Arts & Events

DIE WALKÜRE Reaches THE RING’s High Point

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday June 16, 2018 - 09:56:00 AM

On Wednesday, June 13, San Francisco Opera opened Die Walküre, the second in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen. Unlike the other operas in The Ring, which often get bogged down in tedious exposition, Die Walküre soars from beginning to end. Act I of Die Walkure presents the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wagner, the ultimate narcissist, depicts the ideal love as one between twins separated early in childhood. In other words, for Wagner, the ideal love is for someone as much like himself as possible. Thus, when Siegmund and Sieglinde meet, it is love at first sight.  

No matter that Sieglinde is the wife of Hunding. She’s fettered in an unhappy marriage and all too ready to ditch her abusive husband as soon as the right man comes along. And the right man is Siegmund. Little by little, they realize they are brother and sister. But by then they are also head over heels in love with each other, so what matters incest to these two halves of an androgynous whole? Not at all; so they run off together once Siegmund succeeds in wrenching free the sword placed in an ash tree by his long-lost father. The sword, you see, is a metaphor for the phallus, a gift from the absent father. Now possessing the sword, Siegmund takes possession of his previously unused phallus. In love with his twin sister, Siegmund embodies love freed from all conventions and constrictions. But because this is Wagner, there will be a price to pay. 

Siegmund and Sieglinde have now placed themselves outside of society. They have flauted society’s rules and become outcasts. As outcasts, they are situated by director Francesca Zambello in an urban wasteland under a freeway overpass. Siegmund and Sieglinde take refuge there on a throwaway bench next to an old tire. Zambello thus likens them to our contemporary generation’s homeless. But that’s hardly the only price these illicit lovers must pay. Wotan, who now is depicted as CEO of some big company with an office overlooking San Francisco, initially instructs his daughter Brünnhilde to act on Siegmund’s behalf in the coming duel with Hunding. But Fricka, Wotan’s wife, storms into Wotan’s office and, as goddess of marriage, she takes umbrage at the callous way Siegmund and Sieglinde have broken Sieglinde’s marriage vows to Hunding. For this offense, Fricka declares haughtily, they must pay. To keep peace with his wife, Wotan reluctantly countermands his original instructions to Brünnhilde and, instead, insists that Siegmund must die at the hand of Hunding. Brünnhilde, beautifully sung here by soprano Iréne Theorin, is aghast at this change of heart by her father, so when Hunding kills Siegmund, Brünnhilde rescues Sieglinde and spirits her away. Domestic life and family interactions were never easy for Richard Wagner. 

Murky though the plot may be, Wagner’s music in Die Walküre is ravishingly beautiful. The burgeoning love between twins is presented in rapturous music. As Siegmund, tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang with passion and power; and his aria “Liebe und Lenz” was enthralling. The Sieglinde of soprano Karita Mattila was a thing of vocal beauty, her voice clear as a bell and brimming with intensity. As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was intimidating even, or especially, to her husband, Wotan. In the role of Hunding, the jilted husband, bass Raymond Aceto sang powerfully and ominously. As Wotan, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sang movingly in Die Walküre, even if this production calls for Wotan to appear more weak and vulnerable than in most productions. 

In Act III of Die Walkure, the scene shifts to a mountaintop where the Valkyries come flying in to await the arrival of their sister Brünnhilde. Conductor Donald Runnicles led his orchestra and the Valkyrie in a robust “Ride of the Valkyries.” When Brünnhilde arrives, she brings Sieglinde with her, and she tells Sieglinde she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child, who will grow up to become the greatest of heroes. Brünnhilde’s sisters are aghast that she has helped Sieglinde against the will of Wotan. They rightfully fear that Wotan will soon follow in fury at his daughter’s defiance. Sure enough, that’s what happens. Wotan angrily strips Brünnhilde of her divinity and immortality. Moreover, he declares, she will be put to sleep on the mountaintop, to be claimed by the first mortal man to awaken her. When Brünnhilde argues in her defense that she only did what Wotan secretly wished, Wotan recognizes that this is true; so he agrees to summon Loge, the god of fire, to enclose Brünnhilde in a circle of fire, so that only the bravest mortal hero might win her. As the fire music rings forth on the mountaintop, The Ring reaches its high point. In the two operas to come, it’s all downhill for the gods. To some extent, I hate to say, it’s also downhill for the audience.