The Mythic Resonance of Wagner’s Die Walküre

by Christine Cariati

American aviator Amy Johnson (1903-1941)
Photograph by John Capstack
Courtesy Getty Images

Instead of a single phase in the world’s evolution, what I had glimpsed was the essence of the world itself in all its conceivable phases…

—Richard Wagner

In the San Francisco Opera‘s current production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, director Francesca Zambello has created an intensely dramatic and powerful version of the opera that vibrates with immediate, palpable emotion and profound psychology. The splendid cast, including Nina Stemme, Mark Delavan, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Christopher Ventris and Raymond Aceto give outstanding performances. The orchestra, under the brilliant leadership of one of the world’s great Wagner conductors, Donald Runnicles, brought out every nuance and shading in Wagner’s shimmering, multi-layered and sumptuous score. The leitmotifs of Wagner’s music intertwine seamlessly with the drama on stage, creating a riveting whole—what Wagner called Gesamtkuntswerk.

The setting of Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s four-part The Ring of the Nibelungen, is updated in this production to 1920s America, with the god Wotan as a captain of industry amid towering skyscrapers. The Valkyries, led by Brünnhilde and her eight sisters—Wotan’s daughters by the earth goddess, Erda—are aviators who parachute onto the stage in Act III. This update creates a surprisingly harmonious blending of timeless mythology with American mythology.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde

In Die Walküre, which takes place a decade after the first opera, we are in a darker world in which humans and gods have to cope with the legacy of the missteps and hubris of the gods in Das Rheingold. Brünnhilde, the only character in the cycle who is able to truly listen and change, begins her transformation in Die Walküre, and Stemme projects every nuance of this transformation vocally and dramatically. My gold-standard for a great Brünnhilde is the legendary Birgit Nilsson, who I was lucky enough to see perform the role several times, and I found Stemme’s performance remarkable and profound.

Normally I’d say, if you live anywhere near San Francisco, don’t miss this production (the last performance is June 30th)—but wherever you are, it’s worth the trip—do not miss it!

4 Responses to “The Mythic Resonance of Wagner’s Die Walküre

  1. So interesting to see a bit of this production..we just saw 2 parts of the Ring Cycle at the L.A. Opera by a German director..very crazy..German Expressionism meets Star Wars..My first and probably last Ring experience but i know fans travel around the world to see different versions.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I considered going to LA to see that production but I am profoundly uninterested in sci-fi and loathe everything Star Wars, so I had to abstain.
      Zambello’s complete Ring, with mostly the same cast, will be staged in San Francisco in June 2011. I wasn’t sure how her update would play out in the rest of the cycle after seeing Das Rheingold last year, but after seeing her Walkure, I can’t wait. Meanwhile, I’ll see Die Walkure at least once more to hold me until then…

  2. elenamarysiff Says:

    Here is a review of the L.A. Ring..the costumes, masks, staging were are amazing! It was more German expressionism than star wars..lots of light swords occasionally.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, and very much appreciate your perspective. I understand that Freyer’s approach is more honestly thoughtful that many recent re-interpretations, but I guess I’ve endured too many grotesque high-concept over-stylized opera productions to be anything but distinctly unimpressed with the genre. Mostly because they are too often self-reverential and serve the director’s “vision” at the expense of the composer and the individual qualities of the singers—and ignore or override any dramatic interactions. I also know what it’s like from the perspective of the singers when they have to put up with burdensome, heavy and uncomfortable costumes and balance precariously for hours on a dangerously raked stage. The Ring is for me the greatest of musical experiences and my preference is for a production that is musically thrilling while revealing the drama in a deep and powerful way. I am very interested to see what Lepage comes up with at the Met in 2012…

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