Saturday, June 26, 2010

Die Walküre in San Francisco Opera

I just attended Die Walküre in San Francisco Opera. Any performance of a Wagner Opera conducted by the former music director Donald Runnicles is an event. Considering this is the second installment of the new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen by by Francesca Zambello, interests ran high. The previously published review generally agreed that the production though might set in a rather peculiar setting, it worked on all levels. However, her Das Rheingold was a muddied affair and decidedly less than inspired with the snickering-inducing ending, when the gods readied themselves to ascend a gangway, leading to Valhalla, or a giant cruise ship.

Die Walküre opened with screen projections, literally depiction the stories vividly told in the orchestra passages. This became a mainstay for the evening and soon played way over its welcome. Zambello's Ring cycle was billed as American Ring. Das Rheingold took place, you guessed it, gold rush era's American west, and the "roaring twenties". The setting of Die Walküre was more puzzling - Hunting's hut was perhaps a hunting lodge in the midwest while the Valhalla was a very boring looking boardroom overseeing the skyscrapers below. The last act was rather non descriptive and all the better for that.

The set designed by Michael Yeargan very boring and literal, which fit the uninspired direction. They almost got one scene right - the scene Brünnhilde announced the imminent death to Siegmund. It took place in a deserted underpass with the appropriate gloom. The amazing singers conveyed the intense emotion to the fullest extent and the tension was unbearable. Perhaps, out of charity, Zambello decided to add several Supernumeraries to depict a host dead heros waiting to welcome Siegmund. It instantly destroyed the spell. It was incredibly idiotic not to trust music and singers of such caliber as Nina Stemme and Christopher Ventris to do their jobs.

Most infuriating part came earlier when Siegmun and Sieglinde were chase by Hunding and his kinsmen. Ahead of the pack, two furious or cuddly looking dogs merrily chased one another across the stage. How cute. It was as gratuitous as one could hoped for.

But sit still yet, accompanying the ride of the valkyries, Brünnhilde's eight sisters, dressed like Amelia Earhart, parachuted down, which incited a round of applause.

Overall, Zambello's approach was nailing down a concept and bend the content of the drama and music to suit that approach. It worked in certain way, particularly if you are for an always on cue production - now applause, now weep, now smile, now roar with approval...

I wonder what era she would use for the last two installments which will come to San Francisco as the part of the entire cycle next June.

Suburban sprawling and big-box shopping center boom time for Siegfried and Crush for Götterdämmerung? Or perhaps, if she dared, 11 September attack in New York? Or the gushing oil in Gulf of Mexico?

Enough of the production bashing. The evening was still glorious, thanks to the master direction from the pit by Runnicles and the mostly wonderful cast, particularly Stemme as Brünnhilde, Ventris as Siegmund, and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde.

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