By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch
I’m basking in greatness this morning. In fact, as I’m pondering how to express what I feel about last night’s performance of the second opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera I’m tempted to make one simple statement and move on:
Now THAT’S what I’m talking about.
The central question for me last night was whether or not this production, by Francesca Zambello, would fulfill its dramatic purpose, joining music, acting, characterization, and production concept to draw us into the story in a compelling way. I left Rheingold feeling like this purpose had not been achieved, but last night I left the War Memorial Opera House in a very different frame of mind.
The first clue was in the very opening bars of Act I: the churning music of the Prelude was taken at an intense pace, while projections on the scrim used a hand-held camera running through a forest to set the scene. I immediately felt like I was with Siegmund, our hero, as he frantically staggered through the forest, injured, exhausted, and lost, seeking shelter for the night. As he collapsed on the front porch of what will turn out to be his enemy’s house, the music shifts, softening suddenly, and a woman timidly looks out the screen door (we’re in turn-of-the-century America, remember). And immediately, in that simple joining of tender music and timid peering, I knew we were on a different path than we were the night before.
As New Yorker critic Alex Ross pointed out in a recent essay, Wagner’s Ring juxtaposes spectacle with “hundreds of intimate moments,” and nowhere is this more true than in Die Walküre. For all the fame and anticipation gained by the enormous “Ride of the Valkyries” or the orchestral sparkle that is the “Magic Fire Music,” this opera hinges on the quieter moments: the long wordless lulls in the conversation of Act I, where Siegmund and Sieglinde, inexplicably drawn to each other but each stuck in their own hopeless situations, communicate all that they’re thinking and feeling in locked gazes; Wotan’s opening up to Brünnhilde in his Act II monologue; god and daughter’s last moments together before parting. It’s in these moments that the opera will either fail or soar – soaring music elsewhere notwithstanding.
And these moments were also going to be the test of this question of characterization that I addressed yesterday: would the concept for the characters, and the acting of them, take us past the surface and down into a deeper understanding of who they are? Would that understanding be fused with the music, so that still deeper understanding and nuance could be grasped?
Last night the answer was Yes.
Let’s start with Elizabeth Bishop, who returns as Fricka. Now we see a more fully-developed Fricka, one who does not shield her pain and the anger that sometimes flares out as a result. When she shows up to confront Wotan about his plans and he says to himself, “And here we’ll have the usual harangue…” it comes off not as an opinion about Fricka we should embrace, but rather another expression of Wotan’s arrogance, his lack of regard for his wife. He absentmindedly picks up a newspaper and hardly listens to her as she begins, but she grabs the newspaper out of his hand and makes her husband listen to what she’s saying. When he explains his plans in a patronizing manner she calls him out on it. Here is more than a woman scorned; here is a woman standing up for herself and her dignity. And interestingly, in finding her dramatic purpose, Bishop’s voice blossomed as well.
Wotan gained depth too: his frustration, his arrogance, but also the regal power that is still very much present with him all shone through. I wished he could have accessed a greater sense of defeat when he finally gives in to Fricka’s demands – a moment on which the entire rest of the cycle depends, and thus the critical turning point for Wotan and his ability to manipulate events. From that point forward, everything is out of his hands – and the gods’ demise is inevitable. Nevertheless, I began to develop empathy for Wotan, despite all his faults – empathy that any tragic figure requires.
But ultimately this story is about Siegmund and Sieglinde, twins separated at birth who fate has brought together again. They will end up saving each other, though it will cost Siegmund his life and precipitate a chain of events that will lead to the downfall of the gods.
As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich was the complete package: a clarion heldentenor voice, a superb actor, and the heroic good looks that go along with his character. I imagine that with further seasoning he will be tackling the role of Siegfried someday, a treat I would look forward to.
Sieglinde, played by Anja Kampe in the other performances of the cycle, was sung last night by Heidi Melton. A young singer who made her San Francisco Opera debut in 2007, she is an able actress who carried the quivering fear of her character well. The lack of assurance in her character translated into her singing, however, and as we concluded the rapturous love duet at the end of the first act I was dubious about how she’d hold up for the rest of the opera. But whether she just needed some time to warm up or she gave herself a pep talk in her dressing room, she returned for Act II a different singer. Her voice opened up, rich and full and assured, and all was well again.
She’d found her voice.
The same can be said of the production overall. Though the “American West” theme is perhaps least relevant in this opera – being as it is more about interpersonal relationships than any of the other three – it expressed itself well here. The thunderous entrance of the Valkyries in Act III was staged as WWI-era paratroopers, complete in leather flying gear and goggles, flying in on cables and landing on stage (breathtaking!). Wotan and Fricka have their argument in a black marbled corporate board room worthy of the best Art Deco office tower. The clapboard cabin of Act I gets left behind like a distant world.
And then there’s Brünnhilde, sung by the vibrant Nina Stemme. In her first appearance in the story, we see all the signs of a promising characterization: impetuous, passionate, and fiercely loyal to those whom she loves. But also, beneath these outward features, we see a person who desires to be loved and accepted for who she is. She is a fully self-realized woman: powerful, proud, but tender as well. Her voice possesses these same qualities too, and I am eagerly looking forward to hearing and seeing more of her as she becomes the musical and emotional center of the story.
Lastly, one cannot talk about this opera without mentioning the orchestra. There were once again moments when I felt Donald Runnicles’ tempi were simply too fast, such as during Wotan’s Act II monologue (we get his fury and frustration, but where is the deflated sense of utter defeat?), and particularly in the closing scene when I wanted all the bombast and fury of the earlier music to dissolve into the exquisite tenderness between Wotan and Brünnhilde. (This may have been partly motivated by trying to save Mark Delavan, who after two successive nights in the incredibly demanding role of Wotan was showing signs of vocal fatigue.) And there were other moments when the maestro let the lid off the orchestra a bit too much, unleashing a sound so full that it drowned out the singers. That said, the Valkyrie’s “Ride” was electric, the actions scenes had punch, and the closing fire music glowed. Also, there was a sense of direction, of purpose, to Runnicles’ approach – a sense of purpose that was lacking on opening night. And the more vigorous tempi created a sort of visceral energy I have never heard in this opera before. Act II propelled itself forward so effectively that an act I have always felt was overlong instead hurtled forward like a juggernaut. As the last scene crashed to its conclusion, I nearly came out of my seat in anticipation of the final blackout, and when the lights cut and the orchestra let loose that final chord, the entire house erupted as I jumped up and spontaneously yelled, “YES!”
Whether by design or through a pep talk in the dressing room, this opera has found its voice.
Now that’s what I’m talking about.