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The Ring in San Francisco

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/09/1999 -   - 07/03/99

9, 15, 20, and 25, June, 1999
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
James Morris/Jeffrey Wells (Wotan), Tom Fox/Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Thomas Sunnegårdh (Loge), Gary Rideout (Mime), Marjana Lipovsek/Elena Zaremba (Frika), Nicolle Foland (Freia), Reinhard Hagen (Fasolt), Eric Halfvarson (Fafner), James Cornelison/Mark Baker (Froh), Jeffrey Wells/David Okerlund (Donner), Elena Zaremba/Ellen Rabiner (Erda), Suzanne Ramo (Woglinde), Elizabeth Bishop (Wellgunde), Elena Bocharova (Flosshilde)
Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)
Andrei Serban (Stage Director)

With a cast featuring some of today's finest Wagnerian singers, a first rate orchestra and Music Director Donald Runnicles at the helm, expectations were high for the San Francisco Opera's revival of Wagner's massive Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the first of the four operas that comprise the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, the musical aspects of the performance were generally stronger than the dramatic ones.General Director Lotfi Mansouri hired stage director Andrei Serban to supervise and revise this revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's original production. Serban, not one to be satisfied with the status quo, introduced his revisions with varying success. The concept of using doubles for the Rhinemaidens to give the illusion that they dart about quickly underwater did not work any better this time than it has ever before. The appearances and disappearances have to happen to quickly for the trick to work. One major change created a striking initial visual impact, but quickly suffered from limitations. The giants, Fasolt and Fafner (Reinhard Hagen and Eric Halfvarson, respectively), were enormous, towering puppets this time, wheeled around on platforms with stage hands manipulating the arms by means of long poles and the singers concealed inside the bodies. Not only did the muffled sound necessitate the amplification of the singers after the first performance (Roger Gans sound design was subtle and unobtrusive, giving just enough enhancement to compensate), but the limited mobility and expressionless faces make the whole idea a gimmick that should have been scrapped after one rehearsal. On the other hand, Serban also contributed to so remarkably dynamic, exciting performances by the individual singers, many of them creating fully realized, strongly individualized characters. The new costumes by Bob Ringwood were hardly an improvement over the original John Conklin designs. Some were just right, such as Loge's, but just as many were wrongheaded or simply unnecessary. Fricka's oriental-influenced garb looked as out of place with the other gods as did Freia's draped, slightly '30's looking gown.

Maestro Runnicles lead a propulsive but unhurried performance in this, the start of the last of the four cycles. The orchestra, despite a few problems in the brass, responded with a rich, burnished tone and smooth blend. Runnicles used dynamics and balance as well as tempo to build and shape the score. The orchestra's attentive response brought out the symphonic score's inner voices, providing constantly renewing interest.

All of the principal roles and most of the support ones were cast with performers as notable for their dramatic gifts as for their vocal ones. At the top of the list was James Morris's dynamic Wotan. In the intervening years since he first sang the role in 1985 in this same production, Morris's insight into the character and the music has constantly evolved and deepened. His magisterial presence and still imposing voice graced the role with nuance and inflection to rank among the finest exponents of the role. It mattered little that Marjana Lipovsek's voice occasionally turned harsh in the upper register, so characterful was her performance as Fricka. Her use of the text to convey both Fricka's wrath and her pain painted the portrait of a woman and a goddess, a fully realized creation that fit well into this dramatically dynamic cast. Tom Fox's basic vocal sound may be unremarkable and on the dry side, but he has developed an astounding range of colors which he uses superbly as Alberich. His mocking of Wotan takes on a bigger, rounder sound, in wooing the Rhinemaidens his tone becomes warmer, and his curse has a malevolent snarl that chills the blood. Despite an ungainly costume that makes him look like a Pillsbury Doughboy mummy, Fox still creates the image of one misshapened by hate and anger, lusting for revenge and power.

Thomas Sunnegårdh made the role of Loge his own with a performance that captured the essence of the mercurial god of fire. Sunnegårdh took full advantage of his costume, a black frock coat with the tails create from wide strips of cloth tipped in scarlet that flickered and flashed as visual counterpart to the character's music. Sunnegårdh added to the effect by creating movement patterns that swirled and turned making him fire personified. Added to this was his pristine vocal production in a tenor more pleasing and sure than many in the role and the resulting effect was simply dazzling.

Gary Rideout proved that his remarkable singing as Flavio in last fall's Norma was no fluke. As Mime, his singing was not only consistently musical and well centered with none of the barking one frequently encounters in the role, but his physicalization of the role was as perfectly suited as was Sunnegårdh's Loge. Rideout's hoping about, cringing, and wheedling were both funny and pathetic, bringing out both aspects of the role as more fully realized later in Siegfried.

Nicolle Foland's Freia was alluringly feminine, beautiful and vulnerable and her pure soprano suited the role of the goddess of youth well. Foland handled her interactions with the puppet Giants superbly, helping to manipulate the hands while still maintaining the illusion that she was helpless in their powerful grasp. The Fay Wray imagery was unmistakably and utterly appropriate for the situation.

Elena Zaremba was a rich voice Erda, mysterious and slightly threatening in her sole appearance near the end.

Both Hagen and Halfvarson contributed strong vocal performances as the giants, but were hampered by being limited to vocal acting only while trapped inside the puppet towers. One can only wonder how much stronger their presence may have been with the addition of facial expression and movement.

The three Rhinemaidens, Suzanne Ramo, Elizabeth Bishop and Elena Bocharova were a lively trio and blended their voices nicely for the plaintive plea in the final scene.

Neither James Cornelison nor Jeffrey Wells was particularly notable as Froh and Donner, respectively, though Wells at least has a decent vocal presence and enough volume, if barely, to make it work for the role. Cornelison looked striking in his gold and silver robes, but his light tenor was clearly unsuited for the role.

While the overall effect of the performance was compromised by some problematic revisions, the individual performances made this a Rheingold to remember and make one eagerly anticipate the next opera in the cycle, Die Walküre.

Magnificently Sung Die Walküre Continues Cycle

9, 15, 20 and 25, June, 1999
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Jane Eaglen/Frances Ginzer (Brünnhilde), Deborah Voigt (Sieglinde), Mark Baker/Wolfgang Schmidt (Siegmund), James Morris/Alan Held (Wotan), Marjana Lipovsek/Elena Zaremba (Fricka), Reinhard Hagen (Hunding), Nicolle Foland (Ortlinde), Ellen Rabiner (Schwertleite), Alexandra Hughes (Waltraute), Kristine Ciesinski (Gerhilde), Claudia Waite (Helmwige), Elizabeth Bishop (Siegrune), Kathryn Cowdrick (Grimgerde) Catherine Cook (Rossweisse)
Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)
Andrei Serban (Stage Director)

At the end of Wagner's Die Walküre, Wotan leaves his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde, asleep on a rock surrounded by impenetrable fire. While San Francisco Opera's current revival made do with plenty of smoke, there was no fire. But with the musical and dramatic heat generated by the cast, there was plenty of fire to be felt and heard, if not seen.

Maestro Donald Runnicles took charge from the opening bar with a surging intensity that threw the audience into the heart of the drama and carried it through to the final bar with dramatic thrust and pacing. In the first act, the Sieglinde of Deborah Voigt and Siegmund of Mark Baker made the connection between the Volsung twins, separated at an early age, palpable with strongly committed, sharply focused performances.

Voigt's shimmering, sumptuous soprano suits the role superbly and her understanding of the role and the score create a luminous portrayal. Singing or silently reacting, she is arguably the greatest Sieglinde available today and her presence in San Francisco's Die Walküre contributed greatly to the level of excellence the production achieved.

Baker's Siegmund is a fitting match; ardent, musical, finely sung and deeply understood. His lyrical "Winterstürme" blossomed organically from the preceding orchestral interlude to become a song of wooing to which Sieglinde (and the audience) succumbed helplessly. Baker maintains a lyrical line, firmly supporting his solid, bright tenor voice. His intelligent use of dynamics and shading made for effective, but restrained use of a brilliant, ringing forte, and a softer, warmer tone in the quieter passages.

As Hunding, Reinhard Hagen was suitably threatening, brutish and imposing. Director Andrei Serban introduced four henchmen who accompany Hunding in his appearances and add to the sense of power and menace he commands.

Substituting for an indisposed James Morris, Alan Held sang the role of Wotan. Having sung the role of the Wanderer in Siegfried just the night before, Held tired noticeably by the end of his final scene with Brünnhilde. But there was not doubt that he has the resources for the role and is a worthy successor to Morris's exemplary portrayal. Held gave of his lean, robust bass-baritone generously, creating a powerful vocal and visual presence. Aside from a penchant for melodramatic gestures that will hopefully fade as he grows into the role, Held has a firm grasp of the role and gives every indication that he will continue to grow in the role and gain insight as he continues to perform it.

Jane Eaglen certainly has the vocal goods for an outstanding Brünnhilde. Her singing is strongly supported, consistently focused, easily produced and apparently tireless. Her top is brilliant, her middle and lower registers warm and the voice projects easily throughout the wide range. When she connects with the music, the results are magical and at times, her Brünnhilde conveys the essence of the warrior maiden beautifully. But there are long stretches where she seems to be only perfunctorily involved with the role, still singing superbly, but with little sense of character of purposeful presence.

On the other hand, Marjana Lipovsek clearly understands and conveys every aspect of Fricka's fury and purpose in her confrontation with Wotan in the second act. Costumed more suitably than in Das Rheingold, her simple, elegant appearance was complimented by a striking, fiery performance of the role. In Lipovsek's portrayal, Fricka is neither shrewish nor nagging, but a woman certain of her rightness and a goddess in command of her powers.

As in Das Rheingold, Thomas J. Munn's lighting designs hearken back to an era of dark, murky lights with the corners lost in shadows. At times his designs create striking visual moments, but just as frequently, the shadowy lighting obscures the singers' expressions, impeding their communicative powers. But the backdrop lighting and designs for constantly changing cloud formations were evocative while being unobtrusive.

As a stage director, Serban is at his best with singers who respond easily and well to the dramatic possibilities of their roles. This was clear from the performances he obtained from much of the cast. With the less theatrically gifted performers however, he seems unable to provide them with the support they need, leaving them to stand and sing much of the time.

Continuing his stripped-down revision of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's original production, Serban succeeded some of the time in bringing the drama to life, but his newness to the work and the challenges of staging it showed in the less theatrically potent, more introspective sections which are central to the opera.

Inadequate Lead Leaves Hole in Siegfried

13, 22, 26, and 30, June, 1999
Richard Wagner: Siegfried
Wolfgang Schmidt/George Gray (Siegfried), James Morris/Alan Held (The Wanderer), Gary Rideout (Mime), Tom Fox/Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Eric Halfvarson (Fafner), Jane Eaglen/Frances Ginzer (Brünnhilde), Elena Zaremba (Erda), Suzanne Ramo (Forest Bird)
Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)
Andrei Serban (Stage Director)

Wagner thought he was creating what would be the most popular of the operas that comprise his Der Ring Des Nibelungen when he composed Siegfried, but it's minimal use of female voices and the impossible demands it places on the title role have made it the most difficult of the four operas to bring off successfully. In the final cycle of San Francisco Opera's Ring presentation, the difficulties and problems weighed down the production with disappointing results.

Substituting for Wolfgang Schmidt, who was ill, George Gray made it possible for the performance to go on. But his poorly sung, ill-conceived performance of the title role proved just how difficult the role is. That a singer of this caliber should be cast in a performance that also included today's preeminent Wotan (James Morris) and Brünnhilde (Jane Eaglen), also proves how difficult it is to find a tenor willing to take on the role today.

To be fair, Gray had his good moments, particularly in the few genuinely comic moments of the opera. But those are few are far between. His Siegfried was all country bumpkin, void of any heroic potential. His maddening habit of carelessly tossing aside props was not confined to such things as his food bowl and drinking cup in Mime's hut, but included his sword, Nothung, of which he is supposed to be so proud of having forged. Vocally, his tone was shallow and lacked firm, deep-breathed support. His top notes were squeezed and the voice tapers out at top just where it needs the most power. Musically he lacked a sense of line, resorting to the classic "Bayreuth bark" for most of the time.

The rest of the cast was superb, but with a gaping hole in the middle of the fabric, together they could not keep the performance together. Morris was a wonderfully brooding, reflective Wanderer. Morris's development from the youthful, assured Wotan of Das Rheingold to the Wanderer, resigned and bent on his own end, is fully realized and movingly conveyed. There was no evidence of the cold from which he was still suffering in this final cycle, his tone burnished and ringing, with only the lower register lacking in its former fullness.

Gary Rideout was once again brilliant as Mime. He conveys the character's wheedling malevolence beneath a slightly comic and rather pathetic with a clear grasp of the many facets of the role. And he does so while singing with firm tone, a beautifully focused sense of line and sensitivity to the musical demands. In Mime's final scene in the second act when he offers Siegfried the poisoned drink, Rideout clearly trusts the music, never playing the obvious but letting the text and score and Wagner's mastery in this remarkable scene to come through without interference.

Tom Fox's Alberich is the more overt evil presence, boldly displaying his contempt and hatred for others compared to Mime's supposedly subtle approach. Fox does it thorough vocal means as well as physical without resorting to anti-musical snarls. His choice of vocal color conveys all the pent-up resentment and fury with burning intensity.

Elena Zaremba's sexy, richly sung Erda and Eric Halfvarson's dark-voiced Fafner were also strong assets to the performance. As the Forest Bird, Suzanne Ramo's soprano has such an intrusive vibrato that it sounds like a trill on every note. Not completely inappropriate for the role, but rather distracting.

In the final scene, Eaglen once again displayed her maddeningly inconsistent dramatic involvement with her stunningly consistent vocal production. Her first moments were pure joy as she greets the sun are revels in warm light. Eaglen captured the moment with radiance that matches her gleaming vocal tones. But after that, it was hit or miss, some moments seeming genuine, some seeming completely absence, though all the while with unfailing support, that brilliant top and those warm middle tones of which she is capable.

The staging of the final scene, with Brünnhilde in one downstage corner and Siegfried in the other, the two about as far apart as possible while singing about their supposed passion for each other was ludicrous and about as like "bad opera" staging as possible. The total lack of passion from both performers, underscored by the lack of staging, nullified Wagner's writing and Siegfried ended with little of the exhilaration and joy the score contains.

How much of the staging problems are the responsibility of the performers unable or unwilling to involve themselves dramatically and how much was the lack of effort on the part of director Andrei Serban, is up for speculation. But wherever the fault lies, the final scene was the nadir of the cycle thus far. Elsewhere Serban handles the staging well and certainly helped bring out fine performances from the more theatrically inclined members of the cast.

Maestro Donald Runnicles did what he could from the pit to create and sustain dramatic interest throughout the almost five hours (with two intermissions) running time, but even his mastery of the score and ability to bring out orchestral shading to heighten the drama were insufficient this time around to make Siegfried coalesce into a dramatically viable performance.

Musically Sumptuous, Dramatically Stirring Finale to Wagner's Ring

16, 24, and 29, June, 3, July, 1999
Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Jane Eaglen/Frances Ginzer (Brünnhilde), Wolfgang Schmidt/George Gray (Siegfried), Alan Held/David Okerlund (Gunther), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Tom Fox/Peter Sidhom (Alberich), Kristine Ciesinski (Gutrune/Third Norn), Marjana Lipovsek/Elizabeth Bishop (Waltraute), Elena Zaremba (First Norn), Catherine Cook (Second Norn), Suzanne Ramo (Woglinde), Elizabeth Bishop (Wellgunde), Elena Bocharova (Flosshilde)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles/Michael Boder (Conductor)
Andrei Serban (Stage Director)

Things picked up considerably in the final Götterdämmerung of the San Francisco Opera's Ring Cycle. Matching if not surpassing the level achieved in Die Walküre, and well above the problematic Siegfried. Perhaps the day or two of rest for the heroic San Francisco Opera Orchestra helped, but certainly Maestro Donald Runnicles can take a lot of the credit for a powerful, moving performance in which the orchestra was a leading protagonist. From the moody, somber opening of the Norns' scene through the two hour first act that flew by as if time were suspended, onto the high drama of the second act and the final tragedies of Act Three, Runnicles' leadership and the orchestral presence could scarcely be over-rated.

Again director Andrei Serban revised the visual elements of the original Nikolaus Lehnhoff production, including a new Norns' scene which included the giant white face mask and three, spindle-like sculptures. The Hall of the Gibichungs still evoked a world of Roman influence suggesting decadence, but the opulence of the original was missing.

In Götterdämmerung, Wagner brings together the disparate elements of the tetrology with dexterity and dramatic force. Serban focused on many of these elements, tightening the drama and its impact. The suggestion of an incestuous relationship between Gunther and Gutrune, the dark side of the Sieglinde/Siegmund love match in Die Walküre, the appearance again of the Rhinemaidens, this time playing the role of wooers rather than the wooed, and other parallels were staged to show both the similarities and the differences in the current situations.

Jane Eaglen's Brünnhilde dominated the performance. More consistently involved as a character and with the requisite power and stamina for the role. Her best moments came as she vents her fury in the vengeance trio that closes the second act and in the mighty immolation scene. While her powerful and reliable high notes were as remarkable as ever, her beautifully scaled singing of the softer passages was equally superb and deeply moving.

Once again tenor Wolfgang Schmidt was ill and George Gray appeared as Siegfried. In Götterdämmerung, the roles are more evenly distributed and the role of Siegfried, while still central, is at least somewhat less demanding. Gray seemed more at ease in this performance and while he still consistently fails to sing on the breath, he was more interesting as a character. A rudimentary actor at best, he was at his best in the scene with the Rhinemaidens where his affable charm and playfulness suited the setting. His final scene recounting his encounter with Brünnhilde found him still fresh voice with some notable phrasing and a better feeling for the music.

Alan Held's Gunther was a superb realization of a ruler trying to convey strength despite inherent weakness and cowardice. Held was in complete command of his full, focused bass-baritone, informing his singing with nuance and inflection to convey in vocal terms as well as physical terms Gunther's complete dominance by Hagen and his moral turpitude. In his moment of realization and confrontation, Held brought Gunther to a level of nobility making his murder on the tragic level.

Kristine Ciesinski's Gutrune was visually striking; her movement telling and her sense of the character well defined. But her singing was not quite up to the level set by Held and Eaglen. Her voice turned strident under pressure and uneasily produced in the upper register. Still Ciesinski succeeded in portraying a woman trapped by circumstances not entirely of her making and one genuinely in love with her heroic Siegfried.

Eric Halfvarson's Hagen is evil personified, consumed by hate of the cold, calculating variety. Halfvarson gives his big bass voice a menacing, bright edge as opposed to the rounder tone he used as Fafner in Siegfried. Such mastery of his vocal palette is just one of Halfvarson's many gifts as a singer. He is also able to convey in stillness what many a lesser performance cannot through a myriad of gestures. Indeed, it was as often his stillness as his actions that gave his Hagen a particularly chilling malevolence.

Marjana Lipovsek's Waltraute and Tom Fox's Alberich were both up to the expected standards the two superb singing actors had set in their earlier appearances in the Ring Cycle.

In this production of the Ring, the final image we see is the same one with which the cycle began, a rocky formation topped by the Rhinegold itself. In this staging, Serban has Alberich once again clambering for the gold, suggesting that whatever turmoils and rebirths the world may experience, there is always another Alberich paying whatever price necessary for power and dominance. Whether one accepts this pessimistic view, which contrasts strongly with the redemptive quality of the final bars, the final image was both thought provoking and striking. And Wagner's mighty Der Ring des Nibelungen is certainly that and more.

Kelly Snyder



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