Die Walküre

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
Date/Location
13 June 2010
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
SiegmundChristopher Ventris
HundingRaymond Aceto
WotanMark Delavan
SieglindeEva-Maria Westbroek
BrünnhildeNina Stemme
FrickaJanina Baechle
HelmwigeTamara Wapinsky
GerhildeWendy Bryn Harmer
OrtlindeMolly Fillmore
WaltrauteDaveda Karanas
SiegruneMaya Lahyani
GrimgerdePamela Dillard
SchwertleiteSuzanne Hendrix
RoßweißePriti Gandhi
Gallery
Reviews
Los Angeles Times

San Francisco’s feminist ‘Die 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 | June 23, 2010

The SF Examiner

Forging a masterpiece with magic fire

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” which opened Thursday in the War Memorial, is an absolute joy.

A near-flawless ensemble performance by a hundred stars –singers, orchestral players and production personnel – offers the kind of opera fans travel the world for, finding it rarely.

Donald Runnicles, who made his San Francisco debut 20 years ago conducting outstanding Wagner, has matured into a wise, self-effacing giant of an interpreter.

Under his baton – with a stunning orchestra, including world-class brass and woodwinds performances – the music flows as if by itself.

Runnicles doesn’t push, doesn’t reach for effect, he invokes a sound from the pit which embraces and lifts the singers. There are long stretches when the orchestra virtually disappears, and all you hear is the music.

A great new Wotan has arrived. Mark Delavan is both majestic and heartbreakingly human. His acting, diction and warm, broad voice impress throughout. He evoked tears from me in the magic fire scene.

When he stumbles under the weight of his sorrow, when he spits out words of anger, Delavan joins the historic line of Wotans to remember.

Equally powerful in that scene is Nina Stemme, in her role debut as Brünnhilde, a career climax.

Earlier, when she first appears in a costume and attitude that recall the Baader-Meinhof gang, she takes over the stage, and her dark, powerful voice fills the 3,200-seat hall.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde shares Stemme’s power, but hers is a brighter and even more penetrating voice.

She and Christopher Ventris’ Siegmund make an outstanding singing-acting pair, with a love duet that sweeps the listener away. They are pursued by Raymond Aceto’s Hunding, menace personified.

Ventris sings beautifully, but his voice became slightly diminished as the evening wore on. (He and Delavan, who had a couple miniscule rough patches, may be both victims of the late San Francisco spring, with its high pollen count.)

Janina Baechle’s matronly, quietly assured, understandably nasty Fricka fit well into the ensemble of stars.

The eight young Valkyries made a splendid chorus, but didn’t impress individually.

Much will be said about Francesca Zambello’s direction, especially about its unusual touches on Michael Yeargan’s bold sets, for example: parachuting Valkyries (show-stopping, attention-diverting), Wotan’s executive office in the high rise of what may be Walhalla, Inc. (good), and the urban wilderness under a bridge to nowhere for Siegmund’s death.

But I kept focusing on something else – how Zambello moves the characters around the stage with care and thought.

Enemies of various kinds in “Walküre” typically stand apart. Zambello brings them together – provocatively, meaningfully. However brutal Hunding is with Sieglinde, they also have a physical connection, at time going both ways, she touching him not only to protect Siegmund, but also with intimacy.

Even at the point of Wotan’s maximum frustration with Fricka, the two touch and then part. For Zambello and her characters, life is more complex than either/or.

Although there are (low-key) references to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flashy scenes such as mentioned above, this is not the “American ‘Ring'” Zambello started out to create.

With Runnicles, the orchestra, the extraordinary singers, this “Walküre” is part of what promises to be a great “Ring” in summer 2011.

June 11, 2010

San Francisco Chronicle

Triumph of voice and vision in San Francisco Opera production of ‘Walküre’

What could be more exhilarating than a full-scale operatic triumph, joining musical splendor with sleek dramatic insight and an imaginative visual component? Well, how about one that points the way, at least in part, toward more of the same?

The San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” which opened Thursday night at the War Memorial Opera House, is just such a triumph, a magnificent reminder of what this company is capable of when all the stars are in alignment.

An astonishingly strong cast of singers, operating under the muscular and alert leadership of former Music Director Donald Runnicles, brought vocal allure to Wagner’s score. Director Francesca Zambello’s production, set in the early decades of the 20th century, uses the prism of American history to illuminate the interplay of power, fate and love in the drama, and the witty, evocative stage design offers a fine visual backdrop for the action.

But wait, there’s more.

This “Walküre,” for all its rewards, is only a down payment on the company’s new “Ring” cycle, due for a complete unveiling next summer. And more persuasively than the suggestive but sometimes uncertain “Rheingold” production that began the project in 2008, it promises a coherent and dramatically effective interpretation of this open-ended fable.

Moving forward from the Gold Rush setting of “Rheingold,” “Walküre” unfolds in the heady days of pre-Depression America, in which the explosion of wealth is creating the bustle of cities and skyscrapers, but also social and economic imbalance.

In the first act, Hunding’s hut is a modest clapboard A-frame in the woods, and Sieglinde is a Midwestern housewife in gingham, just waiting a few more years for hardship and despair to bring Dorothea Lange to her doorstep. Valhalla in Act 2 is a corporate boardroom, looking down on a comic-book view of Metropolis as Wotan — now a middle-aged tycoon with a telling forelock of white hair — preens in his three-piece suit.

Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Mark McCullough’s lighting all contribute to the theatrical exuberance, which reaches a peak in the final act. Here the Valkyries are depicted as gung-ho paratroopers, coming in for onstage landings clutching grainy portraits of their dead warriors.

All of this could easily have been a matter of gimmickry and simplistic scene-shifting. But Zambello, with a nimble assist from Jan Hartley’s screen projections, helps the audience feel the undercurrents of energy and force that go into the making — and eventual destruction — of a world power.

And aside from some overemphatic stage business in Act 1 — Hunding continues to remind the audience what a thuggish lout he is, long after even the dullest observer has got the point — the drama unfolds with canny specificity throughout.

On Thursday, Runnicles did his part to tap that sense of flux, conducting with propulsive power and a welcome degree of rhythmic freedom. The Opera Orchestra was not always at its best (there were already signs of fatigue from the brass), but the main points were splendidly made.

And from a vocal standpoint, this was one of the company’s most memorable showings in many a season. Soprano Nina Stemme was a superb Brünnhilde, bringing buoyancy and verve to a role that is too often undertaken through sheer force.

A hint to her modus operandi came during the first cries of “Ho-jo-to-ho,” which she launched as if from some vocal springboard; the results carried cleanly and without effort. The same lightness and lyricism served her well throughout Act 2, in her interchanges with Wotan and then with Siegmund, and the heroism of Act 3 boded well for the more daunting challenges of the rest of the cycle.

Mark Delevan’s Wotan has grown in stature and assurance since “Rheingold,” and he brought stirring insight to the long narrative of Act 2, as well as ferocious power to the showdown with Brünnhilde in Act 3. By the end of the evening he was tiring, though he maintained a pose of authority throughout.

But the evening’s most thrilling performance came from Dutch soprano Eva-Marie Westbroek, whose company debut as Sieglinde was an amalgam of startling vocal power, unruffled technical finesse and dramatic cogency. Westbroek, unfortunately, is not scheduled to return in the role for the complete “Ring,” but clearly the company will have to bring her back again in something else, and soon.

Tenor Christopher Ventris as Siegmund was a wonderful match for her, bringing ardor and tonal freshness, as well as crystalline diction, to the role, and mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle made a formidable company debut as Fricka, singing with wit and bravado. Only Raymond Aceto’s Hunding, sonorous but technically unsteady, fell below the curve.

And as a final index of this production’s greatness, consider that even the eight Valkyries in Act 3 — so often an undifferentiated mass of female vocalism — sounded brilliant. They were Wendy Bryn Harmer, Tamara Wapinsky, Daveda Karanas, Suzanne Hendrix, Molly Fillmore, Maya Lahyani, Pamela Dillard and Priti Gandhi; a hearty “ho-jo-to-ho” to the lot of them.

Joshua Kosman | June 11, 2010

ConcertoNet.com

What Price Obedience?

The San Francisco Opera’s June 25 performance of Die Walküre was an extraordinary offering of theatricality at its best. Take one operatic warhorse, add a first-class opera company, place a powerful yet disciplined orchestra in the pit, import a widely renowned opera director, set designer, and lighting expert, and then select singers of near-peerless ability. Add a dash of that ineffable quality that creates artistry from virtuosity, and voilà! A star production is the delicious result.

This production opened amid much fanfare, and ultimately, well deserved. Taking on any of Wagner’s operas, especially one of those within Der Ring des Nibelungen, is an ambitious proposition for any of the great companies, and this opera company is of a caliber to meet the challenge. Indeed, this production may well, with the benefit of hindsight, be considered one of the best interpretations of the past 50 years. The set design was a commentary on the 20th century, yet remained true to its mythological roots. Lighting not only provided exemplary ambience, but was cleverly incorporated into the staging as well.

Sopranos Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde crafted magnificent performances. Both women seem to have been destined for Wagner. Their singing was unforced, voices were true, and projection was beautifully balanced. They acted their roles convincingly and, as any virtuosic performer will do, disguised weaknesses in the libretto with a confidence many performers would envy. Tenor Christopher Ventris, as Siegmund, came very close to Westbroek’s artistry. Wotan, portrayed by bass-baritone Mark Delavan, was stalwart as he tackled this difficult role; what was occasionally missing in projection was compensated for by solid stage presence. Janina Baechle’s mezzo-soprano Fricka delivered stage presence in spades, as she and Wotan sparred and Fricka ultimately triumphed. Baechle injected a subtle humor into the scene from which it clearly profited. Bass Raymond Aceto played Hunding with a savage brutality, contrasting nicely with the lovers’ sweet passion. The remaining eight Valkyries, rather than taking their roles for granted, delivered an enthusiastic and individualistic presentation that is lacking in most interpretations and was, consequently, welcomed and refreshing.

Donald Runnicles conducted the San Francisco Opera with verve and panache, creating an exuberant foundation that must only have inspired the singers to deliver their best efforts. Here was synergy of a high degree, seldom experienced by participants and viewers alike, especially given the technical difficulty of Wagner and the demands made upon all of the artists to be at the pinnacle of their ability.

There was some unfortunate choreography, especially in the third act when the Valkyries arrive via parachute with their dead heroes. The staging of their arrival was delicious, the singing superb, but at times the women moved about the in an ungainly rather than heroic manner. Choreography in Wagner has always been an awkward issue, but there are times when it is appropriate to challenge convention. The costuming could perhaps have been designed to be more flattering to generous physiques. One wishes to see bodies move gracefully to such a luscious musical score. Possibly this aspect of the production is the easiest to improve, and is the only element preventing it from being unreservedly considered one of just a few definitive interpretations.

A delightful surprise in the third act was the spectacle of the “dogs of war,” an offering happening so rapidly that only the attentive would witness two large dogs bounding across the stage as the inevitable battle between the characters was about to begin. These cameo appearances may be a harbinger of future starring roles for such talented canines. All whimsy aside, clearly the entire project was an effort of immense dedication and love both for operatic artistry and for its appreciative audience, requiring much talent, stamina and steely discipline among all involved in this performance.

This production of Die Walküre is a significant addition to its performance history, and one of which the San Francisco Opera should be justifiably proud, surpassing as it did its own high standards. It is becoming increasingly difficult for a major opera company to finance an entire Ring Cycle, and, in fact, this is a co-production with the Washington National Opera. Given the enormous stress of live performance, epic-length projects, coordination and funding, the excellence of this particular production is quite astounding. One departs the theatre wondering if one is witnessing the Twilight of Artistic Production as it is traditionally experienced.

Claudia K. Nichols | War Memorial Opera House June 25, 2010

Seenandheard-International.com

Valkyries parachuting down in aviatrix garb, warriors dressed in World War I uniforms, Wotan as a three-piece-suited captain of industry, and Valhalla as a vaguely Art Deco high-rise overlooking a Gothan-like city set San Francisco Opera’s newest installment of Wagner’s Die Walküre firmly in the first half of the 20th century. It was a time of conflicts between good and evil that made it seem as if the world could come to an end, which is more or less what Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is all about, and why this co-production with Washington Opera, updated in several details since its debut in 2007 there, works on many levels.

Michael Yeargan’s set designs remain sketchy enough to integrate with the overall thrust of Wagner’s drama, in which Wotan’s optimism that he can sort out his problems and save the world are shot down, only to find a glimmer of hope that a yet-unborn Siegfried could save the game in the next two chapters. Francesca Zambello’s direction focuses tightly on the personal interactions of the characters, right down to a brilliant team of eight valkyries that not only sang spectacularly well but created unmistakably individual characters.

All that would matter little if the music did not come through. Conductor Donald Runnicles, who led complete Ring cycles in 1990 and 1999 when he was music director of this company, shaped a muscular, vital, no-holds-barred performance from the orchestra. Nearly note-perfect, the pace and phrasing propelled the action nicely and inspired some superb singing.

Act I belonged to Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in her house debut. Her Sieglinde, which she has sung at both Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, oozed vulnerability even as she made the melodic lines gleam. As a Siegmund just a few decibels short of heroic, English tenor Christopher Ventris still managed to create a believable character and ride the musical lines effortlessly. His “Winterstürme” had a beautiful arc, and the final duet melded well with Westbroek.

From the first moments, this production made effective use of moving images, starting with a mad run through the forest seen from Siegmund’s eyes, projected onto a forward scrim. Changing sky views on the rear scrim added to the visual richness. In Act I the walls of Hunding’s hut open to reveal a gigantic moon rising against a dark blue sky, followed by red and orange pre-dawn skies.

As Hunding, bass Raymond Aceto manhandled Sieglinde, aptly demonstrating and why she wants out. His dark voice carried plenty of menace.

In Act II, bass-baritone Mark Delavan created a Wotan who started out joyful only to see his planning exposed and crumbled after a fateful visit from his long-suffering wife, Fricka (German mezzo soprano Janina Baechle, making her U.S. debut). Deploying a rich, focused sound, and done up rather like Margaret Dumont, she knows she has the upper hand in this conflict as the goddess of marriage, and she savors it.

Delavan relished every turn in the long monologue/scene that follows. His voice has the requisite richness and, when needed, power, but it’s essentially a bel canto sound. That’s perfect for this long scene in which he explains his dilemma to his favorite daughter, and despite her reluctance, he commands her to let Siegmund die in his confrontation with Hunding.

Nina Stemme, singing Brünnhilde despite an announced bronchial infection, displayed no obvious effects of illness. In fact, she bounded around the stage without missing a note. Her opening salvo of ho-yo-to-ho’s might have had a bit more snap up top, but she drove the second scene of the act with impressively long singing lines. Her death-announcement scene with Siegmund felt true and affecting, as a stately parade of soldiers, holding photographs of the faces of actual U.S. servicemen who have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan, walked solemnly past in the background. Her decision to defy her father’s order and help Siegmund emerges naturally.

On the technical side, Siegmund’s sword actually broke in half on cue as Wotan pointed his spear at it. At the end of the act, in a telling dramatic choice, rather than disposing of Hunding with a flick of his wrist, as is often done, this Wotan walks up to him and twists his neck, another reference to 20th-cenruty warfare and an indication of how involved this god has become.

Scenically and musically, Act III brought the opera to a fitting climax. In a marvelous coup-de-theatre, the valkyries parachute in two or three at a time, and enter holding some of the photographs from the previous scene, indicating the warriors they were bringing to Valhalla. A ramp and stairs surround a circular rock center stage. The famous “Ride of the Valkyries” got an especially deft reading from Runnicles and the orchestra, as the singers distinguished themselves in both senses of the word. Delavan entered with barely controlled bluster, setting up a crackling final scene with Brünnhilde.

From an acting standpoint, there were several nice touches here. Once he decides how to punish her, Wotan sits on a step and Brünnhilde nestles against his lap in a picture-book father-daughter moment. This valkyrie, accepting her fate, walks to the rock on her own and lies upon it. Once Wotan puts her to sleep, he lifts her head and lovingly rests it on her backpack.

Musically, Stemme’s plea, with its a cappella phrases, was impeccably sung, and her entire scene felt movingly human. Although Delavan showed signs of flagging vocally, he tapped into some hidden reserve to deliver a full-bore, heart-rending “Leb wohl.” As the Magic Fire Music welled up, real fire sprang up around the stairs and ramps left, right and behind Brünnhilde’s rock. Finally, a scrim fell to show flames projected in front.

Media and public reaction to this production, which debuted June 10, has been ecstatic. The company presents three complete Ring cycles next June, with only Stemme and Delavan scheduled to reprise their roles from this cast.

Harvey Steiman | War Memorial Opera House 22.6.2010

MusicalCriticism.com

Those few seconds of expectant silence between the final chord and start of the applause could only have meant one thing: it was a triumph. Once the curtain fell for Die Walküre’s first night, the audience at the War Memorial House needed a few moments to go back to reality and realize that what they experienced had been one of those rare near-perfect performances. Former San Francisco Opera music director Donald Runnicles was back on the podium, and together with a stellar cast, he filled the auditorium with four and a half hours of exceptional music.

This Walküre is part of the tetralogy directed by Francesca Zambello that the SF Opera will perform over the summer of 2011. Zambello has famously called her concept for this production as the ‘American Ring’: its aspiration is to give shape to obsessions of modern society in the States, from global war, to pollution, to urban isolation. The performers are in modern costumes (conceived by Catherine Zuber). Michael Yeargan’s settings give the space multidimensional qualities, widening the actual stage. If the first act takes place in a generic house of a hunter in the woods, the second act makes it clear that we are far from an ahistorical Valhalla: first, from the window of Wotan’s office we observe a financial centre crowded with skyscrapers; eventually we are at the feet of a sinister unfinished highway with scattered tyres across a wasteland.

The visual realization of Zambello’s concept has been criticized by some, after it was first seen at Washington National Opera in 2008. Some ideas were deemed clichéd – such as Wotan being the boss of a capitalist empire (which brings back to mind the famous Bayreuth Ring by Chéreau in 1976); and some visual effects appear quite naïve – such as the initial video projection (one of the many by Jan Hartley) prosaically too similar to a screen-saver; or lightning synchronized to some crucial narrative moments such as Siegfried’s conquer of Nothung.

These critiques are understandable. FanciullaNonetheless, Zambello’s concept was sufficiently functional to sustain the dramatic economy of the opera. If some projections were a little clumsy, others were used with grace: I have in mind the fire surrounding Brünnhilde which, together with the actual fire on stage, conferred the moment a touching slow-motion quality, giving the scene had an almost cinematic dimension. Perhaps the naïve moments are helpful for underlining the mythological perspective—which is inevitable. What is more, the emotional charge of the performance was sustained in many ways: the stage direction was precise and attentive to every nuance of the work, and there was a balance between the political and the familiar relationships, and the intertwining of the two. The singers were all intelligently choreographed, and the result was a harmonious, moving and thought-provoking performance.

FanciullaThe musical interpretation of this Walküre was, for me, the pinnacle of the 2009-10 season for the SF Opera. Eva-Maria Westbroek made her Sieglinde shine: through her dense soprano voice, she built a solid character, and tender at the same time. The warmth of her Sieglinde was most evident in her interaction and growing relationship with her lost brother as well as current lover, Siegmund, sung by British tenor Christopher Ventris. The woman’s realization that she could remember a past together with him (‘sah ich dich schon!’, ‘I have seen you before’), the growing awareness of their love and the possibility of an escape from their sorrowful lives were all manifest in their performances. Ventris’ delicate and accurate delivery was supported by Westbroek’s fiery timbre, complementing each other wonderfully.

Women are warriors as much as men in this Walküre. I refer not only to the Walkyries: Sieglinde physically helps Siegmund in extracting the sword Nothung from the ash tree, and she steals the weapon from his hands in one of her most climatic moments. Bravest of all, Brünnhilde, was portrayed by an incredible Nina Stemme, who masters the role with an immense ease. Her performance, together with that of Westbroek, was flawless. She filled the whole house with energy and passion, when on stage, and in the moments when she was not singing, she was able to dig into the psychology of her character through her movements, looks, and interaction with the other protagonists. A particularly emotional moment was the one in which she seems unable to calm down her father: her ‘War es so schmählich?’ (‘was [my deed] so shameful’?) was breathtaking, and she seemed as if she were singing from a body that had been torn apart – so intense was the pain Stemme was exploring.

FanciullaThe complexity of Wotan was masterfully rendered by Mark Delevan’s interpretation. His timbre is rich and agile. He managed to exploit all the dimensions of this character: his heartfelt love and trust for Brünnhilde, his helplessness in political matters, his indecisiveness. He suffered from some fatigue during Act 3, and was flat at certain points. But this did not much affect his performance: his Wotan was a deeply touching figure from beginning to the very end. The exceptional beauty of the score came to life in all its puissance in those scenes in which both Delevan and Stemme were on stage.

Piercing horns signalled the arrival of Hunding, played by Raymond Aceto. His was a tremendously convincing performance: vocally, his penetrating bass voice never faltered. He was able to make of his character a real thug. Janina Baechle’s Fricka, as well, was an imposing and merciless figure. Her timbre was less bright when in dialogue with that of Stemme’s, but her performance was a fine one. The Valkyries chorus was very effective from a dramatic perspective, even if some voices were weaker and somewhat overpowered by the orchestra.

Donald Runnicles demonstrated a huge sensitiveness towards the score. His reading was not sensationalistic: instead, he went for details, nuances, and precision. As in the previous night’s performance of La fanciulla del West, the SF Opera Orchestra sounded in great shape: every second of music was filled with tension. Runnicles, together with Stemme and Delevan, will be back for the SFO Ring in 2011—and I, for one, can’t wait to hear the whole cycle on stage.

Marina Romani | War Memorial Opera House 12.6.2010

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A production by Francesca Zambello (2010)