Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

To Have and Have Not

June 20, 2010

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2010

Night two of my weekend in San Francisco included the very well-reviewed production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, which San Francisco Opera is rolling out this summer in advance of its upcoming presentation of the complete Ring cycle in 2011. The good news is that musically it is all it’s cracked up to be. The orchestra under maestro Runnicles is superb with no flagging strings or flubbed brass lines to be heard. The cast is uniformly strong with no real weak links. But better yet, there are a few performers that are among the world’s best in these roles. The Brünnhilde both here and in next year’s Ring cycles is Nina Stemme who is undoubtedly without a serious challenger for the title of best currently performing Brünnhilde in the world. (That is since Christine Brewer doesn’t appear to be heading to the stage in a full-fledged production any time soon.) After weeks in Los Angeles listening to Linda Watson caterwaul her way through this part, hearing Stemme’s effortless turn in this role pretty much cleaned my clock. Mind you this was after she got a “please excuse me I’m sick” announcement from David Gockley before the start of the show. You’d never have guessed for a minute there was anything wrong from tonight’s performance. I was also taken with Christopher Ventris as Siegmund. It’s high time he got to sing Parsifal somewhere in the US (again) and his appearance in the new DVD release of Pfitzner’s Palestrina from the Bayerische Staatsoper is a must see. The other name that deserves the big spotlight here is Eva-Maria Westbroek who sang Sieglinde, a role she’ll perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, but not in the San Francisco cycles next year. Westbroek has been long overdue for her first American appearances after developing quite a reputation in Europe in roles from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth to Jenufa. Her clarity, power, and brilliance here were jaw-dropping. (Her website indicates that Isolde is scheduled to enter her repertoire in 2013. And who says there's nothing to look forward to in opera?)

So there’s plenty of reasons to go see this Die Walküre even though it might have worked much, much better as a total opera experience if it weren’t for Francesca Zambello’s middle-brow staging. Imported to San Francisco following Washington National Opera’s aborted plans for a complete cycle in 2009, Zambello’s “American” cycle draws on images from 20th-century American history in a standard post-Chereau sociopolitical interpretation of Wagner's work. It’s not bad looking and frankly about a decade ago it would have been decidedly above average. Unfortunately “average” has moved over the last few years with ground-breaking visions from La Fura dels Baus and Achim Freyer that have called into question this approach still rising out of the ashes of Shaw. Even the early hints of coming work from Guy Cassiers in Milan and Robert LePage in New York would suggest Zambello is going to need to bring much more to the table than parachuting Valkyries, abandoned freeways, and the ever-present trench coat to maintain any relevance. Even worse than the gimmickry here, there's a real telegraphing of emotional content where the production manhandles the music. To watch Wotan and Brünnhilde embrace on cue with the musical climaxes in Act III has all the thoughtfulness of a German language telenovela. Still, I wouldn’t miss this cycle for the world (and have already ordered my tickets for next year) if for no other reason than to hear this fantastic orchestra under Runnicles and Nina Stemme. And while opera is most certainly theater, a great musical performance can make it all worthwhile.



Do the Germans have telenovelas? That could be fun.

A minor correction. Christopher Ventris sang Parsifal in San Francisco back in 2000. He was also the bad boy lover in a production here of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," where he was great.

Glad you enjoyed the music at "Die Walkure."
How right you are. I stand corrected. Lisa Hirsch pointed out this fact to me this afternoon at brunch as well. Darn that out of town fact checking problem.
He also sang Parsifal in Seattle in 2003, in the production that inaugurated the remodeled McCaw Hall.
After the magical Freyer Ring, this SF Ring was earthbound and only intermittently engaging. Freyer creates an entire imaginative world on stage, where Zembello reduces the world to a very specific American WW II era-larger then life vs. quite simply the opposite. Zembello's unimaginative and obvious middlebrow family incest squabble was quite a letdown after the magical wonderland much evidence in the LA Opera Ring.

Musically I felt the LA Ring scored over SF as well. The LA Ring was more evenly sung and much better conducted. Stemme and Westbroek were great but the The Woton ran out of voice in act 3 and the less said about the squally Frica the better. Nothing really needs to be said about the greatness of Domingo as Siegfried. Runnicles conducted at a very fast clip, missing the majesty, detail and tension Conlon brought to the score. Mind you, I am envious of the much better SFO Orchestra.

Overall a real letdown.
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