"Die Walkure," the second installment in the director Francesca Zambello's projected "Ring of the Nibelungen" cycle for the San Francisco Opera, opened on Thursday night. Though I'm not a Perfect Wagnerite, and frankly don't usually care for the composer's music or his operas, I bought a standing room ticket at the last minute out of curiosity. The expectation was making it through the intermission or at best halfway through the second act when the sound of shrieking sopranos over a huge Wagner orchestra would drive me out of the opera house yet again.
However, the performance turned out to be of legendary quality, and I was happily leaning against the top balcony standing room rail four hours and forty-five minutes later, completely entranced. The two main reasons the performance was lifted into the mythical level were the conductor Donald Runnicles, appearing for the first time since giving way to Luisotti as the Music Director of the company, and Nina Stemme who was debuting as Brunnhilde, the cartoonish character who is the female center of the four-opera "Ring."
In closeups on the OperaVision screens in the balcony, Stemme looked a bit like a prettier Lotte Lenya decked out as an aviatrix a la Amelia Earhart. Nobody could take their eyes off her because her acting was both so exciting and so precise. Plus, as somebody commented at the La Cieca website, it was the first time he'd heard an entire "Walkure" Brunnhilde where there wasn't a single ugly sound. It was the kind of performance that creates serious Diva Worshipers.
Runnicles looked nervous coming back to his old haunts, but the audience gave him a friendly, enthusiastic greeting. Five hours later, we were all worshiping him and his orchestra, which will only get better as the run continues. My friend Janos Gereben sent out the following observation the night of the performance, which probably said it best:
"Runnicles doesn't push, doesn't reach for effect, he invokes a sound from the pit which embraces and lifts the singers. There are long stretches when the orchestra virtually disappears, and all you hear is...the music.