Friday, June 17, 2011

San Francisco Opera's "Die Walkure"

June 15, 2011

Despite the flying Viking ladies, Die Walkure can be a ponderous creature, its four-and-a-half hours filled with restatement, redundancy and repetition. It is, dramatically speaking, a monster, but one that has largely been tamed thanks to the vivid imagination of Francesca Zambello's American reconception.

Things begin in a deceptively frenetic fashion. After Jan Hartley's eerie projections of a chase through one of California's own redwood forests, the tenor who shall be Siegmund arrives at a backwoods cabin seeking sanctuary. The wife is nice enough - in fact, she looks alarmingly familiar - but hubby is a creepy survivalist wife-beater. The interior of the cabin is a hunting-lodge treasure trove: wood paneling, trophies of both the brass and stuffed-animal variety, and enough weaponry to start a militia. Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi is captivating, playing hubby Hunding like a volcano that could blow at any second, while German soprano Anja Kampe conducts the tightrope walk of the abused wife, alternately comforting and fearing her psycho-spouse. Brandon Jovanovich is perfect as Siegmund, bringing to the role an athletic physicality and an absolutely gorgeous voice - particularly in the Spring Song, "Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond," that initiates the love affair with Sieglinde, his rediscovered twin sister. (Yes, kind of creepy.)

The Act I tension manages to rise even further in Act 2, thanks to a magnificently dysfunctional family of gods, stationed in the boardroom of their New York Valhalla skyscraper before a god-sized black-and-white photo of the skyline. Baritone Mark Delevan delivers a much more robust Wotan than in Das Rheingold, perhaps freed up by the god's increased power (while performing the two on consecutive nights, no less). The same is true of mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who makes the most of much juicier material. Given the possibility of a justified righteousness given Wotan's infidelities, her Fricka opts instead for extortion, demanding her hubby preserve the sicko Hunding's marriage instead of the twisted twin-tryst of his beloved Siegmund. "I cannot restrain true passion," says Wotan. Retorts Fricka, "Beings like us do not trouble ourselves with such riff-raff." They are both truly hateful, and one fears for Brunnhilde, the ping-pong ball in the middle.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme has put her stamp on Brunnhilde. She performs with a kinetic tomboyish energy while still leaving herself open to vulnerability. Her voice follows a similar pattern: richly thunderous in her calls to the battlefield, but also, in quiet moments, exceedingly captivating - as in the beginning of her defense to Wotan, "War es so schmalich." She also has a fantastic collection of coats , a style I call "Matrix Aviatrix." During her covert defense of Siegmund under the astonishing frame of Michael Yeagen's freeway-underpass battleground, it's interesting to compare Jovanovich's supremely natural movements with Stemme's - wholly unnatural and yet irresistible. She is forever on her toes, like a basketball point guard, leaning forward, ready for the next sudden burst of energy.

Brunnhilde fails in her defense, makes off with the widowed Sieglinde, now pregnant with the future hero Siegfried, and flies away to another stunning vista, the home bunker of the Valkyries, who drop in from the flies as World War II paratroopers. The conceit and the lively performance of the eight sisters fashions a whole new package for the Ride of the Valkyries. Their Valhallan squadron is represented by large photos of actual American casualities, from the Civil War to Iraq.

Once the angry Wotan enters the picture, the scene drags on (as did the love scene between the twins) as he hesitates and ponders and hesitates some more regarding the punishment he must bring down on Brunnhilde. This could be the price of an updated setting. Dress a god as a human and we just don't let him get away with as much. Painting himself into a corner to preserve his precious power and screw as many women as possible, Wotan has now decided to take it out on his daughter on a technicality. Under these terms, even the song to Brunnhilde's "bright eyes" rings hollow. After a long, long wait, however, the audience is rewarded by a ring of fire that is simultaneously dazzling and scary.

Donald Runnicles and his orchestra play so gorgeously - particularly the much-heralded brass - that I feel like I take them for granted. That said, I send them a "Bravi!" and look forward to more.

The Ring Cycle, through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California. 415/864-3330,

Image: Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel/CD "Operaville," available at

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