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.
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.
Seattle Opera is putting on the Stephen Wadsworth/Thomas Lynch production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the third time in August 2009.
Seattle 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.
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.
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.
Yesterday the Bavarian State Opera continued the Ring Cycle with Siegfried. David Alden premiered his production last November, and it was along the same lines as Die Walküre, so at least there was some continuity between the two. The only threads that tie Das Rheingold to the two others so far are the proscenia that we are meant to be looking at from back stage and the use of drunken staggering around as a choreographic device.
I was less impressed with the music of Siegfried than of the previous two parts, though I still found it to be both lovely and moving. Wagner's deft use of percussion was absolutely apparent throughout. Unfortunately, the production was not respectful, they had Siegfried play some of the percussion, using a piece of metal on a decrepit automobile. This could have been fine, one supposes, if the singer in question didn't look utterly tentative in his attempts. He wasn't the best percussionist, which isn't surprising, since he's a tenor, after all. Secondly, there was a horn part of Act II Scene II, that sounded like it was being played on a toy, horribly out of tune and out of place. Perhaps this is in the score, but from what I can tell in the instrumentation, it was supposed to be either a French or English horn.
Tenor Stig Andersen sang the title part fairly well, his voice is very pretty, but, as is the tendency with tenors, he is a bit quiet, especially compared to John Tomlinson or Gabriele Schnaut. The other tenor, Helmut Pampuch as Mime, was likewise quiet, but less pretty, which was perfect because they sang together a great deal and this made them very clearly distinct.
John Tomlinson (Wotan disguised as a wanderer) and Franz-Josef Kapellmann (Alberich) were the most outstanding, both having powerful, rich voices. Bass Kurt Rydl made little impression as Fafner, his voice came out of a speaker for part of his performance, and the rest of it was sung from a hospital bed. The contralto Anna Larsson was more impressive than in Das Rheingold, less strained. Soprano Gabriele Schnaut's performance as Brünnhilde was more impassioned than in Die Walküre. Her voice has power and volume, but her control is not secure. It is also not a sweet sort of voice at all. Incidentally, she switched from singing mezzo-soprano parts to singing dramatic soprano parts in 1985. Margarita De Arellano sang the part of Waldvogel, and her voice, at times, was celestial. Other times she can be quite shrill.
Act I starts with Mime forging a sword, but this production has him sleeping on the linoleum of a dirty kitchen stage left, moving about to the overture in his sleep. On the wall is a calendar with days crossed off in red. Above him is a loft, decorated to look like an adolescent boy's room, complete with video game posters and graffiti. Stage right is a lowered area, the living room with couch and television.
The bear that Siegfried brings to scare Mime is in a cabinet in the kitchen, the door slides up to reveal him at the appropriate time. He looks like something out of a cartoon, made of fiberglass perhaps. Every time someone uses the cabinet to go up the stairs to the loft, the bear is still there.
Mime puts on pink pumps, a pink apron with stuffed chest, and a pink cardigan with pink fur or feather trim. He vacuums and cooks a cat in the oven, which he burns, naturally.
During this scene, many inexplicable things happen, there is a screen lowered that has a pair of feet in releve painted in gray, the television explodes, Siegfried writes in chalk on the walls spelling "Nothung" and "Sieglinde" incorrectly. Finally, Siegfried goes off on a bicycle, commanding Mime to reforge Nothung. The wanderer comes in through the floor. When Mime questions him, the wanderer puts on a cone-shaped hat with a question mark on it, and sits in a chair center stage. Projected above him is the number one, which turns into a question mark, and then an explanation point when he answers. This continues, one, two, three, and then again when Mime has to answer questions posed him.
Siegfried returns, he reforges the sword in the garage revealed up stage near the center. The forging occurs in the engine of a decrepit car. At some point, a toilet appears stage right, which Siegfried uses to urinate in and to cool off Nothung. The Münchners thought this was hilariously funny, especially since Nothung, at this point, was just a few scrapes of awkwardly welded metal pieces, clearly not a sword at all. It is during this part that Siegfried is made to do some of the percussion, and the rhythm was a bit off.
With Nothung remade, Mime puts on a trench coat and spiked helmet over his pink ensemble and they go off to find Fafner.
Act II starts down stage, a metal wall screens the up stage. There is the calendar again, but ten times as big. There are two rows of orange plastic chairs facing the audience. Alberich crosses off the days with huge red marks. The wanderer comes in stage left, walking on the back row of chairs. Alberich pulls down a lamp and does various thing stage right that I could not see. On the calendar is a painting of a lion with prey in his mouth, this painting lifts up to show a screen, on which Fafner is revealed in black and white footage of an obese man in his underwear, counting money. His voice comes out of a speaker which is above, to the left. The speaker is illuminated as he sings.
The painting is lowered, but then lifted again to reveal a room, with cut out versions of the lion and prey, and of the various trees and grasses in the painting. From here Mime and Siegfried sing, until they climb done a ladder, the screen lifts, the chairs go left and there are a bunch of eggs, in various sizes. One of the eggs has a yellow tutu, female legs, and red stilettos. She starts on the ground but is soon dancing all over the place. Then there was an egg with gigantic feet that walked all around. Then an egg was suspended from above, two doors on either side of the egg swung open, and two huge wings popped out and flapped repeatedly. Then a person in a suit with dentures for a head came out with another egg, from which a bird with an axe is born. A nurse wanders in, and a surgeon. Then one huge egg just left from center cracks open, something in it inflates, and it is the head of an elderly lady.
The nurse brings in a hospital bed with Fafner in it, some blood hanging in a bag to his left. Siegfried does not attack him with Nothung at all, he simply dies of a heart attack, and Siegfried drinks blood out of the bag, the motivation for this being rather unclear. The Waldvogel comes out of one of the eggs, and she is dressed in a short pink sequined dress, black feathers at the neckline, black feathers in her hair, black stiletto heels. Siegfried goes into a man hole, the ersatz cave. The surgeon ends up being Alberich, the nurse is Mime. They dump Fafner out of the hospital bed and sit on it, as they sing. Siegfried emerges from the hole wearing a gold motorcycle jacket with fringe and rhinestones, alone with the ring and the Tarnhelm. Mime pours champagne, which the Waldvogel drinks two glasses of, she falls over drunk. Margarita De Arellano did this extremely well. Siegfried actually does kill Mime with Nothung this time, he gets down stage and the metal screen comes down. It is obvious that the calendar painting will lift and the Waldvogel will beckon Siegfried back into the painting. This is exactly what happens, though Wotan does appear, trying to prop up the drunken Waldvogel, which is not appreciated by her at all.
Act III starts in a room with a black floor slanted down to the left, black curtains all around. The couch appears from under the curtains, Wotan sings to wake Erda, and she appears from behind the couch, dressed in a short black slip and a leopard print jacket. They put Anna Larsson in very low heels, even without them she was taller than anyone else, a whole head taller than Zubin Mehta when they came out to bow at the end. She sits on the couch and smokes when she is not singing.
After she leaves, the Waldvogel comes out throw the curtains, sits on the couch, but is scared away by Wotan. Siegfried appears after her, he puts up a no smoking sign, pulls out a strip of white material from behind the curtain and makes a line perpendicular to the audience. His jacket starts flashing, the rhinestones are actually Christmas lights. A traffic signal lowers, flashing red, yellow, and green. Siegfried destroys Wotan's staff, and the curtains open to reveal a highway, the white strip extends to the back and is the center divider. There is a convertible crashed into the ground on the left side. The man on fire is there, he walks around as he did in Die Walküre. Neither Brünnhilde nor Siegfried are on stage. Siegfried enters from the back, climbing up onto the highway. He sings to no one at all. When he is supposed to be taking off her shield and helm, neither are there. Though Grane, the horse, has appeared in the background, and he lies down by the car.
Finally Brünnhilde appears down stage right, when she has to sing. She is in a suit and heels, her trench coat in hand. Siegfried and Brünnhilde never seem to be at the same part of the stage, while Siegfried sings Brünnhilde gets into the car and out of it, smokes with her horse, who is a man with a huge mane and bridle, the same one who pushed around her desk in Die Walküre, though he lacks his wings.
Near the very end, Brünnhilde takes off her clothes as she sings, her shoes first, then coat, trousers, vest, and shirt. Thankfully, she is wearing a long black shift. At the end, she and Siegfried run together up stage and jump off holding hands.
There was no booing this time, presumably because it was not a premiere. The applause was hesitant until the singers would come out, and then it was quite enthused. The audience particularly adores Zubin Mehta.
Other notes, not important, but amusing:
The man standing next to me found it impossible to stay still. He repeatedly turned towards me and stared, made flourishes with his hand to the music, and occasionally would simply go stand in the aisle, which would be fine, except that a lady was standing just at the aisle, he was not at the end. His date found a seat in front of this lady, and occasionally would stand up if she could not see exactly what was going on. She was well over 185 centimeters tall, and she did not have the good sense to hold on to her seat so it didn't make a horrible sound as it snapped up. Last week she wore a pink t-shirt with the words "I am so bourgeois" in English. Very true. The people just in front of me talked repeatedly, even though I hushed them each time I found them too loud, as I did for Das Rheingold as well.