The name of Richard Wagner strikes fear into the heats of people unfamiliar with his music, but usually sets the rest of us salivating with glee. For me, Wagner was an acquired taste. I’d nap at the Met during Wotan’s monologue and then wake up feeling good and refreshed for the Ride of the Valkyries while, half the audience was dragging ass out of the theater. It took years before I could finally succumb to the music though; it wasn’t easy.
I used to practice in the damnedest ways. I’d put on the first act of Lohengrin, which has one of the most fantastic interminable climaxes, then nap during which I was able to assimilate the music a lot more easily. I usually awoke in a state of revelation that could have shown Joan of Arc a few things about hearing voices. Finally, I shed any trepidations, decided not to take Wagner too seriously, and just wallowed in the stuff.
Once I was asked by a friend to explain the difference between the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The friend was rather naive, just dangling one toe into the operatic repertoire, with the rest of his foot squarely implanted in acid rock. After several false starts, I finally told him that Strauss was like climaxing nonstop for four and a half hours whereas Wagner is like getting a good night’s workout in professional foreplay. You keep getting raised to new peaks, then just when you think you’re going to explode, the music drops you back to the beginning and starts all over again. Both composers leave you exhausted and feeling incredibly good.
Those who attended Die Walkure at the San Francisco Opera last fall know what I mean. Die Walkure contains the largest assortment of Wagner’s greatest hits including the Magic Fire music, the Ride of the Valkyries, and the famous Wintersturme love duet. The music is filled with such tenderness, warmth, and passion that it overwhelms you and can make you rot your garters in sheer ecstasy.
Last year we were fortunate to witness Jon Vickers and Leonie Rysanek in the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde. It dawned on me during one performance that between these two singers lies almost 50 years of experience in performing in Die Walkure. The results were obvious. There was an electric rapport between the singers that sent chills up your spine. They were obviously having a good time, shaping phrases with relish, strutting their stuff before the audience as if to say, “Listen kids, this is the way it’s done and don’t you forget it!’
Ms. Rysanek went into one of her more hypnotic trances upon her entrances. I have often wondered if the lady swallows a gyroscope before each performance. Vickers moved with the grace of a ballet dancer. He is one of the few singing actors able to capture the poetry of the music and transmit it to every soul in the vast reaches of the Opera House. The love the two musicians share for Wagner’s music was apparent. The evening could easily have been retitled “Sieglinde Get Your Sword” with the show stopper being “You want to hear phrasing, catch this one!” as a variation on the old theme of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
Wagner’s music for the first act love duet is incredibly lush. Not only does it make incest palatable, it just about establishes it as a staple on the musical menu. In a way it’s too bad the orchestra section had just been refurbished last year. By the time the curtain came down on Act I there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.
Now the story is a bit much. Sieglinde has been waiting around in this house that has an ash tree in the living room. She’s stuck with a boring husband; the tree is stuck with a sword. Siegmund, a young hero, enters in a storm; the two fall in love, and she realizes that he has been sent to yank the sword from the tree, save her from Hunding, and get her out of this mess. It matters not that the sword was planted in the three by their meddling father, nor that they are brother and sister. Sure enough, Siegmund pulls it out, Sieglinde lets out a whoop of joy and they run off together to incest and bliss. Currently running in New York is Charles Ludlam’s nearly sacrilegious interpretation “Der Ring Gott Farblonget,” which carries the action one step further to have Sieglinde fornicating to Brunnehilde’s war whoops!
The San Francisco Symphony recently performed Act I of Die Walkure in a concert version. When fully staged the effect is highly erotic. You may well wonder what it is like without lighting, sword, tree, potions, storm, adenomatous all the other fixings. Well, as Stephen was heard to moan, it was “w-u-n-n-d-e-r-f-u-l.” Any of you who shy away from going to a concert performance of an operatic work would do well to remember the wise words of Peter Pan who advised “First you spray some magic dust, then close your eyes, think lovely thoughts, and up you go!”
With Ozawa conducting the orchestra gave Wagner’s score glorious attention. The soloists on this occasion were very special. Paul Plishka sang the brief role of Hunding in a voice with beauty that could have melted the plaster off the ceiling. Even in small roles, this handsome basso performs with great taste and musicianship. Making his American debut in the role of Siegmund was Peter Hofmann, a man with a promising future. The voice is secure, the technique solid, and Mr. Hofmann offers an imposing presence. Heldentenors being a limited crop, this man shows great potential of becoming one of the operatic heroes of the future. There are strong indications that we will gbe getting a complete Ring cycle in the fall of 1980 in San Francisco. We can only hope that Mr. Hofmann joins us with sword and loincloth.
Jessye Norman is the kind of talent that literally grabs you in the kishkes. Her voice is one of great power, tremendous warmth, and incredible beauty. Her phrasing and musicianship are superb. Ms. Norman’s voice envelops you in richness and just about drowns you in its fullness. The lady has a lower register that is not to be believed and in this concert she used it to stunning effect.
Nevertheless, the hero of the evening was still Richard Wagner, whose music conquers all. During the hearty ovations that filled the Opera House I thought, well, they don’t have any encores planned but wouldn’t it be nice if they just sang the whole damned thing over again.
The only Wagner in the San Francisco Opera’s fall season will be Das Rheingold. If you need a fix between then and October, better aim for the Ring cycles in Seattle in late July.
* * * * * * * * * *
This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 26, 1977.