Opera

SF Opera/Runnicles: Die Walküre

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

Day One of the Ring saga began with a Blair Witch-like scene whereby Jan Hartley’s projection onto a stage-front scrim suggested a romp through uncharted woods. The scrim then rose to reveal Hunding’s abode which, with manicured shingles and perfectly aligned window screens, looked slightly more pristine than one would imagine to be a real estate of Hunding’s soon-to-be-revealed, thug-like character. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was imprisoned in such thug life, slightly bewildered but more agitated by a Siegmund stumbling onto her porch and into her life, as if foretelling the imminent collapse of the status quo. Inside Hunding’s lodge were aged hunting gear, winnings from hunting trips, sporting trophies and decorative china wares that gave clues as to Zambello’s targeted place and time for this Act: a mountain lodge, perhaps in the Mountain West, in the Depression Era.

In Zambello’s vision, Sieglinde was an abused wife, trapped in a loveless marriage and suffering from Stockholm syndrome as she willingly submitted to Hunding at his presence. A slightly more realistic reading would entail her knowing that any seeming rebellion, in the face of Hunding’s thuggish recklessness, might jeopardize her life and, when his twin brother arrived in this one fine evening, Siegmund’s. Kampe’s vocal chops were refined and conscientious. She navigated the more lyrical passages in Acts I and III with clarity and ease. Daniel Sumegi’s Hunding seemed to be the kind of person who physically and mentally overwhelmed his wife in regularity, and in so doing probably took plenty of pleasure too. While Sumegi’s voice was stentorian, the carefulness of his delivery revealed the character of a physically big yet mentally calculating man.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund was a revelation: his voice was bright and persuasive, with an electrifying top and a juicy mid-range timbre. His “Wälse!” cries not only seemed to last forever, but easily penetrated past the rousing orchestra. In Winterstürme, Jovanovich built a strong case of why he would soon become the next superstar, whether helden or lirico spinto: crisp delivery of individual notes was nonetheless smothered into fine melodic arches of lyrical beauty. The roundedness of his voice was akin to grated cheese oozing on top of a baking pizza, or butter slowing melting away on top of warm bread. But I digress. The slight blemish in Jovanovich’s fine squillo appeared to be an occasional overshooting of top notes. As an actor, Jovanovich was intense: the serious eye contact made to Sieglinde was fiery and genuine, while his body language in Winterstürme imparted a lover boiling with desire. In his dying moments, Jovanovich gazed tenderly and innocently at his father, dispensing a poignant moment of human kindness. After raving about his Jose earlier this year, I feel that, with some additional refinement of vocal delivery, especially a more regulated access to his squillo, Jovanovich has potential to carry the baton left by the likes of Lauritz Melchior and James King.

Mark Delavan had a better outing as Wotan compared with his lackluster performance in Das Rheingold. His voice was audibly stronger and sturdier, especially in the mid-range, but markedly tapered off at the higher registers and towards the end of the evening. The unleashing of reserve firepower in Leb’ wohl was therefore and nonetheless a pleasant and welcoming surprise.

When Nina Stemme appeared on stage with her Valkyrie cries, she sounded a little forced: the four sets of Hoyotohos were rendered as “Hoyotooo-ah” with an extremely short fourth syllable and a raucous glide between the third and the fourth. Her Brünnhilde’s comedic interaction with Wotan garnered some of the best laughs of the evening. Later in the Act and in Act III, her warmed-up voice displayed a full range of dynamics and coloration. By the end of the evening it seemed clear why Stemme has a natural gift to excel in the role: she owns a confident top that easily rings over the orchestra. She also seems so comfortable with and confident of her vocal delivery that she could actually spend time acting the role as well.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka transformed from a subservient mother deferring to her husband in Das Rheingold to a serious woman confident of her moral superiority and suasion over her husband’s questionable antics. Her singing, surprisingly first rate, especially at Ich vernahm Hundings Not, gathered a rabidly enthusiastic reception at her curtain call.

The Valkyrie sisters were fine, though Melissa Citro, as Ortlinde, continued to sound shrill, just like her Freia in Das Rheingold.

There seemed to be better balance in the orchestra, perhaps due to more focused conducting in the Cycle’s first night of serious music (but more possibly, due to the fact that as the night wore on, I was finally accustomed to my seat’s and the War Memorial’s quirky acoustics). But whatever cured balance was then ruined by Runnicles’ wild tempi: his conducting felt like a drive down San Francisco’s own Market Street: occasionally smooth under synchronized traffic lights, but at times jerky and achingly slow due to horrible traffic. At Ein Schwertder Vater, Runnicles’ pacing was a snail’s drag compared with Böhm’s much faster and upbeat pace, and sounded more pedestrian and flat compared with Solti’s more cerebral reading. There were small mistakes from the brass section, most notably during Brünnhilde’s first entrance in Act II and then at Walkürenritt, but they were not so glaring as to spoil the evening of the average listener.

Michael Yeargan’s set continued to convey that American look, with Hunding’s Depression Era mountain lodge, and a highway underpass in Act II (as an afterthought, if the entire Die Walküre was meant to be set in the Depression Era, the idea of having convenient highway overpasses, before the dawn of the Interstate era, seemed slightly premature). Brünnhilde’s rock was depicted as a round, dial-like rock surrounded by an awkwardly shaped fortress. Zambello’s historical reference appeared to be the Presidio, which would fit nicely into her notion of a world where men and women were sacrificed as megalomaniacs fought to consolidate power.

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Opera

SF Opera/Runnicles: Das Rheingold

Date: June 21 – 26, 2011 (second of three Cycles)
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Francesca Zambello
Location: War Memorial, San Francisco.

The idea of an American Ring, whereby Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is retold in the context of snippets of American history, is quite an alluring concept. The immediate questions, then, are serious and find no easy answers: what happens after Immolation? Is Francesca Zambello, the production director, prepared to foretell the end of American history? Who, then, is Wotan?

To be sure, some of these questions will remain unanswered by the end of Götterdämmerung. In what seems to be the most unfortunate moment of Schadenfreude, the real life saga of the Washington National Opera, a co-producing partner with San Francisco until the east coast partner bailed due to insufficient funds, even seemed to fit the description of a once-mighty empire falling into disarray. But any further deductions would be unfair and premature.

The first scene of Das Rheingold was set in the Gold Rush era, where Alberich’s power-hungry character reigned supreme. The second to fourth scenes were set at the dawn of the 20th century, in the Gatsby era as America learnt how to build skyscrapers and rushed to erect them all over the country. The Wagnerian parallel would be an enterprising Wotan eager to finish hisValhalla. The English surtitles in the early going revealed further “American-ness” of the production, whereupon Alberich referred to the Rheinmaidens as “sluts” while the three sisters joked about Alberich being a “blob”.

The Rheinmaidens, Lauen McNeese, Renee Tatum and Stacey Tappan, dressed and danced as if they were in Minnie’s polka saloon which, in the context of Zambello’s American experiment, was not inappropriate. Their succulent and warm trio foretold the rest of the Cycle’s excellent singing, though Tappan seemed willing to save her voice by skimming through some of the passage’s high notes (she would later sing a  sumptuously satisfying forest bird). Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich was as menacing and mean as any gold rush entrepreneur who wanted it all.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka, humanized as a dependent, portrayed a homely wife in an era before the feminist and women rights movements. Vocally, Bishop delivered her lines with ease, and seemed to reserve vocal power for her more demanding role in Die Walküre. Melissa Citro was shrill as Freia, but had enormous stage presence with her good looks and giddy acting. Mark Delavan’s voice was fine if not slightly too light and lacking penetration as Wotan. He would probably excel in cleaner, lighter roles like Hans Sachs. More troubling, though, concerned Delavan’s portrayal of the ruler of God, which in the face of Loge and Fricka looked all too human. Ronnita Miller, as Erda, sang gorgeously with a supple and well-supported voice.

Since Froh is not typically well casted in any production, it was a pleasant surprise to hear Brandon Jovanovich in the role. Jovanovich, who came to San Francisco mainly to sing Siegmund, delivered the short but difficult lines of Froh. More importantly, he paraded his acting skills by providing the evening’s comedic relief.

Stefan Margita as Loge gave perhaps the most commanding delivery of the role I have heard in years. His crisp, trumpet-like execution projected easily across the pit, and at his curtain call he earned the loudest round of applause of the evening.

A swirling golden fabric held by the sisters to represent the Rhine precious metal was visually stunning. The design proved dramatically effective when Alberich conveniently snatched it away from the sisters and escaped to Nibelheim. The transformation of Alberich into the giant serpent and the toad, effectuated by puffs of smokes and sparks, looked like cheap tricks from a Penn-and-Teller show. The toad was a stuffed toy that Loge playfully juggled before securing it and leaving Nibelheim, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. Otherwise, Michael Yeargan’s stage provided very few excitements and/or novelty.

Jan Hartley’s visual projections provided a rich counterpoint to Wagner’s orchestrations and a story-telling complement to Michael Yeargan’s set. Soft focused imagery of America’s natural heartland provided a dream-scape depicting the distance and geology separating Nibelheim and earth. At times, however, the projections seemed too literal (the depiction of liquefied gold to suggest Alberich’s gold mine), or flawed (the depiction of Rhine with swerving, ocean-like waves).

At the conductor podium was Donald Runnicles, who was San Francisco Opera’s music director from 1992 to 2009. Runnicles was no stranger to Wagner music in San Francisco, having previously led two series of Ring Cycles at the War Memorial in the 90s. Runnicles’ time keeping was not strictly speaking, tight, and provided plenty of breathing room to the singers. Balance tilted in favor of the upper brass (at least where I sat – orchestra center), and the strings, underpowered — there were only 8 cellos to do the work of twelve scored by Wagner — were often drowned out. If there remained one other thing to complain about, it was the tentativeness of the horns at the beginning’s E-flat chord. The output sounded slightly timid and unrehearsed, but otherwise nothing to be scoffed at.

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