Arts & Events

Opera Review: Raves from a Low-Brow for SF Opera Die Walkure

By John A. McMullen II
Monday June 28, 2010 - 06:02:00 PM
Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
Cory Weaver
Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)

What?Four and half hours at the Opera!Wagner?The Anti-Semite?Nazi music with the corny parody of the Fat Lady with the Horned Helmet? How many cappuccini would I have to drink to stay awake?What could keep my attention for that long?How about an octet of sopranos parachuting onto the stage?How about lightning strikes and roiling thunderclouds on the diorama?Maybe a real ring of fire!You get it all at the War Memorial Opera House, and the voices are as spectacular as the stagecraft. 

DIE WALKÜRE at SF OPERA is the best opera I’ve ever seen, excluding the romanticized memory of my first-time when my mom and pop took me to the Pittsburgh Opera to see Aida when I was 12. Five hours later, I departed into the SF midnight mist wide awake and totally regaled with the tale and artistry I’d witnessed. 

This installation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is about the Valkyries who decide who will die in battle and who protect the heroes in battle or, when they fall, escort them to Valhalla; it translates as “choosers of the slain.” 

Wotan is the Zeus of the Norse pantheon, and Mark Delavan’s rich baritone is godlike.He is the image of the captain of industry, directing destiny from his high rise office that is out of a Brecht play in black-and-white.He sings an extensive recitative that is part fascinating exposition, part confession that traces the legend of the ring and how he got into his current predicament of being blackmailed by his bourgeois wife Fricka (sung by German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle) to betray his hero son Siegmund who he conceived in a dalliance with a mortal.If respect is lost for the gods, then it will be twilight time, Raganrok¸ the final destiny of the gods. 

Wotan’s confidant is his daughter Brunnhilde, the main Valkyrie, who is saddled with the conundrum of carrying out Wotan’s will to abandon Siegmund in battle when every fiber of her conscience screams against it. It’s a father/daughter play, a king v. heroine play not unlike Antigone, but a very psychologically complicated play.It’s a play about war, about destiny and defying the gods.It’s about forbidden love, loyalty, and incest. It’s Olympus delivered by Freud. 

When Delavan sings Wotan, you can really appreciate the German language since his fach (i.e., the range he sings in) is closest to a speaking voice which makes the lyrics very intelligible.I never had much exposure to German; growing up, I heard Polish, Slovak, Italian, Greek, even Arabic, but little German unless you count a little Yiddish.My Italian mom always decried it as a guttural language.But lately I have been listening to it, and it is wonderfully expressive, lyrical, and almost otherworldly.It’s the language that Freud and Einstein thought and dreamed in. And after all, English is a Germanic language. 

British tenor Christopher Ventris is our Siegmund, and the clarity and brightness of his voice with his good looks and barrel-chested manliness makes him a hero to root for.Matching him is the prima donna of the Dutch opera Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, his “split-apart” long-lost twin-sister, with her buxom blonde earth-mother physicality and ethereal voice.The pairing makes us appreciate their magnetic if forbidden attraction. 

Brunnhilde is the title’s heroine: Die Walkure translates as The Valykyrie.(There are nine Valkyries, and eight sopranos singing backup to her is a sound to behold; each of the eight is good enough to be singing the leads in other Ring productions in a few years.) 

Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde is the reason for people who love great voices to spend the money.A diminutive woman dressed in corporate business wear, she has a voice as big as Valhalla; with that echo-y Wagnerian dramatic soprano full of overtones and dignity, it seems a voice that comes from a supernatural creature. 

Raymond Aceto sings the role of Hunding, the rough-hewn, abusive, possessive husband of Sieglinde from an arranged marriage. Aceto is a Vin Diesel look-alike with a bass voice that should be the example in the dictionary next to the definition of “bass voice.”He plays the villain to hilt, and we hate him instantly.Good stuff. 

I haven’t seen opera in Italy, but the sets at the SF Opera take my breath away with four separate sets with completely different moods and modes. 

The projections during the overture set the tone with a full stage video of the billowing waves of the cold blue sea that dissolve into a mesmerizing whirlpool right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The looming clouds give way to a run through the forest primeval seen through the eyes of an animal or someone in an altered state of consciousness. It leads us to the rustic cabin of Hunding and a real fire on an outside hearth.The cabin breaks away to show deer heads mounted on the wall and an ash tree growing up through the middle of the cabin.Protruding from the tree is the Enchanted Sword that only the hero can withdraw.(I learned a lot about where other myths came from through this opera—though sometimes I had to push away thoughts of The Lord of the Rings.) Then the sides of the cabin spread to encompass a breathtaking sky with a 50 foot moon to frame the reunited siblings/lovers.The side and down lighting lends the effects you see in 1940’s films with dramatic half-lit faces. 

The sky is the centerpiece throughout: incredible thunderheads, sunsets and rises that Belasco would have applauded, and lighting strikes; all stir the blood.It gives us that picture of the man on the mountaintop with the roiling sky as his background, setting himself against the gathering storm, ready to stand against Fate and the Gods, to bear the Sturm und Drang, and to prevail.This picture is the essence of the Romantic movement as defined as “the love of tragedy”: you know you’re going to lose, but you go down fighting with your dignity and defiance intact. 

The war scene happens under a post-apocalyptic freeway, but Act Four is Valhalla featuring the monolithic ramps of a transcendent Edward Gordon Craig-like design with the extraordinary finale of a real Ring of Fire (this time I had to push away thoughts of Johnny Cash—I am such a low-brow). 

Director Francesca Zambello gets lots of acting from the singers during their “extended moments” when they have to keep up the emotional connection through long passages of musical interlude.She also gets them to hit their marks to make the most out of the theatrical lighting effects. 

Donald Runnicles came back to conduct, and the audience cheered him lovingly. 

Emotionally, I think I responded with my head more than my heart until the final scene in Valhalla, but that might have been the tempi of the score or my being boggled with the wonderment of the thrill-ride. 

There were only 100 tickets left for this season’s final performance June 30 on Saturday when I wrote this, but it will come around again next summer when they reprise the entire Ring Cycle.However, if you can get in this Wednesday night, carpe diem (or, more appropriately, Nutzen Sie den Tag).You will remember this one for a long time. 

DIE WALKÜRE by Richard Wagner at the San Francisco Opera War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness St. at Grove.  

Tickets/Info or (415) 864-3330. 


Final performance June 30 at 7:00 pm; to be reprised in Summer 2011 

Co-production with Washington National Opera 

Libretto by the composer 

Approximate running time: four hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions 

Sung in German with English supertitles 

Conducted by Donald Runnicles , direction by Francesca Zambello with associate direction by Christian Räth, set design by Michael Yeargan, costume design by Catherine Zuber, choreography by Lawrence Pech, projection design by Jan Hartley, and lighting design by Mark McCullough. 

WITH: Nina Stemme, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Janina Baechle, Christopher Ventris, Mark Delavan, Raymond Aceto, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Tamara Wapinsky, Molly Fillmore, Daveda Karanas, Priti Gandhi, Maya Lahyani, Pamela Dillard, and Suzanne Hendrix. 


John A. McMullen II is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and this is his first opera review.Comments to