Die Fliegenden Walküren

June 20, 2010 - 3:45 pm

This month San Francisco Opera debuted a new production of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second of Richard Wagner’s four-part operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Ring Cycle represents the most ambitious, epic undertaking in the classical canon, seventeen hours of music and elaborate staging featuring gods, heroes, giants and dragons. SF Opera will be performing the entire Ring in June 2011, and last year staged the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold.

Alongside the ever-mutating modernized Shakespearean productions you can find from Ashland to Stratford, Wagner’s Ring Cycle does well with ambitious, transformative adaptations. In Wagner’s time, of course, the Ring was always produced with a strict adherence to time and place – the dark-age mythical Northern Europe from which Wagner plumbed legends to invent his story, featuring naturalistic rocks and landscapes, helmeted Valkyries, and the spear-wielding, one-eyed Wotan (Oden to the Norse). It wasn’t until the 1950s when Wagner’s own festspielhaus, Bayreuth, broke the mold (and tried to break away from its tainted Nazi past) with a revolutionary adaptation that took the story out of the dark ages and set it in a minimal, modernist stage set intended to humanize the godly central characters. This opened the doors to various other adaptations – it granted an implicit permission to tweak and change the setting further from Wagner’s specific vision. San Francisco Opera’s new Ring Cycle (produced in partnership with the Washington National Opera) offers a new take, rooted in Americana.

Muddy Gold

Last year’s Rheingold opened with echoes of the California Gold Rush. Alberich, the Ring’s titular nibelung (a Germanic version of a Tolkien-esque dwarf, more cunning, more devious and darker), was portrayed as a prospector, attempting to rob the Rhinemaidens of the gold hidden in the depths of their river. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were depicted as overall-wearing construction workers, invoking the Golden Age of Skyscrapers.

However, inconsistency was the devil (or the Loge?) in the details: after implying for the entire performance that the Valhalla the giants were building for the gods was the Empire State Building, the gods departed the stage at the conclusion of the opera up a gangplank as if they were boarding a cruise ship. It never helped that the gods themselves were attired as preppy Newport, Rhode Island yachters, making them particularly unappealing central characters (Donner, the god of thunder, carried an oversized croquet mallet). Wotan without gravitas leaves a production particularly flat.

Rheingold Valhalla by Terrence McCarthyPhoto by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy San Francisco Opera

The biggest weakness of Rheingold was inconsistency of vision. The giants in their overalls and Alberich’s mineshaft lair set the tone, but many of the sets in between were generic and failed to create a sense of place. Given the significant use of video projection, a finale featuring a skyscraper-Valhalla would have been both doable and perfect for the staging. Yet the design swung and missed at the climactic moment, leaving me disappointed and unsure I would be enthusiastic about the complete Ring. I felt they applied their concept haphazardly, never really committing fully. I’m all for taking a modernizing concept and applying it to a production (I did work a season for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, after all, famous for their modernized productions), but Rheingold just fell short.

Enter the Valkyrie

My doubts about the direction of the 2011 Ring have been thoroughly eradicated by a stunning, triumphant Walküre. It takes place a generation later, and weaves together images and objects from a 20th century that mixed American triumph with human tragedy into an evocative, powerful presentation.

Hunding’s huntsman’s house, with deerheads and rifles, makes for an appropriate first act setting, and his physical domination of his unloved wife, Sieglinde, makes his villainy plain. Raymond Aceto plays the role with gusto. Eva-Marie Westbroek, singing Sieglinde, was a revelation. Her male counterparts sometimes struggled to match her vocal power (particularly Christopher Ventris’s Siegmund; his voice cracked near the end of Act I the night I saw Walküre; fortunately, he recovered well in Act II) but the first act moved quickly, was well-acted, and set up the action of Act II nicely.

Act I Siegmun by Cory WeaverPhoto by Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera

It was really in Act II that this production began to take off. It opens in Valhalla — which, ahem, was the penthouse of a Skyscraper, looking down on a 30s era Manhattan (I’m glad they got this right in the second opera; I hope they’ll revisit Valhalla’s presentation when they remount Rheingold next year) — with business tycoon Wotan making plans for his secret-son Siegmund to defeat Hunding in battle in order to set off a chain of events that he hopes will return him Alberich’s magic ring, now residing in a dragon’s cave.

Enter Brünnhilde, Wotan’s fiery daughter, leader of his Valkyries, the shieldmaidens who guide deceased heros into Valhalla’s halls. Nina Stemme, an established Wagnerian soprano making her role debut with San Francisco Opera, was a firecracker in tall boots, a pixie haircut and a swirling coat. She was clearly having fun playing up the spunky side of the too-oft staid Brünnhilde, benefiting from the modern costumes that kept her far away from the horn-helmed stereotypes of her character. I’ve seen plenty of opera performers with decent acting chops whose voices leave something to be desired, and far more great singers who can’t act at all. Fortunately, Stemme can both act and sing, and she imbues a tremendous, emotional story arc to Brünnhilde from her entrance in Act II to her final acquiescence and exile at the opera’s end.

Valhalla by Terrence McCarthyBrünnhilde playfully teasing Wotan in Act II. Photo by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy San Francisco Opera

The Opera’s central twist is set into motion when Wotan’s mind is changed by his betrayed wife Fricka, who demands the marriage-breaking Siegmund be punished. Wotan orders Brünnhilde to carry this out. The ensuing scene is set under a freeway overpass that successfully conveys the failure of 20th century American excess. The parade of dead heroes, garbed in various military uniforms from a century of death and destruction (WWI, WWII, Vietnam etc.), each carrying an enlarged, black and white image of their own face, is particularly stunning in its conception and presentation. Rather than glorifying war and the soldier (as the hawkish Wagner may have intended), this presentation conveys the tragedy and death at the heart of human combat. Brünnhilde, sent to collect Siegmund’s soul and add him to the ranks of dead heroes, is won over by his love for Sieglinde and rejection of Valhalla and agrees to save him in his battle with Hunding. After Wotan discovers Brünnhilde’s betrayal, he is forced to take Siegmund’s life personally by breaking Notung, the sword he had left for his son in the first act. The brief tender moment that the father, wayward though he may be, looks into his son’s eyes for the final time is also stunningly staged.

Act II Freeway by Cory WeaverPhoto by Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera

As evocative as the second act was, the third act was the true triumph of the opera. It opens with the oft-parodied Ride of the Valkyries, and instead of downplaying the sturm und drang, SF Opera embraced the over-the-top music with paratrooping valkyries clad as 30s era aviatrixes (in the mold of Amelia Earhart) landing on a WWII style concrete gun-mount bunker. Despite the usual Wagnerian etiquette of audience silence, there were audible gasps and applause at each Valkyrie’s visceral arrival, each carrying the oversized faces of the dead seen in Act II — the heroes they are escorting to Valhalla. The production elements tie together very nicely.

Valkyries by Cory WeaverPhoto by Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera

The bombast turns to a very human-scale tragedy once Wotan arrives to punish Brünnhilde’s treachery and he is forced to condemn his most beloved daughter. Both Mark Delevan, whose strong performance as Wotan helped me move on from the majestic James Morris of past SF Opera Ring Cycles, and Stemme rose to the occasion, as each character goes through the tumultuous emotions involved in turning their backs on one another.

When, at the end, Wotan calls forth Loge’s spirit to encircle the sleeping Brünnhilde in flame, I realized I had just witnessed one of the strongest and important artistic productions I’ve ever enjoyed. The thoughtfulness and comprehensive design I found absent in Das Rheingold was in full force in this production. Combined with strong singers and Wagner’s powerful music, it was epic, human, intricately devised and wonderfully rendered. San Francisco’s 2011 Die Walküre is powerful theater, and promises extraordinary things when SF Opera debuts the complete Ring in 2011. Three performances remain. Standing-room tickets are available for as little as $10 for the strong-legged.

Further reading:

The Third & the Seventh

January 8, 2010 - 4:28 am

While Avatar has changed expectations for CG rendering in major Hollywood blockbusters, the following short film “The Third & The Seventh” obliterates limitations placed on independent and solo animators. It is 100% computer generated, yet many elements are utterly lifelike. Quite simply, it is the most photorealistic CG animation I have ever seen, and it was produced by one man, the Madrid-based Alex Roman. And it prominently features libraries.

Roman’s goal was to highlight architectural art through CG rendering, but his effort far exceeds that limited ambition, with his use of movement, music, simulated timelapses, changing light, and shifting focus lifting this work into the realm of genuine art itself. Of particular interest to librarians and archivists are the library and institutional spaces he highlights, internally and externally. One such example used is the Shiba Ryōtarō Memorial Museum in Japan — its awe-inspiring spaces are stunning even in the stills contained in Roman’s online portfolio. The video then brings this towering space to life.

The film features recurring themes of analog technology — film and film cameras play a narrative role, and the tone of the piece is established by early shots of fluttering polaroids and card catalogs. The images and music serve as a beautiful requiem for the passing of the old into the digital world of the new. There is an empty concert hall, then towering library stacks — full in one library, empty in another. Each space is highlighted in a breathtaking way. The wordless film is not without an arc; perspective and light shift as the film goes on, and ultimately the heightened reality moves into a certain magical surrealism (that seems to be an inspirational nod to René Magritte).

Please make use of the “Full Screen” option on the embedded video to properly appreciate this artwork, and allow for the 12:29 running time. You will not soon forget watching it.

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

If you click through to Vimeo, you can also watch various previews and “behind the scenes” videos Roman produced.

Credit for turning me onto this video is due Adam Whitehead, British-based author of the outstanding speculative fiction, film and game review blog The Wertzone.


December 23, 2009 - 8:51 am

Shortly after writing about “Digital Museums“, I came across a curious iPhone app called “Musée du Louvre“. Officially produced by the namesake majestic Parisian palace (the most visited museum in the world) it bills itself as a virtual tour and information source. Now, it hardly replaces a visit to France on your itinerary. It features text, videos, and photos of only a handful of the museum’s most famous works of art (such as the Venus de Milo, the Law Code of Hammurabi, Winged Victory, the Coronation of Napoleon, and of course the Mona Lisa). Still, since it includes floor plans, museum hours and historical information on each wing, it could make a nice companion to a physical tour.

While it’s ambition may be limited, it’s certainly a highbrow app to carry on your phone — it certainly looks better than the latest “Blond Jokes App” if you loan your phone to a friend (make sure to place it on the same screen as the Works of Shakespeare and New York Times for extra snob appeal). The price is also right — it’s free.


And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t toss in this decade old photo of my wife doing her best Mona Lisa impression during our real life trip to the Louvre…

Mona Emil

I do think this app shows a certain potential for individual institutions. Since programming applications for iPhones and Google Android products is relatively simple, many information institutions — museums and libraries — have the capability of designing their own apps.

Should larger public and academic library systems take the time to design and publish dedicated smart phone applications? What tools and capabilities might a library’s app feature? Are there existing examples?

First Impressions: The Buried Book

August 18, 2009 - 9:56 pm

Is it possible to review a book you haven’t even finished yet? I’m not yet halfway through The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh and it’s already among my favorite non-fiction works. Written by David Damrosch, an English professor at Columbia, it is a fascinating account, moving backwards through time, of the discovery and translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, widely regarded at the world’s oldest known legend.

The Buried Book

The Gilgamesh myth itself is something I’ve long been attracted to; I first read the Penguin Classics edition as a college freshman and more recently enjoyed the far more poetic (but less literally translated) version by Stephen Mitchell. My interest in Mesopotamia and Assyria extends much further back than my exposure to Gilgamesh, however. As a boy I was riveted by historical accounts of the Sumerian City-States and their successor empires, and I even named a cat Ashurbanipal for Assyria’s greatest King (and early library benefactor).

Thus, I was the perfect “demographic” for Damrosch’s account. But I believe this work could appeal to almost anyone. In describing the sometimes foolhardy efforts of the 19th century British adventurer George Smith, the Iraq-born archeologist Hormuzd Rassam, and the swaggering soldier Sir Henry Rawlinson, Damrosch captures the essence of an important Golden Era of Archeology, reviving names forgotten to all but the experts and revealing their fascinating lives. Each of those men, and others profiled in the book, had important, key achievements in unearthing Mesopotamia’s vital past. Each explorer also had significant faults, in either their attitude or their methodology, but Damrosch addresses these and provides a balanced account that avoids hagiography.

As a student of archival practice and research, the work also serves as an interesting window into my professional world: asides from Damrosch describe his own process of research, such as his exploration into the archives of the British Library.

I’ll continue reading The Buried Book, especially as it promises a literary analysis of the Gilgamesh myth in its later chapters. I’ll report back with my final thoughts.