San Francisco Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's "Die Walküre," which opened Thursday in the War Memorial, is an absolute joy.
A near-flawless ensemble performance by a hundred stars –singers, orchestral players and production personnel – offers the kind of opera fans travel the world for, finding it rarely.
Donald Runnicles, who made his San Francisco debut 20 years ago conducting outstanding Wagner, has matured into a wise, self-effacing giant of an interpreter.
Under his baton – with a stunning orchestra, including world-class brass and woodwinds performances – the music flows as if by itself.
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.
A great new Wotan has arrived. Mark Delavan is both majestic and heartbreakingly human. His acting, diction and warm, broad voice impress throughout. He evoked tears from me in the magic fire scene.
When he stumbles under the weight of his sorrow, when he spits out words of anger, Delavan joins the historic line of Wotans to remember.
Equally powerful in that scene is Nina Stemme, in her role debut as Brünnhilde, a career climax.
Earlier, when she first appears in a costume and attitude that recall the Baader-Meinhof gang, she takes over the stage, and her dark, powerful voice fills the 3,200-seat hall.
Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde shares Stemme's power, but hers is a brighter and even more penetrating voice.
She and Christopher Ventris' Siegmund make an outstanding singing-acting pair, with a love duet that sweeps the listener away. They are pursued by Raymond Aceto's Hunding, menace personified.
Ventris sings beautifully, but his voice became slightly diminished as the evening wore on. (He and Delavan, who had a couple miniscule rough patches, may be both victims of the late San Francisco spring, with its high pollen count.)
Janina Baechle's matronly, quietly assured, understandably nasty Fricka fit well into the ensemble of stars.
The eight young Valkyries made a splendid chorus, but didn't impress individually.
Much will be said about Francesca Zambello's direction, especially about its unusual touches on Michael Yeargan's bold sets, for example: parachuting Valkyries (show-stopping, attention-diverting), Wotan's executive office in the high rise of what may be Walhalla, Inc. (good), and the urban wilderness under a bridge to nowhere for Siegmund's death.
But I kept focusing on something else – how Zambello moves the characters around the stage with care and thought.
Enemies of various kinds in "Walküre" typically stand apart. Zambello brings them together – provocatively, meaningfully. However brutal Hunding is with Sieglinde, they also have a physical connection, at time going both ways, she touching him not only to protect Siegmund, but also with intimacy.
Even at the point of Wotan's maximum frustration with Fricka, the two touch and then part. For Zambello and her characters, life is more complex than either/or.
Although there are (low-key) references to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and flashy scenes such as mentioned above, this is not the "American 'Ring'" Zambello started out to create.
With Runnicles, the orchestra, the extraordinary singers, this "Walküre" is part of what promises to be a great “Ring" in summer 2011.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 1 p.m. June 13; 7 p.m. June 19, 22, 25, 30
Tickets: $25 to $295
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com