Last Sunday I attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre by the San Francisco Opera. In many respects, it’s a minor miracle that any grand opera is produced at all— given the high cost, the super-specialized talents required and the deep coordination of the music, singing, drama, light, costume and stagecraft. To complicate things further, Die Walküre is the second opera in a cycle of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelung. The Ring Cycle is one of the more ambitious projects an opera company can undertake. The Ring takes years of planning, signing the right talents, finding the right concept and assembling considerable financing. Given the difficulty, one would think it was a rare event. But instead we find ourselves with one Ring after another. This year the Los Angeles Opera presented its science fiction ring. In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera in New York will present a Ring that features integrated computer and video technology designed by Robert Lapage. San Francisco Opera’s offering of Die Walküre is a prelude to their presentation of the full ring cycle in 2011.
The Ring tells the story of the Twilight of the Gods and the beginning of the age of men. It’s been told in many ways over the years. The San Francisco Opera production (a co-production with the Washington National Opera) brings the story to America. The Gods are transformed into the titans of industry, inhabiting the skyscrapers of a giant metropolis; the Valkyries are women aviators parachuting on to the stage, the mythology of the opera is seamlessly fused to the mythology of America.
Director Francesca Zambello has created an American Ring full of raw power, deep psychology and strong resonances with our national story. In Die Walküre, it is the sense of touch that expresses these big themes in terms of personal moments. In the scenes between Hunding and Sieglinde in a rural shack, their entire relationship can be understood by watching their body language and how they touch each other. Zambello manages to infuse the entire dramatic level of the opera with this kind of specificity and emotion. Donald Runnicles, SF Opera’s former music director, is one of the foremost interpreters of Wagner’s music. He recently conducted two full Ring Cycles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin for their 2007/2008 season. His work on Die Walküre is detailed and passionate. The singers, Stemme, Delavan, Westbroek, Ventris, Baechle and Aceto are outstanding in both voice and their dramatic work. From the opening notes, all the way through the four and half hour opera, the audience is riveted. While I’ve seen the opera many times before, I was on the edge of my seat wondering what these characters would do next.
This may be one of the Rings that people talk about years from now. There’s something about the mythology of the Ring, the Twilight of the Gods, and this time in American history that creates very strong connections— where new meanings well up from leitmotifs of the music and the unstinting drama unfolding on the stage. This Ring sheds a great deal of light on the story of America, from the very personal to the highest levels of our politics. Even a God is bound by treaties, contracts and obligations— seemingly unlimited power is always limited by the power of the world. It’s a drama where the Gods are human, all too human.