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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are three days left of the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival, an annual bacchanal of uncensored, unjuried short-form theater presented in an affordable, rotating environment. The San Francisco Fringe is just one outpost of a theater movement born in Edinburgh, Scotland with tendrils in many American and Canadian cities. The purpose is to provide professional stage space and an audience for individuals and theater companies that regularly lack either.
The first edition of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe ran in 1947, when companies left out of the Edinburgh International Festival staged their own celebration. The idea has both evolved and spread in the decades since, though the Edinburgh Festival Fringe remains not only the world’s largest Fringe Festival, it has in fact become one of the world’s largest annual performing arts festivals of any kind. The San Francisco Fringe is a more humble affair, but 18 years in, it provides one of the city’s most endearing and enduring theatrical spectacles (in the interest of full disclosure, I have been on the SF Fringe staff for seven years now).
The concept sounds simple, but the execution requires a hard working staff and a very large volunteer base: 40-50 hour-long productions are mounted, all with 4-6 performances in the space of 11 days across a half-dozen stages around the City. Eddy Street’s Exit Theater produces the festival, provides the central meeting place (the Exit Cafe, 156 Eddy), and three of the stages. The shows are short, staggered, and inexpensive, allowing audience members to “fringe” their way through multiple offerings in a night.
Companies enter a lottery (with separate drawings for local and traveling acts) and the winners are offered a shot in the festival, which comes with a stage, technical assistance, and performance slots. Each company has complete, uncensored freedom to produce any stage spectacle they want. Many of the performers are traveling solo acts, but some more ambitious companies take part — the then little-known Banana, Bag & Bodice gained notice with the shows Gulag Ha Ha and Sandwich at the San Francisco Fringe, and have since gone on to high-profile runs of their songplay Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage and in Manhattan (which brought about a feature in the New York Times).
My personal history with the Fringe goes back into my drama-class youth. When I was in high school I helped a family friend with his one-man show as his sole run crew; the following year I went “fringing” with a buddy and saw three shows. Two of them I liked, but the third I remember as the worst piece of theater I’ve ever seen: it was called “Water Closet” and tried to combine incest, neo-Nazism and bad plumbing into a family dramedy. It was dreck. But that is the risk of the Fringe: since any company can win a show slot, you never know what you will get unless you carefully peruse the reviews and chat up the volunteers. It can be easy to steer clear of the duds if you talk to a few people, but I didn’t know that yet in high school. I started working for the Festival a couple years out of college, hoping to keep involved in theater. In the years since, it has been the source of some of my closest friends and favorite memories. I have also seen some incredible theater in the process (taking in as many as 30+ shows in some seasons).
While this year’s festival is drawing towards a close, the final weekend is always the best — the biggest crowds, the most polished performances, and plenty of talk in the Exit Cafe about which are the best and most worthwhile shows. From what I’ve heard so far, Poste Restante, A (Bearded) Lady, and The Surprise are all top picks. The two shows I’m working on — Break-Upocalypse and Inside Private Lives — are both entertaining, funny romps. Come out to the Exit Theater this weekend, fringe your way through 2-3 performances, and have a memorable experience.