War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
June 13, 2018

If the decimation of nature and the power of gold dominate Das Rheingold, it’s love and family that are the overriding concerns in Die Walküre, ‘Day One’ proper of Wagner’s epic operatic tetralogy. And whereas the previous day’s ‘Prologue’ packs a great deal of action into its two-and-a-half hours, its sequel takes its time to ponder deeply the matters at hand. Dramatically, it certainly runs the gamut, from a pair of loveless marriages, to a child’s first rebellion against a parent, with incest, a magic fire and an octet of flying Valkyries thrown in for good measure. As a work of art, it borders on perfection – not one of its many, many bars ever feels superfluous – and Francesca Zambello’s handsome production for San Francisco Opera certainly steps up a gear to encompass its manifold beauties.

Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Like Das Rheingold, Die Walküre also begins with water imagery, this time with a storm, eerily reminiscent in S. Katy Tucker’s bold projections of the kind of Gulf or East Coast hurricanes that annually menace the US. Climate change imagery and the effect of unfettered industry on the environment are never far away. As Hunding’s hut in the forest is revealed, Sieglinde glances fearfully out of the window. When she emerges, nervy, bruised and initially reluctant to allow the exhausted Siegmund to seek refuge inside, the full horror of her circumstances are immediately clear.

Zambello’s take on the relationship (if you can call it that) between the thuggish Hunding and his shattered wife is brutally realistic and horrifically portrayed, contemporary resonances painfully clear. Hunding is a hunter. If it moves, he’s shot, stuffed and mounted it – and he has the trophies to prove it – including what he probably once considered his ‘trophy wife’. The novelty, however, has long worn off, and these days he gets his kicks by abusing and humiliating his partner (both physically and sexually) in front of his henchmen and the occasional passing guest. It’s played out here with commendable commitment and chilling authenticity.

Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, Raymond Aceto as Hunding and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There are some oddities. Given the realistic interior of the hut, why is the tree two-dimensional? Why does Siegmund allow himself to be shackled to the tree? The sword also appears at a strange moment, popping out for all to see, but not when Sieglinde indicates its existence and the sword motif wells up in the orchestra. Small matters, but perplexing. All that is swept away when spring enters the hut. The walls swing out to reveal not forest but bare, virgin prairie. Against the endless sky, the lovers stand framed as pioneers in another of Zambello’s powerful images reflecting the American dream.

Act II could not be more strongly contrasted. Michael Yeargan’s clean-limbed, perspectival sets continue to impress, conveying a strong sense of isolation throughout. In Act I, his hut could have been anywhere, its inhabitants anytime from 1850 to 1950. Wotan’s office, however, is clearly atop a skyscraper somewhere in the 1930s. Comfortable in his self-absorbed, self-satisfied power, the King of the Gods gazes out over a city by a bay, an image reflecting not just the American business-age, but the contemporaneous dreams of certain 20th-century totalitarian dictators.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Jamie Barton as Fricka. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Brünnhilde’s entrance is a comedic coup de theatre. Thrilled to have been invited to daddy’s office for the first time, she’s excited but disturbed by her first taste of scotch. When the phone light blinks, she inadvertently answers, only to hand it to Wotan. “It’s for you,” she seems to say, while he hangs up smartish on learning that it’s Fricka. To emphasise the air of big business, the Queen of the Gods has even brought along a contract to ensure Siegmund’s demise, which her hapless consort duly signs.

A transformation scene leads to an unfinished concrete flyover beneath which the lovers shelter amidst stray tyres and a mouldy sofa – a dirty, wretched place to die. The fight, involving Hunding, his henchmen and a pair of dogs (yes, real dogs!) who flash from one side of the stage to the other, is particularly effective. Act III, which takes place amidst a functional, concrete defensive bastion, sees be-goggled fighter pilot Valkyries parachuting in at speed in a roller-coaster of a ‘Ride’. Completing the scenic effects is another spectacle: a dazzling Magic Fire enhanced by Mark McCulloch’s commanding lighting design. In fact, McCulloch impresses throughout, with his prairie effect and brooding concrete jungle especially atmospheric. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are another asset, Fricka’s burgundy palazzo pants, matching gown and finger-waved hair a magical touch.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In another strongly cast opera, Greer Grimsley’s Wotan steps up a gear. Now firmly at the centre of things, he seizes the dramatic high ground to convey the excruciating journey from overweening confidence to a man whose dreams are in tatters. His glorious bass-baritone is always strong, the money notes, even at the end of a long night, electrifying in their power and beauty. Smooth, dark and admirably clear, he builds his character from the voice upwards. His long narration is compellingly delivered, his anger entirely operative without ever having recourse to shouting.

As his daughter, Iréne Theorin – a very late replacement for Evelyn Herlitzius who only withdrew for health reasons in May – is magnificent. Thanks to some consummate acting chops and smart costuming, she paradoxically appears to be more youthful than she was in the Copenhagen Ring back in 2008. Brünnhilde in Die Walküre always feels the lowest of the three sings, but Theorin is always audible, even if this isn’t the strongest region of her considerable voice. There’s no doubt about the top notes, which ring out loud and clear from her spectacular entrance onwards. Elsewhere, she does a good line in hushed singing, her reminiscence of the love in Siegmund’s eyes – “Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gehaucht” – magically spun.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Zambello is strong on relationships, with many touching moments between Theorin and Grimsley, but what is especially effective is the exploration of the boundary between parental affection and a child’s defiance, heightened by a strong sense that a more ‘enlightened’ father would see Brünnhilde as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Indeed, the female characters in Die Walküre are so strong it’s hard to avoid a feeling that it’s the women who are going to be left to clean up the mess the men have made. When Wotan is crying out for a hero, you really do want to shout out “she’s behind you”, and it’s clearly on the tip of the tongue of Theorin’s Valkyrie as well.

Jamie Barton, singing so beautifully in Das Rheingold, proves she has vocal balls of steel as well, delivering a Fricka of power and considerable subtlety. 1930s-Wotan may have moved on, but she has absolutely no intention of letting morals slide. Wheedling, cajoling, commanding, she can play the kitten, gently tweaking her husband’s nose, but in this relationship it is she who is determined to wear the palazzo pants. The voice is still creamy, but when the top notes fly, the audience is pinned to their seats. For a woman who seems the up-and-coming bel canto mezzo of the moment, she’s one hell of a versatile singer.

The Valkyries. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As the Volsung twins, Brandon Jovanovich and Karita Mattila make a compelling pair, their developing relationship acquiring a desperate edge thanks to Zambello’s raising of the stakes. Jovanovich has to be the ‘loveliest’ Heldentenor voice in the business right now, investing his long narrations with lyrical line as well as with dramatic intent. Never over-singing, he rises to the impassioned love duet, capping it with a mighty top B Flat. Mattila’s soprano may have lost the fresh bloom of youth, but she still has all the notes. She is also a consummate singing actress, conveying an abusive marriage, the loss of brother and lover, and the desperate hope of motherhood with enormous intensity. Occasionally the voice just miss-pitches in quieter passages, but it’s a deeply affecting performance.

Cleveland-born Raymond Aceto, who made a somewhat less-than-menacing Fafner in Das Rheingold, makes up for it here, strutting and thrusting himself on Mattila. In a bravura display of resonant singing and disturbingly vicious acting, he doesn’t put a foot wrong. He even manages to be fascinatingly wide-eyed in his final minutes as the small-minded, emotionally retarded Hunding clings to Wotan like a child to its mother seconds before the God moves in for the kill. The hunter, hunted.

Iréne Theorin and the Valkyries. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Completing the cast are the eight Valkyries: Laura Krumm (Siegrune), Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), Julie Adams (Gerhilde), Lauren McNeese (Rossweisse), Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite), Melissa Citro (Helmwige) and Renée Tatum (Waltraute). Between them they make for a fine ensemble, voices evenly matched. All come across loud and clear – except for some hard to catch off-stage singing – and they manage Wagner’s tricky eight-part choruses with an effortless sense of style. Strangely, despite what must be around 50 sung references to horses, the surtitles go out of their way not to mention them. Given that a modern audience takes sword=gun in its stride, it’s odd that someone feels it won’t cope with parachute=horse. German speakers, of course, will get quite a different takeaway here.

In the pit, Donald Runnicles covers himself in glory here, the only sticking point being an occasional odd balance in the brass. He invests everything with great energy from the prelude onwards, with a thrilling Ride of the Valkyries and a beautifully shaped final scene. Perhaps the most compelling moments come in the still, small heart of the piece. The chamber textures surrounding Siegmund and Sieglinde’s initial encounter are exquisitely delivered, while Wotan’s narration is preceded by moments of true Mahlerian gloom. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra is on excellent form, playing with commitment and control, and solos – cello in Act I, horn in Act II, oboe in Act III – were particularly noteworthy.

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhlide and Greer Grimsley as Wotan. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

If Das Rheingold raised concerns that Zambello has a surfeit of ideas, and that her all-American Ring might lack gravitas, this production sweeps those away in what is a very fine Die Walküre indeed.

Three cycles of Wagner’s Ring are playing at San Francisco Opera until July 1


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