Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Sea Voyage

Several novels I read recently all contained passages of sea voyages, long or short - The Prospector by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel, and The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, and they reminded me the sea voyage I had when I was in college in China.

My university was in Dalian, a port city in the northeast Manchuria, on the Southernmost tip of the Liaoning Peninsula.  One-third of the student body of my university came from my home province, the other one-third from the rest of Manchuria (Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces) and the last one-third from the rest of the country.  There were many students from Yangtze Delta region and they would travel by ship to and fro Shanghai, instead of traveling by train and making a huge looping detour.  Traveling by ship was also much cheaper.  At that time, I had never traveled by ship and I was burning with jealousy during school breaks, seeing my friends and classmates banded together and hanging out in close camaraderie during their two-day and one-night or two-night one day trip on the open sea.  All my best friends were from that region and I felt left out; I was also drawn to the irresistible romantic atmosphere the sea voyage conjured up and was dying to be able to do it, preferably with my friends.

Finally, the last summer break of my college years, the one before my senior year, I successfully extracted enough money and time away from my parents, and invitations from a couple friends near Shanghai, and began my trip to the most cultured region in China.

Before the trip, my experienced friends warned me that it would be very likely that I would get sea sick since their usual trips had always been tumultuous and eventful and many seasoned seafarers got sick often.  I, however, was unfazed - even the seasickness sounded alluring.

Joining my two best friends - part of a sort of ménage à trois - whose family I was to stay with in sequence, and other friends, I boarded the three or four-level huge passenger ship in Port of Dalian.  There were three classes of cabins, plus the loose seats , the ticket-holders of these would be allowed to sleep on the decks and hallways at all levels.  As students, we were allowed to purchase the already cheap third-class tickets at half-price.

Dalian Harbor
Historical picture of Dalian Harbor

Our cabin had eight berths.  Unfortunately, it was near the engine room and was extremely noisy and hot.  During the day time, I mostly stayed on the deck, looking out at the vast body of water, which was mostly gray and dull.  The voyage was very smooth, therefore debunked my friends' claim of their bi-yearly bravery.

After a while, the boundless sea became very boring and in order to keep me entertained, the sea called out some of their dwellers to do some gymnastics for me, and many veterans benefited greatly from my presence.

There were many fish competing with one another and our ship.  The best of them was some flying fish which shot up from the water and led a very long and graceful curve in the sky and then gently submerged into the water, without much splash.  My friends told me that they'd never seen such phenomena before, though they were reluctant to thank me for the great favor they just enjoyed.

When the night fell, the cabin became intolerably hot.  I managed to fall into dreamless heavy sleep till the smothering heat drove me out to the deck again.  My friends, who were more or less tortured by the heat and was only half-asleep, didn't want to go to the deck - there was nothing to see but dark water.  Craving for some cool air, I persisted and dragged one or two friends with me to the deck, therefore, I rendered them even greater favor.

It was like in a dream.  Our ship was encircled by an unbroken chain of lights.  The lights, from other ships, formed a beautiful orange necklace adorned the not so black ocean.  The sight was incredibly beautiful and we were induced into a trance.  It was utterly unforgettable though the image did fade from my memory eventually and I had to use the power of imagination to conjure up that image.  My friends were incredulous and had to concede that traveling with me did yield something very unusual, hypnotic and gratifying.  The tranquility of out voyage also was extraordinary.

Eventually, the dreamy atmosphere lulled us back to our desire to sleep.  Half dazed, we retreated back to our cabin and the heat seemed had subsided somewhat and I was able to sleep till next morning.

The second's day's voyage was more or less the same as the first, except that it rained a bit - not stormy one as my friends had always encountered, but gentle caress to make the seascape less dull for me.  The sailing was as smooth as it had always been since I boarded, like cruising in a deep and low flowing inland river.

The sea was determined to entertain me even further and called out some dolphins to swim by us now and then and I was absolutely delighted by their gracefulness and swiftness.

When we finally spotted the cityscape of the great metropolis, Shanghai, the entire journey concluded as perfectly as it could be and I had just enough time on board so as not to regret leaving it or bored by it, and was ready to explore Shanghai with my friends and see the daily life of those southerners which had always been enigmatic therefore deeply attractive to me, a lad grow up in the far north Manchurian Shenyang.

Drifting / 漂流 / Treiben

One Fine Day / 美好的一天 / Ein schöner Tag

After my time with friends' families and a grand tour of the Yangtze Delta region, my best friend and I took train back to my home, and a few days later, we returned to Dalian for our senior year.  It also marked the end of our uneasy ménage à trois - in order to circumvent the restriction imposed after the Tian'anmen Massacre in 1989 on students who desire to study abroad, one of the us chose not to return to school in order to scape from the shackle but that will be another story by itself.

That was the only time I traveled on an ocean ship.  I'd love to do it again but unfortunately, according to discussions on Lonely Planet, the line had been discontinued.  I did some search and found an official notification online stating that, indeed, the passenger line from Dalian to Shanghai has been discontinued due to lack of passengers, who had opted to either fly or travel by cars and higher-speed trains.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Video Presentation of Oil Painting "Progression"

Carrying on my experiment of showcasing my paintings with video presentations, I am to discuss a 2009 oil painting, Progression, conceived and executed after the dark era of George W. Bush, and the supposed change had took place in the U.S.  Alas.  It was not to be.  The hope was elusive, and the human rights abuses we collectively permitted largely remain in place.  The long list of human sufferings continue.

My painting is a collage of iconography images, from Jesus carrying the cross, Michelangelo's slave sculpture, David's Liberty Leads People, and the hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib. The focal point of the painting is a sad man, symbolizing the sorrow and compassion of humankind.

Progression / 進展 / Entwicklung

>> Video presentations of paintings and drawings, Part XXIV: 2011 Recapitulation - Video Presentation of Paintings Completed in 2011  
<< Video presentations of paintings and drawings, Part XXII: Video Presentation of Oil Painting "Dissonance"

List of Video Presentation of My Artworks

Friday, June 24, 2011

In Berkeley Art Museum, California

Recently, I stopped by Berkeley Art Museum and saw some very cool exhibits.  Some highlights are:

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Berkeley Art Museum June 2011 _ 3302

Berkeley Art Museum June 2011 _ 3301 

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Unfortunately, I didn't get chance to record the credits.

2626 Bancroft Way
2621 Durant Avenue
Between College and Telegraph
Directions / Parking

Hours (Galleries, Museum Store)
Wednesday – Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Open L@TE Fridays until 9 p.m.; please check Calendar for specific dates.
PFA Library Hours & Information
Cafe Muse Hours & Information

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

80 Days Later - Ai Weiwei Released on Bail

After 80 days detention, finally, the renown Chinese conceptual artist and social critic Ai Weiwei was released on bail, according to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's blog Open Space.

I am very glad to hear that and hopefully, the so-called tax-evasion crime would be proved nothing.  Many people believed that Mr. Ai was targeted because of his human rights activism, such as his involvement of documenting corruptions amongst Sichuan earthquake relief efforts and funds.

One month before Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained, he made a powerful case for free expression in a film shown at the TED2011 conference in Long Beach:

Related articles:

Where Is Ai Weiwei
48 Days Later - Ai Weiwei's Wife's Company Was Charged
A Mother's Wish: Ai Weiwei's Mother Looking for Her Son
Ai Weiwei, Ai Qing and Liu Xiaoqing

Monday, June 20, 2011

Part 4, Götterdämmerung - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera

The last installment of the new Francesca Zambello production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle was staged as part of the cycle took place on 19 June 2011, Sunday. This particular production was unveiled for the first time in San Francisco Opera just several days ago on 5 June 2011, with the cast of:

Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Siegfried Ian Storey
Gunther Gerd Grochowski
Hagen Andrea Silvestrelli
Waltraute & Second Norn Daveda Karanas
Gutrune Melissa Citro
Alberich Gordon Hawkins
First Norn Ronnita Miller
Third Norn Heidi Melton
Woglinde Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde Renée Tatum

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Ashby BART Station

Sunday, I went to San Francisco by BART from Ashby station, which looked rather menacing enough for the set of this masculine Ring Cycle.

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Before the Armageddon

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Patrons Arriving

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This opera is the longest one with a prologue and three acts.  It started at 1 pm and ended at 5:30 pm, when the curtain calls were over.

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Inside the House

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Before Curtain

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Musicians in the Pit Getting Ready for the Show

The prologue was a scene of three Norns, fate daughters of earth goddess Erda, who spin the fates of everyone, seeing the past, present and future. Here, the set was a integrated circuit board, and the Norns wear bright green coats and dark sunglasses. Instead of spinning, they attached and detached cables to the IC board, to collect or provide knowledge. An interesting idea of integrating digital age. But the idea was not fully exploited and the green coats were plainly garish. This scene should be timeless, mysterious and sad. With three overgrown frogs working out with their arm-thick cables, they were anything but timeless, mysterious or sad. They were actually farcical and the scene was played for laughter. Dramatic situation and lustrous voices wasted. All three Nors sang lustily. Miller's contralto was as formidable as Erda and I really wished I had the stamina to see Cycle 3, which would feature Melton's Sieglinde which surely would be amazing.

Act I started with another awakening scene - this time, both Siegfried and Brünnhilde, from their love-making. Another extended love-duet. Tenor Ian Storey, had very similar physical and facial structure to Jay Hunter Morris, therefore the continuity of the character of Siegfried was ensured, even though their sounds were more different than their appearances, which also made sense, because in Siegfried, he was an absolutely innocent youth, and more tenor sounding Morris provided just that. Here, after having tasted love, more expansive and baritonal Storey demonstrated his increased feelings. He sounded more heroic but less free on top. A trade off. Stemme again, sang gloriously and her statue grew immensely with every single note.

Next scene we found Siegfried's adventure took him to Gibichung Hall, where he was ensnared by Albrech's son Hagen's black magic, fell in love with Hagen's half-sister Guntrune and would capture Brünnhilde for Hagen's half-brother Gunther.  This scene was set in a sleek modern living room, without much characters.  Some large pipes looming in the background hinted at their wealth perhaps related to fossil fuel.

Hagen, sung by Italian bass Andrea Silverstrelli, was the embodiment of blackness.  His music was gloriously dark and scary.  Gerd Grochowski and Melissa Citro both sang and acted the flawed but also decent ruling brother and sister well.

Next scene, Brünnhilde was visited by her sister Waltraute (Daveda Karanas), who begged her to give the ring to the Rheinmaidens so as to save Wotan's skin.  Brünnhilde, now valued Siegfried's love more than anything and would not let go of the ring, the symbol of the love.  Valhalla, which cast her out, meant nothing for her now.  Let them perish.  They both sang magnificently but some of the physical interactions were ill-timed.  For example, Brünnhilde started to push her dear sister away, roughly, even before Waltraute asked her to give up the ring.

Then, Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, came through fire and conquered Brünnhilde and robbed her ring.  Putting his sword, Notung, in between, he would spend the night with Brünnhilde, before carry her away next day for Gunther.  Strangely, instead of laying down the sword between them and lying down, he dragged Brünnhilde off stage.  Rather unnecessary confusion.

When the Act 1 was over, it was past 3 p.m.

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First Intermission

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Intermission (Grand Tier)

Act two started with Hagen and Gutrune watching television together, in his bed.  Quite ambiguously.  It was an interesting twist.  Albrech came after Gutrune repulsed Hagen's advances and left the room, and urged Hagen to gain the Ring and its power.  Hagen asked Albrech "Der Ewigen Macht, wer erbte sie" ("Who inherits the might of the immortals?").  It was an interesting question and this question stayed with me long after the opera.

Hagen assembled his vassals - here they looked more like underlings of mafia - in act 2 to welcome Gunther's bride.  The male chorus sang lustily on and around a platform, which put many soloist on the disadvantage upstage, particularly Siegfried, and during this act, I had to stain to hear him sometimes.  Brünnhilde was dragged onto stage, in an ill-fitting gray evening gown.  Inexplicably, she was in a pair of ungainly black combat shoes, not even boots.  Perhaps, this meant to emphasis her discomfort.  Barefoot would have worked better.

The confrontation between Brünnhilde and the supposedly traitor Siegfried was epic and the revenge trio (Brünnhilde, Hagen and Gunther) was the darkest moment of the cycle and the most delicious one.  I always enjoyed this stretch the most.  However, the physical interaction was not good enough here.  They were ill-timed, tentative and brief.  Brünnhilde and Gunther barely toughed Hagen's spear before they withdrew their hands, therefore left little impact which should have been tremendous here.

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Second Intermission

Before Act 3, General Director David Gockley came up the stage.  He was met a round of gratifying applauds.  However, he was here to deliver bad news - tenor Ian Storey was vocally indisposed during Act 2, but he would sing for the rest of the performance.

Interestingly, the announcement seemed have lifted his worry, and his vocal productions were freer, clearer and more audible.

The first scene, we found Rheinmaidens, in muddied garbs, collecting garbage littered along the river.  Siegfried came during the hunt organized by Hagen, and just about to give up his ring, the Rheinmaidens made a poorly-judged threat and that put the fearless hero off and who decided to keep the supposedly cursed Ring after all.  After this scene, I started to doubt, just a bit, my earlier assertive that this production being musical.  When Rheinmaidens collected garbage, they made loud noises with their cans, plastic bottles and bags, and sabotaged their lovely singing.  To me, any uncalled for extraneous sound was an offense and should be avoided at all costs.

Hagen, Gunther and their vassals joined Siegfried.  Hagen cunningly asked Siegfried to tell his past, aided by his potion which restored Siegfried's memory of his love for Brünnhilde.  Seizing the opportunity, pushing away the interfering Gunther, Hagen stabbed Siegfried's back, the soft spot betrayed by Brünnhilde, whose love for Siegfried turned to hatred.

Back home, Gutrune longed for Siegfried's horn.  When people returned without hearing it, she panicked and Hagen sadistically presented her Siegfried's body.  She accused Hagen and Gunther of murder.  Hagen then  fought Gunther over the ring and broke Gunther's neck and lunged for the ring but Siegfried raised his hand.  Here, Zambello misfired badly.  Instead of raising his hand either threateningly, defiantly, or in refusal, when confronted by Hagen, here, Siegfried raised hand way before Hagen arrived at his side, and his hand raised at the level perfect for Hagen to reach out.  It looked at a complete surrendering.

At this crucial moment, Brünnhilde strode in, followed by Rheinmaidens.  All manfolks left the stage.  She had learned and understood everything.  She and Gutrune reconciled and their sisterhood was quite touching.  Another nice touch was the surprise and shock when Rheinmaidens learned that they were to reclaim the gold from Brünnhilde's ashes.  Here, the nihilism triumphed.  Like father, like daughter.

Following order, Guturne, Rheinmaidens and other women threw logs towards the hidden river bank at the far back of the stage, very noisily, and dumped Siegfried's body there too and dosed with gasoline.  Brünnhilde, a torch in hand, walked into the pit behind the stage, and small fire come up there.  Scrim fell down, and more flames could be seen, then the square pictures of fallen heroes collected at Valhalla, spiced up by some parts of building blocks, serenely floated down, like over-sized beautiful snowflakes, signify the destruction of Valhalla.  It was very anticlimactic.

By now, without a spectacular final denouement, it hardly mattered.  However, after seventeen hours, it would be nice to have something to be shocked or marveled at.  The pictures of those heroes were all in frontal view, unblemished. Nothing was rotated, twisted, charred, in flame or in smoke.

Then, all cleared up.  Hagen was dispatched by a garbage bag on head by the Rheinmaidens - nice touch.  They dug out that piece of golden cloth and twirled it about to symbolize the gold and an innocent child brought a young branch and planted it on stage.  Rather gratuitously.


The cast were met with thunderous applause.  However, Ian Storey met a little bit booing.  He came up stage gritted his teeth.  I felt it was uncalled for - he did a decent job - not on the level of Nina Stemme but a worthy partner, indisposed or not.

Conductor Runnicles was greeted with enthusiastic applauds.  We were truly blessed to have Stemme and Runnicles in this Ring Cycle.  They were standing before the second curtain, which now was lifted and revealed the entire orchestra behind it and the theater went nuts.

Nina Stemme then walked to the wing and greeted Francesca Zambello and other creative team members, who were met with applauds and quite loud booing. 

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Curtain Call

Curtain Call

The booing was quite baffling.  I thought this Ring cycle, conceived by Zambello, was eloquent and interest, totally valid.   Her modernistic twist, not always coherent, was always interesting and showed respect to music and texts.

The scenery was largely not very inspired and the costumes were just passable.  The video projections between scenes were either irrelevant or too literal and I prefer a blank curtain and imagining drama in my own head.  However, it was the interaction amongst the characters and the ability to present the inner conflict, Zambello triumphed.  We should be grateful for this, in our age of Spider-Man and Cirque du Soleil.

Was this a perfect Ring?  No.  Were there rooms for improvement?  Many.  Was this a Ring for the ages?  Probably not.  Was it successful?  A resounding yes.

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Horned Helmets Off Stage

I suspect that the people who booed Zambello et. al. either felt the production was not bold enough, and or not traditional enough - they wanted their winged helmets and breastplates.  I do wish she had pushed the envelop further.  The dubbed "American Ring", after these 17 hours, were quite inappropriate, for better for worse.  I do felt a deep relief that no "September 11" reference was made.  That would trivialize both the event and the operas.  It is essentially a universal drama, belonged to human kind.

The ending with the innocent child, didn't work for me.  Because it signified a hope which did not exist. 

Here, the question regarding who was to inherit the splendor of gods.  We?  Homo sapiens?  Considering the rapidly deterioration of the earth, I'm afraid that we were just as doomed as the occupants of Valhalla.

6:30 p.m., curtain calls ended and we filed out the theater.  Exhausted but in exciting mood.  I overhead that there was an old lady in her nineties, was in town by herself for all three cycles.  Another anecdote I heard was this would be either the 58th or 59th Ring Cycle for another audience member who was also in her or his nineties.  Perhaps they were talking about the same person.  But I wouldn't be surprised if not.

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End of the Show

End of the Cycle

7:30 p.m., eight hours after I left home for the opera, I went back home.

My advice for anyone thinking about attending a Ring Cycle:  do it at least once.  Experiencing them in installments were good enough compromise but the experience of seeing these four operas in close secession was an experience with much greater impact.

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Ring Cycle Poster

San Francisco Opera's website also provided some interesting statistics regarding the Ring Cycle.  Such as:

Total number of people involved on stage / in the pit = 415
( 1 conductor + 1 director + 5 designers + 1 choreographer + 30 singers + 94 orchestra + 76 chorus + 52 supers + 115 crew + 30 music and production staff + 10 studio teachers and wranglers (not counting administrative staff, volunteers, ushers, box office staff, etc.)

Total number of animals = 12 (2 dogs, 1 bear, 1 “bird”, 1 frog, 1 serpent, 6 dead animals)
Total time to complete the Ring = 17 hours.

Related articles:
Part 3, Siegfried - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 2, Die Walküre - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 1, Das Rheingold - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
My Experiences with Wagner's Operas

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 3, Siegfried - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera

The third installment of the new Francesca Zambello production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle was staged as part of the cycle took place on 17 June 2011, Friday. This particular production was premiered in San Francisco Opera just several days ago on 29 May 2011, with the cast of:

Siegfried Jay Hunter Morris
The Wanderer (Wotan) Mark Delavan
Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Mime David Cangelosi
Alberich Gordon Hawkins
Fafner Daniel Sumegi
Erda Ronnita Miller
Forest Bird Stacey Tappan

Siegfried, though conceived first and was the central part of Wagner's plan, has always been just like the title character, the orphan, of the cycle - it lacks the colorfulness of Das Rheingold, lacks the thrill and familiarity of Die Walküre and doesn't have the dramatic one of the bleakest showdowns of Götterdämmerung.  Only three females characters in a long evening, and all roles were relatively speaking, brief.  Even Brünnhilde had only about 45 minutes on stage.  The main character Siegfried can also be problematic, not only for singers who is valiant enough to take it on and for directors as well.  The waking up of Brünnhilde in the final scene was really a semi-rape.

However, from the first few bars of the orchestral playing, I suspected that my opinion on this opera might change.  I always found the forging music cheesy, when I listen to recordings, no matter how exalted the performances were.  But, last night, I found that music was threatening, urgent and mystic, without an iota of cheesiness.  Kudos to the heroic effort from conductor Donald Runnicles.

In Act one, we found Siegfried, a big overgrown blond boy, handsome, brave and brutal, constantly mistreated his foster father, the ghastly drawf Mime, who was supposed to be a miserable sight, much more miserable than the rather handsome Cangelosi.  Siegfried berated Mime constantly for his cooking, for his inability to forge a sturdy enough weapon, for his ugliness, and for their different looks.  This was rather uncomfortable stuff.  In this brutal, ingratiate brat, I saw the prototype of Nazism.  Nazism, or at least Hitler, was an aesthetics tyrant and many of his crime could be traced to his vision of a world of beauty of his version, in one singular form alone.

However, prototype or not, despite the discomfort, we soon accepted Siegfried due to his innocence.  He was innocent of many things - growing up with an unsteady foster father who nagged constantly and bore no love towards Siegfried but the desire to use his as his pawn to gain the Ring, without societal companion, therefore, much of his petulance could be explained away if not embraced.  Even his eagerness to bring destruction to outside world, seen through an adolescent's lens, if not accepted today, could be understood.

The most amusing characteristics of his was his lacking of fear.  It was not the dragon he slayed taught it that but a maiden.   Which took place later, much later.

Before that, Wotan, in the guise of a wanderer, perhaps, had many confrontations, with Mime, with Albrech, and with Erda, then finally with Siegfried.  This opera charted the course of his maddening self-destruction and the feeble resist at the very end.

Duly, Siegfried forged his father's sword, shattered by Wotan, slayed the dragon (giant and one-time owner of the ring) Fafner, learned to understand the birds, shattered his grandfather's long staff, manhood, power and meaning of existence, woke up his aunt Brünnhilde, and half-persuaded and half-forced Brünnhilde to accept him as her man.

Clearly the innocence and fearlessness of Siegfried were his most commendable features but they were also what would doom him in the future.  What guaranteed his unfitness to be the free agent to free the world from  the power or curse of the Ring was his lacking of wisdom.  A holy fool, however holy, is still a fool.  Adorable one or not.

The music was glorious throughout but the long expositions in Acts one and two cried out for a large pair of scissors for Wagner.  Only if he had learned some fear.  But it was this megalomaniac approach made his operas such fascination.  Perhaps, he was being rather crafty, or extremely confident that after have exhausted us with three hours music, the sight of Brünnhilde would be just as rapturous to us as to Siegfried.  And we did.  The scene two of Act three, the awakening of Brünnhilde and their love-rape duet was glorious.

The best singing came from Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde - after had waited for four hours, it must be a relief to be part of the action.  Jay Hunter Morris, took over from the originally announced Ian Storey, who was recovering from an illness and would only sing in Götterdämmerung, went through the punishing evening honorably.  At times if his tone was less than heroic and clarion, it should be forgiven.  He hit all the notes capably and rather beautifully, and most times was clearly audible, and even raised his singing several notches higher when sang along with Stemme, and that was a quite a wonderful achievement in itself, considering the pit was open one, not the covered one Wagner had in mind when the opera was composed, and the brighter, louder sound of modern orchestra therefore harder to compete.

Delavan's singing was at times patchy - one moment barely audible and next rafter shaking - perhaps one day's break was not enough for him to recover.  He did best during confrontation with Erd and Siegfried in the later scene.  Overall, it was still a memorable and commendable performance. 

Erda was sang potently again by Miller and the Tappan chirped prettily as the Forest Bird, of whom I always suspect was in league with Wotan.  Cangolesi's Mime was outstanding singer and performer as well.

The staging was wonderful, particularly during Act one, with a set of deserted industrial park or a wasteland.  The dragon was mechanical one with the real giant hidden inside.  Act Three had already-crumbled Brünnhilde's Rock and the drying-diapers like hanging square pictures of dead heroes her sisters left behind were gone.  When the singers sang rapturously in the love-rape duet, the staging was rather conventional and less than inspired.  Their love, though orgasmic, was not as touching as Wotan-Brünnhilde's farewell.  But I was deeply moved by the trajectory of Brünnhilde's emotion as a mortal and reaction to Siegfried, the person she loved and knew would be her man but was not ready to accept, and Siegfried's fear in seeing a woman for the first time and his hope of seeing his mother and consequent disappointment and dejection.

One more pleasant thing to report is the well-calibrated manner and bearing of Jay Hunter Morris and the innocent and brutal Siegfried.  Not for a single moment he embarrassed himself with any silly imitation of a teenage.  He even gained our sympathy and emerged as a likeable and loveable one.  He was still a brute, but he was our brute.  Quite a feat.

Zambello, by concentration on myriads emotions of humans, gods, giants and dwarfs, made this long evening a powerful experience.

During the second intermission, at 9:50 p.m. three hours twenty minutes after the show started at 6:30 p.m., I heard an elder gentleman asked his wife why she wouldn't get ready to go down and go home.  She answered: "Honey, there is another act to go."  The show ended around 11:30 p.m.

In the end, do I like the opera better?  Yes, I think so.  I understand the many mini-confrontations much better and many detailed verbal exchanges are more meaningful, withe the memory of visual aides.

Sunday's performance would be even longer.  It would be an Everest to scale, not only for performers, but audience as well.

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Before the Show

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Standees Waiting to Enter the Theater

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Before Curtain

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Before Curtain

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Before Curtain

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First Intermission

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Second Intermission

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Second Intermission

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Second Intermission

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After the Performance

Related articles:
Part 4, Götterdämmerung - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 2, Die Walküre - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 1, Das Rheingold - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
My Experiences with Wagner's Operas

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Part 2, Die Walküre - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera

Last night was the second installment of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. This particular production was staged in San Francisco Opera last year with a wonderful cast, including excellent principals:

Sieglinde - Eva-Maria Westbroek
Siegmund - Christopher Ventris
Hunding - Raymond Aceto
Wotan - Mark Delavan
Brünnhilde - Nina Stemme
Fricka - Janina Baechle

Of these, only Mark Delavan and Nina Stemme returned. 

The new cast members for Die Walküre in these three cycles are:

Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Wotan Mark Delavan
Sieglinde Anja Kampe  June 15, 22
Sieglinde Heidi Melton June 29
Siegmund Brandon Jovanovich
Fricka Elizabeth Bishop
Hunding Daniel Sumegi
Gerhilde Sara Gartland
Helmwige Tamara Wapinsky
Ortlinde Melissa Citro
Waltraute Daveda Karanas
Rossweisse Lauren McNeese
Siegrune Maya Lahyani
Grimgerde Renée Tatum
Schwertleite Cybele Gouverneur

Kampe made her SFO debut with this performance and comparing to the amazing Westbroek, she was really good, except for some labored high notes.  I'm afraid the standard set by Westbroek was hard to met.  I really wanted to hear Melton's Sieglinda but I don't have the stamina to do two cycles as I overheard in the theater of such plan by someone behind me.  A woman bought Cycle 1 and 3 in order to hear both Kampe and Melton, and the gentleman next to her had purchased all three cycles.  He said that over thirty years' span, he had seen all four operas of the Ring Cycle in theater but this would be his first Ring Cycle in its entirety.  I guess he is one of the late bloomer of "Ring Nuts".

Ventris was a wonderful singer and I'd heard him as Parsifal, Erik (in Wagner's Dutchman, opposite Nina Stemme), and Boris (in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich), and I am not prepared to be win over by Jovanovich, whose capable outing the previous night as Froh did not impress me much, perhaps due to the nature of that role.

Jovanovich was a rare tenor sounding Wagner tenor - not the kind we hear often who built up their voice from middle and often sounded like a baritone.  It was extremely pleasant to hear the shining voice of Jovanovich's.  His voice was sweet, bright and supple and effortlessly fill up the large auditorium.  Curiously, he was slimmer than the strapping Ventris, but moved less comfortably on stage.  It has been reported that he will come back next fall for Lohengrin, opposite debutant Camilla Nylund.  I had been hoping for Jonas Kaufmann or Klaus Florian Vogt, both excellent Lohengrins and none had sung on SFO's stage.  I guess I should be satisfied with Jovanovich's outing as Lohengrin, however regrettable not to see Vogt or Kaufmann in this role.

Bishop as Fricka had more to sing than last night and she sang wonderfully, and her demeanor was less irritating this time but I still prefer a more dignified approach.  Zambello apparently didn't agree.  Baechle sang as well or better last year with similar characterization I thought was wrong.

Delavan paced him well - last year, by the last scene, he had run out of steam but last night he did well - except a tiny bit of sagging of energy before he recovered immediately just before conjuring up Loge to protect sleeping Brünnhilde with mighty fire.

Nina Stemme shone like a real goddess and her sisters sang lustily and however I have reservation about their Amelia Earhart garbs, I cannot deny that they looked good in them and they were an exciting bunch.

Perhaps not 100% warmed up, Stemme's Hojotoho war cry was somewhat not very free and even labored but once that past, she was in stunning form and that beginning effort hardly mattered in this long evening.

I still don't like the video projection by the production team led by Francesca Zambello and once again the absolute hero of the night was conductor Donald Runncles, who won the biggest ovation of the evening.

Now, to the staging.

Act I commenced in front of Sieglinde and Hunding's house - atmospheric and semi abstract facade with printed shadow of a tree.  Some unintentional comic touches by the director was questionable.  When Sieglinde offered Siegmund a drink, on cue, a small fire jump up and lighting changed.  A reference to Tristan und Isolde?  People laughed.

When they entered the house, the front panel of the house was lifted and revealed a strangely detailed interior of a rural American home.  It was cluttered with deer head, a water fowl and an owl, along with other trinkets on the walls.  It clashed strongly with the semi-abstract sets everywhere else.  I really think a less detailed approach would be more proper, considering the vague time and local of the story.  It looked hideous as well.

More comic affairs.  When Siegmund started to look for weapon, suddenly the sword materialized on the trunk of the ash tree inside the house.  When the libretto mentioned the gleam of the sword, the light changes on cue as well.  More laughter.

When Siegmund and Sieglinde embraced each other, the other walls of the house fell apart and revealed a perfumed blue sky and huge moon.  It was just too literal and lazy presentation.

Act two, Scene 1 was in Valhalla, a corporate conference room overlooking skyscrapers which was darkly foreboding but too static and lackluster.  The back drop was mostly very static and became boring to look at.  It did provide a good projection panel for the sound.  After it was lifted, it quickly revealed the next scene - Todesverkundigung, Brünnhilde's announcement of Siegmund's death.  It took place underneath an deliciously ugly overpasses but once again was ruined by soldier zombies carrying square portrait of them when Brünnhilde told Siegmund that he would be welcomed by fallen warriors in Valhalla - distracting and literal.  Also, the two dogs ran across the stage in chase was still cheerful snickering inciting.  Can we banish animals on stage once for all?

When Wotan shattered the sword, Notung, and Siegmund was killed by Hunding, and Wotan killed Hunding in turn, Brünnhilde carried Sieglinde away, without the fragments of Notung.  It was curious to realize that the producer Zambello made them hide near by and when Wotan had set up to chase them - they should had run far away already - they sneaked back and picked up the fragments.  This last few bars' time, should belong to the anguished and raging Wotan but usurped by these two women.  It was also illogical - which direction did we think Wotan was flying to?  Not a good choice.  

At the beginning of Act 3, the Ride of the Valkyries was rendered energetically and some people applauded heartily when the valkyries started to descend like paratroopers.  I guess it was a good thing the Ring Cycle was treated as living dramas other than sacred pieces.  But using large photos of dead warriors the Valkyries held was still not a convincing solution.  Another curious things was when they discussed the fallen heroes they collected, they put the pictures on several towers and after they were chased off stage by raging Wotan, they left those pictures to be walled in by fire with Brünnhilde.  Brünnhilde's Rock become Brünnhilde and her Warriors's Rock.  I didn't notice this last year but did last night.  Perhaps, Zambello should come up with a way to solve this issue as well.

Last scene, when Wotan renounced his daughter and called fire god Loge to protect Brünnhilde, the scenery was just  exciting enough but not more.  The fire could have been higher and the rhythms of the fire dance on the scrim should be more energetic.

That said, the long final scene between Wotan and his rebellious favorite daughter Brünnhilde was the most wrenching and poignant experiences I had in a live theater.  Last year, it was good; this year, it was astonishing.  Perhaps, the improvement of Mark Delavan's Wotan helped.  The wrath of Wotan was the most terrifying thing I witness on any stage - not gory but the sound from the pit and stage just awed me.  The words spit out of the tip of Dalavan's tongue or the long legato anguish doled out of the depth of his throat was hard to forget and one hardly needed any title to understand what he was trying to convey.  Stemme met him word by word, emotion by emotion.  It was extremely talky and long but never tedious, due to the miraculous performances by these two stars.  When Brünnhilde lay down on the rock to accept her fate and the grief stricken Wotan put her munition bag as her pillow, and covered her with his coat and munition belt, Brünnhilde smiled a daddy's little girl smile, very satisfied.  It was the moment brought tears to people's eyes.  Wagner could have used some heavy editing here or there, for example, the long scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, but not here.  We treasured and was moved by every second of this most intense operatic scene.  

One thing Zambello got right was treating this opera as an intimate drama and focused on relationship of various people, instead of a circus show, as the new Ring Cycle being developed for the more glamorous Metropolitan Opera in New York.

I enjoyed this evening very much and am looking forward to see Part III and Part IV, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which I have not seen before. 

I do thing these four operas seen separately or consecutively could be quite different.  I was much more aware of the leitmotifs used by Wagner which was helpful but can be irritating, like receiving same business cards repeatedly.  When I saw Part I and II in different years, the leitmotifs conjured up vague and tentative memories which was strangely more appropriate.  Here, Wagner became the slave of his own will.

Below are some visual records of the evening.

When I walked by Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, I saw huge crowd waiting to get in for a performance by Motley Crue, Poison and New York Dolls.  While it was a calm oasis in front of the opera house.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if people clamoring in front of the opera house, trying to get in?  No such sight, alas.

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Crowds waiting to enter Bill Graham Civic Auditorium - Motley Crue, Poison and New York Dolls at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium Wednesday, June 15, in contrast to the calmness in front of San Francisco Opera House:

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Poster for Die Walküre featuring Mark Delavan as Wotan

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Balcony before the show

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Gilded Lobby

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Auditorium before the show (see from balcony)

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Auditorium during intermission

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Lobby during intermission

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Fist Intermission

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Biergarten during the first intermission

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Food from the Biergarten

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Second Intermission

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Second Intermission

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Second Intermission

Related articles:
Part 4, Götterdämmerung - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 3, Siegfried - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 1, Das Rheingold - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
My Experiences with Wagner's Operas

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Part 1, Das Rheingold - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera

Last night, I attended the premiere of new production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) at San Francisco Opera (SFO)'s home theater - War Memorial Opera House. The producer of the new production is Francesca Zambello and it was once again conducted by former SFO's Music Director (1992-2009) Donald Runncles, currently the General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since August 2009 and Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since September 2009.

The first night, an overall excellent one, was the first of the four parts of Ring Cycle -- Das Rheingold, which was presented in this production at San Francisco Opera a couple years ago and I did attend that performance.  

The star was once again, the orchestra.  Runnicles is definitely one of the best, if not the best Wagnerian conductor of nowadays.  Every outing of his Wagner performance is an event.  Surely.

There were four scenes and only the Nibelheim scene was truly wonderful.  The Rheinmaiden scene was not magical and the adobe of the gods pre-Valhalla was rather non-descriptive but not offensive.  The production and direction was interesting and intriguing most of the time and it was musical and that was a tall order already.

The scene change was rather loud and between Scene 3 and 4, patrons clearly heard someone snapped: "Hurry up!"  All these noises competed mightily with the wonderful music interlude and was very regrettable.  Perhaps unavoidable, if we don't want to be saddled with an unit set.

The costume was bad, lighting excellent.

Singing was uniformly good.  The best singing was from Stefan Margita as Loge.  His voice was the sweetest one I ever heard on this stage.  Ronnita Miller impressed with her rich contralto as all-knowing earth goddess Erda.

The giants were wonderful as well, so was Gordon Hawkins as Alberich and David Cangelosi as Mime.

As for staging, I still have mixed feelings towards Zambello's effort.  Fricka's characterization still offended.  She was a frumpy Hausfrau, rather than a goddess in the statue of Hera or Juno.  She should not be a shrew.  She sounded reason.  Though I do like the more emphasized intimacy and closeness of Fricka and Wotan in that period of their life.  However, it was just not magic, mythic and cosmic enough.  For example, both Rheingold and Tarnhelm were represented by flimsy and cheap looking cloth.  Better solutions ought to be found.

Some changes of the staging took place, for better or for worse.  When Alberich showed his ring to his slaves, instead of running away in terror, this time, the slaves retreated in orderly formation, though screamed appropriately.  Odd and the menace was diminished.

The ending still had the cruise ship gangway leading to Valhalla but less offensive this time.  Perhaps the boldly colored floor and rainbow colored sky screen helped.  I also like the black-clad Rheinmaids' reappearance at that moment.  Cannot remember if it was new or not.  Don't remember them last time.

The thunder accompanying Donnor's hammer swing was louder, but still out of sync.  The little flame ejected very briefly from the two ends of the hammer was still pathetic.  Better do without.

Again, Loge's struggle with Alberich as a toad was badly staged again.

Overall, a wonderful evening.  However, I did regret more that I didn't catch the previous Ring Cycle production here by Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

Below are the cast and production team:


Production Credits

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Director Francesca Zambello
Set designer Michael Yeargan
Costume designer Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer Mark McCullough

Below are several pictures and videos I took before and after the performance:

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Waiting at Oakland's Rockridge Station for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco

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Towards the opera house - San Francisco City Hall is in front of Memorial Opera House

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View from the Balcony (San Francisco City Hall)

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Patrons arriving at San Francisco Opera (War Memorial Opera House)

Patrons arriving at San Francisco Opera House

Patrons arriving at San Francisco Opera House

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Glamorous Patrons

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Way to the Biergarten

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Biergarten on the balcony

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Where the scenery machines are

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Two and an half hours later

Related articles:
Part 4, Götterdämmerung - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 3, Siegfried - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
Part 2, Die Walküre - Premiere of Wagner's Ring Cycle at San Francisco Opera
My Experiences with Wagner's Operas