Relight My Fire: Die Walküre at San Francisco Opera

Wagner – Die Walküre

Siegmund – Brandon Jovanovich
Hunding – Raymond Aceto
Wotan – Greer Grimsley
Sieglinde – Karita Mattila
Fricka – Jamie Barton
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Helmwige – Melissa Citro
Gerhilde – Julie Adams
Ortlinde – Sarah Cambidge
Waltraute – Renée Tatum
Siegrune – Laura Krumm
Rossweisse – Lauren McNeese
Grimgerde – Renée Rapier
Schwertleite – Nicole Birkland

San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – Francesca Zambello.

San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA.  Wednesday, June 20th, 2018.

Following on from last night’s Rheingold, tonight’s Walküre offered a slightly different proposition.  Rather than a large cast with a focus on multiple characters, here the focus is on individuals and their relationships – from burgeoning (incestual) love, to the tension between husband and wife, and the love between father and daughter.  The strength of Francesca Zambello’s staging remains the same as the previous evening in that, in combination with her creative team, she creates stage pictures that look good.  Over the course of three acts, the settings move from a hut in the woods, to an impressive office with a panoramic window over a cityscape, to an urban wasteland and finally to a military bunker.  The flames in the closing scene were most impressive and the parachuting Valkyries at the start of Act 3 inspired the audience to applause.  The sets (Michael Yeargan) are certainly imposing, the second scene of Act 2 set in an underpass which allows Fricka to watch Hunding and Siegmund fight below.  The juxtaposition of the urban setting with the woods undoubtedly makes for an interesting contrast and suggests that in fact, by leaving that rural idyll, Siegmund and Sieglinde were doomed.  And yet, as in Rheingold, it doesn’t quite feel part of a coherent thread.  Perhaps, as the cycle progresses, things will become more apparent – always a danger in commenting without having seen the whole.  Here, however it feels added on, lacking an organic and cogent theatrical argument.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In many respects, it still felt that the singers were under-directed.  Far too often, they stared and sang into the middle distance rather than engaging with each other.  Although, given the work’s focus on relationships, as the evening developed I became more aware of interactions between characters in a way that didn’t feel particularly apparent in the previous evening.  There was genuine tenderness between Greer Grimsley’s Wotan and Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, Theorin in particular giving us some acting of great feeling as she lost her godliness.  More remarkable still was Karita Mattila’s Sieglinde, a neurotic and damaged woman clearly suffering from PTSD as a result of an abusive relationship with a brutal Hunding who couldn’t stop touching her whenever they were together.  The individual performances were also helped by a clarity of diction that was, for the most part, also an improvement on the previous evening.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It would be wrong to claim that the passage of time is not apparent in Mattila’s soprano.  The lunar beauty of the top is still there, as is the dusky middle, but the registers now need some careful negotiation.  Intonation also went in and out of focus.  That said, the sheer psychological depth and insight that she brought to her Sieglinde were absolutely worth a few stray notes.  Her ‘du bist der Lenz’ was sung in endless phrases, and exploited that distinctive duskiness, while her ‘hehrstes Wunder’ climaxed in an ecstatic peak.  It was the way that she intoned Siegmund’s name for the first time that will stay with me.  The erotic charge that she found in that single word was absolutely astounding.  This was the work of a master singing-actor.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mattila was joined by Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund, surely the pre-eminent interpreter of that part today.  He suffered most from the direction, being asked to address much of his music to the front or to the floor.  He found lyrical heroism in his ‘Winterstürme’, bringing out a poetic beauty that made his Siegmund a much more romantic hero than one often encounters.  Jovanovich was always absolutely secure in his vocalism, from a full bottom to a bright, clarion top with emissions always absolutely even and a steely core behind the silky tone.  Raymond Aceto’s Hunding was sung in a jet black, rich and resonant bass.  Jamie Barton brought her juicy mezzo to Fricka.  She has a full and imposing chest register that sounds not quite connected to the middle.  There was also a tendency for the voice to spread in the upper middle, not quite sitting on the note when under pressure.  The top is impressive in size but I would certainly have appreciated more clarity of diction.  She undoubtedly made an impression as the jealous wife and was warmly received by the public at the close.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Grimsley returned as Wotan, sounding fresher in Act 2 than he had the previous evening.  His grainy bass-baritone is a firm column of sound and he found some impressive resonance at the bottom for his Act 2 narration.  The tenderness that he brought out in the Act 3 farewell, softening the tone and pulling back on the dynamics, brought out a humanity in the god that was most moving, particularly as it was matched by the rising cello motif from the pit.  Yes, he sounded audibly tired towards the very end, but it’s a deeply challenging assignment, and it felt of a piece with his interpretation precisely bringing out that humanity and his godliness closer to earth.  As his daughter Theorin launched into her ‘hojotoho’s with uninhibited ease, filling the house with her bright, forward soprano, incarnating the young, spiky Valkyrie to perfection.  She also brought out a warmth in the middle that I hadn’t previously heard from her, exploiting a range of colours in the voice.  Her electric stage presence and ability to communicate with her colleagues as well as the audience meant that she commanded the stage through sheer personality.  Theorin brought out the vivaciousness, the resolution and the heartbreak of the warrior both in her fearless vocalism and her detailed acting.  Most impressive.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Donald Runnicles and his excellent orchestra, as in the previous evening, gave a great deal of pleasure.  Runnicles again led with flowing tempi with transitions that felt so natural and organic.  One particular moment stands out.  As Brünnhilde revealed herself to Siegmund, he managed to maintain a sense of forward momentum, despite the static nature of the orchestral line, with tempo transitions that felt absolutely organic and just right.  There were a couple of ragged brass entries on occasion, understandable given the length of the evening, but the string intonation was absolutely immaculate all night.  They conjured up a storm in the opening scene and yet again provided a rainbow of colour in those closing pages.

Photo: © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Tonight was a much more satisfying evening than the previous evening’s Rheingold.  The evening was dominated by some remarkable performances from Theorin, Mattila and Jovanovich and an honest and deeply-felt Grimsley.  Runnicles and the house orchestra again demonstrated their excellent credentials with some superb playing.  I’m definitely still not convinced by the staging.  Despite its undoubted visual interest, and despite the stronger characterizations tonight – inevitable given the calibre of the singing-actors on stage, it still feels lacking in a coherent thread.  Although, there is a caveat that we are still not quite half-way through the cycle and things may well become more apparent.  Still, there was very much to admire and promises much for Friday’s Siegfried.

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  1. So glad to hear of Mattila’s success, though it is a bit odd that she waited so long to start singing this and Ariadne, which would seem to have been ideal parts for her when she was younger. She’s been a formative artist for me and her and Waltraud Meier are IMO two of the greatest actresses to set foot on an operatic stage.

    Are you a fan ?

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