Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Go Tell It On The Mountain

June 16, 2011

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Die Walküre directed by Francesca Zambello returned on Wednesday as part of the company’s first complete Ring cycle of the summer. It was a welcome return, but one that came with incredibly high expectations in that its try-out run in the summer of 2010 was one of the company’s best-regarded productions in the last several years. It really had something to please just about any opera-goer, from paratrooper Valkyries to the superlative talents of Nina Stemme and Eva-Maria Westbroek. The fact that this now integrated Die Walküre revival fails to generate quite that much heat is somewhat of a foregone conclusion. But it comes pretty close. At the center of it all is the jaw-dropping performance of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it completely. So much live classical music and opera performance suffers in the age of easy comparisons with readily available benchmarks of bygone years just a download away. To hear something like Nina Stemme’s effortless bright and ringing performance is one of those rarities that turns people into opera fanatics. Well it's happening right now in the Bay area, and I suspect soon elsewhere in many other cities to come if Stemme continues to be interested in singing the part. This is a great one.

Brandon Jovanovich and Anja Kampe Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Of course, Mark Delavan is also returning, and he had a particularly good night on Wednesday. He’s a very emotionally expressive Wotan and on this evening he gave the best performance I’ve heard from him so far in the run with a much bigger sound and more color than at other times. He appears to be growing consistently in the part over time and is standing his own against what I would consider to be a landmark performance. The rest of the roles have been significantly recast from before. Anja Kampe, who sang Sieglinde in Los Angeles during the stand alone premiere of Achim Freyer’s Die Walküre now appears in San Francisco in the same role for the first two cycles. She’s strong and steely-voice and fits in well with the cast. Opposite her was Brandon Jovanovich taking over for Christopher Ventris from the prior outing. Jovanovich has become a hot property over the last two seasons as a late-bloomer. After years of singing in all kinds of venues, he’s suddenly on the most prestigious opera stages everywhere, singing just about everything from Don José and Pinkerton to roles in Il Tabarro and Die Vögel. Now he’s suddenly Siegmund and making his role debut. It still feels like a performance in progress. Jovanovich is tall and very good looking which doesn’t hurt and he easily has the strength to pull this off. But on Wednesday, he struggled with pitch in a couple spots in Act I and his German diction reinforced the notion that this was a decidedly “American” Ring. But during the close of Act II, things had settled and he was stronger, surer and more in the game. Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka was assured without being cloying or melodramatic. Anyone who inserts themselves between this particular Wotan and Brünnhilde is asking for trouble, and she came out smelling like a rose.

Zambello’s early 20th-century robber baron capitalism staging is probably the most directly derivative of the Shaw/Chereau school of Wagner. It already seems a little worn in spots. The rural cottage with its abundance of rifles and animal heads on the wall is a pointed and modern view as is the abandoned freeway underpass in the second part of Act II. But the mountain top of Act III is mighty dull after awhile. Zambello still insists on the most cliché stage directions when she wants to communicate what’s “human.” I suppose such a low-brow goal deserves the kind of meaningful embraces its characters always have right on cue to the music. Zambello’s insistence on telling you how to feel when it’s already obvious in so many other ways can be stifling at times. The paratrooper Valkyires seemed less of a hit this time around, too, though it was not clear if that was simply due to many in the audience being familiar with them at this point.

Any review of the evening would be remiss to overlook the great players of the San Francisco Opera orchestra and conductor Donald Runnicles, who sounded to be breathing easier on night two. Runnicles has been long scheduled to conduct this Ring, and I for one hope it is not the end of his appearances with the company after this Ring has come and gone. But on Wednesday, his absence seemed a thing far in the distance with such an alive performance. The cycle continues on Friday with Siegfried.



Brian - I concur about the 'scale' of the emotional direction. The accumulation of small gestures becomes a bit belabored, particularly in the third act. I think that the first act drags a bit, as well, but the style and lighting of the setpiece really focuses your attention. Generally, I think that this production straddles the line between grandiose mythology and human-scale emotional gesture pretty well.

What did you think of the valkyries musically? They struck me as rather uneven, but maybe they weren't all in full voice at the dress rehearsal I saw.
They seemed to be typically varied for a production of this quality. My experience is that they rarely sound good on the whole unless its something like a big ticket Met production. I enjoyed seeing the whole cycle, but, as usual, I think its the effect of Wagner's music and libretto that have the most impact on me in the end. It's all really unthinkable on some level, isn't it?
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