The Return of the Opera


"Die Walkure," the second opera in the new Wagner Ring, is up and  running at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, with performances  through June 30.

With former music director Donald Runnicles returning to conduct,  it was sure to be a musically compelling evening, and it was, Runnicles  drawing a rapturous, forceful performance from the Opera Orchestra. 

Add the starry international cast assembled here and the potent  staging of Francesca Zambello, and it was a performance that brought all the  operatic elements together into a four and half hours of unforgettable music  drama.

The production, with sets by Michael Yeargan, is set in early 20th  century America: the famous Valkyries, garbed in flight jackets and goggles,  arrive on their famous Ride not mounted on smoking steeds but via parachutes  onto the stage. 

And Wotan, who has a difficult household to contend with -- his  children, gods and half-mortals are misbehaving -- has his first meeting with  Brunnhilde, the favorite among his Valkyrie daughters, in his steel and glass  penthouse office in Valhalla, looking out on a skyscape of dark towers. The  20th century Wall Street image makes a lot of sense: greed brought right up  to date. 

Nina Stemme, whom we remember as Senta in 2004 "Flying Dutchman,"  was said to be singing the role of Brunnhilde over a cold, but no one would  have known; she extended her gleaming, heroic voice to every corner of the  house. In her softer moments with Siegmund and Wotan, she showed herself to  be the kind of bright and brave woman reminiscent of several of her  Shakespearean counterparts: Viola and Rosalind come to mind. 

Former Adler Fellow Mark Delavan was a youngish but completely  persuasive Wotan. In the scene in which his haranguing wife Fricka (a  striking debut by German mezzo Janina Baechle) demands that he do away with  his son Siegmund and contrive a hellish punishment for Brunnhilde he was warm  and displayed his comic skills, just as the final scene with his beloved  Brunnhilde brought tears to the eyes. It is a marvel to have a fresh, pliant  voice in the role.

Nearly equaling Stemme in vocal grandeur was Dutch soprano  Eva-Marie Westbroek in her local debut as Sieglinde, Wotan's daughter by an  earthly wife. In her SFO debut, she portrayed the abused wife of the brutish  Hunding who is doomed to fall in love with her twin brother Siegmund with a  huge, color-powered voice and dramatic finesse. 

British tenor Christopher Ventris ("Parsifal" and "Flying  Dutchman") was a winning Siegmund, partnering Westbroek with fluid, ardent  singing and a striking dramatic presence. Bass Raymond Aceto played the  domineering Hunding with vocal point and physical power.

The eight Valkyries, Brunnhilde's sisters who have the job of  bearing fallen heroes to Valhalla, sang vibrantly and strode the ramparts  with impressive vigor. Lighting designer Mark McCullough created storms,  complete with forked lightning, to remember. 

The complete Ring will be presented in San Francisco in the summer  of 2011. "Die Walkure" has several more performances through June 30.

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