Those few seconds of expectant silence between the final chord and start of the applause could only have meant one thing: it was a triumph. Once the curtain fell for Die Walküre's first night, the audience at the War Memorial House needed a few moments to go back to reality and realize that what they experienced had been one of those rare near-perfect performances. Former San Francisco Opera music director Donald Runnicles was back on the podium, and together with a stellar cast, he filled the auditorium with four and a half hours of exceptional music.
This Walküre is part of the tetralogy directed by Francesca Zambello that the SF Opera will perform over the summer of 2011. Zambello has famously called her concept for this production as the 'American Ring': its aspiration is to give shape to obsessions of modern society in the States, from global war, to pollution, to urban isolation. The performers are in modern costumes (conceived by Catherine Zuber). Michael Yeargan's settings give the space multidimensional qualities, widening the actual stage. If the first act takes place in a generic house of a hunter in the woods, the second act makes it clear that we are far from an ahistorical Valhalla: first, from the window of Wotan's office we observe a financial centre crowded with skyscrapers; eventually we are at the feet of a sinister unfinished highway with scattered tyres across a wasteland.
The visual realization of Zambello's concept has been criticized by some, after it was first seen at Washington National Opera in 2008. Some ideas were deemed clichéd – such as Wotan being the boss of a capitalist empire (which brings back to mind the famous Bayreuth Ring by Chéreau in 1976); and some visual effects appear quite naïve – such as the initial video projection (one of the many by Jan Hartley) prosaically too similar to a screen-saver; or lightning synchronized to some crucial narrative moments such as Siegfried's conquer of Nothung.
These critiques are understandable. Nonetheless, Zambello's concept was sufficiently functional to sustain the dramatic economy of the opera. If some projections were a little clumsy, others were used with grace: I have in mind the fire surrounding Brünnhilde which, together with the actual fire on stage, conferred the moment a touching slow-motion quality, giving the scene had an almost cinematic dimension. Perhaps the naïve moments are helpful for underlining the mythological perspective—which is inevitable. What is more, the emotional charge of the performance was sustained in many ways: the stage direction was precise and attentive to every nuance of the work, and there was a balance between the political and the familiar relationships, and the intertwining of the two. The singers were all intelligently choreographed, and the result was a harmonious, moving and thought-provoking performance.
The musical interpretation of this Walküre was, for me, the pinnacle of the 2009-10 season for the SF Opera. Eva-Maria Westbroek made her Sieglinde shine: through her dense soprano voice, she built a solid character, and tender at the same time. The warmth of her Sieglinde was most evident in her interaction and growing relationship with her lost brother as well as current lover, Siegmund, sung by British tenor Christopher Ventris. The woman's realization that she could remember a past together with him ('sah ich dich schon!', 'I have seen you before'), the growing awareness of their love and the possibility of an escape from their sorrowful lives were all manifest in their performances. Ventris' delicate and accurate delivery was supported by Westbroek's fiery timbre, complementing each other wonderfully.
Women are warriors as much as men in this Walküre. I refer not only to the Walkyries: Sieglinde physically helps Siegmund in extracting the sword Nothung from the ash tree, and she steals the weapon from his hands in one of her most climatic moments. Bravest of all, Brünnhilde, was portrayed by an incredible Nina Stemme, who masters the role with an immense ease. Her performance, together with that of Westbroek, was flawless. She filled the whole house with energy and passion, when on stage, and in the moments when she was not singing, she was able to dig into the psychology of her character through her movements, looks, and interaction with the other protagonists. A particularly emotional moment was the one in which she seems unable to calm down her father: her 'War es so schmählich?' ('was [my deed] so shameful'?) was breathtaking, and she seemed as if she were singing from a body that had been torn apart – so intense was the pain Stemme was exploring.
The complexity of Wotan was masterfully rendered by Mark Delevan's interpretation. His timbre is rich and agile. He managed to exploit all the dimensions of this character: his heartfelt love and trust for Brünnhilde, his helplessness in political matters, his indecisiveness. He suffered from some fatigue during Act 3, and was flat at certain points. But this did not much affect his performance: his Wotan was a deeply touching figure from beginning to the very end. The exceptional beauty of the score came to life in all its puissance in those scenes in which both Delevan and Stemme were on stage.
Piercing horns signalled the arrival of Hunding, played by Raymond Aceto. His was a tremendously convincing performance: vocally, his penetrating bass voice never faltered. He was able to make of his character a real thug. Janina Baechle's Fricka, as well, was an imposing and merciless figure. Her timbre was less bright when in dialogue with that of Stemme's, but her performance was a fine one. The Valkyries chorus was very effective from a dramatic perspective, even if some voices were weaker and somewhat overpowered by the orchestra.
Donald Runnicles demonstrated a huge sensitiveness towards the score. His reading was not sensationalistic: instead, he went for details, nuances, and precision. As in the previous night's performance of La fanciulla del West, the SF Opera Orchestra sounded in great shape: every second of music was filled with tension. Runnicles, together with Stemme and Delevan, will be back for the SFO Ring in 2011—and I, for one, can't wait to hear the whole cycle on stage.
Photos credits: Cory Weaver and Terrence McCarthy (second photo from the top).