Speculation on SF Opera's 2008-2009 Season

I've noticed a fair amount of people coming to this blog in search of San Francisco Opera's next season, which will be announced this week. Certainly we have some insight into the programming, Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter will have its world premiere, Qian Yi will be in the lead role with her San Francisco Opera debut. We also know that music director designate Nicola Luisotti is returning to San Francisco Opera this Fall to conduct La Bohème. David Gockley himself said that Angela Gheorghiu is to sing here next in Bohème, perhaps the Met simulcast in April, which has both Luisotti and Gheorghiu, will be a good preview. I wouldn't be surprised if Gheorghiu also gave a concert at some point, when she is over on this coast, as she has in Los Angeles. Inva Mula's official site says she is engaged to sing Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore. The Ring cycle will conclude the 2008-2009 season, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Janos Gereben also reported last month in SFCV that Dmitri Hvorostovsky will sing Simon Boccanegra on opening night and Korngold's Die Tote Stadt has its SF Opera premiere some time between August 26 and October 12, 2008. Torsten Kerl sings Paul and Emily Magee sings Marietta.

WNO Opera's 2009 Ring Cycle

Washington National Opera is presenting a complete Ring Cycle for the first time in November of 2009. Dubbed the "American Ring," this co-production with San Francisco Opera is directed by Francesca Zambello.

November 2-16 2009: Das Rheingold
November 3-17 2009:
Die Walküre
November 5-19 2009: Siegfried
November 7-21 2009: Götterdämmerung

Official Site | Press Release [PDF]

Seattle Opera's 2009 Ring Cycle

Seattle Opera is putting on the Stephen Wadsworth/Thomas Lynch production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the third time in August 2009.

August 9-25 2009: Das Rheingold
August 10-26 2009: Die Walküre
August 12-28 2009: Siegfried
August 14-30 2009: Götterdämmerung

Official Site | Ring Cast Press Release [PDF]

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.

Es riß!

Aldengoetterdaemmerung5Last Friday the Bavarian State Opera concluded their first run of Der Ring des Nibelungen as a cycle. This production of Götterdämmerung premiered 28. February 2003, and it was tamer than Die Walküre or Siegfried. Still a lot of drunken staggering, and cigarette smoking.

Musically more compelling than Siegfried, Wagner brings his epic work to a close using elements not heard in the first previous parts, most notably, the use of a chorus. The contrast of this gives the chorus a great deal of power.

The singing was, again, all quite good. Stig Anderson's voice was as sweet as ever, his death scene was excellent as far as singing goes. Baritone Juha Uusitalo, who was Donner in Das Rheingold, was adequate as Gunther here. Bass Matti Salminen was fine as Hagen, his voice isn't exactly full, but the volume is good. Franz-Josef Kapellmann was again wonderful as Alberich, his voice very distinct from Salminen's. Gabriele Schnaut sang well enough as Brünnhilde, but I always felt worried for her, because her voice wobbles and has so much power it threatens to overwhelm her. Nancy Gustafson seemed fine as Gutrune, she was Freia in Das Rheingold. Her voice provokes neither like nor dislike in me, it is a tad cold. Marjana Lipovsek has more emotion in her voice, she did well as Waltraute, and she was Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The Rheintöchter were lovely again, mocking but otherworldly. Margarita De Arellano never seemed less shrill, and Ann-Katrin Naidu and Hana Minutillo both have incredible voices. The Norns were less impressive, but not bad.

The production did not make any departure from the usual fare of absurdness, though it was not quite as amusing for the audience. The basic set is a semicircular room. It starts off with a white, reflective floor and a white wall, a blue fluorescent light traces the edge of the wall in a half-circle. There is a chandalier with white fluorescent lights arranged vertically. The Norns are smoking on a couch covered with a sheet. They are dressed in pinstriped suits with vests and high heeled pumps. They are all wearing their hair in dark bobs with bangs. The third Norn is blind and wearing sunglasses, she staggers about. When the Loge music is played the three bring out lighters. Brünnhilde comes out during their music, she sits on the floor, downstage, a bit to the right, dressed in pajamas and a robe, drinking coffee. The floor slides open, mid-stage, a little to the left, and the Norns set out a desk, chair, and typewriter for Brünnhilde. They offer her cigars and coffee. One of the Norns is drinking, she staggers about drunken, naturally. There is a bed stage right, Siegfried is on it, in pajamas also, he and Brünnhilde sing, he changes into trousers, button down shirt, plaid sports coat, and fedora. Quite a change from Siegfried, in which he looks like an adolescent boy in modern times. The scene is changed by tuxedoed men. The Rheintöchter emerge from the floor with a model boat, a golden pirate ship with sails, they sail it about the room, dressed as they were in Das Rheingold.

Act I has some pillars emerging from a door upstage, a painting of a woman in falling out of bed stage right. Getrune huddles in the back, in a fur coat, hugging a teddy bear. Gunther is brought in in his bed. At some point he gets angry at Hagen and throws the bed over, Getrune jumps up and down on the bed. Siegfried emerges from the ground, the horse, Grane is the same dread-locked boy throughout the production, he throws streamers and confetti over Siegfried. Hagen takes him and ties him up by the pillars. Getrune coyly gives Siegfried the love potion, it makes him stagger around for the rest of the opera. The choreography for Getrune is childish, a lot of leg swinging, she's never actually sexy though, even though the character is wearing a little slip beneath her coat, and black stiletto boots. Siegfried and Gunther cut their hands over champagne glasses for the blood brother scene and when Siegfried leaves to fetch Brünnhilde, Hagen drags Grane from the back and throws him into the egress in the floor, where he and Getrune also exit.

Waltreute goes to see her sister Brünnhilde before Siegfried appears. This scene is fairly normal, though the characters never seem to be singing to one another. Waltreute is dressed as a soldier, with a long coat, and Brünnhilde is still in her pajamas.

After Waltreute departs, the fire that protects Brünnhilde is indicated by a line of fire, part of the floor, stage right, opens just a little bit and the fire spits out in a line. It dies down when Siegfried comes in, wearing a hockey mask which is supposed to be the Tarnhelm. His voice is a little muffled by it, which is unfortunate.

Act II starts off down stage, there is a carpet on the floor in red, there is a gray stone wall that hides the up stage. Hagen sits stage left. There is a painting the right of him, the one of a woman in white, falling out of bed, with a gnome sitting on her. This is Hagen's mother, Grimhild. Alberich, his father, is on the right, he has a human sized robotic white lab rat with him. As this scene progresses, Grimhild, played by the dancer Beate Vollack, emerges from behind the painting and dances around, eventually she brings out a knife and kills herself, falling to the ground. When the scene ends the gray wall lifts and Vollack brings the painting down on herself, crawling, she exits to the left. Alberich exits to the right, dragging the rat with him by the tail. It is the same semicircular room, but behind the white wall is a wallpapered one, the same wallpaper as seen in Mime's house and Sieglinde's house. The chandelier now has green lights. In the background is a huge comic book picture of a man who has killed a dragon with his sword, there are people rushing to meet him in the background. One of them comments, in English "How can you kill something that is already dead" and the title is "The Conquerer." Siegfried enters the scene by jumping out behind the picture and tumbling to the floor. Gutrune enters stage right, but first she throws her purse out, then one of her boots. She is neatly coifed and is wearing a blue suit with skirt. The male chorus comes out all wearing tuxedos and viking accouterments, they put on helmets with horns and so forth, and have shields and spears. Tuxedoed men come out with folding tables and orange plastic chairs. They set up a rostrum, and later, a dining hall. The female chorus is dressed in mid-calf length dresses circa 1960-70, holding champagne glasses, posing here and there. The male chorus passed around cans of Löwenbräu. Gutrune reemerges in a wedding gown of satin. Brünnhilde is brought out in her bed, with briefcase and papers, but still in pajamas. Siegfried wears a ruffled tuxedo shirt, and dinner jacket with sequins. When Hagen wishes to convince Brünnhilde to tell him Siegfried's weakness, he gets into bed with her, but not in a lewd way. Gunther hands Brünnhilde the teddy bear, whose head she rips off. Siegfried and Gutrune come back in and Brünnhilde kisses their cheeks, the three join arms with Hagen and Gunther and they make a ring, dancing around.

Act III has the floor back to being white and reflective, the white wall is gone, only the wallpaper remains. There are fish trophies on the wall, a pinball machine center up stage, and a table football game to the left and a pink refrigerator to the left. The chandelier now has gold lights. The Rheintöchter emerge from the floor. They are dressed as housewives, kerchiefs around the heads, they throw plastic fish out of their clothes. Their hair is now bobbed and black with bangs, while before one was redheaded, another dark, the last blond. They change on stage, two of the maidens have their sequined dresses on underneath, another is only wearing a swim suit, but she puts on her dress as well. Siegfried comes looking for a bear and he is wearing a hunting vest over his regular clothes. They disappear for a bit and reemerge, one from the left, another from the right, and the another from the center, and they are wearing the pinstriped suits now, like the Norns.

Siegfried finds the hunting party, which consists of the male chorus, Gunther, and Hagen. The chorus is dressed in lederhosen for the most part. They bring in dead animals, pose with them, have their picture taken. Siegfried is killed with spear, Hagen dumps him into the refrigerator where he sings as he dies. Hagen kills Gunther with a gun, the noise of it going off was quite unpleasant. Brünnhilde kills herself by slashing her wrists, and then sitting just left of center down stage, in the lotus position. Her horse comes out when she calls him, he sits to the left. Hagen shoots himself with the gun, instead of drowning in the Rhein. The wallpaper comes down, and a platform comes down, it has several human sized white lab rats on it, and in the back, the theater from Das Rheingold reappears, Walhalla on the chairs, burning.

Other notes, petty:
The young couple in front of me, as I've mentioned, talked a lot during Das Rheingold, in which the male half of the couple left in the beginning of the fourth scene, and to my great amusement, was not allowed back in. The female brought another girl friend for Die Walküre and they were silent. But during Siegfried, the male was back, and they talked more than ever. During Götterdammerung, they barely had a whisper between them, I have no idea why. In Act III, the boy fell asleep for at least thirty minutes, he slept though extremely loud music. The older couple to their left was also noisy, mostly because they couldn't stop laughing at everything.