Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My Experiences with Wagner's Operas

Tonight, the eagerly awaited new Francesca Zambello production of Richard Wanger's Der Ring des Nibelungen will be presented as a cycle for the first time, in San Francisco Opera (SFO)'s home theater War Memorial Opera House.  I am eager to experience the sound waves conjured up by the most wonderful Wagnerian conductor active, Donal Runnicles, the former Music Director of SFO, and hear the amazing singing of Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde.

I have seen the first and second installments of this new production in previous seasons and am looking warding to experiencing my first ever Ring as a cycle.

By the end of the Ring Cycle, I would have seen all mature Wagner operas but one - Lohengrin, which I had thought as the very likely candidate for my first ever Wagner experience, because it was most popular, most lyrical, most accessible, most italianate and less expensive.  But fate determines otherwise.  Lohengrin will come to San Francisco in October and November 2012, and surely it will be conducted by current Music Director of SFO, Nicola Luisotti.  That means I would have heard all mature Wagners conducted by Runnicles except for Lohengrin.  Regrettable.  Very regrettable - even though this does not mean Luisotti's Lohengrin would be bad.  Just not by Runnicles.

My very first live theater Wagner experience, instead of Lohengrin, was Parsifal, his final work, a ceremonial piece can be very static and boring.  But that afternoon, was one of the most exciting theater experiences of mine.  The music was incredibly hypnotic and the singing was most excellent.  The staging, a modernist, in a post apocalyptic setting, was both beautiful and devastating.  I truly enjoyed the tenor, Christopher Ventris as Parsifal and soprano Catherine Malfitano as Kundry, a female wandering Jew character.  However, my standing ovation went for the German bass Kurt Moll, who sang Gurnemanz, and make his often tedious long soliloquy incredibly flowing, eloquent and moving.  His deep voice rolled out and filled the vast hall like the resonant of rich bell.  It was a vocal phenomena seldom experienced.  The villain Klingsor was sung wonderfully by Tom Fox.  Malfitano was a wonderful actress and her struggling out of cocoon was hard to forget.  Equally unforgettable was the agonize of the old king Titurel and menacing knights against their over lord Amfortas to unveil the holy grail despite the physical pain it caused him.

Another most memorable Wanger night was not in SFO but in San Francisco Symphony.  It was a semi-staged Der fliegende Holländer, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT).  The abstract sails adorned the concert hall and the music waves whipped up by MTT was overwhelming.  The Senta was sung by once reining Brünnhilde, Jane Eaglen.  When she sang that role here more than 10 years ago, I wasn't ready to commit myself to the vigorous demand of a Ring and also missed Deborah Voigt as Sieglinde, and the Wotan of James Morris.

The singing was decent enough that night but not at the same level as that of Parsifal.  But that Parsifal was a legendary afternoon and this was mere excellent.

I also saw Der fliegende Holländer at SFO, featuring Nina Stemme as Senta, in a very weird production, the sort alienated former General Director Pamela Rosenberg, whom I was suspicious of at the beginning and loved and missed dearly in the end.

Before Rosenberg's arrival, I saw Wagner's only comedy, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in a very attractive traditional production and the long afternoon went rather briskly.  The young couples were attractive, Robert Dean Smith and Janice Watson as Walther and Eva, Catherine Keen and Michael Shade as Magdalena and David.  Main character Hans Sachs was sung capably but somewhat routinely by the great James Morris.  The most wonderful singing and acting came from Thomas Allen, a renowned Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni, in an against-type role of Beckmesser and René Pape as Pogner, Father of the heroin Eva.

Rosenberg presented a David Hockney production, Tristan und Isolde, with Thomas Moser and Christine Brewer in the title roles.  Fascinating night and wonderful music making.  Unfailingly great conducting from Runnicles and wonderful singing from Moser and Brewer.  Brewer has been called a great Wagnerian soprano of our generation but the maddening fact is that she has sung very little of Wagner despite her obvious talent.  So far, the only staged Wagner operas she has sung was this Tristan und Isolde.  She was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera for Brünnhilde in their now retired production but had to cancel due to knee surgery.  So far, her diary shows no plan of any Wagner opera and that is a shame.

The current Music Director of SFO, David Gockley, surprised me with the presentation of Tannhäuser, in a rather daring production, debunking my suspicion of his being too conservative and too timid.  The evening was dominated, properly by tenor Peter Seiffert in the title role, along side with Runnicles, needless to say.

Then came the new Zembello Ring Cycle.  She is a director I admire but do not love.  I found her ideas often are intriguing but less daring.  The Rheingold had good moments, particularly the scary miner scene but otherwise largely disappointing.  The Rheinmaiden scene was not beautiful or magical, the cruise ship entrance to Valhalla was a let down and the sputtering thunder of Donner was comical.  The characterization of the main gods were wrong as well.  They seemed weak already at the beginning of the Cycle.  The downfall of the great is a tragedy.  The downfall of a dwarf is not.

The best singing came from Stefan Margita as the oily Loge.  Mark Delavan's Wotan and Jennifer Larmore's Fricka were all right but not very impressive.  Larmore was famous for Rossini and Baroque repertoire and it was very startling to read her name in the cast list.  Apparently, her voice or her ambition has changed so much and she has been engaged to sing the notoriously difficult Lady Macbeth in Genève next year.

Last season, I heard Die Walküre, repeating the experience of some wonderful and some awkward moments as in Das Rheingold.  I dislike the video projection during prelude or overture very much.  Everything the visual images were trying to say, one could hear in the notes.  They were purely distracting.  Act I stage image was not good.  When Siegmund and Sieglinde embraced, the full moon at the background was quite juvenile.  The Ride of the Valkyries was excitingly staged but I am not taken by the Amelia Earhart garbs.  I also find the confrontations between Wotan and Fricka, Siegmund and Brünnhilde less well presented.  Fricka was still too much a shrew in the former, and in the latter, it was distracted by dreaming-walking zombies in the background.

The singing was wonderful - Siegmund (Christopher Ventris), Sieglinde (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Fricka (Janina Baechle) were all great and above all Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde).  The Wotan by Mark Delavan was honorably sung but not a great one.

The third and fourth installment of this new production, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, have both been premiere several days ago to rave reviews. 

We are to have a new Siegmung, Sieglinde and Fricka.  I am eager to hear Anja Kampe's Sieglinde and feel sorry to have to miss Heide Melton's assumption in Cycle 3.  I don't have stamina for two cycles.  My consolation is that I would hear Melton's glorious voice at least in the role of Third Norn.  I was eager to hear the originally announced Frick of Larissa Diadkova, whom I'd heard as a shattering Amneris in Aida at SFO, but she had canceled due to personal reasons.

Alas, a ring can never be perfectly round.

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

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