Die Walküre

Donald Runnicles
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
June 2011
War Memorial Opera House San Francisco
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundBrandon Jovanovich
HundingDaniel Sumegi
WotanMark Delavan
SieglindeAnja Kampe
BrünnhildeNina Stemme
FrickaElizabeth Bishop
HelmwigeTamara Wapinsky
GerhildeSara Gartland
OrtlindeMelissa Citro
WaltrauteDaveda Karanas
SiegruneMaya Lahyani
GrimgerdeRenée Tatum
SchwertleiteCybele Gouverneur
RoßweißeLauren McNeese

A vividly imaginative Walküre

Despite the flying Viking ladies, Die Walküre can be a ponderous creature, its four-and-a-half hours filled with restatement, redundancy and repetition. It is, dramatically speaking, a monster, but one that has largely been tamed thanks to the vivid imagination of Francesca Zambello’s American reconception.

Things begin in a deceptively frenetic fashion. After Jan Hartley’s eerie projections of a chase through one of California’s own redwood forests, the tenor who shall be Siegmund arrives at a backwoods cabin seeking sanctuary. The wife is nice enough – in fact, she looks alarmingly familiar – but hubby is a creepy survivalist wife-beater. The interior of the cabin is a hunting-lodge treasure trove: wood paneling, trophies of both the brass and stuffed-animal variety, and enough weaponry to start a militia.

Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi is captivating, playing hubby Hunding like a volcano that could blow at any second, while German soprano Anja Kampe conducts the tightrope walk of the abused wife, alternately comforting and fearing her psycho-spouse. Brandon Jovanovich is perfect as Siegmund, bringing to the role an athletic physicality and an absolutely gorgeous voice – particularly in the Spring Song, “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,” that initiates the love affair with Sieglinde, his rediscovered twin sister. (Yes, kind of creepy.)

The Act I tension manages to rise even further in Act 2, thanks to a magnificently dysfunctional family of gods, stationed in the boardroom of their New York Valhalla skyscraper before a god-sized black-and-white photo of the skyline. Baritone Mark Delevan delivers a much more robust Wotan than in Das Rheingold, perhaps freed up by the god’s increased power (while performing the two on consecutive nights, no less). The same is true of mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, who makes the most of much juicier material. Given the possibility of a justified righteousness given Wotan’s infidelities, her Fricka opts instead for extortion, demanding her hubby preserve the sicko Hunding’s marriage instead of the twisted twin-tryst of his beloved Siegmund. “I cannot restrain true passion,” says Wotan. Retorts Fricka, “Beings like us do not trouble ourselves with such riff-raff.” They are both truly hateful, and one fears for Brünnhilde, the ping-pong ball in the middle.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme has put her stamp on Brünnhilde. She performs with a kinetic tomboyish energy while still leaving herself open to vulnerability. Her voice follows a similar pattern: richly thunderous in her calls to the battlefield, but also, in quiet moments, exceedingly captivating – as in the beginning of her defense to Wotan, “War es so schmälich.” She also has a fantastic collection of coats , a style I call “Matrix Aviatrix.” During her covert defense of Siegmund under the astonishing frame of Michael Yeargan’s freeway-underpass battleground, it’s interesting to compare Jovanovich’s supremely natural movements with Stemme’s – wholly unnatural and yet irresistible. She is forever on her toes, like a basketball point guard, leaning forward, ready for the next sudden burst of energy.

Brünnhilde fails in her defense, makes off with the widowed Sieglinde, now pregnant with the future hero Siegfried, and flies away to another stunning vista, the home bunker of the Valkyries, who drop in from the flies as World War II paratroopers. The conceit and the lively performance of the eight sisters fashions a whole new package for the Ride of the Valkyries. Their Valhallan squadron is represented by large photos of actual American casualities, from the Civil War to Iraq.

Once the angry Wotan enters the picture, the scene drags on (as did the love scene between the twins) as he hesitates and ponders and hesitates some more regarding the punishment he must bring down on Brünnhilde. This could be the price of an updated setting. Dress a god as a human and we just don’t let him get away with as much. Painting himself into a corner to preserve his precious power and screw as many women as possible, Wotan has now decided to take it out on his daughter on a technicality. Under these terms, even the song to Brünnhilde’s “bright eyes” rings hollow. After a long, long wait, however, the audience is rewarded by a ring of fire that is simultaneously dazzling and scary.

Donald Runnicles and his orchestra play so gorgeously – particularly the much-heralded brass – that I feel like I take them for granted. That said, I send them a “Bravi!” and look forward to more.

Michael J. Vaughn | 15 June 2011


Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walküre”

Jovanovich’s Siegmund
In 2007, tenor Brandon Jovanovich was awarded the prestigious Richard Tucker Prize and subsequently was invited by the San Francisco Opera to perform the spinto roles in two Puccini operas, Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” and Luigi in “Il Tabarro”. His acting intelligence and, especially, his ringing power tenor voice led the Opera to invite him to perform his first Wagnerian roles at the War Memorial Opera House. The previous night, he entered the Wagnerian ranks with an attractively sung Froh in “Das Rheingold”

But unlike Froh, Siegmund will likely become a Jovanovich signature role as he assays the jugendlicher heldentenor repertory. (Already San Francisco Opera plans for him to the title role of “Lohengrin” in a subsequent season.)The Zambello “Ring” provides Jovanovich with a special experience for his role debut, because it places a premium on acting skills. Here he exceeded even my high expectations with his wary Siegmund, whose quick movements and head turns showed the instincts of a wild animal (which, from everything we know of Siegmund’s backstory, is how he was raised.)

Zambello’s first act is one of the four iconic settings she has created for the four places in which the opera’s action is located. Hunding’s cozy house with its hunting gear, athletic trophies and neatly stowed chinaware in its stylized way surely reflects some actual real life household interiors in the American heartland. And its normalcy underscores what to me seems to be Zambello’s point – Hunding and Sieglinde were living a more or less normal and content life before Siegmund suddenly appeared and disrupted their lives.

Kampe’s Sieglinde
The role of Sieglinde, the only character that appears in all three acts, is one whose length exceeds the lead soprano role of many of the most famous operas, yet it is only the seconda donna role in this opera. With Sieglinde assigned some of the most lyrical of all Wagner’s melodies in the first and third acts and in the second act an extended, highly dramatic emotional outpouring (as close to a mad scene as one gets in Wagner), it is one of the most demanding of soprano roles. Kampe, in her San Francisco Opera debut, passionately dispatched the assignment with a soaring top that resounded in the War Memorial.

Sumegi’s Hunding
Daniel Sumegi’s predecessors as the Zambello Hunding were Gidon Saks and Raymond Aceto (the latter creating a rather charming and attentive husband.) Sumegi was a gruffer sort, but, with his large basso voice, conveyed the dislike and dismay that the situation suggests. (I live in California with its “anything goes” reputation, yet I know no married male whom I would expect to be accepting of a previously unknown brother-in-law suddenly appearing to make love to that man’s wife.)

The second of the great Zambello images is a penthouse overlooking a vertical city from which obviously represents the corporate affairs of Wotan and Fricka and the gods (Valhalla, Inc.?) Although there is no act of the “Ring” that doesn’t advance the story, “Walküre’s” second act is the one in which Wotan’s plans go off track, as it ultimately turns out, never to be put right again. (There are things that could still have been done in the first act of “Götterdämmerung”, but, as we know, that opportunity didn’t work out for the gods either.)

It’s such an important act for the storyline that it is a special pleasure when it is presented so interestingly as Zambello does, with its touches of humor, not out of place in the context she has created.

Bishop’s Fricka
The previous night’s performance provided San Francisco audiences the chance to see Elizabeth Bishop’s “Rheingold” Fricka, which showed a secure mezzo voice with power throughout the range, and the ability to convey the image of Wotan’s apprehensive and suspicious spouse through a range of emotions. In “Walküre”, Fricka self-assuredness is her dominant character trait. Valhalla has obviously been good for her self-esteem.

It is dramatically effective to have the same person performing both the “Rheingold” and “Walküre” Frickas, particularly when there is a continuity to the inherent possibilities for humor in both roles. Bishop proved to be a winner in this role, creating one of the most indelibly memorable roles in the Zambello “Ring”.

The third powerful scenic image of Zambello’s production is the right-of-way under an abandoned freeway, where Kampe’s Sieglinde has her emotional breakdown, followed by one of the most famous and affecting moments in the entire “Ring” – the Todesverkündingung – Brünnhilde’s annunciation to Siegmund that he will die the next morning and must follow her to Valhalla.

Zambello takes an emotional moment for most Wagnerians and makes it a moment to reach for one’s handkerchief, when in the background a procession of fallen American servicemen, carrying their black and white photographs slowly march across the center stage.

The Ride and the Fire
So far, the fame of the Zambello “Ring” rests on its most ambitious image, eight parachutists arriving consecutively on the Valkyrie’s rock. It’s an astounding image, and, even seeing it for the fourth time, its effect is undiminished.

The catalogue of ladies who have sung the Valkyrie roles at San Francisco Opera include many famous artists, and there is little doubt that other great careers are ahead from among this year’s crops of extraterrestrials – for the record Melissa Citro (Ortlinde), Daveda Karanas (Waltraute, who sings the role also when the Valkyrie returns in “Götterdämmerung”), Renée Tatum (Grimgerde), Lauren McNeese (Rossweise), Tamara Wapinsky (Helmwige), Cybele Gouverneur (Schwertliete) and Adler Fellows Sara Gartland (Gerhilde) and Maya Lahyani (Siegrune).

As alluded to in the first paragraph, despite the many wonders in “Walküre”, a great total performance requires great performances by the two principals – Wotan and Brünnhilde. Delavan and Stemme each were superb in their roles. Delavan shows great comfort in his role, both vocally and histrionically. He makes an arresting impression.

Standing for Stemme
Stemme has stolen the hearts of San Franciscans, with her powerful, persuasive, intensely emotional portrait of Wotan’s favorite, but disgraced daughter. In properly Wagnerian alliteration, Stemme and “standing ovation” are words that comfortably fit together.

My recommendation, I suspect, was never in doubt, but I reiterate the worthiness of the Zambello “Walküre” and my suggestion that anyone with the opportunity to do so, attend one of the two remaining scheduled “Walküre” performances.

William Burnett | June 16, 2011


When the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” was unveiled at the War Memorial Opera House last summer, it stood as one of the company’s most exciting offerings in years. Wednesday’s reprise – part of the first complete presentation of the new “Ring” cycle – was an invigorating reminder of why.

With a few rough edges smoothed out in the first act, director Francesca Zambello’s staging – set amid the Depression-era frame houses and vaulting skyscrapers of mid-century America – now tells its story more compellingly than ever.

The playing of the Opera Orchestra and the sure-footed leadership of conductor Donald Runnicles marked yet another chapter in the splendid history of this partnership. Wagner’s score sounded rhapsodically transparent in the first act, vibrant and powerfully athletic in the second and third.

And the singers in Wednesday’s cast, which included a number of changes from last summer’s lineup, rose to their respective assignments with aplomb – not just soprano Nina Stemme, whose Brünnhilde remains the jewel of this “Ring,” but the entire vocal corps, down to and including the eight Valkyries who enliven the third act.

The result was a performance in which theatrical and musical vitality fused to create a tale of enormous emotional urgency. And “Die Walküre,” which introduces human characters into the “Ring” for the first time, marks a key step in the cycle’s four-night progress from the fairy-tale world of gods and giants in “Das Rheingold” to the almost soap-opera human interactions of the final “Götterdämmerung.”

Dextrous touch
Zambello’s dexterous touch came out most clearly in the first act, an extended dance of love and cruelty among only three characters. Since June, the character of Hunding has lost some of his more cartoonish thuggery, leaving a more chillingly believable portrait of an abusive marriage. And Zambello and Runnicles together choreographed the erotic pull between Siegmund and Sieglinde with an evocative sense of flux.

Crucial to this act was the electrifying performance by tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund. Jovanovich has so far been heard here only in Puccini, but he turned out to be a first-rate Wagner tenor as well – his voice pliant and tireless, his high notes fresh and clarion. This was a major revelation.

Making her company debut as Sieglinde, soprano Anja Kampe nearly matched him note for note. Aside from some patchiness at the top of her range, she gave a richly colored and technically secure performance. And Daniel Sumegi’s Hunding was more vocally arresting than his Fafner in “Rheingold” had been the night before.

When the drama turned to the heights of Wotan’s corporate Valhalla in Act 2, Zambello’s staging proved no less inviting. The long development of Wotan and Brünnhilde’s relationship was beautifully charted, from the carefree horseplay of their first scene together, through the trauma of her defiance and then to the heartbreaking renunciation that ends the opera.

Clarity, pathos
Stemme’s Brünnhilde burst with energy and distinction, her battle cry rising with fierce clarity and her long final monologue resplendent with rueful pathos. The Act 2 scene with Siegmund in which she foretells his death was imbued with stateliness as well as a youthful sense of ardor.

The Wotan of “Walküre” again emerged as the strongest component of Mark Delavan’s assignment. He tired a bit at the end, during Wotan’s Farewell, but elsewhere he was superb, singing with assurance and flexibility.

As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop registered a huge improvement after her unsteady contribution in “Rheingold”; in “Walküre” she made a witty, demanding and vocally powerful contribution. Kudos, too, to the paratrooper Valkyries: Sara Gartland, Tamara Wapinsky, Melissa Citro, Daveda Karanas, Lauren McNeese, Maya Lahyani, Renée Tatum and Cybele Gouverneur.

Joshua Kosman | June 17, 2011


Intimate human emotions triumph in San Francisco Opera’s “Die Walküre”

San Francisco Opera’s production of Die Walküre, presented Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, largely follows the pattern set by Das Rheingold — some superb singing, inspired musical direction by Donald Runnicles and a staging by Francesca Zambello that doesn’t quite work as a unified conceit but manages to convey the humanity of the opera.

Wotan is now a corporate CEO in tightly buttoned double-breasted suit, his Valhalla a boardroom in the clouds. Michael Yeargan’s sleek steel set — and his industrial chic scaffolding for Act 3 –are visually striking, but does this concept really bring any fresh insights to the work or characters? When Brünnhilde, wielding Wotan’s spear, climbs atop her father’s boardroom table to commence with the Hojotoho-ing, it makes for a great production photo but just seems silly. In Act 3, the Valkyries are a band of hardy parachutists, dropping in and flying across the stage.

Once again, the updated staging is most successful when it’s least coy. The opening scene when Siegmund discovers and falls in love with his sister Sieglinde is engaging and effective (Yeargan’s wry evocation of rural American kitsch in Hunding’s hut is so clever and dead-on you half-expect to see a velvet painting of dogs playing poker next to the elk heads.) The designer’s desolate littered urban setting for the fight between Siegmund and Hunding evokes the under-the-freeway Rumble from West Side Story. And the daunting three walls of real fire that surround Brunnhilde in the final scene must be giving migraines to officials at the San Francisco Fire Department.

If the updating doesn’t really cohere, even with Yeargan’s stylish visuals, Zambello is undeniably effective in conveying the opera’s deep humanity. Those moments of intimacy and love—romantic between Siegmund and Sieglinde and familial between Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde—are really what Die Walküre is all about and why it remains the most popular of the Ring operas.

In the four principal singers, San Francisco Opera has really managed to cast from strength. Brandon Jovanovich was just terrific as Siegmund. The American singer may not be a Heldentenor in the classic tradition but his instrument has power, juice and an exciting vibrancy. Jovanovich is also a wonderful actor and vividly conveyed the confusion, impetuosity and romantic intensity of the ill-fated hero.

As his twin sister and Hunding’s put-upon wife, Anja Kampe was an equally vital presence. The soprano was a bit short-breathed in Sieglinde’s high-flying moments, but she too put across the desperate passionate essence.

In her role debut, Nina Stemme made an inspiring Brünnhilde. Some of the daddy’s girl business was overdrawn, but the Swedish soprano sang with resplendent tone and great sensitivity, conveying the fiery warrior side of Wotan’s daughter as well as her sympathy for the plight of Siegmund and Sieglinde.

Mark Delavan built on his previous Wotan, rising to a performance of stature and emotional resonance. The voice remains too small for the role, yet the American baritone handled Wotan’s two great monologues with vocal poise and an apt world-weary expression. The final scene wherein the furious god forgives his defiant daughter for her disobedience offered the highlight of the cycle so far. Even with some clear vocal wear at the end of the long evening, Delavan sang with an affecting poignance and stoic melancholy. Stemme was also at her finest, and the scene was most sensitively directed by Zambello.

Elizabeth Bishop improved on her already worthy Fricka, bringing an ample mezzo and firm force to her demands that Wotan must allow Siegmund to die as punishment for the twins’ incest. Following his Fafner in Rheingold, Daniel Sumegi was an equally malignant Hunding, singing well and painting the brutish lout who swills beer and manhandles his wife.

The parachutist Valkyries (Sara Gartland, Melissa Citro, Daveda Karanas, Lauren McNeese, Tamara Wapinsky, Maya Lahyani, Renee Tatum, and Cybele Gouverneur) were a vocally uneven crew, with some chaotic ensemble moments. Jan Hartley’s atmospheric video projections helped set the forest scene and mercurial moods, the shifting colors aided by Mark McCullough’s lighting.

Donald Runnicles’ idiomatic and sensitive musical direction continues to be a principal asset in this cycle. The orchestral playing was largely worthy but overall less polished than for Rheingold. There were moments of slack ensemble and a few jarring horn bloopers from a sometimes raw-toned brass section. Hunding’s hunting horns were strangely inaudible.

Lawrence A. Johnson | June 23, 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 304 MByte (MP3)
A production by Francesca Zambello
Possible dates: 15, 22, 29 June 2011
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.