Monday, November 26, 2007

Teutonic Splendor

Everyone has his favorite operas. This fall, the San Francisco Opera performed two of mine. Lohengrin offers the listener four solid hours of musical foreplay as Wagner's score keeps building toward a climax. Then, just when it is on the brink of ecstatic release, the music falls back and starts building its momentum anew. One of the all-time lung-busters of the German repertoire, Die Frau Ohne Schatten heaps the kind of lush, orgasmic musical sensations upon its audience that only Richard Strauss could articulate and share with the world. The final twenty minutes of the score are pure jack-off material.

Back in college, I once researched and wrote a term paper about the myth of the swan knight. After moving to San Francisco, I encountered a young man with a Lohengrin complex who took me to his room, strapped on some home-made armor which he had fashioned out of aluminum foil, lifted his shiny make-believe sword into the air, and proceeded to mime Lohengrin's entrance aria while the music played on his stereo. Having found someone who believed as intensely as I did in the legend of the swan knight, I had trouble deciding whether to let the young man continue performing his fantasy in innocent bliss or to direct the energy in the room toward a kinkier and more sexual resolution. Believe it or not, the purity of his emotions won out and that night I kept my hands to myself!

Since then, I've often wondered what might have happened had I taken an earthier approach to the situation but, during the debauchery of the 1970s, innocence was a novelty item in San Francisco. That evening the two of us shared an intense passion for Wagner's music and the purity of the soul which it embodies. The image which remains in my mind to this day is not that of a mystical swan knight bathed in gleaming light as he makes his stage entrance, but of a handsome young man miming Lohengrin's entrance with the ingenuousness of an adolescent who still believes in Santa Claus.


Enough blubbering about the man who got away. What was this fall's revival of Lohengrin like? For the most part, quite splendid. Under Wolfgang Weber's direction, Beni Montresor's pastel-hued production has aged remarkably well and, with Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium, Wagner's score got the royal treatment it deserved. Although illness plagued some of the principals during the run, the cast was in relatively good vocal condition at the performances I attended.

As fate would have it, I was present when Meredith Mizell (who was covering the role of Elsa) made an unexpected San Francisco Opera debut after soprano MariAnne Haggander took ill. Considering the circumstances, Mizell acquitted herself handsomely. When Haggander returned to the role several nights later, the popular Scandinavian artist with her brought a much deeper characterization backed by some solid singing. A major disappointment, however, was Eva Randova's Ortrud, which lacked volume, stage presence and seemed downright anemic. Compared to such wonderfully evil Ortruds as Leonie Rysanek and Eva Marton, Miss Randova was a rather wimpy villainess.

Tenor Paul Frey's Lohengrin boasted a heroic, fairy-tale appeal while managing to negotiate the difficult tessitura of Wagner's protagonist; bass Siegfried Vogel gave a sonorous performance as King Henry. Theodore Baerg boomed his way through most of the Herald's music, leaving top honors for musicianship among the male principals to Sergei Leiferkus, whose portrayal of the misguided Freidrich von Telramund was one of the finest I've encountered in my life.


Without any doubt, a high point of the recent San Francisco season was the revival of Die Frau Ohne Schatten in which a potent combination of Thomas J. Munn's acutely sensitive lighting and Jorg Zimmermann's magical sets catapulted Strauss's opera into a fantasy kingdom rivalling the best in the science fiction literature. I was less thrilled with Jan Skalicky's new costumes, which made the final scene look as if the Emperor, Empress, Barak and the Dyer's wife could only afford to walk through Strauss's realm of phantasmagoria in their nightgowns. And I should confess that, after hiding behind the fantasy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto for two decades, it was a shock to be brought down to earth by the forcefulness of Christopher Bergen's Supertitles (which stress the Nurse's intentions to protect the purity of an Aryan race from being corrupted with the blood of ape-like mortals).

With the exception of William Johns's throaty Emperor and Mary Jane Johnson's tentatively-sung Kaiserin (which will grow and mature with repeated performances), this revival of Die Frau Ohne Schatten had one of the strongest casts in recent history. Anja Silja's nurse proved to be a powerhouse of a sorceress, delivering a performance of incredible conviction and lucidity. Gwyneth Jones's portrayal of the Dyer's wife revealed a major artist who, having conquered some severe vocal problems, seemed miraculously reborn. The sudden strength and surety of the Welsh soprano's singing were astonishing to those who, only two years ago, fastened their seatbelts and held on for dear life as they went tobogganing through her vibrato.

Making an auspicious American debut, baritone Albert Muff was an intensely compassionate Barak who revealed a powerful voice and stage presence. Smaller contributions came from Monte Pederson as the Spirit Messenger, Patricia Racette as the Voice of the Falcon, and Patricia Spence as a solo alto voice.

A great conductor can inspire solid playing from an ensemble and, from start to finish, Christoph von Dohnanyi shaped the performance with a rare passion, intelligence and drive. With Maestros Mackerras and von Dohnanyi dominating the German repertoire this fall, the San Francisco Opera took several giant steps toward improving the overall quality of its artistic product. And it's about time, too!

* * * * * * * * * *

This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 28, 1989.

No comments: