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Monday, June 21, 2010

Saturday Night: Wagner's "Die Walküre" at War Memorial Opera House

Posted By on Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 9:21 AM

Mark Delavan (as Wotan) and Nina Stemme (as Brünnhilde) - TERRENCE MCCARTHY
  • Terrence McCarthy
  • Mark Delavan (as Wotan) and Nina Stemme (as Brünnhilde)
Richard Wagner's Die Walküre
San Francisco Opera
June 19, 2010

Better than:
Whatever one oblivious patron's watch beeped 20 consecutive times to remind him or her to do. Watches are like small children and dates who snore. Can't shut 'em up? Don't bring 'em to the opera.

Thanks to a particular melody's status as the go-to accompaniment for cinematic scenes of derring-do, Richard Wagner's Die Walküre is an opera whose reputation precedes it, even among non-operaphiles. My boyfriend, an aficionado of derring-do-heavy films with four operas under his belt, fervently hoped that Saturday's performance would be "bad-ass" enough to justify the "Ride of the Valkyries" music, and thoughtfully offered to start some shit in the audience if he deemed Francesca Zambello's production lacking in bad-assitude. Happily, this did not come to pass. Bravura singing, virtuosic conducting from Donald Runnicles, bold if sometimes incoherent aesthetic choices, and unexpectedly humane touches made this Walküre a thrilling, surprisingly accessible rendering of Wagner's intimidating vision -- a vision that SF Opera will present in its totality with next summer's Ring Cycle, of which Walküre is the second part.

Soprano Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde will reprise her role here in 2011, hopefully without the viral bug that befell her on Saturday. Not that it hindered her much, as she proved every bit the battler in real life -- if not for a pre-performance announcement and a slightly uncertain first few notes, no one would have been the wiser that she was ill. Once Stemme gained confidence in her voice, her Brünnhilde soared -- and her kinetic, thoroughly natural acting brought impulsive charm and depth to the warrior-maiden, particularly in her daughterly relationship with Wotan.

In a smashing SF Opera debut, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek sang Sieglinde with effortless lyricism and -- like Stemme -- an unusually rich tone in low and high registers alike. She fluidly managed Sieglinde's emotional transformation in the first act, blossoming from a downtrodden housewife into an impassioned dramatic heroine. As evocative as her singing was, she conveyed just as much through small gestures -- wary at first, and terrified of her brutish husband's return, she nervously fidgeted with her skirt and paused to smile guiltily in response to Siegmund's gratitude before scuttling into the house. Even when she transitioned to damsel-in-distress mode in later acts, her performance never grew clichéd. Tenor Christopher Ventris as Siegmund was an ideal counterpart, equally convincing in fearlessness as in despair, even if he did seem a bit overshadowed at times by Westbroek's dynamism.


Nina Stemme (as Brünnhilde) and Mark Delavan (as Wotan) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Nina Stemme (as Brünnhilde) and Mark Delavan (as Wotan)

Baritone Mark Delavan as Wotan did full justice to the conflicts inherent in the role of a god who is all too aware of his own limitations. His voice seemed to tire around the middle of Act III, but he recovered for a powerful finale with Stemme. He, too, emphasized the humanity of his character, departing not with a resolute flourish of his spear but with a rueful, tender backwards glance at the favorite daughter he'd been compelled to abandon. As his wife, the implacable marriage goddess Fricka, mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle embodied intellectual, physical, and vocal formidability. Her pivotal quarrel with Wotan over Siegmund's fate came off less as shrewish harping than as a deft, deadly cross-examination. (A couple of her lines in defense of traditional marriage drew grim chuckles from a Proposition 8-era audience.)

In smaller but no less vivid parts, Raymond Aceto as Hunding, Sieglinde's aforementioned boor of a spouse, thugged it out to the max, aided by a durable bass voice. He begins by chucking a package of meat at Sieglinde and only turns up the charm from there, concluding with an eerie right-fist salute to Fricka (perhaps an allusion to one of Wagner's more nutjobby admirers?) before Wotan wrings his neck like a chicken destined for the rotisserie. Stemme's eight fellow Valkyries formed a spirited, endearing crew; their parachuting entrance and Earhart-era flight gear were satisfying enough, but their vocals more than held their own with the spectacle.

Zambello's decision to update the action to the 1930s wasn't inherently problematic, but the specific means of modernization sometimes were. Most questionable was the use of video projections -- I would have preferred to take in Wagner's opening strains without staring at images reminiscent of a giant screensaver. This was followed by what appeared to be footage from a hiker who forgot that the camcorder around his neck was still recording as he tramped through the woods. (The abstract cityscape projections of Act II were less obnoxious, and the soaring panorama of clouds before the Valkyries' airborne entrance in Act III could be read as a nod to this music's appropriation by Hollywood in similar settings.) But the projections of flames after Brünnhilde's rock had been surrounded by real fire in the finale were pure overkill. Fire! Fire only the bravest hero can face! We get it.

Michael Yeargen's sets, with one exception, were supremely effective, especially the austere Valhalla-as-corporate-boardroom, and the angular verticality of the Valkyries' staging ground. The imposing freeway-overpass setting for Act II's second half bested even these. It allowed for multilevel action as the gods surveyed the action from above, and presented a fertile landscape for symbolism. (A battered futon-like seat added some Craigslist flair.) Sadly, Hunding's cabin, the backdrop for Act I, utterly lacked backwoods credibility. Even a choad like Hunding wouldn't deign to haul these deer heads to the taxidermist for mounting -- more impressive antlers can be found on souvenir jackalopes at any Wyoming truck stop.
Eva-Maria Westbroek (as Sieglinde), Raymond Aceto (as Hunding), and Christopher Ventris (as Siegmund) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Eva-Maria Westbroek (as Sieglinde), Raymond Aceto (as Hunding), and Christopher Ventris (as Siegmund)


What's most remarkable, though, is that even with its occasionally distracting aesthetic choices, heavy themes, and epic running time, this production managed to be engaging on a level aside from shock, awe, and scale. It's easy to be so exhausted by the length and scope of Wagner's works as to forget to actually enjoy them. This Walküre bodes well for that not being the case when the Ring arrives in its entirety next year.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias:
I used to live in Chicago, a great city that unfortunately boasts such travesties as the Cubs, suffrage for corpses, most of the city going up in flames in 1871, and the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that fatally roasted nearly 600 people. Thus, I fully understood when the gentleman behind me nervously whispered during the fiery finale, "If this place goes up in flames, I'm outta here." Solid strategy.

Random detail: Betcha didn't know that SF Opera (like all major companies) employs a prompter -- Jonathan Khuner -- who sits in a little cubby under the stage and cues singers with their lines, and also helps keep the vocalists in sync with the orchestra. When Delavan came out for his curtain call, he made a point of applauding and bowing to Khuner.  The crowd -- and, no doubt, Khuner -- loved it.

By the way: Remaining performances are June 22, 25, and 30 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15-$360; visit www.sfopera.com or call 864-3330. Sung in German, with English supertitles. Performances run four and a half hours, with two intermissions. Free (and extremely worthwhile) lectures about each of the company's operas take place in the auditorium 55 minutes prior to curtain.



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Emily Hilligoss

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