Thursday, December 6, 2007

Hurry Up And Wait

The past ten years have been tough for frequent flyers as the continued side-effects of deregulation have taken what little glamour was left out of domestic air travel. During the past few months, I have been subjected to more than a few encounters with surly flight crews and confrontational gate agents. In addition to having one airline lose my luggage, I've been forced to overnight unexpectedly in such exotic locales as Albuquerque International Airport and scenic St. Louis. Northwest Orient's recent merger with Republic Airlines caused such appalling chaos that at one point I even had to resort to calling Newark's airport police in order to contact the airline. In short, the so-called friendly skies have become about as inviting as the South Bronx. Despite the high level of customer satisfaction touted by the airlines in their advertising, the continued deterioration of service in the skies has led to a pathetically generalized attitude of casual neglect in the airline industry. Several weeks ago, I watched one of TWA's new hires drop a plate of cooked chicken in the aisle and leave it there until his embarrassed flight superintendent stopped to clean up the mess. Recently, at SFO, a PSA supervisor (after disgustedly surveying the confusion at one of his gates) took out his walkie-talkie and muttered "Richmond train approaching BART station" before disappearing into the crowd. A week later, I heard a United gate agent announce that "The captain of the incoming flight has informed us there is a mechanical problem which needs to be fixed once the plane is on the ground. As soon as we can locate the aircraft and figure out where it is, we'll keep you informed you as to what time we expect to depart for Tucson."

Business travelers who habitually arrive at an airport with time to spare have learned to anticipate nagging delays as their gate holds are followed by an initiation into the snail-like conga line of aircraft headed for the runway. Thus, racing across O'Hare in order to reach a connecting flight often proves to be wasted effort (either the plane has left or else its departure has been delayed several hours due to so-called "mechanical" problems). What worries me is that I'm starting to encounter this same "hurry up and wait" syndrome in the opera house. I hope it doesn't continue.


Although early reports of the Met's new Walkure production were less than encouraging, most critics did not have to experience it under quite the same conditions that I did. Having been "delayed" at Minneapolis for several hours, I finally bedded down in New York at 4:30 a.m. prior to attending a matinee of Massenet's Don Quichotte followed by an evening performance of the first installation in the Met's new Ring cycle. Apparently, I wasn't the only one having a rough time. The Met's Brunnhilde for that performance (soprano Jeannine Altmeyer) succumbed to tracheitis following Act II and, after a lengthy intermission, was replaced by the ready, willing and able Hildegard Behrens. Then, midway through Act III, the evening's Wotan (bass Donald McIntyre) began to lose his voice. Things were notably under par on both sides of the footlights and, laden with overtime, the Met's gleaming gold curtain descended well after midnight.

Given the circumstances, it would be difficult to offer a fair appraisal of this important new production. In the meantime, let's just say that Johanna Meier's radiant Sieglinde, backed by James Levine's biting tempos, was the high point of the evening. While Timothy Jenkins' lumbering and occasionally clumsy Siegmund showed strong and interesting potential, veteran Brigitte Fassbaender's Fricka was distinctly unexciting. As midnight drew nearer, the Valkyrie maidens butched it up rather relentlessly.

Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's oversized, naturalistic sets and Gil Wechsler's superb lighting were a sight for sore eyes. However, as physically appealing as this new production may be, the performance of Die Walkure I heard this summer as part of the Seattle Opera's new Ring cycle was infinitely more satisfying in musical terms. In the long run, I think that's where Wagner needs to be given the best treatment for, no matter how pretty a production looks, the music is what counts the most.


That "hurry up and wait" syndrome encountered so often in airports was evident throughout much of the San Francisco Opera's revival of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Although Kurt Herbert Adler kept the performance within a reasonable time frame, his conducting failed to take wing until nearly four hours into the score. Once Adler launched into Wagner's glorious quintet in Act III, Scene I, the cast seemed to recover from its sluggishness and breathe fresh air. Unfortunately, most of the performance's first four hours felt as if someone was flogging a dead corpse.

My guess is that, although the chorus and soloists seemed to be sufficiently rehearsed, there just wasn't enough spark to this production (Wagner's opera is supposed to be a comedy). Hans Tschammer's well-sung Sachs lacked personality and Michel Trempont's Beckmesser seemed slightly nastier than most. James King's Walther von Stolzing tended to sound dry while looking like an aging Siegfried trying out his Halloween drag.

Thankfully, Cheryl Studer's debut as Eva revealed a full-voiced soprano, the kind of healthy sound which seemed to run in the family since Kurt Rydl's Papa Pogner offered the best male singing of the evening. David Gordon, Sandra Walker and Monte Pederson lent strong support in secondary roles while Frank Tack's Supertitles helped matters tremendously. Their hard work, however, could not mitigate the fact that, for much of the evening, this production seemed to be going absolutely nowhere.

Stated in frequent flyer terms, many of those in attendance felt free to wander about the cabin. Indeed, the audience dwindled markedly with each intermission.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 20, 1986.

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