Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reflections on SFO's 2018 RING: The Music

June's Wagnerian frenzy at the War Memorial Opera House has faded, allowing me to contemplate how to write about the San Francisco Opera's 2018 RING cycle while addressing some of the changes made since the full production's 2011 premiere. After giving the matter some thought, I've chosen to take a different approach to articulating my thoughts this summer. Rather than write about the RING in its logical narrative format (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung), I'm going to reflect on a week's worth of Wagner from three different (yet equally important) perspectives: the music, the production, and how this very "American" RING fits into our current cultural context.

Let me start by explaining why I chose to attend the third (and final) performances of the 2018 RING cycle. Many critics and RING fanatics automatically aim for the first week of performances. Why? Opening nights carry a certain social cachet and allow attendees to be the first to report back on new cast members and modifications in the staging. Just as the early bird gets the worm, first-nighters have the best chance of sparking an intense online debate about their experience.

Over a half century of operagoing, I've learned that, even with revivals of popular productions, opening nights often resemble the dress rehearsal an opera company wishes it had the time and money to afford. As a result, I often prefer to attend performances midway through or late in a production's run. Here's why:
  • Since I'm not up against a daily deadline, the pressures (and often unreasonable expectations) of an opening night are non-issues for me.
  • Having gotten past the opening night jitters, the cast has usually had more time to bond, is no longer on a tight rehearsal schedule, and is often more relaxed.
  • Even with music that some artists have been singing for 20 years, the vocal ensemble is more likely to have found its "groove."
  • Finally, as a long-term operagoer, I prefer to keep the drama onstage rather than in the audience.
Greer Grimsley (Wotan) and Ronnita Miller (Erda)
in Act III of Siegfried (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Considering that the RING encompasses four operas, nearly 19 hours of performance time, and just a few zillion cues for the tech crew, in a situation where the RING is being performed during three successive weeks, the final string of performances is likely to seem more cohesive and its cast feel more unified. There's also less likelihood that final performances will be up-ended by singers who become indisposed or artists who suddenly cancel their appearance.
  • In 1980, when I traveled to the Seattle Opera for its English-language RING cycle, the tenor singing the role of Siegmund developed a case of laryngitis after going for a swim in the waters of Puget Sound. Listening to him struggle through Die Walkure's Act I love duet was a painful experience for many people in the audience. After a long intermission, the performance continued with the tenor "acting" the role onstage while another tenor (who had performed the previous week during the company's German-language cycle) sang Siegmund's music from the orchestra pit. The challenge of trying to follow a half-English, half-German performance was eliminated several years later with the opera world's enthusiastic embrace of Supertitles.
  • In 1989, I attended a Music Critics Association conference in Washington, D.C. during a week when the visiting Deutsche Oper Berlin was performing Wagner's RING at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with Peter Hofmann as Siegmund. Although this famous "time tunnel production" (whose design bore a striking resemblance to some of the Washington Metro's subway stations) had Supertitles created by Frank Rizzo, Hofmann's singing was less than impressive. As he attempted to play devil's advocate during intermission, one of the opera community's most astute arts administrators confessed that, although the superstar tenor's singing was, indeed, quite disappointing, "Peter has such a fabulous ass -- just wait until you see how it looks when he runs upstage in Act II." By that point I'd attended several performances of Die Walkure at the Met during which Hofmann had portrayed Siegmund (and been thrilled by the eroticism of the moment when he pulled his big throbbing sword from the ash tree). Sadly, though, I never heard the sounds of Act I's "Wintersturme" emanating from the heldentenor's butthole.
  • In 2011, when Mark Delavan appeared as Wotan at the San Francisco Opera (making his role debut as the Wanderer in Siegfried) it was apparent that, although he managed to sing all the notes, he was not yet comfortable in the role. His performance proved to be a notable weak point in an otherwise impressive RING.

This summer there were no such problems. By the time Donald Runnicles raised his baton to commence the performance of Das Rheingold, San Francisco Opera's RING production was on a firm footing. Everyone was present, accounted for, and singing gloriously (no one's voice showed even the slightest bit of strain.) The result was an embarrassment of riches, during which a rising artist like mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (who has received great acclaim for her performances in such bel canto roles as Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma and Jane Seymour in Donizetti's Anna Bolena -- as well as witches like Jezibaba in Dvorak's Rusalka and Rosina Daintymouth in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel) could deliver stunning performances as Fricka, Waltraute, and the Second Norn.

Jamie Barton (Fricka) and Stefan Margita (Loge) in a
scene from Das Rheingold (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While each act clocked in on time, the dramatic experience seemed to race by at an unbelievably rapid pace. This is largely due to a clever combination of projections and special effects which guide the audience through a carefully-planned narrative path rather than leaving people to stare at vague formations suggesting clouds and fog.

Equally important was the fact that the musicians in the pit were not just "playing" the score. Runnicles has conducted numerous performances of the RING operas in San Francisco and, with a deep understanding of the music, coaxed remarkable results from the orchestra -- to the point where its approximately 90 musicians seemed to be singing as one voice. This powerful meshing of sound and visuals gave the entire RING production a much more cinematic feel that enhanced the experience in a near-symbiotic effect.

When discussing RING performances, many people will note the staged interaction between the three Rhinemaidens (Lauren McNeese as Wellgunde, Renée Tatum as Flosshilde, and Stacey Tappan as Woglinde) and Alberich (Falk Struckmann) but pay scant attention to the critical confrontation between the Rhinemaidens and Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) in Act III, Scene 1 of Gotterdammerung.

Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renée Tatum (Flosshilde),
and Stacey Tappan (Woglinde) in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Act III,Scene 1 of Gotterdammerung (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Similarly, how often does one find the performances by the three Norns (Ronnita Miller, Jamie Barton, and Sarah Cambridge) during the Prologue to Gotterdammerung to be a riveting piece of drama? For that matter, how can one not react to Ronnita Miller's phenomenal stage presence and superb singing as Erda and the First Norn?

The three Norns live inside a circuit board in Gotterdammerung
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Moving up the Wagnerian food chain, one can't help but admire the solid work done by Falk Struckmann (Alberich), Raymond Aceto (doubling as Hunding and Fafner), Andrea Silvestrelli (doubling as Fasolt and Hagen), and Brian Mulligan (doubling as Donner and Gunther). Solo artists in pivotal roles included Stefan Margita as Loge, Stacey Tappan as the Forest Bird, and the brilliant David Cangelosi as a sprightly Mime capable of doing cartwheels across the stage. Special shout-outs to:
  • Greer Grimsley: Far and away, the finest Wotan I've ever seen onstage. The 62-year-old bass-baritone is well-versed in the role yet, unlike many other Wotans, is able to combine years of performing in RING cycles with a voice whose health, beauty, and stamina sounds more like a singer in his late thirties. While many Wotans come across as crashing bores, Grimsley is the welcome exception to the rule.
  • Brandon Jovanovich: Returning to his 2011 roles as Froh and Siegmund, this popular tenor has been a steady presence at the War Memorial Opera House since his debut here in 2007. Having appeared with the San Francisco Opera in Puccini's Madama ButterflyIl Tabarro, and Floyd's Susannah, as well as Wagner's Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Jovanovich carries his forceful heldentenor in an impressive package of raw (yet not toxic) masculinity. A stage animal with high notes to spare, he transforms Act I of Die Walkure into a piece of thrilling music theatre.
Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund in Act I of Die Walkure
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • Karita Mattila: A favorite with San Francisco audiences, Mattila brings a wealth of stage experience (combined with a voice that is still healthy and full) to the role of Sieglinde, Wagner's Volsung twin who is a victim of domestic abuse as well as an eagerly incestuous lover with her newly-discovered brother.
  • Iréne Theorin: A sturdy and impassioned Brunnhilde who, unlike many others, undergoes a startling physical transformation while asleep on her rock. When awakened by Siegfried's kiss, she not only looks older, riper, and has a new wig that makes her look like a Nordic version of Cher, her singing takes on an emotional depth that underscores her transformation from a god to a mortal.
  • Daniel Brenna: A handsome heldentenor with the stamina required for the role of Siegfried whose boyish looks resemble a young James Corden. Easily able to switch moods from a petulant teenager to a nervous young man on the brink of his first sexual encounter, Brenna's strong acting skills allow him to act more credibly than many tenors who take on the role of Siegfried later in their careers. Upon awakening Brunnhilde from her long sleep, he sometimes seemed as naive and vulnerable as a young boy toy being taken under the wing of an aging actress or an aggressive cougar (Anna Russell always took care to remind her audience that, technically, Brunnhilde is Siegfried's aunt).
Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) and Iréne Theorin (Brunnhilde)
in Act III of Siegfried (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A Lyft driver recently asked me if I could tell him what was meant by musical theatre and opera. A student at De Anza College in Cupertino, he had never attended a live theatre performance -- nor did he know where to find one. I asked if he knew about the Flint Center for the Performing Arts (which is on De Anza's campus) and suggested that he inquire about student discounts and ushering opportunities. As our conversation continued, I asked if he had watched any of the sports events during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Often, when talking about opera with people who have never attended a live performance, I go out of my way to stress the athletic aspects of the art form. These days, most people are so accustomed to hearing singers whose voices have been heavily amplified (or whose sound has been carefully engineered) that they have no idea what a professionally trained, un-enhanced voice sounds like. Nor do they understand the physical effort it takes to project one's voice over an orchestra pit filled with 90 musicians while trying to communicate (without any amplification) across a room that seats 3,000 people.

Many are shocked to learn that an opera singer who might be standing under hot lights in a 50-pound costume and singing for up to 40 minutes could lose several pounds of water during a performance. When they begin to grasp the physical demands of the art form (in addition to years of study, practice, jet lag, and personal sacrifice), they start to become more interested in the endurance aspects of an opera singer's lifestyle (understanding that, once artists are onstage during a live performance, the only people they are competing against are themselves).

David Cangelosi as Mime in Act I of Siegfried
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Though artists come and go, the score for the RING stays the same (unlike bel canto and scat singing, Wagner's music does not allow for coloratura ornamentations or improvised riffs). Considering that 2019 will mark the 150th anniversary of Das Rheingold's world premiere in Munich on September 22, 1869, there are no questions about how the music should be sung. When one witnesses a performance in which a cast with an astonishingly high level of proficiency collectively aims to meet high artistic standards while in top vocal form, it's an experience that fills an audience with a sense of awe -- not just at what these artists are attempting to accomplish, but that they've done such a splendid job in achieving their goals.

At the performances I attended, it was fascinating to eavesdrop on people during intermission and realize that no one was complaining about what was happening onstage. If anything, people were almost shell-shocked that this RING cycle was being performed at such a consistently high level of musical theatre. In the opera world, that's one helluva reality check.

But, to my mind, another factor was at play. As one looks at the ongoing corruption, incompetence, and disregard for moral and ethical standards that have infested American culture since Donald Trump rose to power, one cannot help but recall Michelle Obama's statement that "When they go low, we go high." If you're going to present a RING cycle, the default setting must be to aim high (no amount of bragging about "the biggest" or "the best" is going to produce the desired result). When the artistic goals one associates with such a mammoth undertaking are flawlessly met, the sweet shock of artistic fulfillment is a rich and sobering reward.

Singers, orchestra members, and stage crew take their company
bow after the final performance of Gotterdammerung
(Photo by: Drew Altizer Photography)

The above photograph (taken after the July 1 Sunday matinee of Gotterdammerung) continues the San Francisco Opera's tradition of having the entire company take a bow onstage after the final performance of the season. Just prior to this moment, former General Director David Gockley had been presented with the San Francisco Opera's highest honor, the San Francisco Opera Medal, in recognition of his decade of leadership and a lifetime of artistic contributions to the operatic art form.

For those in attendance, seeing the stage filled with international artists, choristers, instrumentalists, and stage crew offered a dynamic reminder that an opera company succeeds on the creative efforts of a large community (on both sides of the footlights) dedicated to excellence in art and craft. Unlike political mobsters determined to undermine and eradicate the achievements of those who came before them, musicians and other creative artists are proud to honor the work done by their predecessors while bringing health, happiness, and inspiration to new generations of opera lovers.