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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Wagner’

Lieder Less

In Classical Music, Review on June 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Review – Wagner 200 – Lieder by Wagner & His Contemporaries (Wagner200)

Janice Watson (Soprano)
Joseph Middleton (Piano)

It’s rare to hear anything but Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder in performance but as part of their bicentennial celebrations, Wagner 200 programmed an evening of his lesser known songs wrapped around songs by his contemporaries Liszt and Schumann.

My heart always sinks slightly when the performer talks during a concert. It works when there is a clear and well-prepared narrative reason but when it seems ad hoc – and at times not all that well informed – it simply jars.

But there was a kernel of an idea that should have been developed. A well-written narration could have taken the audience on a proper journey through Wagner’s lieder and their relationship not only to his operas but also in relation to his contemporaries and their influence on the composer.

Sadly what should have been an musically rewarding and interesting evening was ultimately marred by less than secure performances on the whole.

By the end of the evening I was not convinced that Janice Watson had been the most convincing interpreter of either the early Wagner songs not those of Schumann and Liszt. I left feeling that perhaps this was mainly because they didn’t elicit the kind of performances that come from them being part of a regular repertoire.

And in some ways the ambition of the repetoire was slightly beyond Ms Watson as well. There was a definite sense of strain not only in terms of the higher raches of her vocal range but also in sustaining the longer spans of the vocal line.

Wagner’s Adieux de Marie Stuart, so clearly inspired by French grand opera proved a particular challenge for Watson. Not only was her French – as in all the songs performed in this language – less than clear but she also clearly struggled with the music itself, chopping phrases, stretching for the top notes and hacking her way through the coloratura.

There lack of colour – the light and shade – in the singing was also more than once cruelly exposed. Affecting those it was, La tombe dit à la rose particularly laid bare these vocal frailties that followed through to the performances from Schumann’s Liederkreis.

Here particularly I felt that Ms Watson didn’t get beyond the notes. At I did wonder why perhaps Ms Watson hadn’t shared the stage with a male colleague. As she herself said, these songs are more often – and more effectively – sung by a male singer. Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen in particular lacked the necessary poignancy and depth.

Indeed perhaps the most convincing performance before the ‘main article’ was Melodram not as much an oddity as Ms Watson assumed considering melodramas had been popular in German since before the Benda brothers and continued after Wagner with works such as Strauss Enoch Arden

And so the programme ended with the Wesendonck Lieder. It was clear that here Ms Watson was on firmer ground and that this quintet of songs form a central part of her repertoire. To be sure her performance of these lieder – and her Liszt encore – contained some of the most compelling singing of the evening. Phrases were beautifully shaped for the most part and there was a greater sense of musicianship. But even then I felt – despite some compelling moments – that she rarely got beyond the notes being sung consistently. And again there were times when her voice clearly showed signs of strain and stress.

However it was the final song of the programme that proved the most magical. For from somewhere, Ms Watson pulled out what was needed for a serene performance of Träume.

Throughout Joseph Middleton was a sympathetic accompanist and in truth created a great deal more colour in his playing. He instinctively drew out the sonorities in the lieder – his playing in the Wesendonck lieder was exquisite.

Yet in the end however the recital personally left me more with a sense of what could have been rather than what was delivered. Wagner200 contains some great insight events and I did leave wondering why that hadn’t been applied here. An evening that took the audience through the lieder of Wagner and his contemporaries, perhaps using it as an opportunity to showcase some up and coming singers as well as shedding light on both the composers and their lieder, would have been a much more satisfying option.

And perhaps it would have left Janice Watson to simply focus on the performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. I think they would have benefited from greater attention.

Aria For … Monday – Träume (Wesendonck Lieder)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Review on November 19, 2012 at 10:09 am

I have many recordings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder on my iPod so it’s always a surprise when shuffle churns up a version I do not often listen to and then wonder why ever not.

And this is a case in point, Danish soprano Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe who performs the lieder alongside excerpts from Wagner and Strauss’s Vier Letzte lieder.

There is clearly something in the water in Scandinavia that produces such a high standard of singing. Ms Meyer-Topsøe has a rich and warm voice with a beautiful bloom at the top of her range. And this is coupled with a very sure and confident technique and excellent diction.

What is refreshing about this recital is the old-fashioned manner of the performance and I mean that in a very good way. Sometimes new performers try to hard and labour against the music itself it seems. Here, Ms Meyer-Topsøe delivers a solid yet nuanced performance. The drama of the words not overdone but every word carefully placed.

Just listen, for example to the closing lines. They are beautifully floated with just the right touch of emphasis on the words themselves – Und dann sinken in die Gruft leading us back to the world of Tristan und Isolde.

And in this song, as well as throughout the recital, she is sensitively accompanied by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Norbert Bihlmaier.

Now excuse me while I return and listen to the Ms Meyer-Topsøe’s entire recital from the top.

Stream Of Pleasure

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Live stream, Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 15 July 2012)

Siegfried – Stephen Gould
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Anna Gabler
Hagen – Eric Halfvarson
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Waltraute – Michaela Schuster
Woglinde – Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde – Angela Brower
Norns -Jill Grove, Jamie Barton & Irmgard Vilsmaier

Director – Andreas Kriegenberg
Set Designs – Harald Thor
Costumes – Andrea Schraad
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Conductor – Kent Nagano

First of all plaudits and thanks to Bayerische Staatsoper and their sponsor BMW for the inspired and generous live stream of Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung. If only our own opera companies could find a similar sponsorship deal. Or that the BBC would put their greedy hands in their publicly-funded pockets and support a first-night initiative such as this after such massive investment in their web to the expense of others. Hardly likely – they can’t even manage to stream their own Proms.

But back to Munich and what a wonderful night. I was fortunate enough to see Nina Stemme in her first complete Ring Cycle in San Francisco. And while unfortunately Francesca Zambello & Donald Runnicles delivered an ultimately flawed production, Ms Stemme was magnificent in the role not only vocally – her voice being incredibly rich and multi-hued throughout her range – but also in terms of her characterisation despite Zambello’s poor attention to general attention to character detail in that Californian production.

And in my mind her performance and interpretation in Kriegenberg, even via broadband was magnificent and had grown in dimension.

Having not seen the three other operas in Kriegenberg’s cycle it’s difficult to make more than passing comment to the production. Yet it was obvious that this was a production that had been clearly thought out, lean with, it seemed to me, very little superfluous mannerism or PersonRegie affectation.

The opening scene was Chereau-esque in its post-apocalyptic vision. Stunned people were rifling through postcards while being tested for what could only have been radiation and having their possessions removed in plastic bags by men in protective suits. The three Norns – like unseen spirits – walked among them handling a red ball of fine twine. The frailty of that twine seemed so suitable as it was wound around the shocked and numb people on the stage.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening scene was sent in the most basic of shacks. Simple planks of wood for walls held together by Kriegenberg’s posse of extras provided the backdrop as Brünnhilde finished painting symbols on her lover’s arms. 1950s starlet was my first impression of Stemme complete with fake blond hair and Siegfried in the more typical garb for Siegfried with an ever so slightly rustic appearance. I guess the symbols had some kind of significance in terms of being protective totems – only seeing Siegfried would confirm this – and thank you to @rossignol for pointing out Brünnhilde’s hair was in direct contrast to the Gods’ own white hair as witnessed earlier on the Norns and subsequently on Waltraute.

Indeed, the scene with Waltraute while not exuding the white-hot emotion of LePage’s production – which was only due to the immense talent and experience of Waltraud Meier – was an insightful moment. Clearly this Valkyrie was slowly descending into insanity as witnessed by her obsessive-compulsive actions and mannerism. Perhaps in realisation of what the future held in store for her and her brethren? The humanity and calm of Brünnhilde in contrast was startling.

Kriegenberg’s cadre then provided a gently modulating Rhine before, in an inspired touch, they morphed into Gibichungs – suited and booted City workers who inhabited the multi-level Gibichung Hall.

Kriegenberg’s “Gewinn” theme of vulgar richesse while obvious was cleverly done complete with rocking-horse-Euro. Gunther and Gutrune – with a mirror image inference of incest harking back to Siegmund and Sieglinde – were suitably brash and brassy in character while Hagen as sinister business associate was simply chilling.

Hagen’s scene with the chorus using mobile phones to take pictures of the happy and unhappy wedding couples reminded me of ENO’s own scene with its tourists. I can only imagine the mobile phone element was to reinforce the city slicker image but the multi-floor stage came into its own here in terms of providing impact.

I have to say the one oddity in the entire production was Brünnhilde’s entrance at this point. Why the paper bag on her head?

The rest of the opera worked well within this set and before Brünnhilde prepared to set the world alight the cast rushed around the set throwing around heaps of paper somewhat reminiscent of the chaos in a company before it is raided. And considering Germany seems to be riding the current economic recession better than most others it seemed as if Kriegenberg’s Gibichung Hall was suddenly a warning against the ultimate consequence of greed. Nice touch.

And in the closing moments not only did the Rhinemaidens appear carefully carrying the returned Rhinegold but – and most poignantly for me – Gutrune took centre stage. As the world imploded around her and Wagner’s magnificent redemption theme soared out from the orchestra, we saw Kriegenberg’s extras return to the stage and wrap themselves protectively around her.

As I have said without seeing the rest of the Cycle it’s difficult to really appreciate or understand Kriegenberg’s overall vision but even within the isolation of this Götterdämmerung his ideas were rich and for the most part seemed well thought out and intelligent.

And overlaid on this was some of the best singing I have heard in a long time. Ms Stemme led an incredibly strong cast from the front. She was in magnificent voice, strong and supple, richly hued and intelligent from her opening bars through to the end of the immolation scene. Never flagging I always feel that the hushed moment in the closing scene at Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott! is telling of a singer’s skills. And here Stemme did not disappoint, floating the phrases magically.

Her Siegfried, Stephen Gould was similarly magnificent. A clear and bright tenor, he had the rarely heard heft and stamina that saw him clear the final act with great aplomb. Again, to his closing scene he remained in complete control of his voice, displaying incredible technique and a musical intelligence as this Siegfried came to the realisation of his first love and final betrayal.

The Gibichungs of Iain Paterson and Anna Gabler were similarly strong in terms of character portrayal and singing ability. Indeed it was one of the best pairings I have seen and heard in a while. Paterson in particular was in fine voice. And the Hagen of Eric Halfvarson, while taking a little while to warm up was a perfect foil in terms of the richness of both his characterisation and singing.

And the three Norns and the Rhinemaidens were equally impressive with ensemble singing of the highest standard.

I have seen Nagano conduct in Munich many times and as ever his was an intelligent and detailed performance bringing out both the grandeur of the score juxtaposed with the more chamber-like moments. And all with well judged tempi. And the orchestra under Maestro Nagano was stunning, producing a rich palette of sound that was discernable even via the live streaming.

Indeed even via iPad this was a stunning production both musically and directorially and I can only wonder what it must have been like in that square in Munich on the big screen let alone in the theatre itself.

Before Sunday evening I was minded to cancel my booking of the cycle in January, but now I am more determined that ever to see it complete – even if Nina Stemme is only singing Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.

January 2013 cannot come soon enough.

Tristan Now He’s Older

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Saturday 2 June 2012)

Tristan – Ben Heppner
Isolde – Ann Petersen
Brangäne – Susan Bickley
Kurwenal – Phillip Joll
King Marke – Matthew Best
Sailor & Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle
Helmsman – Julian Boyce

Director & Designer – Yannis Kokkos
Revival Director – Peter Watson
Original Lighting Director – Guido Levi
Lighting Realised by – Paul Woodfield

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs

It is wonderful and inspiring to think that some of the best Wagner performances in the UK are not happening in London but elsewhere in the UK. For example, Opera North’s near perfect Das Rheingold after which I am very much looking forward to their Die Walküre this summer. And there was a moment during Welsh National Opera’s final performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Millennium Centre when it dawned on me that the evening’s performance was exceptional from which the evening’s sideshow distractions could not detract .

It was the beautifully nuanced cor anglais playing of Max Spiers in the Third Act. More often than not, both in live performances and on disc, this moment is overlooked. Under the baton of Maestro Koenigs, Spiers attention to rhythm and dynamic contrast and the overall phrasing underlined the exceptional musicianship of conductor and orchestra alike.

Indeed from the first Tristan chord, the night belonged to the players in the pit. The strings played with great warmth, except and deliberately at the opening of the final act where they eschewed any colour and produced exactly the right sound – bled of any vibrato to reflect the desolation that the audience were presented with as the curtain rose. The wind playing was translucent and a perfect foil to the percussive brass playing. And rarely have i heard each and every note of the off-stage horns in the Second Act so clearly articulated.

And after the opening chords of the Prelude, which Koenig allowed to hang in the air, suspended almost in time, he then drove his players and singers inexorably forward towards the end, pausing again only before the Liebestod itself, as if drawing breath. In the programme, Lothar Koenig remarked that Tristan und Isolde was the first opera he ever saw as he grew up in Aachen. Not only did he see eight subsequent performances of that production, but he resolved to become a conductor.

And the audience was amply rewarded. Only on the rarest of occasions did they threaten to drown out the singers and only once, when Tristan and Isolde were reunited at the beginning of the Second Act did the momentum threaten to wrest itself from his grasp. Yet it was his overall marshalling of the orchestra, with the greatest care and attention given to detail, that enabled the chief protagonists to give their very best.

A great deal has been written about “Ben Heppner’s Tristan”. I was unlucky to fall victim to both his and Deborah Voigt’s cancellations during their Met run in 2008, but I did see him alongside Nina Stemme in Christof Loy’s production for Covent Garden. It was not good. Not good at all.

So I admit to more than a certain amount of trepidation as I arrived in Cardiff. But it was, on the whole, misplaced. Heppner is an incredible musician and his knowledge and experience of this role is without comparison. And it was this talent and ingrained knowledge, combined with brilliant support from Koenig, the orchestra and his Isolde, that made this a most mesmerising and compelling performance. Of course all the notes were not there.

Of course there was more than ample evidence that this role doesn’t so much challenge him but more drives him beyond his current vocal stamina. But it was a great performance. There were moments of clear discomfort in the Second Act but those who stayed for his monologue in the final act – and yes some people seemed to have left in the interval – witnessed an incredible performance. Heppner’s delivery of the text was as clear as crystal and he invested the words with real passion and understanding. Yet it was a performance that clearly took no prisoners in terms of the physical demands.

Wrong as it may be to suggest it, but how many Tristans does Heppner have left one wonders? I hope he records it in the safety of a multi-session recording before he finally agrees to retire the role to Kareol.

Alongside Heppner was the radiant Isolde of Ann Petersen. Clearly there is something in the water of Scandinavia – or at least in the training they give their sopranos – which has created such a list of magnificent Isoldes. And while Ms Petersen might not yet be magnificent she isn’t that far off as her stature in the role continues to grow and develop. While she may not have the ‘biggest voice’, Ann Petersen’s performance was one of great intelligence, musicianship and, when it mattered, heft combined with a clear and bright tone. At no point – and once again due to Koenig’s masterful control of the orchestra – could she not be heard above or – just as importantly – through the orchestra. She supported and led Heppner through the Second Act and spun some of the most delicate singing as I have ever heard in what is often just seen as an ever-increasing crescendo that starts forte. And he musicianship elicited a similar performance from Heppner. And her Liebestod was simply beautiful. With none of the more common directorial gimmicks to distract, everything and everyone was focused on her performance. And it was, as I said, radiant. As the light finally faded you felt the audience truly believed she had been transfigured through her love of Tristan. Magical.

And as with Heppner, every word was invested with meaning and incredibly clear. I want to see and hear more of Ms Petersen, not only as Isolde but as other Wagner heroines as well as Strauss’ Marschallin.

And perhaps because the stage was dominated by two such strong and focused performances, the remaining singers were in sharp and lacking relief. I am afraid I am not convinced that Brangäne is a role for Susan Bickley. She delivered a musically accomplished performance but there was a metallic brittleness to and lack of warmth in her voice that at times verged on the unpleasant.

Of the men it was the Sailor/Shepherd of Simon Crosby Buttle and the Helmsman of Julian Boyce that were most well sung and beautifully phrased. For me, Matthew Best’s King Marke had all the notes but was bland and the Kurwenal of Phillip Joll was too blustery and had a real lack of diction.

The staging – as was clear from an interview with Yannis Kokkos in the programme – more than nodded to both Adolphe Appia and Wieland Wagner with devices including a frame within the proscenium arch, hints at, but no delivery or understanding of the importance of lighting and their focus on the relationship of shapes and angles with the space that the drama inhabits.

For example, having hinted at, and focused on the only curve on the stage in the first act, where Isolde draped herself, it didn’t feature again although it remained until the end. The Second Act felt too hemmed in with its two-dimensional wood and curving balustrade. Neither added depth or were sufficiently knitted into the narrative except for the obvious use in Brangäne’s warning. All the soldiers for example, simply looked awkward – and slightly Ming-The-Merciless-Meets-Buster-Crabbe – as King Marke sang his monologue of betrayal.

I always thought revivals were an opportunity to review and learn, much as one hopes that when Covent Garden revives their Loy production they don’t allow him to shunt everything to stage-left again. My friend who attended with me said it was the same production with no changes from 1993 so what did Peter Watson do? He clearly even didn’t think of redirecting the two hapless singers to avoid the ham acting in their Second Act duet. And there was one word for Act Three. Clutter. After the minimal clarity of the first act and the ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’ Second Act, Kareol looked distinctly, well, messy. Loy littered his final act with toys and memento mori of Tristan’s childhood, Yannis Kokos and Peter Watson clearly visited the local beach or driftwood shop. If they were inspired by Appia and Wieland why suddenly the over-crowded set which simply distracted from the simplicity of Wagner’s drama. Beats me.

Even the lighting was less than inspired until the very closing moments.

However the simple fact is that Kokkos’ production did not detract from the incredible level of musicianship and commitment of the Tristan and Isolde and the players in the pit. All brilliantly led and inspired by Lothar Koenigs.

For this we have the original conductor, performers and director of that Tristan und Isolde all those years ago in Aachen to thank.

Further Reading
1. Something Rotten In The Opera House In Gotham
2. Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection
3. More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

Flawed in High Definition

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

Götterdämmerung, The Metropolitan Opera (11 February 2012)

Three Norns – Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Brunnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Hagen – Hans Peter König
Gunther – Ian Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Alberich – Eric Owens
Woglinde – Erin Morley;
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Fabio Luisi
Director – Robert LePage
Set Designer – Carl Fillion
Lighting Designer – Etienne Boucher
Costumer Designer – Francois St-Aubin
Video Image Artists – Lionel Arnoud

Having seen the Met’s production of Die Walküre live I decided, due to time restraints, to experience the final instalment of Robert LePage’s production through the medium of cinema. Live HD transmissions are proving a bit of a success for the Met and I was intrigued to see how opera would translate to the big screen.

Personally I don’t think anything beats a live performance but clearly watching a live broadcast has its advantages similar to those when watching opera on DVD – you have the best seat in the house and, if the director is worth his salt, the advantage of not missing a single moment of the unfolding drama.

LePage’s production remains dominated by his mechanical set and in his introduction before the curtain went up Peter Gelb, in a well-prepped speech clearly written by his PR team tried to convince that LePage’s production was a combination of Old World and New and was, in fact, something that Wagner would have approved. I have no doubt that Wagner – with his obsession with modern technology – would have been intrigued by LePage’s intention but, with his equal if not overriding passion with both the importance of singing and acting, perhaps he too would have been left more than a little nonplussed.

As I said when I wrote about Die Walküre, the entire production is subsumed by the mechanical set, overshadowed by its hundreds of tonnes of steel, which don’t so much dominate the entire proceeding as suffocate them. Reviews of Götterdämmerung maintained that LePage had finessed his manipulation of the planks and that they had taken a less obtrusive role compared to in the first three operas. To be honest – and perhaps this was because of watching the production in a cinema with its close-ups – I didn’t feel that at all. The set was almost like an extra character that for the most part simply distracted especially as the singers continued – for the most part – to interact with it gingerly. I still remember Deborah Voigt’s fall on her first stage entrance on the first night of Die Walküre but all hats off to the Rhinemaidens who made it all look so effortless although it took me a while before I could relax as they slid down the stage and not think they were going to hit their heads.

Lionel Arnoud’s projections, a critical element to keep LePage’s production alive and bind the narrative, were an odd mix of hallucinogenic wallpapers and non-descript animated scenes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my laptop. However they didn’t distract too much and there were some nice touches – the ravens in the final act for example.

Singing above all of this was a pretty strong cast. Jay Hunter Morris – as was repeatedly made clear a late stand-in for Gary Lehman – was an impressive Siegfried. It’s difficult to know because I was in a cinema whether or not the sound was ‘assisted’ in the sense that carefully placed microphones are going to ensure the right balance between singer and orchestra, but he clearly had the heft for the cinema-attending audience. He managed to pace himself and there were only occasional signs of strain in his Third Act scene. But while his voice was equally clear and resonant and there were times when I did wish there was a little more colour and inflection in his vocal line. At times his delivery seemed to verge on the bland but I hope that as he develops this role that will change.

Deborah Voigt’s Brunnhilde – one of the most anticipated and analysed debuts in this role for a while I would imagine – had clearly developed in the role since Die Walküre. Interestingly when interviewed during the interval by Patricia Racette she discussed how Götterdämmerung was her preferred opera in the trio in which Brunnhilde appears as Siegfried lies uncomfortably high for her voice. I have to admit that she did give a compelling performance in Götterdämmerung and clearly she – I don’t think I can credit LePage with this considering the lacklustre direction and ‘stand-and-deliver’ style of Die Walküre – had thought deeply about the role and has always been, in my opinion, an intelligent and thoughtful singer-actress. The trouble with HD however is that it does zoom in which isn’t a luxury that is afforded you in the opera house even with the best theatre glasses. For me this meant that every nuance was exaggerated which at times was distracting. I still believe that Brunnhilde is not a role that sits easily within Voigt’s voice and while there didn’t seem to be the level of strain that she suffered in Die Walküre there were still moments when he voice took on a slightly metallic, single dimensional role. However overall this was a strong performance and it would be interesting to see how Voigt handles a complete cycle.

The surprise of the evening for me was the Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer. More normally a cipher or a casting afterthought, Bryn Harmer has a rich vibrant soprano and made the character incredibly human, married with excellent technique. In her interval interview she professed an ambition to sing Sieglinde which would be something to hear. Iain Paterson as her brother was similarly well cast, delivering a believably flawed character and strong singing.

Similarly Hans Peter König and Eric Owens as Hagen and Alberich respectively were impressive. König exuded a calculated malevolence coupled with an intelligent musical performance. The ‘duet’ between father and son – Owens being equally vocally strong and a thoughtful actor – was one of the highlights of the evening even if the direction was slightly awry.

The Norns and the Rhinemaidens – were also impressive. The ensemble singing was closely knit without weak link in the casting. I have to profess to a small chuckle as the Norns rose, Jedi-like, from under the stage. Complete with their hooded gowns they would not have looked out of place in George Lucas’ Star Wars. But they gave a very credible performance and sang beautifully. Similarly, the three Rhinemaidens managed the perfect balance of flirtatiousness and what I always think is gentle malevolence and again, the ensemble singing was superb.

However the highlight of the evening was Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. She brought an intelligence and humanity to the role that made that single scene the most mesmerising of the whole performance in a way I have not seen in Götterdämmerung before. Ms Meier is of course a seasoned performer and an expert interpreter of some of Wagner’s greatest female roles – her Ortrud in Munich and her Isolde in Paris are particularly memorable – and her performance as Waltraute, bringing out the ‘humantiy’ of the role and demonstrating through her entire performance how far the Gods had fallen was truly remarkable. For a moment it lifted the entire opera.

Fabio Luisi has stepped in at the Met after Levine cancelled due to ongoing health problems. I couldn’t quite put my finger on his conducting style in the first act but I am indebted to fellow blogger @The Wagnerian for hitting the nail on the head – “late Verdi without la passione”. Precisely. I missed Levine’s drive and bite.

Overall however LePage’s interpretation of Götterdämmerung was as flawed for me as was his Die Walküre. The staging itself continued to dominate and while in the latter there as some method to his mechanical obsession in Götterdämmerung, where LePage had either run out of creative steam with his own creation or was trying – a little to late – to compensate the end result was even less compelling. In truth – as was the case with Keith Warner’s production at Covent Garden – perhaps seeing LePage’s Ring in its entirety once the novelty has faded, might enable me to see beyond ‘the machine’. But for now the staging remained too obtrusive and the directing of the characters seemed more secondary if not – thank goodness – the afterthought that it seemed in Die Walküre.

And seeing Götterdämmerung as a live HD transmission had both advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the quality of the broadcast and the sound is impressive but you do miss the atmosphere and excitement of being in the audience. Also if the director is worth his salt you do not miss a moment of the action. But what you do not see the entirety of the staging for, of course, the director only lets you see what he wants you to see. In this case, LePage wanted to make sure, it seemed, that the staging itself got ‘star billing’.

Additionally the intense focus on the singers as individuals detracts from the overall sense of an ensemble. No matter how fast the camera is, it cannot compensate for the speed in which – sitting in the theatre itself – the viewer can absorb an entire scene and the characters motivations in a nanosecond.

However I have to admit that I have been nibbled by the HD bug and will return again for Dessay in the Met production of La Traviata in April. But for now, LePage and his Ring remain less human and more machine.

“Muses to Murder” – Wagner & Strauss Scenes

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on November 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Review: Elizabeth Connell, Queensland Orchestra & Muhai Tang.

First of all let’s dispense with the title of this CD. It always perplexes me why labels sometimes feel the need to label recitals with the most ridiculous titles. While this might not be the worst, it’s almost definitely in the top ten perhaps because at the end of the day it’s a rather broad and sweeping title that isn’t strictly accurate. Who did Brunnhilde murder? Whose muse was she? Certainly not Siegfried’s. Nor Wotan’s. And murder-one-step removed – in fact revenge in one instance – slightly muddies the waters.

However the unfortunate title cannot distract from the fact that Elizabeth Connell delivers a very credible and rewarding recital disc. Ms Connell is – as witnessed by her amazing performance of Turandot at Covent Garden in 2008 – an accomplished and intelligent singer with strong, bullish top notes, excellent control throughout her register – with wonderful low chest notes and a bright gleaming top – and in terms of dynamics and tone she has the heft needed for the most challenging roles. And coupled to this is her accomplished ability to deliver the words clearly and with real meaning. Being an ‘old school’ dramatic soprano I can almost imagine her earliest teachers – and perhaps even Reginald Gooddall during her participation in his masterful Ring Cycle for Sadler’s Wells Opera as one of the Valkyrie – recounting “Diction, diction, diction” in her formative lessons.

Ms Connell tackles the two most popular bleeding chunks’ of Wagner – Isolde’s Liebestod and the Immolation scene from Gotterdammerung as well as scenes from Elektra – interestingly though not the Recognition scene – Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos.

It is always a challenge in recital either on CD or stage to launch from a standing-start into the most dramatic of scenes, particularly in Wagner and Strauss. And here Ms Connell goes straight in with the opening monologue from Elektra – Allein! Weh, ganz allein. A rhythmically opening from the orchestra, with plangent winds helps to set the scene – and generally throughout the Queensland Orchestra, conducted by Muhai Tang provides very strong support. Listen, for example, to the carefully placed and precise brass chords at “Agamemnon, Agamemnon, Wo bist du, Vater?” and the lilting walz at “wie ein Schatten dort im Mauerwinkel zeig dich deinem Kind”.

Her opening “Allein” belies the power and heft that Ms Connell gradually and with control unleashes as the music moves beyond the Agamemnon motif to the first iteration of the ‘dance’ motif carried with great momentum forward by the orchestra to the end of the scene. As well as pointing out the more lyrical elements of Strauss’ line it is also notable how the soprano brings to the front the almost sprechtimme-like elements of the vocal line (“wir treiben sie vor dem Grab zusammen, und sie ahnen dem Tod und wiehern in die Todesluft”) and similarly her attention not only to diction but the actual meaning behind the words is nothing more than ‘muscular’. Listen her delivery of phrases such as “Es ist die Stunde, unsre Stunde ist’s, die Stunde, wo sie dich geschlachtet haben” through her retelling of her father’s murder for example. Revelling in the words, this is clearly a role that sits at the centre of Ms Connell’s repertory.

Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos takes us to a more pastoral plain and displays Ms Connell’s more lyrical side. Along with the Marschallin’s scena – “Da geht er hin, der aufgeblasne, schlecte Kerl” – in the first act of Der Rosenkavalier, this is one of my favourite Strauss monologues and what’s makes this performance stand out over and above her creamy, warm tone is her rhythmic alertness without any sense of snatching any of the notes that can sometimes be missed in other performances. For example at “Wie lechte Vögel, Wie welke Blätter, Treibt er sie hin”. Again she carefully paces her voice making her entry at “Du wirst mich befreien, Mir selber mich geben” all the more thrilling with Tang giving her just the slightest opportunity by reining back the tempo.

And with that gentle yet musically persuasive aria we are suddenly back in the more neurotic sound world of Salome. Tang launches the orchestra straight in with great vigour and Connell’s somewhat brittle opening vocal line seems totally appropriate. Again she both revels in and points up the more lyrical elements of this closing scene as well as clearly annunciating the more ‘spoken-style’ passages, switching from one to the other with incredible ease which only helps to underline the character’s neuroses. In terms of dynamic control here she displays incredible control by scaling her voice right back to match the chamber-like orchestration of most of this scene. But heft is never far from reach with thrilling effect. But nothing underlines her characterization of the character as her entry at Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan, clearly indicated as “listlessly” by Strauss, and Connell draining her voice of all colour until the final closing phrases when she returns her voice to full and radiant bloom alongside the orchestra itself repeating Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund before Strauss brings proceeding to an abrupt and violent end.

Tang leads the orchestra in a rather literal almost academic performance of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde to take us to Ms Connell in the Liebstod. In truth her Wagner performances on this disc are not exactly on par with the scene from Strauss earlier but they are still riveting.

As Isolde I was left wanting for that added dimension to her voice similar to that in both her Elektra and Salome previously. As before she clearly has the heft for the role but every so often the lyricism that the Liebestod requires was missing. But as with the Prelude, there was something distinctly ‘academic’ about the orchestra’s support and in this piece, more than in other Wagner, the momentum and support of the orchestra is all important if the soprano is to feel confident in the soaring vocal line.

The Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung however is ‘on the money’. Crisp rhythms from the orchestra are carried through into Connell’s vocal line in a way that many performers fail to do. And again, she marshals her vocal forces with intelligence and with some distinct word painting. Listen for example to der Reinste war er, der mich verriet! Die Gattin trügend and indeed the carefully placed syllables and dynamic control of Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott have never before sounded so chilling. Less a daughter wishing her father well than a woman seeking revenge.

Tang and the orchestra are more intuitive in this scene that previously in Tristan und Isolde. Tang maintains the momentum throughout and there is – as I have mentioned – a rhythmic alertness to the playing together with bright and pointed wind and brass playing. Connell reacts positively, saving her finest vocal heft for the closing moments with the conductor never letting up on the momentum and not – as some conductors have a wont – to pull on the brakes immediately after Selig grüsst dich dein Weib. Instead Tang maintains the direction of travel with the orchestra as the major leitmotivs of The Ring fill the final bars and only finally gives slightly more breadth to the Redemption theme, quite literally, the closing bars.

Elizabeth Connell delivers a musically intelligent recital. It is always a challenge when delivering ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner and Strauss to create a real sense of characterization. Connell rises to and – with the exception of her Isolde and only slightly less so – exceeds the challenge. She creates a series of credible portrayals and demonstrates that she is a leading dramatic soprano in this repertoire.

Hopefully her next disc will not be hampered by the antics of the label’s marketing department.

Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

An Apple-Pie Ring – High on ‘doh!’, low on ambition. Saved by Stemme.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Wotan – Mark Delavan
Brunnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Brandon Jovanovich
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris/Ian Storey
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Loge – Stefan Margita

Director – Francesca Zambello
Conductor – Donald Runnicles

It’s not uncommon for directors to reinterpret opera productions through the prism of either contemporary or historical events. This can mean everything from the anonymous war-torn landscape and bombed-out buildings to specific references and, or, setting their productions in specific historical periods – actual to the original composer’s wishes, or not.

There are plenty of examples and naturally some work more effectively than others.

Peter Sellars’ use of contemporary settings for the three Da Ponte operas, updating them specifically to then-modern-day New York for example worked well overall. As did his use, with devastating effect, of Death Row imagery in his famous production of Handel’s Theodora.

More recently at the Met, I witnessed a finessed Capriccio set in 1920s France, as well as an Il Trovatore where the only real saving grace were McVicar’s Goya-inspired sets. And closer to home there has been everything from the ‘corporate re-engineering’ of ENO’s recent Simon Boccanegra – which worked with varying degrees of success scene by scene – counter-balanced by their simplistic Germanic view of Faust and their dreadful reinterpretation of Ulisse. It has to be said that when ENO get something wrong, they do so magnificently.

And naturally, Wagner’s operas lend themselves to more than their own fair share of interpretation through the lens of history. And more often than not, it’s own.

Again plenty of examples can be found. For Tristan und Isolde there is everything from the authentic Cornish setting that inspired the Met’ production and countless others, to the starker and as brutally effective settings of Loy at Covent Garden and Marthaler at Bayreuth. And again at Bayreuth, look at the recent Meistersinger which so offended the audience.

And of the The Ring cycle itself, interpretations abound aplenty. For me, LePage’s current cycle at the Met is an uncomfortable combination of the traditional overridden by his personal obsession with technology – a modern day deus ex machina gone mad. Phyllida Lloyd’s often maligned, but to me wonderful, cycle at ENO drew on contemporary events, and sometimes with telling effect. It might have offended some people, but Brunnhilde’s immolation as a suicide bomber seemed ‘so right’ at the time. As did the Rhinemaidens as pole dancers – a reference to the sleaze and greed of the Gods that they served. And if ENO ever does revive the cycle, I’ve no doubt that these images, as well as others throughout the cycle, will remain as fresh and contemporary.

The Ring, with it’s themes including greed and the abuse of power – and Parsifal for that matter with it’s theme of redemption – often give directors the opportunity to develop a narrative centred on particularly difficult, or controversial events in history. Of course the first that come to mind are productions that focus on Germany’s own early Twentieth Century legacy – from the birth of their imperialism through to Nazism. But let’s not forget Chereau’s brilliant cycle – a damning view of capitalism.

Francesca Zambello set her sights high. Arrogantly high. She aimed to create an ‘American Ring’, based on that nation’s history, that would ‘teach’ a lesson and send a ‘warning’ to the audience of the eco-disaster that their continent potentially faced.

She aimed. And missed. Four times.

Das Rheingold was set during the Gold Rush. If greed and avarice were the prime motivations for her narrative, why not the carpet-bagging era after the Civil War and the end of slavery? Or more pertinently a scene of modern day Wall Street, the birthplace of the current recession that has driven so many opera houses in the US into closure. Clearly the racial overtones of the first, and the potential insult the second might cause to people in the audience, made her choice for her.

Die Walküre leapt from the wilderness of Middle America via the boom years of the 1920s and 1930s to the Valkyrie dressed – supposedly – as Second World War fighter pilots. But in reality they more closely resembled a bevy of Amelia Earharts, alas without neither her grace nor her bravado. Weirdly, the confrontation between Siegmund and Hunding seemed to then take place beneath an abandoned section of San Francisco’s own highway. The final act, set on the most traditional of Rocks offered what should have been a subtle touch – images of dead soldiers from wars dating from the Civil War to the current conflict in Iraq – but it simply seemed contrived. Again why not in Die Walküre confront a real issue in America’s history – the current war in Iraq and the events preceding it? Or if that was too real, the Vietnam War?

And so to the trailer park for the opening of Siegfried and the hero portrayed as juvenile ‘white trash’. It didn’t work, as Jay Hunter Morris is simply a wooden actor. The second act transported us to outside what seemed to be a warehouse. Alberich as homeless man in the same vein as Wotan’s Wanderer. Again this hinted at a possible parallel with the current homelessness situation in San Francisco itself but it came to nothing apart from a few laughs from the stalls.

And Fafner’s dragon? A miniature industrial ‘machine’ of sorts – short on menace, and long on the kind of awkwardness felt by at school plays when the dragon is made out of egg boxes. ‘Could do better’. Clearly there were budgetary considerations as the final act – and the opening act of Götterdämmerung – returned us to the Rock. Only this time it had obviously not stood the ravages of time, and looked dilapidated.

The Norns opened Götterdämmerung Matrix-style. In bright green outfits and overlaid with an animated circuit-board, their rope was replaced by cable which they fixed to either side of the stage only to have it explode. Control-Alt-Delete. If only.

And then back to the Rock. Following their adolescent running around at the end of Siegfried, we return to find the hero and Brunnhilde still running around the joyless Rock. Surely they first thing they would have done would be to at least build a shack?

Zambello’s sets trundled painfully on and took us to a faceless silver and black interior. Factory spewing plumes of smoke in the background. Hagen’s own bedroom featured for his dream sequence. A nice touch was the inference that he was, in fact, having an affair with Gutrune but again Zambello took this nowhere. The hunting scene saw the return of the Rhinemaidens and a river filled with refuse that they were clearing up. At last a clear environmental message. Sadly too late.

The Immolation scheme – thankfully – was so blandly directed that it allowed us to focus on Nina Stemme. Using bags of rubbish to create the pyre again seemed contrived but was nothing compared to the ridiculous decision to leave Gutrune on stage with Brunnhilde or having Hagen murdered by the Rhinemaidens.

And connecting all the scenes throughout the cycle, Zambello used a sequence of predictable films. Shots of running through a forest, water, clouds and, of course, factories spewing out pollution. It would have been bearable apart from the fact that Zambello chose to simply rewind them when we returned to previous locations.

It was almost a relief when the curtain came down. And yes there was booing for Zambello on the final night.

So instead of taking an opportunity to do as other directors have done – revisit uncomfortable moments in a nation’s history to make the narrative of The Ring relevant to the audience – Zambello offered her audience a saccharine, shallow, unchallenging Ring that failed to achieve add up to anything.

Why? It took me a while and perhaps I am wrong. But could it be that Zambello either thought her audience would be too stupid to follow a narrative that might ask them to confront a darker side of their history? Perhaps it was a fear that the rich San Franciscan donors would reject any attempt to make them face this reality and therefore she opted form a dumbed-down, Homer-Simpson narrative for her ‘American Ring’. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of Ring that Americans want. Glossy. Shallow. And not requiring any thought at all.

It was also interesting to note that the surtitles skipped along and over the original text, and in my view, dumbed it down. And secondly the audience laughed at those very moments in Wagner’s drama when he challenges us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

However, often a bad production can be negated if the quality of the performances on stage are remarkable or at least consistently strong.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for the most part.

Undoubtedly this cycle belongs to, and was saved by, Nina Stemme. In this, her first full Ring cycle, she dominated as Brunnhilde. Her singing, musicianship and sheer stage presence outshone everyone else on stage, as well as Runnicles in the pit. From her opening Hojotoho to her final immolation, Stemme held the audience transfixed as we watched her transform from feisty warrior to woman betrayed to woman redeemer. Striding onto stage for her first appearance, she inhabited the role completely and confidently delivered a performance of the highest standard. Her voice was rich, even and clear throughout her register and she clearly annunciated each and every word of Wagner’s text. The standing ovation at the end of Götterdämmerung was so clearly deserved. I can only think that by the end of the third cycle, she will completely own this role and be heading towards the Brunnhilde firmament. On Stemme alone can be laid the success of this Ring and hopefully the audience realise the privileged of hearing her first full Ring cycle.

However there were other singers in the cast that also stood out. Anja Kampe made her San Francisco debut as an impressive Sieglinde. Having heard her in the past when her voice had a slightly brittle tone, it was good to hear that it had ripened and filled out. Hers was a convincing Sieglinde, with intelligent and nuanced singing and acting skill that brought out the character’s vulnerability.

But the most pleasant surprise was contralto Ronnita Miller as Erda & First Norn. Her deep, resonant voice was ideally suited to Erda, and her diction was incredibly clear. And similarly she stood out significantly among the three Norns. I believe that she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her and hopefully she will be heard in Europe – and hopefully the UK? – before long.

Brandon Jovanovich also made a strong impression as Siegfried. His clarion-like tenor may have tired in places – I think that has more to do with learning pace himself than anything else – but his was a truly credible warrior. He effortlessly, for the most part, rose above the orchestra and he had the character’s arrogance and impetuosity down to a tee.

Stefan Margita’s Loge was also well cast. A strong actor, his bright and light tenor shone out over the orchestra in sharp relief to the majority of his half siblings’ shortcomings.

Mark Delavan was a singularly disappointing Wotan. He had neither the heft nor the flexibility of voice required for the role. This was particularly evident in Die Walküre when he struggled to be heard above the unsympathetic conducting of Runnicles, particularly in the final Act.

Casting Siegfried is often a challenge but the casting in San Francisco was doubly disappointing with Jay Hunter Morris in Siegfried and subsequently Ian Storey in Götterdämmerung. Morris’ attempt to play Siegfried as a surly teenager failed to light the stage and he was hampered by an inability to spin the vocal lines of the role, once again above Runnicles’ band. More of a shame was Storey’s indisposition in Götterdämmerung. Clearly he marked the role in the First Act only to try and compensate in the Second and subsequently damaged his voice. A plea by the opera administration as we entered the Third Act did not bode well, but surprisingly his performance seemed stronger. Perhaps the medical assistance he received in the interval was some kind of vocal steroid. But it wasn’t enough to compensate and overall his was a weak performance. A shame as given the right circumstances, Storey could be an impressive Siegfried.

Additionally Andrea Silvestrelli may have made a strong impression as Fasolt but, despite his rich and mellifluous bass, his Hagen was woolly and unfocused. A shame.

And while the role of Gutrune is often miscast, nothing prepared me for the sharp and brittle voice of Melissa Citro. Clearly she was cast for her looks – although the cheap, two-dimensional Anna Nicole was misplaced – that her voice clearly could not match.

And finally to Runnicles and the orchestra. First and foremost, the brass were frustratingly disappointing on all four nights, but particularly in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, where they have a key role. But generally Runnicles – whom I have always rated and whose conducting I have always admired – delivered a mediocre, lacklustre set of performances. There was little attention paid to either orchestral detail or colour, some wayward speeds but most frustratingly, a lack of sensitivity to the singers on stage which all added up to a consistently bland level of orchestral playing. It took a singer of the talents of Stemme to consistently, and successfully, cut through the noise coming from the pit. Hopefully the orchestra and Runnicles will clean up their act for the remaining cycles.

So, all in all, a disappointing Ring bar Stemme. It promised so much and delivered almost nothing. Zambello aspired to deliver a contemporary narrative but instead produced something that was either ill-thought out and conceived, or simply baulked at confronting some of America’s real demons. Runnicles was pallid and unresponsive in the pit. And Stemme was less than ably supported by the vast majority of her colleagues on stage.

At a time when opera companies throughout the US are scrabbling to survive it’s frustrating to see a major house waste such an unique opportunity. But sadly I think that this Ring will run and run in the city of San Francisco.

Because it made the audience laugh.

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