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Opera review: San Francisco's feminist 'Die Walkure'

June 23, 2010 |  1:30 pm
Walkure Late Saturday night, Valhalla will fall for the final time in Los Angeles, and the Music Center will send its expensive “Ring” into long (possibly permanent) storage. And that will be that.

But Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” comes, and it goes, the four-opera cycle ever recycled. Next June will be San Francisco Opera’s turn, and this month the company has unveiled its production of “Die Walküre,” which Wagner called the first part (after the prologue of “Das Rheingold”).

It is tempting to square off California’s two leading cities, since this “Walküre,” which is directed by Francesca Zambello, reverses the cities' cultural stereotypes. In once-provincial L.A., presenting its first “Ring” cycle, we have a production by a Berlin visual and theater artist, an avant-gardist both mystifying and demystifying German mythology. In progressive San Francisco -- where the “Ring” was first done in 1900 when the cycle was as new then as John Adams’ “Nixon in China” is now -- Zambello is producing an “American” interpretation full of Hollywood-familiar images. No guesswork is required.

Her “Rheingold,” which was given here at the War Memorial Opera house two years ago, began with the Gold Rush. In her “Walküre,” we’ve moved up to the early 20th century. Siegmund and Sieglinde, those troublesome incestuous twins, mate in Hunding’s homestead, Sieglinde looking as though she is about burst into “Oooooo-klahoma” just as her frisky brother falls on her. Wotan, the gods’ corrupt king, rules from a boardroom suitable for “The Fountainhead.” Meanwhile the Valkyries are lively aviators who parachute down to Valhalla, a concrete bridge to nowhere.

This is the 19th time the company has mounted “Walküre.” The production, though, is not quite new, shared as it is with Washington National Opera, where it was first seen. That, curiously, means that Plácido Domingo, who heads both the company in D.C. and Los Angeles Opera, was the yin and yang behind both cycles.

I found no magic in the War Memorial “Walküre” Tuesday night (the fourth of six performances as part of a June opera series that also includes Gounod’s “Faust” and Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West”). There are too many clichés for that. But few women have directed the “Ring” (Ruth Berghaus’ politically radical  production at the Frankfurt Opera a quarter century ago is the rare standout), and Zambello’s feminist interpretation intrigues and works.

At its center is the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as a frisky Brünnhilde. Wotan’s Valkyrie daughter storms into his office in jodhpurs and jumps on his desk. Mark Delavan, who is undertaking his first Wotan in San Francisco, is imposing on stage, an excellent actor, convincing in his intimate scenes, lacking in vocal power when he needs authority.

But thanks to Stemme, he is most affecting and effective as reflected in his daughter's eyes. Stemme reacts to his every utterance. And when Wotan must imperiously exile her from the company of immortals, it is she who comforts him, a broken man.

This “Walküre” is then the coming of age of Brünnhilde, grown from thoughtless teenager to the promise for a world that women will possibly run better then men. And if her clumsy aviator sisters, hustling up and down a staircase as if overweight youths trying to get in shape, don’t quite make for a sexy or exciting “Ride of the Valkyries,” perhaps that is meant as antidote to the R-rated Danish television "Ride of the Valkyries" commercial for the store Fleggaard, with its topless parachutists selling a washing machine -- a current Internet Wagner hit.

The sound and singing of the S.F. “Walküre” is as different from its L.A. counterpart as is the production. Stemme, whose focused voice has the same surety as her terrific acting, will clearly be the focus of this “Ring” next summer. The full-voiced soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek was a voluptuous sounding Sieglinde, while a leaner tenor, Christopher Ventris, seemed to have an off night as Siegmund. Raymond Aceto was a typically dark and nasty Hunding (her husband). Janina Baechle was a Margaret Rutherford-like Fricka (Wotan’s wife).

The War Memorial is an acoustically adequate theater, and the singers projected clearly with only the orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles, to fight. Runnicles got a full, rich orchestral sound and took an equal opportunity approach to climaxes – they were many, loud and expansive.

With the help of Michael Yeargan’s realistic sets; Jan Hartley’s projections of churning waves, forests, sunrise and skyscrapers; Catherine Zuber’s period costumes; and Mark McCullough’s careful lighting, Zambello has a team able to tell a story. The story appears to be the downfall of America, or at least its male domination. But it is not without a sense of humor (if slight) or promise of something new.

-- Mark Swed from San Francisco

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Photo: Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan backed by aviator Valkyries in the San Francisco Opera production of Wagner's “Die Walküre.” Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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