Die Walküre (the Valkyrie) is not the longest opera that Richard Wagner ever wrote. Nevertheless, no one should be blamed for thinking that it sure feels that way. The second “chapter” in Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) was given the first of its three performances by the San Francisco Opera last night in the War Memorial Auditorium; and, from my vantage point, it seemed as if each of the two intermissions was ushered in with a collective sigh of relief. If Walküre is not even the longest opera in the cycle, it may well be the one that has the highest talk:action ratio.
It is important to remember that Wagner wrote the entire libretto for all four operas before beginning to write a single note. Furthermore, he wrote it in reverse. He began by writing an account of the death of Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungenlied (the song of the Nibelungs) epic poem. This would become the text for the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). He then felt it necessary to account for the earlier stage of Siegfried’s life, for which he composed the opera Siegfried. Continuing this explanatory process, he then chose to document the events leading up to Siegfried’s birth, which became the libretto for Die Walküre. Both of these two operas draw upon tales in the Völsunga saga. Finally, he documented the origins of the magic (and cursed) ring around which all of these events revolve; and this became the libretto for Wagner’s “prologue” opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine).
One might say that the entire process began by identifying key elements of action and then deciding that each of them required fleshing out a backstory to explain the circumstances behind the action. As the project progressed, Wagner realized that he had to account for more and more backstory. Translating all of that backstory into staged action would have been a monumental effort. As a result Wagner had to make decisions about when backstory should be handled simply by having one of the characters offer up a verbal explanation.
Such explanations cut across the entire Ring cycle. However, they seem to dominate Walküre, perhaps because, by virtue of its transition from the world of supernatural beings to the world of men and women, it has the most background to explain. Last night’s performance ran for over 270 minutes, including about an hour divided across the two intermissions. That means approximately 210 minutes of music, roughly 90 of which are devoted to the second act. While that act concludes with the fight scene around which the entire plot revolves, that episode lasts only about six minutes. Almost everything that precedes it involves verbal explanation of one form or another.
Fortunately, Director Francesca Zambello and her production team have drawn upon a variety of visual supplements to get beyond the difficulties when the libretto prioritizes talk over action. During the frenetic opening prologue, a camera gives us Siegmund’s point of view as he runs from the forest to escape the enemies chasing him. When we finally see him on the stage (sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich), his collapse in front of Hunding’s house is entirely understandable. Similarly, the second act begins by showing us Wotan, the “real estate patriarch” of Das Rheingold ensconced in the palatial Board Room of Trump Tower (oops! … make that Valhalla).
This serves up a device that reminds us of how much of Valhalla emerged as a project-gone-wrong in Rheingold. Like that chase through the forest, much of the background imagery is constantly in motion, even when it is nothing more than clouds floating by in the sky. Nevertheless, the view from the massive windows of the Board Room are entirely static, almost as if they had been painted on the glass to prevent Wotan ever seeing what is actually happening on the other side (not even a raccoon).
Activity finally rises to a fever pitch at the beginning of the third act, beginning with what is best known as the “Ride of the Valkyries.” These eight sisters of Brünnhilde are all done up like fighter pilots parachuting onto the multi-layered stage set where the souls of heroes fallen in battle are enshrined by their photographs. This was where the music really comes to life, even beyond the familiar orchestral portion. One encounters eight voices weaving a rich polyphonic Web whose elegance contrasts sharply with the earthiness of the rest of the score (even the love duet in the first act). Indeed, because these sisters are often unduly dismissed as bit parts, it is worth acknowledging all of them for their impeccable command of both pitch and rhythm: soprano Julie Adams (Gerhilde), soprano Melissa Citro (Helmwige), mezzo Renée Tatum (Waltraute), mezzo Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite), soprano (and Adler Fellow) Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), mezzo Laura Krumm (Siegrune), mezzo Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), and mezzo Lauren McNeese (Rossweisse).
Attention to these “lesser” parts should not distract from the top-rate skills with which the major characters negotiated all those extended passages of explanation and the punctuations of intense action. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and mezzo Jamie Barton returned for that extended scene that Anna Russell calls “Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument.” This is one of those episodes where explanations are at their thickest. Zambello’s staging did much to compensate for the talk-without-action problem. Nevertheless, Grimsley was definitely in his best light with the concluding “Wotan’s Farewell” scene, in which the Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin) is put into a deep sleep for defying Wotan’s command and then surrounded by impenetrable fire. Prior to that heartbreaking scene, however, Theorin served up a dynamite account of the leader of her eight sisters.
Finally, there are the first three mortals to be encountered in the Ring cycle. Jovanovich’s Siegmund was perfectly complemented by soprano Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, whom he will abduct from her thuggish husband Hunding (bass Raymond Aceto). Zambello has claimed that her set for Hunding’s house was inspired by Deliverance; but, by the time her production found its way to the stage, most of the audience would probably have been reminded of Justified. There was also a nice nod to current events in having some of the members of Hunding’s hunting party carrying automatic weapons.
Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) begs for hospitality from Hunding (Raymond Aceto) and his wife (Karita Mattila) (photograph by Cory Weaver courtesy of SFO)
Once again, however, the driving force behind everything on the stage came from the orchestra pit. Conductor Donald Runnicles knew exactly how to pace the “explanation” episodes in such a way that the “action” episodes would have maximum impact. Wagner’s scores consistently make for thoroughly enriching listening experiences (which is one reason why so much of his music is given concert performances). Runnicles clearly knows what makes every note that Wagner committed to paper tick; and his “clockwork” precision of the entire score last night was a wonder to experience.