When San Francisco Opera unveiled Die Walküre a year ago I had a lot of complaints about the production but like everyone else who attended the opening night, I was captivated by the musical performance of the orchestra under Runnicles and by the quality of the singing, both of which were fantastic. A year later I'm still not a huge fan of the production, but it annoys me less now and the strong sense of disappointment I had upon leaving the opera house Wednesday night after the Walkure for Cycle 2 came from the most unlikely of sources. Director Francesca Zambello has made some small adjustments to the tighten drama and the supporting is cast different, which add up to pluses as far as what's happening onstage, but what was happening in the pit last night under Runnicles was another thing altogether- and it wasn't good.
Last year Runnicles tore into the score from the first note and never let up, conducting an illuminating, completely thrilling performance. Last night the first and second acts were performed so slowly it felt like we were hearing an entirely different conductor and orchestra. At times the music seemed to disappear altogether and in the first act there were moments when the brass caused more than one head to turn in response to some serious flubs, as if the gathered Wagnerites in the house collectively went "what the ....?"

The music only came together in the third act after the "Ride of the Valkyries" and while I know the City is currently engulfed in Runnicles-mania, after hearing Siegfried and Gotterdammerung earlier this month I can only conclude he doesn't have the grip on this orchestra he used to when he was music director of the company. It's over.
Who's yer Daddy? Photo by Cory Weaver
The other talk of the town is Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde and understandably so, though I think it's a tad over-heated. Once again she gave a gleaming performance and if her low notes were inaudible at times, the verve of her performance and the clarity and volume of her top notes makes everyone a believer. Mark Delevan's Wotan possesses an extraordinarily warm voice, best at the top as well, though when placed at the rear of the stage it loses its power. Still, Delevan was vocally convincing and if his interpretation of Wotan isn't exactly compelling I'd say that's more Zambello's fault than his. Together, Delevan and Stemme are the only pair in the cycle who match up well together vocally - a problem when so much of the fifteen hours of music is a series of one-on-one confrontations.

Brandon Jovanovich's Siegmund was definitely a highlight of the evening. His tone is beautiful and he projected easily to the back of the house with clarity and emotional intensity. It's hard to believe this is his debut in the role- he already appears to completely own it. It's also a fortuitous bit of casting that Jovanovich bears a similar physical appearance and vocal tone with Jay Hunter Morris' Siegfried, so when we see Siegmund's offspring in the next part there's a definite family resemblance being seen and heard onstage, which is continued in Gotterdammerung with Ian Storey in the same role, looking and sounding like an older version of what we've seen before.

Anja Kampe's Sieglinde was better in this production than when I heard her sing the role in LA a couple of years ago, but she looks too dowdy to be convincing as Siegmund's twin and destined lover. In the early part of the first act, when there is little competition for her against the orchestra she sounded fine, but as things progressed a shrillness found its way into her voice. In the third act she seemed spent.

Elizabeth Bishop's Fricka unfortunately has to compete against Stephanie Blythe's recent turn in the role in the Met production- a game-changer as far as interpretation goes that probably no singer would want to face and while Bishop was fine, coming on the heels of Blythe's tremendous performance seen around the world, Bishop's fine day glows a little paler. Zambello's direction again plays a large part in this, and I'll get to that in just a moment.

Last year's Hunding was a disappointment and this year's model is disappointing in a different way. Daniel Sumegi's great physical presence onstage is ideal for the part, but his voice lacks the necessary menace and malice to sell it. Groping your wife doesn't make you threatening to anyone but your wife, though it does make you look like a first-class ass when you do it front of the guests. In this production the future cuckold seems destined for it, and not a ferociously mean man whose angry claim for revenge forms one of the main plot points of the entire story.

As Valkyries, Sara Gartland, Daveda Karanas and Maya Lahyani stood out among the eight talented sisters of Brunnhilde.

However, the fact (well, my opinion actually) that Runnicles and Co. had a seriously off night wasn't my only problem with this particular night at the opera. Thankfully, Zambello has toned down the weirdness between Wotan and Brunnhilde so that it doesn't hint at yet another incestuous relationship in a story that already has two others (don't forget- Brunnhilde's daddy is also Siegfried's grandaddy)- still, the piggyback ride has got to go- seriously, ditch it. But at least the first act ended right in this reboot, with the lovers rolling on the floor in heat instead skipping off into the moonlight, but the positive changes, while appreciated, are small compared to the negatives which become magnified upon a second viewing.

What grates about this production is twofold.

First, no one in this Walküre is angry- they just come across as conflicted at best and more often simply weak or confused. That the gods have the same weaknesses as humans, often in much greater degree, is already obvious so it doesn't need any further explication in the direction. Everyone in Walküre has good reason to be seriously pissed off during at least one moment and real drama comes from confrontation and conflict, verbalized or shown, and there is very little to be seen in this production, though the story rests on a series of escalating confrontations- in fact, one could make the case the entire cycle is built on those escalations, resulting in a point where there is simply nowhere left to go but straight into the pyre. Delevan's performance could be easily acknowledged to have been brilliant if only he were allowed to be an angry Wotan turned weak instead of a weak one with nowhere to turn. On a side note- Die Walküre is. not. a. comedy. It has no funny moments. Cheap chuckles during Act 2 takes the audience out of the story and adds nothing illuminating to it.

The other thing about this which grates on me is related to the lack of anger. As Zambello's ring progresses a feminist undercurrent emerges and while she's not the first to take this route, it's still an interesting approach which can be explored in numerous ways. But in re-watching Walküre and knowing what's to come in the next two operas, I think she's overplaying the concept by making the male characters too buffoonish, thus reducing the impact of what she's trying to convey. There is no nuance here. The men in her Ring have vast reserves of mistrust, justified by the text, but with the exception of David Cangelosi's Mime in Siegfried (I have yet to see Stefan Margita's Loge), none of the male characters have been seen in a new light, say in the way that Eric Owens' Alberich in the recent Met Rheingold gave the character a devastating new interpretation. While I love the Stockholm syndrome idea Zambello attached to Freia in Rheingold,  the ferocious anger of Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung, and Gutrune's metamorphosis from bimbo to supplicant in the same, can't we have these interesting takes spread between the genders just a little bit? Just a little? I'm not saying the guys deserve a fair shake, but it would make it all that much more interesting if they weren't a hair shy of being representative caricatures of the worst qualities of the typical American male. After all, that guy probably isn't a large percentage of the audience in the house.

Still, you'll likely see me back for more next week, hoping Runnicles gets it together, and he just may because Heidi Melton takes over as Sieglinde, which is something I don't want to miss.