemme’s acting while she sings of her betrayal and loss and vengeance rips your heart out.  

The pairing of the bass-baritone of Gerd Grochowski (Gunther) and the basso of Silvestrelli (Hagen) as the scheming duo sends tickles up your backbone and invokes all the Gothic, Teutonic darkness of a bad dream.  

On the way out, I felt like I’d accomplished something, and perhaps there would be a certificate or at least a pin waiting for me, doled out by an usher. For the last two nights, it has been in my dreams. 

It is an incredible story of incest (twins marry and beget a hero who unwittingly brings it all to dust), of the love of gold and the need of it for those who do not have love (who wittingly bring it all to dust), or how a little immortal/mortal dalliance always upsets the balance, and, above it all, the Norns--the Fates— weave the Web, and caution all that those who mess with wiring risk crashing the system. (Go to the SF Opera website or Wiki it to get the tale in full.) 

If you are ever going to spend money on a Wagner opera, let this be the one. 

Last Sunday was sold out, and there are only three more performances and it ends July 3 (talk about fireworks!). 


WITH: Brünnhilde-Nina Stemme; Siegfried-Ian Storey; Gunther-Gerd Grochowski; Hagen-Andrea Silvestrelli; Waltraute & Second Norn-Daveda Karanas; Gutrune-Melissa Citro; Alberich-Gordon Hawkins; First Norn-Ronnita Miller; Third Norn-Heidi Melton; Woglinde-Stacey Tappan; Wellgunde-Lauren McNeese; Flosshilde-Renée Tatum  

Production: Conductor Donald Runnicles; Director Francesca Zambello; Set designer Michael Yeargan; Costume designer Catherine Zuber; Lighting designer Mark McCullough; Projection designer Jan Hartley; Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker; Chorus Director Ian Robertson; Senior Associate Director Christian Räth ; Choreographer Lawrence Pech  


GOTTERDAMMERUNG (Twilight of the Gods) by Richard Wagner 

Playing at the San Francisco Opera at 1 pm on the next 3 Sundays 6/19, 6/26, 7/3 

John A. McMullen II is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in directing, and has even directed an opera. EJ Dunne edits.