Die Walküre, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Die Walküre

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera’s “Die Walküre”
Photo by Cory Weaver

By Richard Wagner
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera
June 10-June 30, 2010
(see video clip below)

Can it be possible for a soprano to be more heroic than the heroine she plays? In the category of uncommonly brave operatic ladies, it’s hard to beat Brünnhilde, the warrior goddess of Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” But for uncommonly brave and talented singers, Nina Stemme, who takes the role in San Francisco, gets the medal of honor. Despite a pre-curtain announcement by General Director David Gockley that, although the famed German soprano was suffering from a virus she would go on anyway, begging the audience’s indulgence, there was no indulgence necessary. She had me at her first “Hoy yo to ho” and never let go until she stretched out on that rock for a couple of decades of sleep at the very end. It was a glorious performance, the second of four in this inventive staging by Francesca Zambello that updates the saga of gods and greed to the American West at the time of the Gold Rush and after. It is a conceit that works most of the time, perhaps better here than in last year’s “Das Rheingold.”

 “Walküre” begins, not with gods but with humans. It is, at heart, a love story. Siegmund, the lonely hero, fleeing from his enemies, stumbles upon the house of his long-lost twin sister, the lovely Sieglinde, who is locked in a loveless marriage to the brutish Hunding. And guess what happens when these two lay eyes upon one another. Eva-Maria Westbroeck and Christopher Ventris make as attractive a pair of twins as you are likely to get and they sing beautifully. But let’s not forget the third point of this triangle. Raymond Aceto makes a real person out of Sieglinde’s lout of a husband, a role in which glowering and stomping about usually suffices. He gets very sexy with his wife and treats the unwelcome guest with a subtle menace. Sings well too. With these three on board, the long first act sails by without a moment’s lag.

The twins – who unknowingly are the children of Wotan, the head honcho god – run off into the spring forest (after a glorious “Winterstürme” delivered by Ventris) and it all hits the fan after that. Fricka, Wotan’s lawful wife (Janina Baechle), an avenging Fury who doesn’t appreciate all the fooling around that has produced not only the Volsung twins, but also nine Walküres, warrior sisters charged with building an army of slain heroes to defend Wotan’s domain, invokes her position as guardian of marriage to force her husband to make Hunding victorious in the duel that will follow Sieglinde’s elopement. Trouble is, Wotan has already instructed his favorite warrior-daughter, Brünnhilde, to fight on Siegmund’s side. What happens next takes another three hours or so but it’s filled with action, emotion, transcendent music conducted by Donald Runnicles, who may be the master Wagnerian of our time, and a joy to sit through. The time flies by, fleet as the Walküres themselves, who parachute diagonally onto the stage in Amelia Earhart getups, singing all the while. A wonderful sight.

There are many clever and deftly designed sights in this production, from Valhalla, the skyscraper-castle of the gods, floating on the clouds as Wotan presides from a conference table. (The view from the window looks suspiciously like San Francisco and the Bay). But it doesn’t stop there. Stunning cinematic projections on the drop curtain (designed by Jan Hartley) herald every scene in such a way that you actually run through the forest along with Siegmund. The opening sequence of rolling water, presumably the Rhine, robbed of its gold in the previous opera, actually made me a little seasick. The duel between Siegmund and Hunding takes place under a debris-littered viaduct, perhaps the Bay Bridge. Brünnhilde’s rock is surrounded by high gray rock walls with stunning lighting effects. Bravi to set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Mark McCullough. Other visual highlights include a solemn parade of dead heroes passing across the stage as Brünnhilde describes Valhalla to Siegmund and a couple of fast-moving canines running along with Hunding’s thugs.

Mark Delavan’s Wotan was the one disappointment, and only a slight one at that. He sang the role well enough in Act II, but his voice seemed to tire as the opera went on. His initial scene was a sensitive portrayal of a powerful executive, threatened from all sides and, hemmed in by the contracts he has made, both desperate and helpless to extricate himself. But Delavan’s vocal power seemed to give out near the end (perhaps he caught Stemme’s cold?) and the moving farewell to the daughter who dared to disobey him was a little weak. Nonetheless, this was as splendid a “Walküre” as you are likely to get – and I’ve seen some seven or eight, including Bayreuth and the Met – and it whets the appetite for next summer’s feast of the entire “Ring.”

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