The Mythic Resonance of Wagner’s Die Walküre
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…
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.
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!