“Die Walküre” is thrilling and engrossing in SFO “Ring” evening two.

In San Francisco

Review by David Gregson, June 23

Wotan in an high-rise office building with an all-commanding view of the city below. Siegmund and Sieglinde in epiphanic moments beneath a demolished freeway. Hunding in an All American hunter’s cottage. Valkyrie aviators who parachute to earth to pick up photos of America’s war dead.

So far this has been just about the most thoughtfully engrossing and most thoroughly thrilling production of Wagner’s "Ring" I have ever seen — and that’s quite a few cycles including a Wieland Wagner designed "Ring" with a "dream cast" and conductor at Bayreuth in the 1960’s. I was terribly moved by last night’s "Die Walküre," but somehow I have to bring myself to write about it today.

The singer/actors are so good and the stage direction of Francesca Zambello so brilliantly achieved that memories of "Golden Age" performances are almost irrelevant to the total experience. And to heighten the temperature considerably, conductor Donald Runnicles has been whipping the San Francisco Opera Orchestra into a white heat of passion that simply sweeps you away. Although I was cautious of Zambello’s "American/California Ring" concept from the get-go, the musical and dramatic pay-offs are, at this halfway point, absolutely beyond anything I could have expected.

Wagner, as most people know, was quite the revolutionary and his "Ring" has often been interpreted as an anti-capitalist critique. Bernard Shaw expressed this brilliantly in "The Perfect Wagnerite."

Stage director Francesca Zambello has taken this idea even further and makes an epic examination of specifically American woes: our obsession with power and money, our foreign wars and our war dead, our racism, our sense of exceptionalism, our faithless treaties, our imperialist arrogance, our failure to maintain infrastructure, our ruination of Nature and natural resources, our pollution of the planet, our "slave" labor conditions — and all of this is presented in a thrillingly convincing manner with singers who are incredibly good actors.

Meanwhile, the intimate saga of the dysfunctional Wotan family unfolds before us with astonishing clarity. All the performers act, interact, and ultimately give us one of the finest ensemble dramas to appear on an opera stage that it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

And — yes — it is also a spectacular show. In his "poetics," Aristotle wrote that spectacle is the least important part of drama. Fortunately, this "Ring" offers so much more than spectacle.

Take the staging of the final scene of "Walküre" in which Wotan puts his daughter Brünnhilde to sleep and surrounds her with the famous magic fire. The stage setting is based on a WW II battlement in the Presidio (near Golden Gate bridge). The fallen heroes of the story are represented with photos, used with family permission, of soldiers from the Civil War, WW I, WW II, Iraq and Afghanistan. Real fire is used (with the San Francisco Fire Department on hand offstage), and real steam and liquid nitrogen and lighting projections fill out the effect. Both Brünnhilde and Wotan must wear flame-retardant costumes.

I found the photos of the real fallen heroes deeply moving. The purpose of the Valkyrie sisters is to descend to earth and to take the bodies of fallen soldiers back to Valhalla. Our American dead help make the opera poignant and relevant.

This is truly a theater of ideas — but it’s also overwhelmingly emotional to see and to hear. The "Ring" is arguably the greatest single piece of 19th century art — and it maintains its power and relevance today.

As to the singing, for me soprano Nina Stemme is the most compelling Brünnhilde in recent memory. She’s a terrific actress and her voice has all that it takes for this difficult role. Baritone Mark Delavan not only sings gorgeously, but he’s the most lovable Wotan imaginable. You really care about the guy, greedy faults and all. Soprano Anja Kempe is a winning Sieglinde, and tenor Brandon Jovanovich is a decent and dashing Siegmund, even if I am currently smitten by Jonas Kaufmann in this role (at the Met). I loved basso Daniel Sumegi as Hunding; he did not seem to be taking the usual approach as a heavy Heavy. And I am totally blown away by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Wotan’s difficult spouse, Fricka. This is the finest thing I have ever seen her do. I will never forget her standing atop the freeway overpass looking down on the effects of her dirty work.

The Valkyrie sisters were fine if not the equal of the current Met bunch.

The highly touted Met production of Robert Lepage is dull by contrast with this one — even with its now infamous zillion-ton "machine."

Of course, all will end badly Sunday afternoon with the destruction of the world. A moment of regeneration, however, has been promised.

For information, see San Francisco Opera‘s website.

To see review of "Das Rheingold," click "next" below.

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