The electric opening night of San Francisco Opera’s production of Die Walkure seems to be turning before our eyes into one of those legendary evenings at the opera where all the moving parts click together and you’re so grateful to be there, which is lovely except I was at the third performance, and despite much that went right (in particular the excellence of the orchestra) it was vocally a rough night for most of the singers, and the production, which is the second installment of Francesca Zambello’s “American” Ring, is a very mixed bag. So I couldn’t help wondering if some of the ecstasy being expressed around me last Saturday wasn’t in part wishful thinking. We want our legendary evening too! And we don’t go to the opera house for sad reality to interfere.
So when the irritating old man in front of me, who expressed his Wagnerian credentials by conducting along with Donald Runnicles during all the loud parts and then whispering excitedly to his pinched-face wife, exclaimed after Act 1 that he had never, ever heard it performed better, I had to wonder if he'd ever heard it at all. Did he really not hear Christopher Ventris start to run out of gas right at Wintersturme and then flub badly what should have been the bright, ringing end of the act? Ventris recovered for Act 2, and I generally am not one of those opera fans who lives only to deduct points if the singers don’t spike the landing, but he was having noticeable problems.
And Mark Delavan, though he gave an interestingly tetchy performance as Wotan, was hanging on by his vocal fingernails by the time he was bidding lieb wohl to Brunnhilde. I seriously wondered if he was going to make it. We had been warned by David Gockley before the curtain that our Brunnhilde, Nina Stemme, was suffering from a viral infection but would sing anyway, begging our indulgence; as is usually the case under these circumstances, not that much indulgence was called for and ironically she sounded in quite good shape, though perhaps holding back a bit at points. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde was in gleaming vocal shape throughout and truly lived up to the wonderful opening-night reports.
Raymond Aceto as Hunding and Janina Baechle as Fricka were both vocally fine, but bore the brunt of directorial miscalculations. Fricka was done up like one of Helen Hokinson’s club ladies, only not endearing. It’s easy to play Fricka as a bossy dowager, but this misses something crucial in her character, which is that she knows and loves Wotan so well that she can always laser in on the flaw he's trying to dream away in his grand schemes. She is the one who forces him to confront the reality of his power: it’s limited by the very agreements that create it. If your power derives from a hierarchy, you can’t undercut the hierarchy without losing your power. She is not bad, or even limited – she sees further into the realities of power than Wotan does. But that insight makes her deeply conventional – to maintain her own power, she is a defender of the status quo.
Same with Hunding, which is why he calls on Fricka for vengeance when his wife runs off with her brother/lover. Hunding and Fricka represent a conventional order that needs to be broken. But if you portray them as "bad" it implies that without them things would be just fine. How can we question our own Hunding/Fricka tendencies if we can separate them out as simple villains in a melodrama? Melodrama is about a clear moral order being restored. And Wagner is about moral order being confused, questioned, reversed, replaced.
When Hunding retires for the night, he snaps his fingers to order Siegmund over and chains him to the tree. It seems very un-Siegmund like to submit, even unarmed, to such humiliation. But it’s also un-Hunding-like. He’s not a bully or a coward, at least by the conventions of his world. He declares that the laws of hospitality are sacred, and he truly means that, and so does Fricka. He will observe them faithfully and then hunt Siegmund down as soon as he is no longer a guest. This is the orderly, rigid world that the Walsungs defy.
And we should maybe be a little disturbed at the incestuous Walsungs, and provoked to thought about conventions we take for granted. Siegmund and Sieglinde aren’t simply good victims in a melodrama. They’re troublemakers. I think Zambello made the whole set-up too simple (not that she's alone in this).
The whole idea of an “American” Ring, though it certainly sounds enticing, seems to me so far a bit of a fizzle. (My reaction to the earlier staging of Das Rheingold is here.) Given the nature of American society, an "American" Ring is pretty much going to fall into the classic Shavian/Chereauvian economic interpretation of the Ring. (Maybe the most American thing about the Ring, and the reason Shaw couldn’t quite contain Gotterdammerung in The Perfect Wagnerite, is the way what starts out as economic and political analysis turns into a tale of spiritual freedom and redemption, just as many American reform movements start out based on politics and economics and end up being about personal fulfillment and self-actualization.) So what distinguishes the “American” Ring from the average “capitalist” Ring is mostly kitschy touches like the busy décor of Hunding’s hunting lodge, with its deer heads and jacquard elk pictures and all the rifles (and speaking of all those rifles, they make Nothung look a little silly: why is the sword such a big deal when either Hunding, Siegmund, or even Sieglinde could pull a gun off the wall? It reminded me of the scene in Indiana Jones where the large grinning man does a lot of fancy threatening work with his whip and Jones just pulls out his pistol and shoots him. The age of heroes can't co-exist with firearms, as any reader of the Orlando Furioso knows.)
Some things work spectacularly well: the Valkyries parachuting into the beginning of Act 3 provide exactly the theatrical excitement and visual panache Wagner wanted for the wild warrior women. I liked having Fricka appear during the fight to make sure order was preserved. To my surprise, since I generally don’t like the distraction of live animals on stage and also generally find dogs really unnecessary creatures anyway, I loved the two hounds streaking across stage preceeding Hunding as he chases the runaways in the middle of Act 2.
Other moments left me moved but puzzled. The slow procession of military men, in a variety of American uniforms and carrying large head shots of dead heroes, is quite moving, especially when you learn, as you won’t from the program, that the photos are of real American servicemen killed in our current wars. It’s also quite distracting, since it takes place during the Annunciation of Death, when the focus should really be on the exchange between Siegmund and Brunnhilde. His renunciation of Valhalla since Sieglinde will not accompany him is not only his most stirring and truly heroic moment, it’s a key moment in Brunnhilde’s development from a somewhat cartoony hoyden to the mature and loving woman who says farewell to Wotan and accepts her fate. The focus really needs to be on their exchange. Also, with all due respect to the servicemen pictured and the individual decisions that led them to their collective fate, it’s difficult given the circumstances to see them as straightforward heroes and not as victims in various ways of America’s disastrous and immoral wars of aggression, only I’m not quite sure the staging really intends to raise such questions about their heroism and what it means. I wish Zambello had staged the scenes with Hunding and Fricka so as to evoke this kind of ironic and unsettled questioning.
A very good evening, but apparently and understandably not quite up to the first performance. Well, that’s live theater. I’m glad some excitement has returned to San Francisco’s upcoming complete Ring, though; between Achim Freyer in Los Angeles and Robert LePage at the Met, it looked as if San Francisco was again falling behind more adventurous companies.