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Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Bayreuther-tristan * Notes * 
The closing performance of the Bayreuther Festspiele was Friday night's Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had a full, even tone under the direction of Peter Schneider. However, the volume overwhelmed the singers in many cases. The singing started off roughly for the two principals, at first, Iréne Theorin (Isolde) shrieked flatly and Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) was nearly inaudible. As Brangäne, Michelle Breedt was shrill, and as Kurwenal, Jukka Rasilainen was monochrome. At least Martin Snell (Steuermann) sounded pretty and the chorus sang with vim.

The second act was a definite improvement. Theorin sang on key and blended nicely with Smith. Their duet was lovely. As König Marke, Robert Holl's voice was a grave contrast to Smith's. By the last act, Rasilainen pulled through, singing with emotion and beauty at the end. Smith gave an arresting performance in the first half of Act III, and was only muffled by the orchestra a few times. On the contrary, Theorin's Liebestod was conspiciously less dazzling, though her pianissimo at the beginning was exquisite.

The production from Christoph Marthaler was dull, we started the evening at the top of a building, and made our way down. Anna Viebrock's set involved peeling wallpaper and other signs of decay, and her costumes wended their way through the 20th century. The scenes were often static, but were punctuated with nonsensical movement. Kurwenal wandered around the periphery near the end of Act II and would periodically fall down. All the characters except Tristan and Isolde ended up facing the walls during the Liebestod.

* Tattling * 
The audience murmured, and there was quite a lot of noise before the Liebestod, when more than one person exited the theater. The German man behind me in Row 15 Seat 24 on the right side of the Parkett hovered over me for much of Acts I and II, he touched my hair more than once. During Act III I decided the only way to be comfortable was to simply assert myself, so I sat on the cushion I brought but did not need, and sat as straight as possible. This worked very well. Unfortunately, my companion was less lucky, the American in Row 14 Seat 22 slept through much of the first two acts, but was woken when his cellular phone rang in the middle of Act II. At the second intermission he must have had a good deal of coffee, for I could smell his breath during Act III, as he stared over in our direction. Whilst awake, he elbowed my companion several times and also talked. It was utterly bizarre, he was in some sort of Wagner Society, had the libretto in German, and also extensive notes on all the operas at the Festspiele this year.

There were scattered boos when the curtain came down at the end, presumably for the boring staging and not Theorin.

Und suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!

Bayreuther-parsifal * Notes * 
The final performance of Parsifal at this year's Bayreuther Festspiele was last night. The orchestra sounded fine under Daniele Gatti, and the chorus was absolutely lovely. The singing was good all around, everyone could be heard, even though the production did have the singers far upstage at times. Mihoko Fujimura was utterly terrifying as Kundry, her movements were reptilian and her voice stunning, without a trace of shrillness. Likewise, Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) acted well and sang adeptly. Diógenes Randes was appropriately grave as Titurel, and Detlef Roth was deeply engaged with his role as Amfortas. Kwangchul Youn's rich, warm tones were welcome in his portrayal of Gurnemanz. In the title role, Christopher Ventris did not fail to impress. He sang with power and very little strain.

Stefan Herheim's production was nauseating, there was just so much going on, lots of movement, many lights and mirrors, and much noise during the music. It seemed that every moment was packed with explanation of not only the plot, but also something about German history in the 20th century. There were many cinematic references from campy musicals to Josef von Sternberg. At the same time, much of the staging felt highly predictable, for instance, the swan that appeared on a shield just above the bed in the middle of Act I was clearly going to be shot by Parsifal, and naturally, it was.

* Tattling * 
The audience was far from silent, there was even yelling during the performance, especially when Nazis appeared on stage. The woman in Row 5 Seat 18 of the Right Parkett must have bathed in perfume, and her poor father had absolutely no idea what was going on with the opera. They were at least less idiotic than the person who took a flash photograph when a mirror was turned toward the audience.

There was some clapping at the end of Act I, which was hushed and hissed at by others. During the last curtain calls there were scattered boos for Gatti, but nothing near the palpable outrage about Die Meistersinger the previous evening.

Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!

Bayreuther-meistersinger * Notes * 
Katharina Wagner's production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuther Festspiele is simply dumbfounding. From the very beginning it was clear that the person behind the absurd staging was exceedingly detail-oriented and highly neurotic. The concept seemed well thought out and read clearly, and better yet was carried through to the end. The joyousness of the riot at the end of Act II was particularly wonderful. There were shoes falling from the sky; enormous soup cans full of paint; dancing statues of Wagner, Dürer, and others; not to mention plenty of obsessive cleaning.

Sebastian Weigle kept the orchestra moving, though just the slightest bit lax, the playing was still lovely. The chorus, directed by Eberhard Friedrich was entirely committed to both the music and the choreography.

For the most part the singing was perfectly fine, though overall somewhat quiet. Carola Guber was able to convey a certain shrewish annoying quality as Magdalene. Norbert Ernst (David) was pleasantly neurotic, and his pianissimo is appealing. Michaela Kaune could be petulant as Eva, but her singing in the ensemble at the end of Act III Scene 4 was charming. Adrian Eröd amused as Beckmesser, he had a great deal of strain at times in the beginning, but he was a good foil for Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther). Vogt sang with great beauty, sweetness, volume, and effortlessness. On the other hand was our Hans Sachs, Alan Titus, who acted well but lacked both ease and a rich, full tone.

* Tattling * 
A German man in Row 4 Seat 8 on the right side of the Parkett spoke during the music of Act I, and both my companion and I turned around at exactly the same time to give him a stern look. He only spoke once more audibly, when he could not read "Beck in Town" on Beckmesser's t-shirt in Act III. He did press against my companion's seat, and she quite naughtily fondled his knee, which was effective in getting him to stop. The May/December couple in Row 2 Seats 11 and 12 also whispered a good deal, and blocked the view of the woman to my left with their constant movement. The May half of the pair accidentally grabbed my foot when she was trying to adjust her seat cushion.

There was much laughter and murmuring from the audience. I, for one, nearly had a break-down trying to keep my hysterical giggling under control. There were scattered boos at the ends of Act II and III, and very hearty booing for Katharina when she came out for her curtain call.

Götterdämmerung at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Bayreuther-goetterdaemmerung * Notes * 
The Bayreuther Festspiele's last cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen this season concluded with Götterdämmerung last night. Christian Thielemann kept the orchestra under control, and the sound produced was clear and beautiful. The chorus also sounded absolutely gorgeous. The singing was strong for all the smaller roles. The Rheintöchter sounded lovely and alluring. Christiane Kohl (Woglinde), Ulrike Helzel (Wellgunde), and Simone Schröder (Floßhilde) looked oddly winsome, a bit like something out of an Esther Williams film gone awry. The Norns sang with authority: Simone Schröder, Martina Dike, and Edith Haller all had good presence. Edith Haller also sang the role of Gutrune, and her bell-like sound was a fine contrast to Linda Watson's heartier tones. Christa Mayer gave an impassioned performance as Waltraute.

Andrew Shore (Alberich) was impressive in his last scene, pleading but threatening. Hans-Peter König (Hagen) was much beloved by the audience, perhaps because of his full tone and good volume. Ralf Lukas was a bit quiet as Gunther, but he did not strain terribly either. Linda Watson was a stately and dignified Brünnhilde, her lower register is beautifully warm. Christian Franz lacked subtlety in his performance as Siegfried, he remained clownish and childlike. He did have nice moments, especially in his last scene, but there were times too when his voice sounded like it would simply give out.

The production, from Tankred Dorst, grew ever more overwrought. Although one always appreciates poultry with Wagner, perhaps the man with the rooster-head that flapped his arms was a bit too much. Or the woman placing and removing three pairs of goggles from her face, pretending her palm was a mirror, that could have been unnecessary. Still, one was entertained. On the other hand, the girls making out and the female nudity was more distracting, as was all the running about near the end.

* Tattling * 
There was much talking from the German/American couple in Row 10 on the right side of the Parkett, Seats 17 and 18. They and the American to their left were all rather too large for the seating, and their knees were firmly pressed into the seat backs in front of them. At least the music was grand enough that they were easily ignored.

There was audible laughter when Siegfried does not recognize Brünnhilde and tries to shake her hand.

Merola Grand Finale 2009

Another report from our friend Don Curzio.

* Notes * 
It is a promising sign for the future of opera that this year's Merolini were such a strong group. Their finale concert was, with a few exceptions, an exciting and enticing evening, and I think I can look forward to hearing these singers many times in the future.

The evening began with the Prologue from Pagliacci, launched with brio by Antony Walker (whose baton was supportive and subtle all evening) and sung with insight and force (if not with an exceptionally beautiful tone) by Aleksey Bogdanov. The curtain then rose on the set for SFO's upcoming production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a charming 18th century "little" theater and appropriately, the next selection was from that opera: the first act duet between Belmonte and Osmin, performed solidly by from both Alex Mansoori and Benjamin LeClair. Later in the evening, the challenging aria "Ich baue ganz," from the same opera, was sung sweetly by Eleazar Rodríguez.

Most of the evening was devoted to duets or ensembles. "As-tu souffert? As-tu pleuré?" from Mignon was given an affecting treatment by Ellie Jarrett and Evan Boyer, who returned later for an impressive rendition of "De son coeur j'ai calmé" from the same opera. The Arabella duet ("Aber der Richtige") was a highlight, as the supple sopranos of Lori Guilbeau and Susannah Biller intertwined and melded together beautifully. Ms. Biller later teamed up with Maya Lahyani and Suzanne Hendrix for the trio from Béatrice et Bénédict, where she floated deliciously over the two mezzo-sopranos. Ms. Lahyani also gave us a well-sung, sexy Seguidilla, with the able Don Jose of Brian Jagde providing support. Wagner was strongly represented by the third-act quintet from Die Meistersinger, gloriously sung by Bogdanov, Mansoori, Hendrix, Kate Crist and Gregory Carroll, and by a tense rendition of the third-act confrontation scene from Der Fliegende Holländer by Carroll and Crist, both whom appear to possess true Wagner voices. Sara Gartland and Nathaniel Peake provided a slightly bumpy but certainly passionate Rigoletto duet. On the lighter side of things, Catilin Mathes and Paul Scholten had great fun as Rosina and Figaro, even if Ms. Mathes' voice is several sizes too small for the role (she also muffed the words at one point). Lara Ciekiewicz and John Chest's performances in the watch duet from Die Fledermaus were also comic highlights.

Especial standouts in solo arias were two rarely-heard Russian pieces: Margaret Gawrysiak was electrifying in Joan's aria from Tchiakovsky's Maid of Orleans and Yohan Yi's powerful bass-baritone was a thrill in a heartbreaking aria from Aleko. Suzanne Hendrix and Brian Jadge each provided plenty of heartbreak in arias from, respectively, Giulio Cesare and Macbeth. Countertenor Ryan Belongie fairly exploded onto the stage for an exciting rendition of an aria from Handel's Serse and Michael Sumuel was charming and assured in the tricky "Là del ciel nell'arcano profondo" from La Cenerentola.

The evening concluded with the "Tutto nel mondo è burla" from Falstaff, sung by the entire group. It was a joyful end to a great year at Merola.

* Tattling * 
The program inserts that listed who was singing somehow went missing before they could be inserted into the programs, forcing a stage manager to make an announcement before each of the selections. The papers were handed out at intermission. There were no watch alarms or cell phones in the balcony, but somebody talked over about the first two minutes of music before being repeatedly shushed.

Review of Urban Opera's Dido and Aeneas

Scharich-dido This account of Urban Opera's Dido and Aeneas comes to us from someone who only wishes to be known as Don Curzio.

* Notes * 
A pleasure it may be to witness the first performance of a new local company, and it is a pleasure, but Urban Opera may need a little time to fulfill the ample promise shown in its inaugural production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Despite the presence of a spirited and talented cast, the evening had to overcome a fair share of directorial and designer mishaps. Chip Grant, the artistic director of the new company, made the strange decision to include the rarely performed prologue, the music of which is lost. The Prologue was thus performed in spoken dialogue, nearly all of which was rendered inaudible by wind, echo, and ambient noise. After this lackluster opening (and a well-staged pantomime during the overture depicting the fall of Troy) the evening settled down into a basically traditional performance with clever (the use of puppetry in the boar hunt; the jolly Sailor being one of the witches in disguise) and not so clever (choristers holding up newspapers with the headline "WILL ROYALS WED?", the only bit of anachronistic imagery in the production) bits of business. The costumes, by Kue King, ranged from interesting to bizarre to horrible. Dido, for example, wore an ornate belt with an arrow protruding out of either side of it, indicating she had been struck by Cupid's arrow. The Sorceress strutted around in a feathery contraption that would have looked right at home at a Cher concert, and everyone wore bizarre headdresses that seem to have been borrowed from a local Wiccan coven.

Musically, thankfully, things were more interesting. Chip Grant conducted the small orchestra (a string quartet plus keyboard) far more assuredly than he directed. The young mezzo Kindra Scharich used a lovely lower range and a lush, warm sound to create an affecting Dido. Todd Wedge was a masculine and steadfast Aeneas, putting a supple tenor to use very pleasantly in a role usually sung by baritones. Milissa Carey, an actress with a background in music rather than a professional singer, camped it up nicely as the deliciously evil Sorceress. Kimarie Torre was a sparkling Belinda who dueted very nicely with Pam Ingelsrud's Second Woman. Grant chose to cast Countertenors as the Witches, who doubled with the Spirit and the Sailor. Michael McNeil, in fact, was asked to sing as a soprano as the Second Witch and a tenor as the Sailor, and his thin voice was pleasurable in neither register, though he acted his assignments well. He was utterly shone up by the strong alto of Cortez Mitchell. The small chorus sounded excellent, and were very threatening as the witches.

The outdoor performance area, in an elevated plaza between two Mission Bay office buildings, proved a mixed blessing indeed. The acoustics were surprisingly good (the singing was all audible), the site of choristers frolicking through the tall grass and bamboo trees behind the main performance area during the forest scene was quite intriguing. It also cannot be denied that watching Aeneas exit towards his ship with San Francisco Bay stretched out behind him says something for realism. But some of the sightlines were often compromised due to the vastness of the playing area, and it was easy to miss important bits of business happening stage left if you were sitting stage right because it was too far away to notice. However, despite all the production issues, it was a promising debut for the new company.

* Tattling * 
The small seating area was completely full despite relatively high ticket prices and I heard no cell phones and little talking. There was a baby present who fussed once or twice, but in general the house was well behaved.

Siegfried at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Bayreuther-siegfried * Notes * 
Siegfried was performed last night as part of the Bayreuther Festspiele. Conductor Christian Thielemann had the orchestra well in hand, there were only the tiniest of brass errors. For the most part, the sound was translucent but full. The singing was solid. Christiane Kohl's keen voice was suitable for the Waldvogel, not exactly beautiful, but effective. Linda Watson's intonation is not always perfect, but her Brünnhilde was sympathetic, one could hear the range of emotions within her voice. Christa Mayer sounded pretty and limpid as Erda, but was perhaps too ethereal. Ain Anger (Fafner) was not frightening at all, neither in his voice or in his movement.

Both Andrew Shore (Alberich) and Albert Dohmen (Wotan) had imposing performances, and their scene together at the beginning of the second act was tremendous. Wolfgang Schmidt was both sycophantic and spiteful as Mime, he could sound warm or gritty depending on the music. Christian Franz sounded much more comfortable as Siegfried here in Bayreuth compared to his performance at the Met earlier this year. He was still quite a thug, childish and silly as far as his acting. However, he did not sound like he was going to crack at any moment, and his voice had a definite brightness. His volume was a tad low until the last act, when he stepped it up. The last scene of the last act was sung with vehemence on both sides.

Tankred Dorst's production continues to amuse. Siegfried's entrance dressed as a bear was funny, as was the dragon, which seemed to consist entirely of smoke, light, and teeth. The choreography for Siegfried in Act I was perhaps too petulant, but he did show a human side after killing Mime. Overall, the characterization of Siegfried was close to convincing.

* Tattling * 
Before the opera even started, we overheard a middle-aged English-speaking man arranging a date with one of the rather young, blond ushers. She seemed understandably bewildered.

There was a distinct electronic noise at the beginning of Act III, and a watch alarm at each hour. At times there were also high-pitched noises coming from hearing aids. Otherwise, people were silent, not laughing at any of the funny bits. A British man in Row 20 of the orchestra level kept shaking my companion's seat with his feet, and was roundly scolded by her after Act I.

Die Walküre at the Bayreuther Festpiele

Bayreuther-walkuere * Notes * 
Bayreuth's Ring cycle continued with Die Walküre last night. Once again, the orchestra sounded lovely under the direction of Christian Thielemann, and the brass was particularly fine. The singing was stronger overall than in Das Rheingold. The Walküren did sang admirably, their voices were well-matched. Michelle Breedt was shrill as Fricka, but her characterization of the role was forceful. Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) had a poor start, her notes were not secure and the piercing quality of her voice is unsettling. Watson did have some lovely moments later on, especially when she did not have to overtax herself to be heard over the orchestra. Eva-Maria Westbroek gave a powerful, yet nuanced performance as Sieglinde. She did gasp a bit in Act I, but otherwise her voice was stunning.

Albert Dohmen (Wotan) sounded more assured in Die Walküre than he did the previous night. He sounds best when the orchestration is less heavy. Wotans Abschied von Brünnhilde und Feuerzauber was particularly moving. Kwangchul Youn looked like cruel, brutish Hunding, but in his voice he sounded more stoic and restrained. His physicality in his sudden death was impressive. Endrik Wottrich also embodied the role of Siegmund, but his voice, though warm and pleasant, lacked radiance. Wottrich was also slightly quiet, especially next to Westbroek.

Tankred Dorst's production has both clever and confusing moments. It was entertaining when Siegmund pulled Notung out of a fallen utility pole, and the set for the last act was formidable. On the other hand, the doubling of Wotan in Act II as he sends Brünnhilde off was rather contrived, and the children chasing a man with a bicycle was simply odd. The costumes were appealing, especially the smart red outfits of the Walküren.

* Tattling * 
Someone had a medical emergency near the end of Act I, Scene 2. There was a terrible choking sound and evidently the person fell unconscious. She had to be carried out of the hall by two men, and a door was unlocked to get her help. The people in her row were reluctant to stand up to let her out, and the performance continued as if nothing had happened.

Das Rheingold at the Bayreuther Festpiele

Regenbogen-feder * Notes * 
The third and last Ring cycle of this year's Bayreuther Festspiele began with Das Rheingold last night. Under Christian Thielemann, the orchestra sounded splendid: the string were brilliant, the harps lovely, and the horns clear. For the most part, the singers could not match this fullness of sound. The voices of Christiane Kohl (Woglinde), Ulrike Helzel (Wellgunde), and Simone Schröder (Floßhilde) blended nicely, though Kohl sounded slightly shrill. Christa Mayer had every note as Erda, and her voice is strong but she lacked a certain visceralness. As Freia, Edith Haller stood out, her voice had about twice as much volume as anyone else on stage and was very bright. Michelle Breedt's Fricka was unsympathetic, she seemed to whine her way through the role, which is reasonable enough, but less than exciting.

Wolfgang Schmidt was a sniveling Mime, cowering under Andrew Shore (Alberich) very convincingly. Shore was perhaps most arresting, his performance was grittily brutal and he practically screamed some of his notes, but he somehow stayed musical throughout. Ain Anger was a tad quiet as Fafner, especially compared to Kwangchul Youn as his brother Fasolt. Youn's voice has a pleasant resonance that Anger's is missing. Arnold Bezuyen was vicious as Loge, his music is often very pretty but there was definite sarcasm that came through. Clemens Bieber (Froh) and Ralf Lukas (Donner) both had slow starts, but improved. Bieber in particular pulled through in the last scene. As Wotan, Albert Dohmen sounded a bit thin and delicate, at times he was difficult to hear.

The production, directed by Tankred Dorst, was inconsistent, though Frank Philipp Schlößmann's sets and Bernd Ernst Skodzig's costumes were fairly attractive. The first scene worked well, the video art depicting the Rhein was almost even chic. It only became slightly overwrought near the end of the scene. Unfortunately, tackiness was in full evidence in the design of Walhall, which looked like something out of a fantasy comic book. Similarly, the huge cobra head used for Alberich's transformation was simply laughable. The random supernumeraries that would walk through in contemporary dress were an interesting idea, at times it was simply confusing. However in Scene 3 it made my breath catch when the upstage was revealed, and the contrast of the modern day person wandering in before that set up that surprise. For the most part the production was very respectful of the music, but at the end Loge writes something about "being only as strong as one is delusional," which was distracting.

* Tattling * 
There was no applause during the music whatsoever and only the tiniest bit of whispering. Some ringing was heard during the first half of Scene 2, to the left of the house. There was also one watch alarm that sounded at 7 and 8. The audience was in a great rush to leave, people stood up to go, but there was a round of curtain calls and for the most part they just stayed to clap some more.

Tracy Dahl Recital

Tracy * Notes * 
Soprano Tracy Dahl and pianist Mark Morash gave a small private recital to benefit the Merola Opera Program last night at Metropolitan Club in San Francisco. Apparently both were Merolini in the eighties, and both now train young singers and pianists themselves at the program. The evening started with an alternate aria for Le Nozze di Figaro followed by a Mozart song in French. They continued with song, performing Mahler's "Liebst du um Schönheit," Strauss' "Amor" and "Ich wollt ein Sträußlein binden," Debussy's "Pantomime" and "Clair de Lune," and Lee Hoiby's "The Serpent." The encore was "Je suis Titania" from Thomas' Mignon.

Dahl was brilliant in this intimate setting, every nuance conveyed the meaning of the text clearly and directly. After introducing the German Lieder, she launched into the Mahler, but stopped and apologized, explaining she would begin again with the correct words. This was perfectly disarming, and she sang beautifully throughout, her voice is so bright and flexible. Her delivery of "The Serpent" was especially delightful, as was the final number of the night, which she ended in the middle of the room.

* Tattling *
Everyone was very well-behaved. There were a lot of sounds from the street below, but Morash spoke through the worst of it, when some sirens wailed down Sutter.

Festival Opera's Faust

 * Notes * 
Festival Opera's production of Faust opened last Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. The orchestra, under Michael Morgan, sounded jaunty all evening long, though there were some issues with the horns. The chorus did not fare quite as well, at times they lacked confidence, particularly the men's chorus in "Déposons les armes."

The cast in the smaller roles were pretty good: Zachary Gordin (Wagner), Erin Neff (Siébel), and Patrice Houston (Marthe) were all perfectly appropriate vocally. Eugene Brancoveanu was incredible as Valentin, his presence commanded the stage and his voice is beautiful.

As for the main characters, Kirk Eichelberger was an interestingly vain Méphistophélès, his acting is perhaps stronger than his singing. Kristin Clayton did well as Marguerite, though her voice is not overly sweet, she does have a good heft and volume. On the other hand, Brian Thorsett (Faust) sounded very pretty and clear in the middle of his tessitura. He did have a terrible cracking cough on one of the notes just before the chorus is heard in Act I, and showed some signs of strain throughout the evening.

The production, designed by Matthew Antaky, was not a distraction. There were two screens suspended from the ceiling which seemed to have rather static photographs on them. They resembled the images that come with one's computer as choices for desktop background. However, there was a scene with a giant beach ball being tossed around upstage that was worth the price of admission.

* Tattling * 
There was some scattered talking, and one watch alarm was heard at 11pm.