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German Shepherds, Parachuting Valkyries Thrill in San Francisco

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Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco
Patricia Racette as Marguerite and Stefano Secco as Faust in the Gounod opera "Faust." The San Francisco Opera production runs through July 1. Photographer: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera via Bloomberg

June 24 (Bloomberg) -- Two amazing German shepherds briefly steal the show in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s “The Valkyrie.”

Suddenly, the unleashed beasts leap across from one side of the stage to the other, followed by the murderous Hunding.

The audience gasps. Then we’re back to admiring the first-rate singers, especially Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde in this eye-popping production conducted by Donald Runnicles and directed by Francesca Zambello.

From the moment Stemme strides onstage, dressed as a 1930s aviatrix in long coat, scarf and high boots, she projects a tomboy’s brash energy and enthusiasm. Her singing is clean and bright, strong enough to balance the lush, rich sound of the orchestra.

The Swedish soprano is utterly believable as the top Valkyrie, whose job description includes transporting fallen warriors to Valhalla. She’s the favorite daughter of top deity Wotan, a pin-striped godfather operating from a penthouse office.

Baritone Mark Delavan fills the suit with muscular grace, which gives physical tension to that long scene with his impetuous daughter Brunnhilde. Ground down by his nitpicking wife, Fricka, he orders Brunnhilde not to protect Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have begun an adulterous and incestuous relationship and incurred Fricka’s wrath.

Defiant Daughter

Brunnhilde defies her father’s order, setting in motion events that will end with Siegmund’s death, Sieglinde’s rescue and a magnificent ring of fire in which the Valkyrie slumbers until awakened at the end of the next opera, “Siegfried.”

Zambello’s kinetic staging finds inventive ways to keep the stars in character at all times. When the Valkyries return to Valhalla in the final act, they parachute in from the wings in thrilling fashion. Even at almost five hours, with two intermissions, the show never drags.

The designs by Michael Yeargan are simple yet elegant, especially the first act’s cabin in which Sieglinde dwells with Hunding and his hunting trophies. At the act’s end, the cabin walls slide apart, revealing an enormous full moon in a deep blue sky, a memorable setting for the lovers’ ill-fated embrace.

All the singers are unusually fine: Christopher Ventris, a handsome Siegmund, Eva-Maria Westbroek, his full-voiced Sieglinde, Janina Baechle, a bosomy, often comic Fricka and Raymond Aceto, as a particularly psychotic Hunding.

San Francisco Opera will stage all four parts of the “Ring” cycle next year.

Horse Opera

The company has been clever in advertising the spring season’s three operas with posters all over town suggesting we “Take a Wild Ride With a Valkyrie,” sell our “Soul to the Devil” and hitch up for “The Original Spaghetti Western.” That last would be Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” which takes place during the California Gold Rush and is occasionally mounted for divas who want some fun and aren’t afraid of horsing around.

So Deborah Voigt, more often seen in Wagnerian epics, steps out as the saloon-keeper Minnie who falls for a bandit named Dick Johnson. The highlight is a card game she plays for his life with the smitten sheriff, Jack Rance.

Voigt, now slim, was a charismatic Minnie and her appearance on horseback added some charm to a production that wasn’t very scenic. Salvatore Licitra offered an ardent bandit and Roberto Frontali cut a macho presence as Rance. Whatever the posse-pursues-outlaw plot lacks in surprises is more than made up for in Puccini’s score, conducted floridly (if sometimes a bit loudly) by music director Nicola Luisotti.

Beat the Devil

Gounod’s “Faust” got off to a promisingly spooky start as John Relyea, the Mephistopheles, arose from a gurney in Dr. Faust’s laboratory. Soon the old doctor is young again and the two set out to have a high old time on the town. Relyea looked properly dapper and Stefano Secco sang fluidly as Faust.

Still, the star of the show was Patricia Racette as the doomed Marguerite. She sang with passion, especially when calling to the angels at the opera’s end. The production, from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, seemed under-directed, with singers standing lifelessly in front of the chorus and belting it out to the balconies.

San Francisco Opera’s spring season runs through July 2 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. Information: +1-415-864-3330; http://www.sfopera.com

(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Stephen West in San Francisco at smwest@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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