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September 2005

Pikovaya Dama

Last month I attended a performance of The Queen of Spades at San Francisco Opera. The Russian operas are always very well attended here, so generally there is one each season, though surprisingly, Eugene Onegin was also given earlier in the 2004-2005 season.

The production presented is owned by the Welsh National Opera, and the singers involved were better than the ones the Petersburg production I attended last year. Roy Rallo's stage direction was somewhat tedious. At first it might have been tolerable; the enormous portraits of the title character used as scrims and decor were silly, but not unbearable. The puppet show they put on in Act II was cynical to the point of being moralistic, but also, I could have overlooked this.

But in the last act, second scene, we are looking down into Gherman's room, and the bed was disproportionately large. I knew something was going to occur. The ghost of the Countess popped up as an enormous skeleton, and the singer herself had to sing from backstage. Hanna Schwarz had the best voice of the cast, and I had been looking forward to hearing her one last time. Of course, the absurdity of the staging elicited tittering. Then at the end, the skeleton reappears, peering in through the skylight.

Der Ring des Nibelungen at Seattle Opera

RheingoldSeattle Opera is especially dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner. The founder of this opera company, Glynn Ross, apparently adored Wagner at a time in which his works were generally neglected by most American opera houses. Seattle Opera has built its reputation on staging Wagner in a traditional manner, a reaction to the ultra-minimalism of Bayreuth. From 1975 to 1983 they gave Der Ring des Nibelungen every summer, in both English and German versions. This month Seattle Opera is staging their third production of Der Ring for the second time. Glynn Ross' ambitions certainly have been fulfilled, as these performances were sold-out a year in advance, even the waiting list had to be closed 8 months before the cycle began.

Stephen Wadsworth's production has a particular emphasis on nature, many of Thomas Lynch's sets are covered in greenery. The most evident motif throughout were human coverings: the robes of Wotan and Siegmund were especially prominent, the former used as Brünnhilde's pillow, the latter dragged all about by Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Siegfried.

Das Rheingold
The audience was rather delighted with the acrobatic Rheintöchter, they were suspended from the ceiling and did all sorts of flips and dives. They were still able to sing quite well despite the athleticism required, good thing they were forced to be on some sort of cardio/yoga/pilates regimen beforehand. I was a bit confused by the staging though, it leaves Alberich on the bottom of the Rhein, since he is on the stage and they are above him.

They cast people well, Richard Paul Fink and Thomas Harper were suitably small as Alberich and Mime respectively, and Fasolt and Fafner, Stephen Milling and Gidon Saks, were convincing giants.

The weakest scene of the opera, and possibly the whole cycle, was the third scene in when Wotan and Loge go to Nibelheim and trick Alberich into changing into first a giant snake and then a toad. Both simply looked like children's toys, and the snake was not impressively larger than the toad. This received an audible giggle from the audience.

The singing was fairly even. Compared to the Bayerische Staatsoper Ring production of 2003, the only singer that was less impressive was Greer Grimsley, because John Tomlinson was an amazing Wotan. Grimsley was slightly quiet, but consistent. Tomlinson was fuller and more brilliant, but he was also singing with a poorer cast, so it could be simply the contrast. The most exciting vocals came from Ewa Podleś in her tiny role as Erda. As she rose from the earth her enormous voice seemed a force of nature.

Die Walküre
Everyone seemed to adore Margaret Jane Wray and Richard Berkeley-Steele as the Wälsungen, but I found Stephen Milling's voice most compelling in his role as Hunding, though he did not make a particular impression on me as Fasolt in the earlier opera. His voice had a certain command, it is very solid. Jane Eaglen was at her best as Brünnhilde, her high range never grates nor threatens to break glass, her low range is quiet.

The set for Act III (Auf dem Gipfel eines Felsenberges) where we find the Walküre left something to be desired. It looked too clean and neat, as if one had bought it from IKEA. It reminded me of the set for Seattle's Lohengrin, similarly flat and linear. Thomas Lynch designed both, no surprise there at all.

Also, the Walküre threw around the various body parts of fallen heroes during that first scene. For some reason, this struck me as slightly tacky, something out of a horror movie. Another trivial point, it might have been nicer if the rest of the Walküre had been a little more substantial physically, since Jane Eaglen may well be around 300 pounds. This visual contrast was slightly bizarre.

The most notable flaw in this performance was having the singers be percussionists. One would never force the singer of Siegfried to play the famous horn call, why should a singer then, be forced to be a percussionist? Thomas Harper (Mime) was more confident of his playing, but still was off at times, and Alan Woodrow's playing was just painful to watch, and more importantly, hear. It was too bad, since he made a nice enough Siegfried otherwise, singing adequate, and his acting was charming. He does petulant and boyish well. They also pulled off the bear part at Siegfried's first entrance, the bear suit donned by tenor Steven Goldstein.

Surprisingly, the Act II scenes with Fafner as a dragon were also done well. The puppet was suitably grand. However, the Waldvogel part came off less well. A stuffed bird was illuminated in the trees, but it was very difficult to see. Wendy Hill's voice sounded very pleasing, and it might have been better if we could have heard her from the stage.

Act III Scene 1 was definitely the best part because of Podleś. The Act III love scene was slightly painful, Eaglen waddles, and when she spun around in delight at Siegfried, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The beginning Norn scene was impressive, Podleś and Stephanie Blythe have such big voices, Wray is full but not as hefty. Gidon Saks (Hagen) was ill and his voice was quiet and strained. Woodrow's singing in Act III Scene 2 as Siegfried dying was especially good, not flawless, but very beautiful. Eaglen put everything she had into the Immolation scene, it was transcendent, her voice gleaming.

As for the staging and set, the Halle der Gibichungen was very dull, it was in no danger of being a distraction. Act III Scene 1 with the Rheintöchter down from their harnesses was charming, though the arm choreography didn't much make sense, it looked like they were flapping. The last scene was utter madness, the scrim came down with fire projected on it, the gods all reappeared on a platform, and the Rheintöchter reappeared to catch the ring that Brünnhilde throws up into the air. Somehow this all came together.

Overall, it certainly was ambitious. Robert Spano did not seem to have any exquisite control over the orchestra, nor was his conducting particularly fiery. The traditionalist approach to the stage direction makes it obvious how difficult it is to stage something so fantastical without being kitschy. One begins to understand why all those bizarre contemporary stagings exist, they are a sort of distraction.