Review: ‘Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)’ at San Francisco Opera (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Karita Mattila as Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The second opera of the Ring Cycle, “Die Walkürie” opens far from Valhalla, the home of the gods, outside the cabin of the huntsman Hunding (Raymond Aceto) and his unwilling bride, Sieglinde (Karita Mattila). The action begins while Hunding is away, and a stranger, Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) flees from the forest into the cabin clearing where Sieglinde offers assistance. Much of the opera is taken up with the love story of Sieglinde and Siegmund, and appealing lovers they are.

As Sieglinde, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila makes a spectacular return to the San Francisco Opera where she was last heard making her debut in the challenging role of Kostelnička in a much-celebrated production of Leoš Jánaĉek’s “Jenůfa.” Few singers face the kind of audience expectations that arise for someone of Mattila’s stellar reputation. (Critics have called her “a force of nature,” and written rhapsodies about the “rich nuance of her vocal sound.”) Her voice is as thrilling as ever, and utilized perfectly to create character and respond with true emotion to every carefully wrought detail of Wagner’s libretto (which he always referred to as a “poem”).

Of course, at the heart of  “Die Walkürie” is the story of Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde, leader of the Valkyrie, the strong women who haunt battlefields to take the souls of fallen heroes toguard Valhalla. Wotan loves Siegmund and Sieglinde, but his wife, the goddess Fricka, is protectress of marriage, and insists that when Honding, Sieglinde’s lawful husband, attacks Siegmund, he must die. Wotan orders Brünnhilde to withdraw proection for Siegmund, but knowing how much Wotan truly loves Siegmund, she disobeys, angering the powerful god.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Iréne Theorin as his daughter, Brünnhilde, portray an intense emotional relationship Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The encounters, musically and dramatically, between the powerful figures of Wotan and Brünnhilde, are, perhaps, the most memorable sequences in the entire Ring Cycle. Brünnhilde’s dramatic battle cries of hojo-to-yo upon entering Wotan’s presence are certainly among the most famous music ever written for a dramatic soprano, and can never be anything less than thrilling. As performed by Iréne Theorin, a reknowned Brünnhilde, they are more than thrilling. Theorin, who has performed Brunnhilde at both the Metropolitan Opera and London’s Covent Garden, stepped into the role for this production with only three weeks rehearsal, after Evelyn Herlitzius had to withdraw, but her performance fits in seamlessly. The intensity of emotion and depth of thought that she and Greer Grimsley as Wotan bring to their encounters is enormously satisfying. Her singing is in the grand Wagnerian style, and plenty loud enough, but she is also extraordinary in her handling of the occasional pianissimo in the midst of all that forte. These quiet moments are specifically identified by Wagner in the score, but many a Brünnhilde, aways famous for vocal power, does not give them their full due. We can be grateful that this Brünnhilde can bring a soft (yet strong), vulnerable, and unexpectedly gentle femininity that is rarely heard in this role. Brava!

As for the orchestra, Maestro Donald Runnicles will always own the hearts of San Francisco opera goers. Musical director for the San Francisco Opera from 1992 through 2009, his every return is something to celebrate. Not for nothing is he known as a leading Wagnerian, and he displays nuanced control of every musical detail. Never is there a sense of uncertainty or hesitation. Every motif is as clear as a dawning sun, and Runnicles makes the complexities of Wagner’s notoriously difficult score as accessible as Broadway, with no loss of subtlety or grandeur.

The entire Ring Cycle will be repeated next week, beginning with “Das Reingold” on June 26th, and continuing with “Die Walküre” on June 27, “Siegfried” on June 29, and “Götterdämerung” on July 1st. 

For further information, click here.

Rating: **** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

‘Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)’ Produced by SF Opera. Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Director: Francesca Zambello. Associate Director: Laurie Feldman. Choreographer: Denni Sayers. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. Original Projections Designed by Jan Hartley. New Projections Designed and Remounted by S. Katy Tucker. Co-Choregrapher and Dance Master: Lawrence Pech. Fight Directdor: Dave Maier. 


Sieglinde: Karita Mattila. Sigemund: Grandon Jovanovich. Hunding: Raymond Aceto. Wotan: Greer Grimsley. Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin. Fricka: Jamie Barton.Gerhilde: Julie Adams. Helmwige: Melissa Citro. Waltraute: Renée Tatum .Schwertleite: Nicole Birkland. Ortlinde: Sarah Cambidge. Siegrune: Laura Krumm. Grimgerde: Renée Rapier. Rossweisse: Lauren McNeese. 


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