Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: Stemme, Delavan, Lead Power Cast of San Francisco Opera “Walkuere” – June 13, 2010

June 17th, 2010

I was fortunate to be able to attend both the first and second performances of San Francisco Opera’s mounting of Wagner’s “”Die Walkuere” in a co-production with the Washington National Opera, conceived by the American stage director Francesca Zambello (See my review at An American “Walkuere”: Runnicles, Wagner and Zambello At San Francisco Opera – June 10, 2010.) Since I also attended and reviewed the first showing of the production in Washington DC in 2007 (See my review at Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007), I have had the opportunity to reflect on the “Walkuere” and its place in the Zambello “American Ring”.

In my previous comments on the San Francisco Opera’s “Walkuere” and also in my comments on the the complete “Ring” cycles being performed this season by the Los Angeles Opera (see my review at An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walkuere”, May 30, 2010), I mentioned obliquely a detectible reluctance among some opera goers whom I would expect to attend any Wagnerian opera to explore either Los Angeles Opera’s Freyer Ring or San Francisco Opera’s Zambello Ring.

I suspect this reluctance is simply the result of some opera goers having become allergic to carelessly conceived, even puerile, productions of operatic masterpieces by concept designers who seem to have a low regard for the pieces they have been commissioned to mount. Having been burned in the past, these opera goers peruse images of differently costumed “Ring” productions, with the same prejudice that I would have for a serious Verdi opera with men costumed as giant bumble bees. (If you think I have offered an example so ridiculous no one could have conceived it, I will return to the subject of such a  production in Europe on a later occasion.)

I have established myself as a partisan of BOTH the Freyer and Zambello innovations, and defend each as serious efforts that reach the essence of Wagner’s “Ring”, but in fundamentally different ways.

Freyer presents the “Ring” as an intensely choreographed experience that uses unusally costumed artists, singing and non-singing, to personify musical themes and ideas. One becomes aware that almost none of Wagner’s “Ring” characters are human beings – certainly none that are descended from several human generations – and that those who at least have two human parents (Siegfried, Gunther, Gutrune) are more often than not under the spell of a non-human or half-human being.

Zambello’s characters are presented as differently from Freyer’s as one can imagine. All of the characters, regardless of their genus and species, have distinctly human-like motivations – so human that one may describe Zambello  as an obvious disciple of the movement  unleashed by Stanislavsky and Strassberg to encourage new, naturalistic styles of acting in the legitimate theater – both classical and early modern – and in the cinema. It is this natural style of acting in its various permutations that has revolutionized opera performance. Those acting styles are taught in the Young Artists programs of  the American opera companies and often enrich the best of the regietheater in Europe.  It permeates the Zambello “Walkuere”.

Six accomplished actors –  Nina Stemme, Mark Delavan, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris, Raymond Aceto and Janina Baechle – all with superb Wagnerian voices, present a thesis that seems at an opposite pole from Freyer’s. They might be mighty gods, or valkyries, or god-fathered mortals, or just a plain Joe, but they all are motivated by the same concerns as human beings we all know.

Affection, Violence and Method Acting in the House of Hunding

In contemplating the images that would comprise an “American Ring”, staging the first act of “Walkuere” provides the opportunity for some far-reaching commentary on both the “Ring” and the American character.  In my essay on the first San Francisco performance three days previously, I described Hunding as a villain. Certainly, Wagner writes the libretto and music in a way designed for us to see Siegmund and Sieglinde as heroes with whom we must be sympathetic, and Hunding, the person who stands in the way of their love and happiness, as the bad guy. We certainly are prepared to relate to Wotan’s charge in the second act that  Hunding was holding his wife hostage in a loveless marriage from which her escape was justified.

When Hunding and Fricka are costumed as barbarians, we are quite prepared to accept the premise that this is a society in which an oppressive legalism has taken hold of human society. Fricka, as Wotan phrases it, understands only what is in the past, not recognizing that Wotan, Siegmund, and Sieglinde would have been the agents of the forces of good, setting in motion their recovery of the Nibelung Ring, had not Fricka intervened at this inopportune time.

But hold on! Zambello’s Hunding is no barbarian. He is attentive to his wife, and is obviously proud of her and their neat, knick-knack filled home. He shares his beer bottle with her, in a gesture we can imagine she welcomed on a hundred other occasions. He certainly appears to be a good provider, and is loyal and decent to his kinsmen. If his definition of the division of responsibility for tasks within a marriage will not pass muster just anywhere these days, there are plenty of marriages that operate just like the one Zambello portrays, both in America and throughout the world, even in the 21st century.

Zambello’s conceptualization is a profound one. If Hunding acts like so many men we may know, even if he may be potentially more violent than your average guy, we are not  surprised that the sudden appearance of a strange man, to whom his wife is obviously attracted, and will soon run away with, angers him.

The fact that an external party, even if  it be the chief among the gods, regards his wife and her new lover-to-be as part of a grand design to save the universe would not change Hunding’s opinion of the situation one bit. Adultery and alienation of affections are grievable offenses in the American legal system just as they obviously were in the time of the gods of Valhalla. Hunding regards himself as the wronged party, and the argument that vengeance is due him is one that would gain him sympathy throughout the world, even today. This makes the scene of Fricka’s arguments and Wotan’s capitulation to them, not esoteric ideas, but absolutely believable responses to a situation we can better understand when it is presented in this way.

[Below: Siegmund (Christopher Ventris), who has been correctly suspected of intending to assert himself into Hunding’s marriage, is held captive and weaponless, and is expected to fight a duel to the death the next morning; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The acting chemistry in each of the opera’s four scenes was extraordinary. If there is a DVD made of Aceto, Ventris and Westbroek, as they sort out the interactions between Hunding, Siegmund and Sieglinde in this small rural American household, I would recommend that it be shown not only to opera acting classes, but the students of the legitimate theater as well.

[Below: a shackled Siegmund searches Hunding’s front room for the weapon promised him in his hour of need; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

However realistic the acting is, production designer Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan, encase the acting in ingeniously surrealistic settings. The shadow of a tree darkens a portion of the house’s front siding. When the house’s front disappears upward, the ash tree, in a shape identical to the previous tree shadow, is rooted in the middle of the living room. But when the sword is pulled from it by Siegmund, that tree also ascends into the sky. Then, the lyrical beauty of Wagner’s first act music, and the rapturous singing of Ventris and Westbroek, is enveloped in the image of a giant  full moon that magically floats across the sky.

[Below: Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) and Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) discover they are brother and sister; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photoraph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wotan’s Women

I remarked earlier on Janina Baechle’s Fricka, whose portrayal of Fricka had some subtle differences from her counterpart in the Washington National Opera. Previously, Fricka and Wotan were presented with an obviously sexual teasing that I thought added some insight into the Wotan-Fricka relationship.

But seeing Baechle and Delavan performing this a second time, I will concede that Baechle’s smugly ironic demeanor was consistent with what Zambello was trying to portray, and that adding a sexual layer would be at least irrelevant to the subject at hand, and perhaps potentially at cross purposes with a believable defense of Hunding’s position.

The playfulness between Delavan’s Wotan and Stemme’s Bruennhilde that had preceded Fricka’s arrival, including a piggy-back ride on Wotan’s shoulders, worked very nicely and contrasted with the sour mood into which Wotan obviously had fallen after Fricka destroyed his illusions.

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan) understands he has no choice but to see his son killed in battle and must order Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme) to abandon his son as well; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Zambello’s portrayal of the valkyries as paratroopers was chosen as the image to market the “Ring” and, as I have remarked in my reviews of both the Washington and first San Francisco performances, the effect is intensely theatrical.

However, there is sombre element to the Valkyrie scenes. I had previously reported on the appearance of men in uniform carrying their pictures, crossing the stage during the second act appearance of Bruennhilde before Siegmund.

These photographs are prominent also in the famous third act Walkuerenritt. Each of the large square black and white photographs carried by the valkyries or placed by them in the vertical racks that hold them, is a fallen serviceman, killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and incorporated into the production with the permission of each servicemen’s surviving family.

At only one instant in the production do the valkyries assemble as a group to hold up the portraits, as is seen in the picture below, but I have chosen that one to illustrate that the job of valkyries is to bring honor to battlefield heroes. When these photographs appear in both its second and third acts,  it has a truly emotional effect.

[Below: the Valkyries (Wendy Bryn Harmer, Suzanne Hendrix, Tamara Wapinsky, Pamela Dillard, Daveda Karanas, Maya Lahyani, Priti Gandhi and Molly Fillmore) carry the images of fallen American servicement to Valhalla; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As a final note, it is very satisfying, as a person who has always believed that Wagnerian opera can and should be sung beautifully (a statement that implies that I don’t think it  always happen that way), that there is such a high level of Wagnerian singing taking place this month in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. I have already acknowledged that Placido Domingo has provided an incomparable example of Wagnerian artistry to his generation and has set high standards for the singers who have come after him.

The “Walkuere” cast in San Francisco is uniformly excellent, each of the principals demonstrating power voices required to realize the large sound that Wagner expects of his orchestra and principal singers, but also able to sing lyrically, and to act persuasively. Two of the principals, Mark Delavan and Nina Stemme, stood out even among the outstanding. One or the other will star in each opera of next summer’s Zambello Rings and both will appear together in two of the Ring operas. That augurs well for powerfully and beautifully sung performances of this spectacularly conceived reading of one of the great human works.

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