The audience went nuts at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on Wednesday night (June 29, 2011) when Nina Stemme came out for her bows after a triumph as the Walküre Brünnhilde. She has chosen San Francisco to make her Ring Cycle role debut, and is in good company: Birgit Nilsson made her U.S. debut here in 1956 in the same role, as did Leonie Rysanek as Sieglinde in the same performance.
Stemme and her exceptionally gifted colleagues also continue the tradition of superb Wagnerians in San Francisco Rings: The 1999 and 1990 Rings featured James Morris, Deborah Voight, Hildegard Behrens, Jane Eaglen, Rene Kollo, Gwyneth Jones, Franz Mazura and Helga Dernesch. The 1985 San Francisco Ring included Peter Hoffman, Jeannine Altmeyer and Eva Marton. Even the 1935 Ring here included Friedrich Schorr as Wotan, Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde and Loritz Melchior as both Siegmund and Siegfried.
Not that the San Francisco audiences are hard to please. But when they like it, they let you know. The ovation when conductor Donald Runnicles gestured to the orchestra after Das Rheingold sounded like Barry Bonds being lauded for boinking one into McCovey Cove. Such feats are not seen every day, and they are met with rapture.
Elisabeth Bishop’s Fricka was imperious, ambitious and sound. Mark Delavan was not always well served by the staging, which placed Wotan far upstage at critical moments (such as the final words of Act III Walküre), putting him at an audible disadvantage. But he provided what was needed in both of the first parts of the Ring.
Particularly impressive among an impressive ensemble were the twins, Heidi Melton as a committed Sieglinde and Brandon Jovanovich, an American tenor with a focused tone, athletic characterization, slender hips and supreme stage demeanor. A sexy Siegmund does a lot for any performance of Walküre.
I am accustomed to the orchestra being the real star of a Ring, and perhaps it was in this case as well. But an unexpected thrill came from the audience itself. These folks really wanted to be there, and they were there to be wow-ed. Jan Hartley’s stupendously colorful projections of Western skies, Francesca Zambello’s convincing concept, and Michael Yeargan’s western-influenced sets, combined to provoke a sense of recognition and acknowledgement in the house. Several times the audience broke into applause, simply because things were done so well — an example being the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene at the opening of Walküre Act II. Unlike the Met audiences, these people wanted to listen to every note they’d paid to hear, and they refrained from applause until the orchestra finished playing — can you imagine that?
Part II will follow after completion of the Ring performances, including a discussion of Zambello’s vision of an “American Ring.”