San Francisco Opera's Die Walkure opened Thursday night and there were many things about it which justify the breathlessly great reviews it's received, but there also are some serious flaws in this production. The really good news is that none of those flaws originate from the pit or in the casting. The bad news is that as gesamtkunstwerk the production fails from the start of the vorspiel and the failure builds with each succeeding act. Should that keep you away? By all means absolutely not, because musically this production is as good as it gets.
After a two year absence, former music director and Wagner conductor extraordinaire Donald Runnicles returned to the pit of the War Memorial and tore into the vorspiel like he had something to prove and it was thrilling from the first note. His intensity never wavered for the remainder of the night. Runnicles brought things to the fore I've never noticed before- not to be novel or put his own stamp on it, but to show us just how deeply layered this music is. Everything was illuminated, and beautifully so. From a conducting standpoint it was the best music I've heard in this house since, well, when Runnicles was the music director of the house.
The casting was almost perfect as well. Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde was a revelation. This was the first Walkure I've experienced live where the soprano opted for clarity and purity over volume and bravado and her approach paid off handsomely. Vocally Stemme nailed it from her first "Heiaha" until her last pleading moment with Wotan without ever flagging or hitting an off-note. While her voice isn't large, it's always clear, precise and always blending into the music or emanating from it instead of fighting to be dominant over it ala Linda Watson. She also looks quite fetching in a bob and boots. While she captivated me more in her SF debut as Senta in Hollander, I'd ascribe that to a superior, more stimulating and interesting production.
Christopher Ventris' Siegmund was also a vocally arresting performance. This is the third role I've heard him sing here in SF and I admire his consistency and artistry. Working against stage directions which render his character either a fool or a self-centered ass, he still makes an indelible impression with his clarion tone and impassioned delivery. Too bad production director Francesca Zambello has no idea how to present this character (or most of the others) in a coherent manner, but more on that later.
Eva-Maria Westbroek made her SFO debut as Ventris' sister/lover Sieglinde with terrific singing and effective acting. If the "Du hehrstes Wunder! herrliche Maid!" wasn't the musical orgasm it could have been, should have been, she nevertheless gave an impressive performance.
Mark Delavan's Wotan impressed me more in 2008's Das Rheingold, but this is for two reasons that are beyond his control, the first being having recently seen Vitalij Kowoljow in L.A. Opera's Walkure, pretty much anyone one would pale in comparison. The second is again Zambello's fault, again, to be discussed in a moment. Delavan's voice served the role well, and though he looked ridiculous in his Pepe-le-Pew skunk-streaked do, eye-patch and three piece master-of-the-universe suit, it really wasn't his fault and I don't hold it against him.
Raymond Aceto's Hunding came across as too much of a vulgar punk instead of a malevolent, threatening force. His was the most ineffective portrayal of the night and his voice simply couldn't overcome his Vin Diesel does opera appearance and mannerisms.
Janina Baechle's Fricka, the Cruella DeVille of the story who just messes everything up with her moral rectitude, was really well performed. A harridan, and justifiably so. I seriously hate you Fricka. Think about how differently the story may have turned out if not for you and your sanctimonious views on marriage and incest. Get a life. Get a young hero to shtupp you and shut up.
The Walkyries were exceptional from a singing standpoint and good grief, talk about luxury casting in the smaller parts. Molly Fillmore (!), Suzanne Hendrix, Daveda Karanas, Wendy Harmer, Tamara Wapinsky, Maya Lahyani (the next Netrebko, even if she's a mezzo- you heard it here first), Pamela Dillard and Priti Ghandi sounded terrific, despite the fact that Zambello turned the Ride of the Walkyries into just about the dumbest thing I've ever seen on the War Memorial stage since the hazmat team invaded the ending of Katya Kabanova or the transvestites with Macy's bags killed MacBeth.
Okay, so I've covered the good stuff in full and now you know why you should see this. Now permit to tell you, dear reader, what really pissed me off about this production: Francesca Zambello.
What the hell is she thinking? Damned if I know, but here is a list in order of appearance of the offending, silly, and downright stupid choices she made that render this production a mess from a dramatic and visual standpoint:
Act 1 failures:
The Vorspiel begins with a video image of a churning whirlpool. Why? We are supposed to be in a forest, having Siegmund hunted ny Hundings kinsmen. The water was the previous opera. Granted, it was better than the ridiculous "and in beginning there was a galaxy" montage that opened Rheingold, but hello? Where is the water from? Why? Explain this please.
Hunding's house looks like something out of a bad production of "Little House on the Prairie" done by a high school in Turlock.
Hunding is groping Sieglinde's ass while Siegmund is telling his sorry story, paying no attention to him whatsoever. Is no one listening to him? Is he such a self-obsessed jerk that he can't tell that he should shut up so this guy can go bang his wife?
Hunding eats almost an entire meal before he realizes what's going on. Is he that dumb that he only realizes who is in his midst three minutes after he's been told? Where did you ever get the impression that Hunding is stupid? Hunding is not stupid. He is cruel. He is malevolent, but he is not stupid. Your directorial choices are stupid.
Lightning when Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree? Really? REALLY? This was the most hackneyed thing I've ever seen on an opera stage (to this point- she does surpass it at the end of the act) ever. I turned to the Opera Tattler, seated beside me, and just shook my head in dismay.
Siegmund and Sieglinde start to get it on, just like in Chereau's Ring, but then wait! Coitus interruptus as they run off into the sunset, both hands holding up Notung, with a glorious sunset on the back scrim. Okay, this wins as the most hackneyed thing I've ever seen on an opera stage. Absolutely awful! Disney does the Ring, it looked like it should have been in Sleeping Beauty.
Act 1 successes: well, the music and singing were superb.
Act 2 failures:
Brunnhilde bounds on the stage like Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan, with the exact same bob. Then proceeds to act like Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan.
Brunnhilde leaps on Wotan's back for a piggy-back ride. Again- what the hell were you thinking Francesca? Oh wait, you make that kind of clear at the end of the third act and frankly, it made me kind of nauseous.
WHY DOES BRUNNHILDE HAVE A PURSE? What exactly is in that bag, anyway? Heads of heroes?
Act 2 successes: two dogs run across the stage- neither stops to pee on the tree holding the sword!
Act 3 Failures:
Having the act start with video rather than live action for the most famous musical sequence of the entire Ring. Then the Valyries land on the stage done up as WW1 WAFS. Hello Ms. Zambello? They are Valkyries, not WAFS. This was just stupid- a novelty entrance meant to excite rather than illuminate the story or characters. Utter failure, especially since the program makes no mention of the fact that the images of fallen heroes they hold are actual U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghansitan. You almost are doing these men a disservice by not mentioning this to the audience in the program. Shame on you.
The final scene between Wotan and Brunnhilde. What is with all this cuddling and affection? Why is Brunnhilde sitting in his lap? In Act 2, when Fricka walks in and gives Brunnhilde a nasty look it appears like one of jealousy because she's the favorite child borne of another woman. By the time you get to Act 3, with all of this affection it looks like there has actually been two incestuous relationships going on in this opera and Fricka's initial disdain of Brunnhilde was more a look of "Why are you fucking my husband/your father?" disgust. I'm sorry, but this insinuation really creeps me out. What the hell is wrong with you that you want to go there? That's not a part of the story. Why make it all Jon Benet for us? Ugh. Gross. Creepy. Make it stop!
Act 3 successes: I did not get at all excited at the prospect of Wotan getting it on with his daughter.
Now, if you want to see how to stage this thing right, get your ass down to LA and see the Freyer Ring before it's over.
Over lunch, as I was relating my thoughts to him, Patrick asked me if I may have liked this more if I hadn't seen the brilliant LA Walkure a couple of weeks ago. Probably, but that's akin to asking if I think Lionel Ritchie could be considered funky if I never heard James Brown. Too late for all that, says I.
Finally, Lisa- nice to finally meet you, awkward as it was, and thank you for switching seats with Naomi.
All photos by Cory Weaver, stolen without shame from SFO's website.