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September 2013

Lotfi Mansouri Dies

Renata-Scotto-and-Lotfi-backstage---Gioconda-1980---Ira-Nowinski-photoLotfi Mansouri, San Francisco Opera's fourth general director and a leading opera stage director, has passed away after a brief illness with pancreatic cancer at his San Francisco home. Mansouri made his San Francisco Opera debut in the 1963 season directing productions of Dialogues des Carmélites, Die Walküre, La Sonnambula, La Traviata, Mefistofele, and Samson et Dalila. He directed more than seventy-five productions with the Company. Mansouri was General Director of San Francisco Opera from 1988 until 2001.

SF Chronicle Article | San Francisco Opera Press Release

Zajick Withdraws from Dolores Claiborne

DC-Set-ModelMezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick has withdrawn from the world premiere Dolores Claiborne, which opens on September 18, 2013 at San Francisco Opera. Zajick found the title-role of this new opera too challenging given her ongoing knee problems. Patricia Racette is to sing the first four performances of the opera instead, and Catherine Cook will sing the final two performances.

Production Web Site | San Francisco Opera Press Release

Götterdämmerung at the Bayreuther Festpiele

Goetterdaemmerung-2013* Notes * 
The second cycle of the Frank Castorf's new Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth ended with Götterdämmerung on Monday. The proceedings were somewhat less nonsensical than the Siegfried, at least there were no gunshots interrupting the music. The turning set included döner kabob and produce stands, two different sets of stairs, a neon sign for "Plaste und Elaste Werk in Schokpau," and a classical building wrapped up by a very large sheet, which turns out to be the New York Stock Exchange. With so many different venues, one would think it would be possible to knock out the five scenes in the first third of the piece, yet somehow Castorf proves incompetent, and has to bring down the curtain before the Waltraute's appearance. At least Act I Scene 3 has the sisters singing to one another and acting as human sisters would.

Unfortunately, this does not hold for much of the rest of the staging. A pram filled with potatoes is thrown down a flight of stairs, creating a great deal of noise for no real dramatic reason. The long-suffering supernumerary who has played shopkeeper, bear, and waiter throughout the four operas is punched in the nose early in the Götterdämmerung, appears in a bridal veil and heels in the potato pram scene, and is later run over by the Rheintöchter. The various video clips shown are simply distracting, and after enduring so many hours of this production, I gave up trying to make sense of what was being shown on the screens and stopped looking at them.

Thankfully, Kirill Petrenko conducted a vibrant and buoyant orchestra. Again, the harps sound wonderful, as do the low strings. The principal horn did not sound confident, but the trumpets played remarkably well. The clarity of the orchestra supported the singers and did not overwhelm them. The chorus was also brilliant, the members singing with each other as if they were one being.

Of the three Norns, Christiane Kohl (Third Norn) was weakest, her voice is not adequately supported. Okka von der Damerau was strong as both First Norn and Floßhilde. Claudia Mahnke sounded beautifully legato as both Second Norn and Waltraute. Mirella Hagen (Woglinde) and Julia Rutigliano (Wellgunde) were lovely. Allison Oakes made for a pretty Gutrun and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester was a fine Gunther. Martin Winkler made for a powerful Alberich. Attila Jun was brash as Hagen. Lance Ryan's Siegfried again was inconsistent. Sometimes he sounded perfectly good, and other times it was as if he were yodeling. Catherine Foster has nice high notes as Brünnhilde, but her lower range is less resonant.

* Tattling * 
The man to my right rolled up the legs of his tuxedo, as it was a bit warm in the house. He fell asleep a few times during Act I. There was some booing at the very end of the ovation, presumably for the production.

Adler 2014 Speculation

8.16.13_Finale-3609* Notes *
The Adler Fellows for 2014 will not be announced for a few months, but Merola just ended, so one may as well speculate on which artists (pictured left in the 2013 Grand Finale, photograph by Kristen Loken) will return to San Francisco. Robert Mollicone will have completed two years as an Adler, so we will get a new collaborative pianist. As for singers, the outgoing Adlers are soprano Marina Harris; mezzo-sopranos Laura Krumm and Renée Rapier; and baritones Joo Won Kang and Ao Li.

This year there were many fine mezzos and tenors. Certainly mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde was most impressive. Tenors Pene Pati and Issachah Savage are both marvelous. For sopranos, of course Jacqueline Piccolino will be an Adler next year, as she already filled in for Jennifer Cherest this summer. As for another choice, perhaps soprano Maria Valdes or soprano Aviva Fortunata. Valdes is very light, and Fortunata might use a bit more control.

* Tattler Guesses *
Timothy Cheung
Jacqueline Piccolino
Maria Valdes
Zanda Švēde
Pene Pati
Issachah Savage

Siegfried at the Bayreuther Festpiele

Siegfried-2013 * Notes * 
A second performance of the new Siegfried at Bayreuth was held on Saturday. It seems that Frank Castorf put more time into this opera than the previous two of Der Ring des Nibulungen, and the results are unfortunate. The action is set at Bahnhof Alexanderplatz in Berlin and an alternate version of Mount Rushmore with depictions of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. These settings are very specific, so using them to represent different scenes is problematic. On the positive side, the projections are fairly subdued. Showing backstage before Erda's entrance is engaging and less irrelevant than much of what we have seen in previously.

None of the characters seem to act in human ways, their movements are rarely motivated by anything in the libretto or on the stage. More than one of the singers climbs the stage right stairs to touch Marx's mustache. The staging is also very noisy, Siegfried throws lawn furniture and books, Mime cuts carrots as loudly as possible. The worst part is when Siegfried shoots Fafner with a machine gun. This Siegfried is a brutish, violent lout, so it is hard to see why the showgirl Waldvogel is so taken with him, much less Brünnhilde.

Kirill Petrenko continues to conduct the orchestra with a translucency and lightness. The harps sound particularly gorgeous. The horn solo in Act II was strangely vulnerable. The balance between orchestra and singers remained fine.

Mirella Hagen is a charming Waldvogel, gamely flitting about the stage in her clumsily enormous costume. Her voice is markedly bird-like. She is inexplicably eaten by a crocodile at the end of the opera. Nadine Weissmann (Erda) sounded unearthly. Sorin Coliban threatened as Fafner. Martin Winkler's Alberich has a differentiated sound from Wolfgang Koch's Der Wanderer. Koch sang with mastery and beauty. Burkhard Ulrich sounded bright as Mime, his German was particularly easy to understand. As Brünnhilde, Catherine Foster floated her opening notes hailing the sun, light, and day. Lance Ryan (Siegfried) was inconsistent and not terribly secure. He did sing the line "So starb meine Mutter an mir?" with particular tenderness.

* Tattling * 
There was strong booing for the production at the end of each act and when the principals took a bow on the set after the opera.

Die Walküre at the Bayreuther Festpiele

Walkuere-2013* Notes * 
Frank Castorf's new Der Ring des Nibelungen continued with Die Walküre at Bayreuth last night. The production continues to be dramatically vacuous. The set looked to be a large barn situated in Azerbaijan, which did transform into an oil derrick for Acts II and III. The live video captures are distracting, at times blocking the action, only to show mediated versions of what they are covering. Some of the prerecorded parts are rather nonsensical, near the end of Act I, there is a short film depicting a woman messily eating cake. The woman answers the telephone and then sets it down on the cake, then tries on a sleeveless dress, only putting one of her arms through an armhole before returning to her cake and telephone.

The staging is often overwrought, doors are opened, objects brought out, and so forth. There are a lot of unnecessary props, such as the giant pumpjack that extends over the edge of the stage in Act III. The effect is creepy, but has little else to do with anything else happening in the production at that moment, much less in the libretto. Oddly though there is not a lot for the singers to do while they are singing, often they just stand and are ignored by the other characters.

The orchestra continued to float lucidly under the direction of Kirill Petrenko. The brass was not completely translucent at all times, but for the most part sounded lovely. There were no obvious errors as with the previous night. The string soli were radiant. The sound of the singing was not swallowed up by the playing.

The Walküren made a fine effort, some were easier to hear than others. Franz-Josef Selig sounded robust as Hunding. Claudia Mahnke was an effective Fricka. Catherine Foster's Brünnhilde has a wonderful lightness, she did not bear down on her voice or scream her notes. Wolfgang Koch sang Wotan with nuance and color, despite the production. Johan Botha sounded utterly secure as Siegmund, never straining. Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) was the obvious audience favorite, her brilliant, searing voice did not disappoint.

* Tattling * 
In short, everyone was better-behaved for this second performance of Der Ring. The woman who thought I was in her seat the night before greeted us in a conciliatory manner on Thursday. She brought her daughter to Walküre, and they were fairly still and quiet. The woman in Orchestra Left Row 20 Seat 26 who talked a lot also brought a different person to the opera, and they whispered but not that much.

Rheingold at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Rheingold-2013* Notes * 
The second cycle of Frank Castorf's Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuther Festspiele opened yesterday with Das Rheingold. The production is a hodgepodge of Americana that does not give the characters any place to go. The action takes place at a Texan motel and gas station, all carefully arranged on a turntable. An electronic billboard above shows both live video capture and prerecorded footage.

It was impressive how well-coordinated the performance is, but often the characters act in completely irrational ways that have nothing to do with the opera or even normal human behavior. For instance, Nibelheim is depicted as an Airstream that is dragged into the gas station by stagehands. At the top of Scene 3, Wotan and Loge have taken Alberich and Mime hostage, and tied them to posts. This is completely against the text, and makes the rest of the scene unnecessary. There are also no vocal Nibelungen, and thus part of the score is missing, as their cries and screams simply were absent.

Kirill Petrenko conducted the orchestra with a beautiful lightness. Maestro Petrenko perhaps does not instill the same sort of fear as Christian Thielemann does, and an obvious brass error was heard in Scene 4 before Fafner, Fasolt, and Freia enter. Nevertheless, the music sounded palpably fresh and dazzling. The orchestra only rarely overwhelmed the singers.

Singing is fine. The smaller roles are not terribly strong, Oleksandr Pushniak (Donner) was wheezy, while Lothar Odinius (Froh) and Burkhard Ulrich (Mime) were fairly nondescript. However, all three acted splendidly. Pushniak twirled his mustache in a charming way. Ulrich was endearing when he found that the Airstream was all his, and not only started maniacally polishing it, but cheerfully switched out the Confederate flag of the motel with a rainbow one. Mirella Hagen (Woglinde), Julia Rutigliano (Wellgunde), and Okka von der Damerau (Floßhilde) looked rather listless as the Rheintöchter but sounded pretty. The Riesen are cast distinctly, Sorin Coliban's Fafner is grumbly, while Günther Groissböck's Fasolt is almost sweet. Nadine Weissmann made for an ethereal Erda, her sound is delicate yet not too quiet. Elisabet Strid (Freia) had a much more muscular voice. Claudia Mahnke was a bit breathy as Fricka, but her voice is neither shrill nor strident.

Norbert Ernst was a unctuous enough Loge, with a nice voice. There was a little strain in his higher notes, but his acting made up for this. For me, the weakest link was Martin Winkler, whose vibrato I find disagreeable. His Alberich is made to be extremely puerile, which does not do him any favors. His voice sounds more than passable when the his music is not highly orchestrated, but does not have the brightness to cut through when it is. Wolfgang Koch, on the other hand, is an excellent Wotan. He sings with effortlessness, power, and warmth.

* Tattling *
This was the worst-behaved audience of my time in Bayreuth so far. There was an electronic sound at the beginning of the first scene. Talking was heard during the music irrespective of singing. I hushed the loud couple in Orchestra Left Row 20 Seats 25 and 26, and thankfully they whispered instead for the rest of the opera. Gallingly, the female half of the couple screamed "Bravo" at singers she had not been fully listening to.

An uptight German-speaking couple (possibly mother and son) in Orchestra Right Row 21 Seats 27 and 28 were convinced I was in one of their seats despite the fact that my ticket clearly shows that I am in Orchestra Left Row 21 Seat 27. I tried to gently remind them that 27 comes after 28, and that logically Orchestra Right Seat 27 would be to the right of Seat 28. They remained doubtful, talking to the usher on the right side of the house, then harassing a grey-haired East Asian couple, oblivious to the fact that they were not me and Axel Feldheim. By the time they made it back to the middle of the row, they refused to believe me, my companion, or the kindly person in Orchestra Left Row 21 Seat 25 that they were in the wrong.

The son demanded that we speak to the usher on the left side of Row 21, so we made everyone on the left side of the row get up to let us through. Finally, the usher explained that 27 comes before 28, so the pair's other seat is to the right of 28, since their tickets clearly read "Parkett Rechts." We marched back to the middle of the row, inconveniencing 25 people yet again. When the high-strung man explained to his mother that they were mistaken, she shooed away the European-looking (but evidently not German-speaking) man in her seat, even taking his seat cushion and sort of pushing it at him. After all this, these two did not even apologize for their various rude blunders. At least they were very quiet, the man hardly shifted in his seat, and managed not to elbow me even once.

Holländer at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Hollaender-2013* Notes * 
Bayreuther Festspiele's Der fliegende Holländer had a fourth performance this season yesterday evening. Christian Thielemann conducted the orchestra with precise control and intimidating intensity. The brass had a perfect clarity. The woodwinds played vividly. The chorus shone once again, singing robustly and moving persuasively. The singers were synchronized in every way.

The Act I set is rather dizzying with flashing lighted lines and numbers on two giant curved walls. It is odd that Der Steurmann and Daland are in a row boat, when the rest of the staging indicates they were businessmen at an exchange or commodity market of some kind. The scene changes are seamless, and it is particularly stunning when the Act I walls came apart while the male chorus walks from upstage all the way downstage with the Act II room following them. As far as the production goes, Acts II and III make few references to seafaring or spinning or anything else in the libretto. Nevertheless, director Jan Philipp Gloger's narrative on capitalism is clear and hangs together well. The pyrotechnics are especially spectacular.

Singing was fairly good. Benjamin Bruns (Der Steuermann) and Christa Mayer (Mary) made serviceable contributions to the proceedings. Tomislav Muzek was a sympathetic Erik. Franz-Josef Selig was a warm, paternal Daland. Ricarda Merbeth sang Senta with a lot of force. Intonation did not seem a primary concern for her. Samuel Youn was a very pleasant Holländer, and could have been much more menacing. His voice is pretty.

* Tattling *
A couple in Row 21 on the left side had the audacity to speak during the terrifying overture, but were silenced right away with one hushing. Someone loathed the two principals and booed them at full volume during their curtain calls.

Tannhäuser at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Tannhaeuser-2013* Notes * 
The current production of the Bayreuther Festspiele's Tannhäuser is unsatisfying. Sebastian Baumgarten directed a busy and tedious staging, relying on lots of projected text. There were also giant stuffed animal-like rays, menacing ape people, and assorted funny characters. The set, with its multiple levels, could have been used much more cunningly, but instead blocked the back projections. All of the singers showed a deep commitment to the direction, but the many unconnected ideas never cohered. The action did not go with the music in any way, and in the end, the spectator was left bored.

The orchestra was lead by Axel Kober, whose tempi were measured. Although not bad, the playing lacked sensuousness. On the other hand, the chorus sounded great. The most formidable part of the evening was certainly the end, where the set was put to best effect with chorus members on different stories. The volume alone was quite impressive.

Singing was the redeeming factor in the performance on Tuesday night. Katja Stuber (Ein junger Hirt) was exacting in her choreography as some sort of drunken hoodlum, and yet sounded brilliant and unreal. Günther Groissböck was a commanding Landgraf Hermann, his voice has a lovely richness. Michelle Breedt may not have been the most alluring Venus, but sang with power.

Camilla Nylund (Elisabeth) was occasionally shrill, though has a certain vulnerable quality that is appealing. Michael Nagy did a beautiful job with Wolfram von Eschenbach. His "O du, mein holder Abendstern" was exquisite, he sang with sensitivity and warmth. Torsten Kerl was fine in the title role, never pushing his voice too hard, yet always audible.

* Tattling *
Someone tried clapping after the overture and one could feel the disapproval of the other audience members. A grey-haired woman next to me (Row 20 Seat 27 on the right side of the theater) collapsed on me during Act I. I was afraid she was having a seizure, but she had simply fainted from the stuffy heat, and recovered in a few minutes.

Before Act III there was some sort of mass acted on stage, and when some of the audience clapped at the end of this, others booed to express their contrary opinion of the production. Likewise, there was a segment of the audience that was vocal in ridiculing the staging at final ovation, and I was surprised to hear my companion join in, as I have never heard him boo before.

Lohengrin at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Lohengrin-2013 * Notes * 
Last night's performance of Lohengrin at the Bayreuther Festspiele was compelling. The orchestra sounded clear and fresh under the baton of Andris Nelsons, without ever being dull or devoid of passion. The brass was perfectly clear, as did the strings and the woodwinds. Nelsons also struck a fine balance between the instrumentalists and singers, and only rarely overwhelmed the latter. The chorus also sounded remarkably beautiful and in unison.

The rest of the singing was even. Samuel Youn has impressive hair as Der Heerrufer des Königs, and sang nicely. Petra Lang was an impassioned and insistent Ortrud. Thomas J. Mayer (Friedrich von Telramund) does not have a particularly rich voice, but was suitably threatening. Wilhelm Schwinghammer was not the most commanding König Heinrich, but gave a satisfactory perforrmance. Annette Dasch made for a sweet-voiced Elsa von Brabant. Klaus Florian sounded bright and pleasantly brassy in the title role, his voice cut through the chorus and orchestra with ease.

The production from Hans Neuenfels certainly appears to have an internal consistency, featuring chorus members dressed as laboratory rats. Said rodents were a skillful combination of cute and creepy. Everyone moved elegantly. At various times the treatment of the swan used taxidermy, bathtubs, and sculpture. It was all entirely entertaining, though it was not clear to me what any of it had to do with Wagner's opera, despite the fact it was all splendidly coordinated with the music.

* Tattling * 
There were scattered whispers when only the orchestra played. The audience laughed when the lab rats did funny things, especially the small pink ones that must have employed child supernumeraries. A couple in front of us in the middle of the twenty-second row read the vocal score.

A very nice couple from Düsseldorf let Axel Feldheim and I practice German with them at our shared table during the second intermission.