Music mirrors drama
The orchestra was sometimes ragged. Small problems piled up: an errant sword motif, premature entrances, ragged brass chords, infelicities in the violins during particularly exposed or transparent passages such as the “Magic Fire Music” in “The Valkyrie.” But the orchestra was also capable of great power and warmth, and Runnicles mastered what may be the most difficult challenge of the score: the connective tissue. In between the grand orchestral showpieces and juggernaut monologues, the “Ring” is woven from a handful of basic themes, broken down into repetitive musical gestures. In the hands of an impatient or indifferent conductor, these atomized bits of musical data can sound like generic literary filler.
Runnicles has divined their greater importance as the basic transistors and capacitors in Wagner’s emotional circuitry. Moment by moment, the conductor managed the energies of the score, pushing here, slackening there. Perhaps no one will credit him with a grand architectural plan; but in Wagner, the grand plan matters far less than the surface, and the surface of Runnicles’s “Ring” was electric.
In that, the music mirrored the drama, which yielded an even more profound result. For decades, in lugubrious prose, Wagner gassed on about his operatic ideal: a perfect symbiosis of music, drama and design in a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or complete work of art. If you’re ever cornered by a garrulous opera lover who wants to explain this to you, run. But the ideal is real, and the San Francisco “Ring” realized it. Zambello, with Runnicles’s help and the impressive commitment of her cast, proved the old monster of Bayreuth was right about his art: It works only as a complete fusion of musical and dramatic gestures.
The full “Ring” should come to Washington. But it’s too easy to demand that the company stage the “Ring.” The challenge is to the opera lovers of Washington, especially the filthy-rich ones, who alone can make it happen. Let’s hope they rise to the occasion.
The Ring of the Nibelung
by Richard Wagner, continues through July 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For more information visit www.sfopera.com.