Thursday, November 22, 2007

Details, Details

Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for music critics but, on those nights when I finally hit a good performance, there is an overwhelming temptation to sit back, relax and enjoy myself rather than whip out a scorecard and start nitpicking like an old schoolmarm. I stress this because several experiences on the road combined with the San Francisco Opera's recent performances of the Ring have convinced me that many critics have lost touch with the profound love of music which got them where they are today. Instead of embracing and acknowledging their passion for music, they have fallen into patterns of clinical behavior in which statistics are more important than emotions; in which their role is to dissect rather than to feel. Instead of allowing their emotional fiber to stretch and open them up to new experiences, they have become control freaks who can only compare the timings of a particular act to those of the recordings on their shelves.

In order for such psychic sensations to penetrate deep into the fabric of one's soul, the listener must allow himself to become emotionally vulnerable. However, while talking with another critic during a recent intermission, I realized that his thirst for the experiential part of attending a performance was quite perfunctory compared to his need to assess other people's reviews and hope that they were in line with his own.

During our conversation I further sensed that, in a very tragic way, a perverse form of trivia-obsessed myopia had crippled his perceptual acuity and sensual receptivity by forcing him to concentrate on increasingly petty matters and picayune points. As a result, he has become hell-bent on amassing a wealth of useless information -- much like a child who collects baseball cards -- while missing out on the true excitement of the game.

Given the choice of relishing an emotional high or agonizing over a moment of excessive vibrato, I prefer to forgive the stressed-out soprano whose personal trauma represents but one tiny part of a massive endeavor like the Ring. Thus, while Rebecca Blankenship's handsomely-acted Sieglinde would have benefitted from a steadier tone and Franz Mazura's Alberich demanded much more vocal heft, such momentary shortcomings pale in the context of a 19-hour orgy of music and mythology.

In last week's column, I tried to articulate some of the spiritual highs I received during the San Francisco Opera's fourth and final Ring cycle. This week, I want to mention some minor changes which helped to strengthen the production. The alterations in hem length to the lingerie worn by the Rhinemaidens struck me as totally inconsequential. What had a much greater impact was the addition of Ron Scherl's powerful visuals during the orchestral interludes between each scene of Das Rheingold. Jacque Trussel's wiry Loge and Helga Dernesch's surprisingly youthful Fricka turned out to be especially strong pieces of casting.

In Die Walkure, it was a major relief not to see the warrior maidens schlepping dummy sacks (meant to represent the fallen warriors who had found their final refuge in Valhalla) from the stage. Gary Lakes (who I first saw many years ago in the Seattle Opera's Ring) has matured into a strong and husky Siegmund whose vocal power and dramatic strength rivals the achievements of Jon Vickers in the role.

Siegfried was one of those glorious evenings when all of a production's artistic components converge to create pure magic. Helmet Pampuch's Mime and James Patterson's Fafner were reliable recreations of their 1985 portrayals; Janet Williams offered ravishing tones as the Forest Bird.

While stronger thunder effects throughout the Ring cycle served to heighten key dramatic moments, Gotterdammerung was immeasurably strengthened by the dramatic metal of Katherine Ciesinski's Waltraute and Eric Halfvarson's Hagen. Kathryn (Bouleyn) Day returned to town as an extremely sensuous Gutrune while Michael Devlin brought a rare level of introspection to that most stupid and superficial of social-climbers: Gunther Gibich.

There were four cornerstones upon which Cycle 4 rested its artistic strength. First and foremost was the work of Donald Runnicles in the pit. A maestro who can skillfully shape large moments of brilliance without sacrificing them to the usual Wagnerian longeurs, Runnicles was conducting the Ring here for the first time in his career. God only knows what it will sound like when he's got ten more Rings under his belt!

The next cornerstone was, of course, baritone James Morris, whose portrayal of Wotan has grown tremendously in its musicianship and dramatic depth since 1985. Morris is not shy about calling upon his wealth of musical and dramatic resources to show audiences just how good he can be. If anything, the baritone who has always been keenly attuned to strong music theater values seems to have found his dream role in Wagner's God.

Third in line was heldentenor Rene Kollo, who delivered a Siegfried of incredible strength, stamina and stageworthiness. Kollo has been polishing his characterization of Wagner's Aryan youth for quite some time. His stamina, combined with an extremely likeable stage presence, makes him irresistible as the hero who knows no fear until he is confronted with a woman.

Last, but by no means least, was soprano Hildegard Behrens, whose Brunnehilde was far and away the wisest and most loving of warrior maidens -- perhaps the tenderest, most feminine and most inspirational Valkyrie I have encountered in years. An artist who doesn't hesitate to sacrifice the plushness of a pear-shaped tone to the urgency of the dramatic moment, Behrens concentrated on shaping and delivering her phrases with an unerring sense of dramatic acuity.

The artistic strength these four world-class artists brought to a tightly-knit ensemble helped to push the San Francisco Opera's Ring way up into the stratosphere. As a result, Cycle 4 became an exhilarating emotional experience. Many audience members now seem eager to travel to Seattle, where two Ring cycles will be mounted in August 1991. For ticket information about the Seattle Opera's Ring, call 1-800-426-1619.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 26, 1990.

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