Opera Warhorses

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

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Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011

June 16th, 2011

This is the fourth time I have reviewed Francesca Zambello’s reconceptualization of Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, the second installment of the four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs”. The Wotan and Bruennhilde for three of the reviewed performances, respectively, were Mark Delavan and Nina Stemme. The Sieglinde for two of the performances was Anja Kampe, and I also reviewed her Sieglinde in a different production.

And, of course, Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera orchestra were present for three of them. Therefore, it will not surprise regular readers of my reviews that I regard Delavan, Stemme, Kampe and Runnicles as capable of holding their own at any performance of “Walkuere” anywhere in the world.

[My previous posts on the Zambello “Walkuere” may be read at: Zambello’s Dazzling “American ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007 and An American “Walkuere”: Runnicles, Wagner and Zambello At San Francisco Opera – June 10, 2010 and A Second Look: Stemme, Delavan, Lead Power Cast of San Francisco Opera “Walkuere” – June 13, 2010.]

“Die Walkuere” requires six first rank principal singers and eight additional powerful female voices who, as Bruennhilde’s sister valkyies sing more or less as an ensemble.  Joining the three Zambello “Ring” veterans cited above were a new Siegmund, Fricka and Hunding.

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” (see my review at “Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011.)

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich is Siegmund; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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.)

[Below: Hunding’s men stand outside Hunding’s house as Hunding (Daniel Sumegi, interior center) confronts Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich, interior left) who has been alone with his wife Sieglinde (Anja Kampe, interior right); resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

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. [For my recent interview, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich.]

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. (For may previous reviews, see the Washington National Opera performance cited above and also Sonic Splendor: Domingo, Conlon Lead Impressively Sung, Engaging “Walkuere” for L. A. Opera – April 12, 2009.)

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.)

[Below: Hunding (Daniel Sumegi) holds his wife, Sieglinde (Anja Kampe); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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, “Walkuere’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 “Goetterdaemmerung”, 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.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, right) visits Wotan (Mark Delavan, left)  who sits at his penthouse conference table; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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 “Walkuere”, 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 “Walkuere” 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”.

[Below: Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) explains to Wotan (Mark Delavan) why it is she who must be obeyed; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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 Todesverkuending – Bruennhilde’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.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, back left) appears before Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich, seated, center) to announce his impending death; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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 “Goetterdaemmerung”), Renee Tatum (Grimgerde), Lauren McNeese (Rossweise), Tamara Wapinsky (Helmwige), Cybele Gouverneur (Schwertliete) and Adler Fellows Sara Garland (Gerhilde) and Maya Lahyani (Siegrune).

[Below: Bruennhilde’s eight sisters wonder what’s keeping her; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

As alluded to in the first paragraph, despite the many wonders in “Walkuere”, a great total performance requires great performances by the two principals -Wotan and Bruennhilde. 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.

[Below: Nina Stemme is Bruennhilde; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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

For other “Walkuere” reviews, see:

An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walkuere”, May 30, 2010, and also,

Domingo, Kirov “Walkuere” in Costa Mesa – October 7, 2006, and also,

Die Walkuere – November 4, 1956.


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