Wednesday, June 23, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Wagner's "Die Walkure," June 19, 2010

One of the payoffs to a well-executed shift of setting and locale is a higher level of humanity from your characters, as if the big medieval costumes have been keeping you from seeing the person - or god - inside. This is certainly true of SFO's "American" Ring cycle, which lends tremendous insights to the game of familial power inside Die Walkure.


Escaping a tribal battlefield, Siegmund finds his long-lost twin sister Sieglinde trapped in a loveless marriage to one of them. Director Francesca Zambello turns her first trick of the evening by consulting her ancient Norse-to-modern American translator and making of the brutally possessive husband, Hunding, a groping, sword-loving militia man. Bass Raymond Aceto fills the role with a hateful flair.

Zambello's next stroke is to take Valhalla to a boardroom atop a New York skyscraper, and where better to find overpowerful figures who mess with the lives of mortals to settle petty squabbles? Later, the Valkyries drift onstage as WWII paratroopers, carrying oversize photos of the heroes they have recruited for the defense of Valhalla.

Set designer Michael Yeargan absolutely dazzles, especially in his Act II setting beneath an eroded freeway overpass; the structure's columns evoke Greek ruins, while the little touches (the standard torn-out car seat serving as a couch) bring a divine seediness. Jan Hartley, meanwhile, gives life to all of the settings with constantly shifting cloudscapes (and the lightning strikes are pretty impressive).

For pure vocal virtuosity, you can't beat the golden heldentenor of British singer Christopher Ventris as Siegmund, particularly in Act I's Sword soliloquy. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek delivers in kind, at her best in Act III, as Brunnhilde works to talk her out of her depression over her twin's death and into the work of saving their chosen child, Siegfried.

The principal conflict, however, is father and daughter, and here the acting is superb. Baritone Mark Delevan plays Wotan as a god trapped by his own power. His burly voice plays well in the quiet, somber moments of Act III, as Wotan faces a common father's common dilemma: how to overcome tender paternal feelings in punishing a daughter. His farewell, "Leb wohl," is heartbreaking.

General Director David Gockley appeared onstage beforehand to ask the audience's "indulgence" for soprano Nina Stemme, who performed despite a viral infection, but it was hardly necessary. After some cautious singing in the early going, the handicap was not noticeable. Stemme brought to the oft-lampooned Brunnhilde a wild, tomboyish quality, entirely appropriate to a girl who spends her free time scouring battlefields for heroes. During the tension-filled father-daughter debate of Act III, Stemme and Delevan performed the great trick of extracting intimate, everyday familial interactions from epic mythology.

Former SFO music director Donald Runnicles returned to warm ovations, and justified them by leading the orchestra in a strenuous attack on Wagner's score, especially in the lush low-string tones of the opening scene. Costume designer Catherine Zuber excelled in the subtleties of her modern outfits, giving her gods and heroes flowing overcoats to evoke the robes of an earlier day. The company continues to have fun playing with fire, in this case a ring of flames that sprouts directly from the set to protect the sleep-cursed Brunnhilde.

Image: Mark Delevan as Wotan, Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through June 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

25 comments:

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