Earlier parts of The Ring  demand patience for their slow-moving action and self-indulgent scores. In Götterdämmerung, events race along, with plots and counterplots, disguise, sex, greed, assassination and the burning of the world. It’s the one Ring opera that is dramatically gripping from start to finish, especially as presented at San Francisco Opera. This is the crowning achievement of a cycle that has brought together a peerless cast, the finest Wagner conducting and playing, and a dynamic staging.

Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) and Melissa Citro (Gutrune) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) and Melissa Citro (Gutrune)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The prelude is pure early 2000s cyberpunk. The Norns, dressed in green and black with caps and goggles, work to untangle fiber optic cables and plug them in. They sing their knowledge – Ronnita Miller with huge access of sound, Jamie Barton with a chesty middle register, and Sarah Cambidge with resounding top notes – until the node for the cables falls in a shower of sparks. Barton also makes a second appearance as a painfully desperate Waltraute, cutting straight to the heart with her “Wehe! Wehe!”.

In keeping with the pessimistic future theme, the Gibichungs live in a steel-and-glass tower with tasteless leopard print touches. Gunther and Hagen sport head-to-toe leather, while Gutrune lounges around the house in evening gowns. The followers of the Gibichung house look ominous in all black. The women cringe as they are pushed around and beaten by men carrying rifles. In the end, they get their revenge on Hagen, the center of this misogynistic society.

Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde) and Jamie Barton (Waltraute) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde) and Jamie Barton (Waltraute)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Andrea Silvestrelli sang the villain Hagen with his distinctive sandpaper sound, sometimes wobbly but incredibly powerful in its lowest reaches. His “Hier sitz’ ich zur Wacht…” soliloquy overwhelmed. In contrast to his half-brother, Gunther was surprisingly sympathetic, thanks to Brian Mulligan’s dark, chocolatey sound and obvious reluctance to betray Siegfried. (It didn’t hurt that he and Siegfried sounded perfectly matched when swearing their oath.) Melissa Citro’s delightful Gutrune struck poses, blew kisses, and literally threw herself onto a couch in her efforts to attract Siegfried. The strength and focus of Citro’s bright sound stood out among the Valkyries in Die Walküre, so it was a treat to hear her again, at greater length. 

The Immolation Scene © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
The Immolation Scene
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

At the opera’s heart, Iréne Theorin and Daniel Brenna made a sizzling doomed power couple. Sweet gestures and great chemistry in the prologue established their deep love. This Siegfried is still a creepy frat boy – chugging blood, embracing the Gibichungs’ misogyny, and lusting after every woman in sight – but at least he adores Brünnhilde. Brenna sang with bright high notes and a dry edge, sometimes straining at the top. His voice flowed most smoothly during his final scene, for his boastful storytelling and soaring death aria. Theorin’s Brünnhilde continued to amaze. Her “Betrug” and “Jammer” emerged in rolling waves that pinned me to my seat. Her voice for the immolation scene was diamond, a sharp, focused stream of sound that dazzled.

Throughout the cycle, conductor Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra have made glorious music. Runnicles’ sense of dramatic arc in this repertoire gave the score detailed shape and color. The sheer energy the orchestra threw into the music swept me up. Siegfried's Rhine Journey was a highlight, the Act 1 prelude tumbling out at infernal speed, then giving way to mellow, eerie chords. It was clear from the music that these Gibichungs were wildly treacherous even before they opened their mouths. The large brass section in particular deserves applause for their precise and (literally) floor-shaking delivery of Wagner’s music.

Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Stacey Tappan, Renée Tatum and Lauren McNeese (Rhinemaidens) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Stacey Tappan, Renée Tatum and Lauren McNeese (Rhinemaidens)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

In Francesca Zambello’s staging, the world’s deterioration has continued since Siegfried. The grimy Rhinemaidens (their harmonies beautifully sung by Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum) vainly try to clear the riverbed of plastic bottles and other trash. There’s a vague sense that technology, broadly defined, is responsible. Behind the Gibichung skyscraper, we see factories spewing waste. Between scenes, grainy black-and-white television images seem more retro than futuristic.

While the details are fuzzy, the impact on nature is clear. When Brünnhilde calls for a fire, there is no wood left to burn. Siegfried’s funeral pyre is a pile of tires and weapons, doused in gasoline. Heroes’ portraits fall from the sky to signify that Valhalla is burning, too. As the flames clear to the strains of the “redemption” motif, a young girl plants a tree downstage. There is hope, even after terrible destruction.