Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 of Das Rheingold pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are trickling in.
* Notes *
San Francisco Opera's first Ring cycle this summer came to a glorious end with Götterdämmerung (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) this evening. The singing was strong and the playing exquisite.
Maestro Donald Runnicles had the glittering orchestra sounding better than ever. The tempi are exciting without being rushed. The brass was vibrant, and the solo horn player deserved being singled out at the final ovation.
In this opera, soprano Iréne Theorin had fewer harsh notes as Brünnhilde. Her quieter singing in Act III could have had more warmth and vulnerability. Tenor Daniel Brenna somehow makes the unlikable character of Siegfried winsome. He pushed his voice somewhat in Act II as he recounts his history, but was otherwise in fine form, light and pleasing.
Baritone Brian Mulligan is a conflicted Gunther, his voice is very pretty and nuanced. The bottomless depths of Andrea Silvestrelli make him a perfect match for the villain Hagen. His scene with bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich) showed off both their voices. Soprano Melissa Citro minced around hilariously as Gutrune, fluffing pillows in Act I and growing more dignified as the dark events of the opera unfold.
Jamie Barton is an appealing Waltraute, her sound has a lot of colors to it. She began the performance splendidly as Second Norn, singing beautifully with Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn). The Rhinemaidens Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum sang brilliantly.
The set changes were remarkably quiet. The staging holds the attention with physical humor and jumbled projections during the instrumental parts of the music. The little girl planting a sapling at the end of the final scene was unnecessary though.
The house manager clarified that standees save at most two spots at the rail.
There was a lot of audience attrition during the long first third of the opera, there was some talking also. A latecomer forced to wait in orchestra standing room for this part of the opera had a lot of trouble with her purse, it made a lot of metallic sounds.
An alarm rang incessantly during a soft part near the end of the opera.
The orchestra seems more settled than in the previous two performances of the cycle, there were fewer intonation errors in the brass, and the horn solo in Act II was nearly perfect. Donald Runnicles seems to bring out the best in the musicians. I especially loved the harps. The singers were never overwhelmed by the orchestra, and almost always synchronized.
Tenor Daniel Brenna is a confident Siegfried, with a sweet, well-nuanced sound. He projects a youthful aplomb that suits the character. Soprano Iréne Theorin is a powerful Brünnhilde, some of her top notes can be harsh but she has a lot of strength.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley's Wanderer is likewise incisive and the contrast between him and the warm brightness of tenor David Cangelosi (Mime), the richer tones of bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich), and the lush timbre of mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Erda) all worked well.
Bass Raymond Aceto is effective of Fafner, his death scene conveyed both a sense of wonder and regret. Soprano Stacey Tappan sounds wonderfully bird-like as the Forest Bird, though I still don't think having her be a studious girl that gestures a lot makes much sense.
Other elements of the staging have the same holes as before too. It isn’t clear what Fafner’s hiding place is exactly, Grane is referred to but isn’t represented, and so forth. The colors of the projections — many are of clouds or fire — look much brighter, I noticed a lot more lime, pink, and purple.
I was scolded for taking all the spaces in orchestra standing room by someone looking for a spot at the rail because I was saving a place for a friend rushing over from work. I could see the woman's point, but on the other hand, I bought two tickets and ran out the door right after nursing my one-year old at 7:30am to secure a good position in line.
There wasn't much talking around us during the performance, and no electronic noise either. I thought I heard a crying infant in the first act at the back of the orchestra level, but it seems the baby was taken out into the lobby fairly quickly. I can only guess this was the child of one of the singers.
I think there were two mishaps onstage. One of Mime's eggs in Act I dropped and bounced off the floor. The Wood Bird tripped near the end of Act II. In both cases, the singers involved handled themselves with admirable calmness.
* Notes *
The opening of San Francisco Symphony's Boris Godunov was a gratifying way to spend the gap day between San Francisco Opera's Ring performances. The semi-staged production (Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) from James Darrah is sleek and makes efficient use of the space. Most importantly though, the singing and playing was all exceedingly beautiful.
Michael Tilson Thomas had the orchestra in hand, the strings shimmered, the woodwinds were lovely, and the brass was clean. There was only one moment, when the solo trumpet entered from the audience in the last scene, that seemed out of sync. The Russian bells played by Victor Avdienko were especially wonderful and the orchestra did best when playing the jauntiest passages, as with the inn scene.
The cast is strong, the dozen and a half soloists all sang very well, as did the chorus. Bass Philip Skinner (Nikitch) is always a great villain, and he was intimidating as ever here. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is sympathetic as the Innkeeper. Bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev has an open and bright sound as the scholarly monk Pimen, while tenor Sergei Skorokhodov is pleasantly reedy as the novice and Pretender Grigory.
On the other hand, tenor Yevgeny Akimov used his pretty voice to unsettling effect as Prince Shuisky. His account in Scene 6 of the dead Dimitri was perversely dulcet. Another fine tenor is Stanislav Mostovoy, his plaintive quality is perfect for the Holy Fool.
The only soprano principal is Jennifer Zetlan, who sounded petulant and whiny as Xenia. As her brother Fyodor, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet is rather more winsome. Stanislav Trofimov played the tormented Boris to a tee, his voice is powerful and has a warm richness.
The set includes projections on three odd-shaped circular scrims, all very tasteful with Russian inflected designs. There were also six actors/dancers that ripped books, moved cloths around, and tormented boyar Krushchov and two Jesuits. The last scene was all the more chilling because of them.
* Tattling *
There was so much talking from the audience in the back of the orchestra, it was unbelievable. I heard both Russian and English at full volume. A woman next to me at the end of Row Y kept looking at her phone to check the time during the first half, and finally left with her companion before the intermission and didn't come back. Someone in one of the side orchestra boxes near the back (probably H) fell asleep and snored audibly during Scene 6
On a happier note, I saw many people take this chance to hear four operas in a row. Even Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) was there.
* Notes *
As with the previous installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera, Die Walküre (Act I pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) has beautiful playing from the orchestra and a powerful cast. Donald Runnicles drove a propulsive performance with very bright and exultant brass. The woodwinds were plaintive, especially the clarinet and bassoon.
The cast for Die Walküre has a lot of new singers compared to Das Rheingold since its last outing in 2011, most notably soprano Iréne Theorin. As Brünnhilde Theorin is able, she is icily strong and has good control of her dynamic range. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Wotan) could match Theorin in volume. While he's very good at sounding angry and authoritative, he did lack tenderness (at least in his voice) in the last scene as he says good-bye to Brünnhilde.
Soprano Karita Mattila's distinctive creamy tones are wonderful, but her voice isn't convincing as Sieglinde, a young woman. This was especially odd when she sang with Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), as he sounds sweetly youthful. But I still found her "Du bist der Lenz" moving, and her singing in Act III was poignant. Mattila also played well off of bass Raymond Aceto, who is a menacing Hunding.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was most impressive as Fricka, sounding bold and secure. As with everyone in the cast, she also moves well, every gesture or turn of the head conveying emotion with clarity.
The Walküren reminded me of a chorus from a Merola production, all the singers are great but very loud, and their voices did not cohere into a blended sound. In fact, most are former Merolini, only Lauren McNeese (Rossweise) is not, if memory serves. I could definitely recognize the voice of Melissa Citro as Helmwige, her piercing soprano is unmistakable, even though they are all costumed as paratroopers.
Mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum stood out as Waltraute. Laura Krumm (Siegrune), Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), Julie Adams (Gerhilde), and Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite) all were easy to hear and distinct. Their entrance got the most reaction from the audience as they parachute in for the Walkürenritt.
Director Francesca Zambello definitely has a good sense of humor and it is a welcome part of the production. The singers are all very fine actors and the various sight gags have their charm. The projections did not look noticeably different in content to me, the first scene still reminds me of The Blair Witch Project, but the colors do look brighter and more saturated.
* Tattling *
The audience in standing room on the orchestra level was quiet. I heard some electronic noise during some of the softer parts of Act I.
* Notes *
An exuberant orchestra and strong cast in Das Rheingold opened a revival of Francesca Zambello's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 pictured, photo by Cory Weaver) last night at San Francisco Opera.
It is a joy to hear Maestro Donald Runnicles conduct the orchestra, which sounded driven and robust. The brass, though not perfectly precise, sounded especially bright and effusive. The harpists and percussionists also did a very fine job.
The cast is solid. Since more than half the soloists are the same as in the premiere of this production (at least as a whole cycle) seven years ago, it is fascinating to compare the different singers. For me, the standouts are still tenor Štefan Margita as Loge and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller as Erda, both of whom had these roles in 2011. Margita’s voice is incisive without being the least bit harsh, he embodies his cunning role as demigod with a graceful ease. Miller is nothing less than a force of nature, the sumptuousness of her sound emerging from the floor of the stage as she rises from below for her entrance is very effective.
Also ably reprising their roles were the lovely Rheinmaidens Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), and Stacy Tappan (Woglinde). Their last scene with Margita is haunting and gave me chills.
As for those new to the cast, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is particularly promising, her Fricka is lush-voiced. I also look forward to hearing more of both bass-baritones Falk Struckmann (Alberich) and Greer Grimsley (Wotan). Struckmann has a richer tone than Grimsley, but there were heavily orchestrated moments in which I had difficulty hearing him. Grimsley is a secure presence and a good actor.
Zambello's production is wonderfully human, there's lot of great humorous moments, as when Loge tricks Alberich into becoming a toad in Scene 3 or the gods frolic in the beginning of Scene 2 and as they ascend Valhalla in Scene 4.
Revamped by S. Katy Tucker, the overwrought video projections are still the weakest link. It makes sense that visuals are needed between scenes, but it is gratuitous to add in effects that are perfectly handled by the music, as when Alberich curses the Ring. Also the descent into Nibelheim with scenes of moving through mountains paths and into caves looked especially awkward. Images of water, clouds, and fire looked best.
* Tattling *
I definitely annoyed myself the most during the performance and can hardly complain about anyone else, as I have a slight but lingering cough from asthma that's acting up because of a fire we had in our house a few weeks ago.
A woman had a seat in front of us in orchestra standing room, but she has a back condition at the moment and had to stand rather than sit. She was very apologetic when she explained her situation, saying she was the wife of "the main guy" in the opera. I wondered if she was Alberich or Wotan's wife, but it was very clear right away that it was the former.
June is going to be a very opera-heavy month in San Francisco this year, with the return of Der Ring des Nibelungen starting on Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House. For those intimidated by Wagner's 15-hour epic (or maybe you don't think going to 12 operas in three weeks is enough), San Francisco Symphony is performing Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.
The semi-staged production (preliminary sketch by Mac Mock Design pictured) was conceived by Michael Tilson Thomas and is directed by James Darrah, who has had great success with previous work at SFS including Peter Grimes in 2014 and On the Town in 2016.
Based on Pushkin's play, this tense political drama will be heard in its 1869 original version. The cast of 18 vocal soloists, many of whom are Eastern European -- bass Stanislav Trofimov is the title character -- also includes local favorites such as mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook (Innkeeper) and bass Philip Skinner (Nikititsch).