Wave projections before the beginning of San Francisco Opera’s Die Walküre continued the water theme from Rheingold, but the first act failed to maintain Rheingold’s excitement. Urgent playing from the orchestra and shaky video racing through the woods made for an electrifying start. Francesca Zambello’s staging, however, fell flat. Hunding’s hut featured an oddly two-dimensional tree, which sprouted a sword from its trunk at a nonsensical moment. Siegmund and Sieglinde built wonderful romantic chemistry with small glances and gestures, but on a larger scale their blocking involved singing to the front and aimless frolicking. Mark McCullogh’s lighting, however, deserves nothing but praise, especially the gradual but striking nightfall.

Brandon Jovanovich made a strapping Siegmund with lots of heroic ring to his sound. He balanced a gruffness that suited his character with smooth legato and told his woeful origin story with heart-breaking expression. Karita Mattila was miscast as Sieglinde. Her rich tone and impeccable artistry shone, but her voice had frayed edges, and both sound and posture betrayed obvious effort at the top. Raymond Aceto proved a crackly-voiced, cruel Hunding. His brutality towards both of the twins was so over-the-top it made him a caricature – even his assertion of sacred hospitality was undercut by sneers and threatening gestures. 

There’s a whispered tradition among Ring nuts of skipping the long second act of Die Walküre and grabbing dinner instead, but anyone who did so on Wednesday missed out. This is where the production took flight. We were whisked up a skyscraper into Wotan’s marble Art Deco office. As Fricka, Jamie Barton berated Wotan with cutting sound and crunchy low notes. Greer Grimsley delivered Wotan’s desperate monologue in a powerful voice with droning tone at the bottom and an explosive “Das Ende!”. He gazed longingly at the hand that once wore the ring, hungry for power even during this family crisis. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde tossed off playful, crystalline “Hojotoho”s at first, then showed quiet intensity when responding to Wotan’s grief.

The second half of the act took place amid piles of junk beneath a freeway overpass. Mattila’s tension served Sieglinde’s near-insanity here. Jovanovich sang a warm, sweet lullaby over his sleeping sister. Theorin revealed even more colors in her astonishing voice, which shimmered silver as she warned Siegmund of his coming death. Hunding and his comrades arrived preceded by two beautiful Belgian Shepherds (named Finn and Fubar). The fight between Siegmund and Hunding, by fight director Dave Maier, was among the best I’ve seen on the opera stage for both storytelling and technical execution. 

The third act opened with a crowd-pleaser: Valkyrie body doubles “parachuting” towards stage. The eight Valkyries then appeared in aviatrix gear, parachutes in tow, shouting their rousing cries. Some of their solo singing was lost in the orchestral din, but they thrilled as an ensemble. Brünnhilde's and Wotan's farewell scene was touchingly intimate (though too long – but Wagner’s the one to blame for that). Wotan summoned a large wall of real fire to protect his daughter, an impressive special effect. (The flashes that accompanied Alberich’s transformations in Rheingold wowed too; this cycle is good at pyrotechnics.)

Throughout the opera, Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra produced intricate tapestries of sound, from the lush flows of the Act 1 love duet to the intense crashing brass signaling Wotan’s approach. The pacing felt a tad slow, but the orchestra’s precise and energetic rendering of Wagner’s complex score never bored. The final chimes of the score sparkled, giving way to instant, thunderous applause.