Thursday, June 30, 2011

Die Walküre: an opera finds its voice

By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch
I’m basking in greatness this morning. In fact, as I’m pondering how to express what I feel about last night’s performance of the second opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera I’m tempted to make one simple statement and move on:

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about.

The central question for me last night was whether or not this production, by Francesca Zambello, would fulfill its dramatic purpose, joining music, acting, characterization, and production concept to draw us into the story in a compelling way. I left Rheingold feeling like this purpose had not been achieved, but last night I left the War Memorial Opera House in a very different frame of mind.

The first clue was in the very opening bars of Act I: the churning music of the Prelude was taken at an intense pace, while projections on the scrim used a hand-held camera running through a forest to set the scene. I immediately felt like I was with Siegmund, our hero, as he frantically staggered through the forest, injured, exhausted, and lost, seeking shelter for the night. As he collapsed on the front porch of what will turn out to be his enemy’s house, the music shifts, softening suddenly, and a woman timidly looks out the screen door (we’re in turn-of-the-century America, remember). And immediately, in that simple joining of tender music and timid peering, I knew we were on a different path than we were the night before.

As New Yorker critic Alex Ross pointed out in a recent essay, Wagner’s Ring juxtaposes spectacle with “hundreds of intimate moments,” and nowhere is this more true than in Die Walküre. For all the fame and anticipation gained by the enormous “Ride of the Valkyries” or the orchestral sparkle that is the “Magic Fire Music,” this opera hinges on the quieter moments: the long wordless lulls in the conversation of Act I, where Siegmund and Sieglinde, inexplicably drawn to each other but each stuck in their own hopeless situations, communicate all that they’re thinking and feeling in locked gazes; Wotan’s opening up to Brünnhilde in his Act II monologue; god and daughter’s last moments together before parting. It’s in these moments that the opera will either fail or soar – soaring music elsewhere notwithstanding.

And these moments were also going to be the test of this question of characterization that I addressed yesterday: would the concept for the characters, and the acting of them, take us past the surface and down into a deeper understanding of who they are? Would that understanding be fused with the music, so that still deeper understanding and nuance could be grasped?

Last night the answer was Yes.

Let’s start with Elizabeth Bishop, who returns as Fricka. Now we see a more fully-developed Fricka, one who does not shield her pain and the anger that sometimes flares out as a result. When she shows up to confront Wotan about his plans and he says to himself, “And here we’ll have the usual harangue…” it comes off not as an opinion about Fricka we should embrace, but rather another expression of Wotan’s arrogance, his lack of regard for his wife. He absentmindedly picks up a newspaper and hardly listens to her as she begins, but she grabs the newspaper out of his hand and makes her husband listen to what she’s saying. When he explains his plans in a patronizing manner she calls him out on it. Here is more than a woman scorned; here is a woman standing up for herself and her dignity. And interestingly, in finding her dramatic purpose, Bishop’s voice blossomed as well.

Wotan gained depth too: his frustration, his arrogance, but also the regal power that is still very much present with him all shone through. I wished he could have accessed a greater sense of defeat when he finally gives in to Fricka’s demands – a moment on which the entire rest of the cycle depends, and thus the critical turning point for Wotan and his ability to manipulate events. From that point forward, everything is out of his hands – and the gods’ demise is inevitable. Nevertheless, I began to develop empathy for Wotan, despite all his faults – empathy that any tragic figure requires.

But ultimately this story is about Siegmund and Sieglinde, twins separated at birth who fate has brought together again. They will end up saving each other, though it will cost Siegmund his life and precipitate a chain of events that will lead to the downfall of the gods.

As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich was the complete package: a clarion heldentenor voice, a superb actor, and the heroic good looks that go along with his character. I imagine that with further seasoning he will be tackling the role of Siegfried someday, a treat I would look forward to.

Sieglinde, played by Anja Kampe in the other performances of the cycle, was sung last night by Heidi Melton. A young singer who made her San Francisco Opera debut in 2007, she is an able actress who carried the quivering fear of her character well. The lack of assurance in her character translated into her singing, however, and as we concluded the rapturous love duet at the end of the first act I was dubious about how she’d hold up for the rest of the opera. But whether she just needed some time to warm up or she gave herself a pep talk in her dressing room, she returned for Act II a different singer. Her voice opened up, rich and full and assured, and all was well again.

She’d found her voice.

The same can be said of the production overall. Though the “American West” theme is perhaps least relevant in this opera – being as it is more about interpersonal relationships than any of the other three – it expressed itself well here. The thunderous entrance of the Valkyries in Act III was staged as WWI-era paratroopers, complete in leather flying gear and goggles, flying in on cables and landing on stage (breathtaking!). Wotan and Fricka have their argument in a black marbled corporate board room worthy of the best Art Deco office tower. The clapboard cabin of Act I gets left behind like a distant world.

And then there’s Brünnhilde, sung by the vibrant Nina Stemme. In her first appearance in the story, we see all the signs of a promising characterization: impetuous, passionate, and fiercely loyal to those whom she loves. But also, beneath these outward features, we see a person who desires to be loved and accepted for who she is. She is a fully self-realized woman: powerful, proud, but tender as well. Her voice possesses these same qualities too, and I am eagerly looking forward to hearing and seeing more of her as she becomes the musical and emotional center of the story.

Lastly, one cannot talk about this opera without mentioning the orchestra. There were once again moments when I felt Donald Runnicles’ tempi were simply too fast, such as during Wotan’s Act II monologue (we get his fury and frustration, but where is the deflated sense of utter defeat?), and particularly in the closing scene when I wanted all the bombast and fury of the earlier music to dissolve into the exquisite tenderness between Wotan and Brünnhilde. (This may have been partly motivated by trying to save Mark Delavan, who after two successive nights in the incredibly demanding role of Wotan was showing signs of vocal fatigue.) And there were other moments when the maestro let the lid off the orchestra a bit too much, unleashing a sound so full that it drowned out the singers. That said, the Valkyrie’s “Ride” was electric, the actions scenes had punch, and the closing fire music glowed. Also, there was a sense of direction, of purpose, to Runnicles’ approach – a sense of purpose that was lacking on opening night. And the more vigorous tempi created a sort of visceral energy I have never heard in this opera before. Act II propelled itself forward so effectively that an act I have always felt was overlong instead hurtled forward like a juggernaut. As the last scene crashed to its conclusion, I nearly came out of my seat in anticipation of the final blackout, and when the lights cut and the orchestra let loose that final chord, the entire house erupted as I jumped up and spontaneously yelled, “YES!”

Whether by design or through a pep talk in the dressing room, this opera has found its voice.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

One down: Das Rheingold beautifully sung...but is it enough?

By Jeff Nytch, guest blogger

One of my favorite moments in the entire Ring happens at the beginning. No, I'm not talking about that wonderful drone of E-flat which opens our journey, a drone that grows into pulsing waters and then, like the primordial sun breaking through the clouds for the first time, introduces us to the trio of Rhinemaidens swimming in the depths. I'm talking about the orchestral interlude that follows that first scene, the musical reaction to Alberich's renunciation of love. This should be one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the whole cycle, for it is here that the dominoes begin to fall. In Alberich's renunciation we have the encapsulation of the great tragedy of human existence, set off by loss of innocence and the irrevocable sundering of humanity from primal purity. The interlude will take us from the depths of the Rhine to the heights of the gods' newly-finished castle, Valhalla, but before we embark on that journey Wagner allows the weight of what has happened to sink in for a moment. It's an orchestral outcry that usually brings me to tears, even though we are still very early along in our journey. And it's the first of several tests that for me will define whether or not the production in question is going to get the job done.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Where to start?

Let's start with the singing, as I'm sure Taminophile is waiting for me to do. There is some seriously fine singing in this production. Renée Tatum as Flosshilde stood out among the Rhinemaidens, with a darker voice than one normally encounters in that role but possessing a golden and focused timbre; I would love to hear her in a bigger role. Ronnita Miller's Erda was also a stand-out: played as a Native American priestess, Miller sang with a dark, forbidding and authoritative presence. Andrea Silvestrelli was hands down the finest Fasolt I've ever heard: all the power and heft the role demands, but with a laser-sharp focus. Daniel Sumegi's Fafner was also fine, but I found myself hoping that Silvestrelli will take over the role of Fafner in Seigfried; it was truly one of the vocal high points of the evening. (I must also say that the giants' costuming bore an unfortunate resemblance to Mario and Luigi of the "Super Mario Brothers" video game....)

The other vocal highpoint was Stefan Margita as Loge. That the role will be filled with a lighter voice is standard practice, but Margita had both the power and finesse to take the part beyond the usual trickster approach. Here we had a fully fleshed-out Loge, cynical and manipulative, the ultimate opportunist, with voice, body language, and characterization in full force. More on this below, but his was the most complete performance of the entire evening.

(And while we're talking about music, I'll take a moment here to applaud the orchestra, led by Donald Runnicles. Though the maestro's tempi were at times a bit brisk to my ear, the orchestra played with a lustrous tone, precise but expressive. I look forward to tonight, where the muscular tuttis of Rheingold will be supplemented with the exquisite solo writing -- chamber music, really -- that we encounter throughout the more intimate Walküre.)

You'll notice I've skipped the three main roles of the evening, Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) and Wotan (Mark Delavan). It's not because they didn't sing beautifully: all three were vocally wonderful, and I'm confident that Delavan has both the strength and finesse to carry his role through the next two operas in convincing fashion. But of course these three roles require more than great singing; they are the dramatic focus of the story. And that is where the waters get a little more muddy (if you'll pardon the metaphor in this context).

The theme of this production, by Francesca Zambello, is that of the American West: vast, primeval nature is despoiled by industrialization; robber barons, driven by greed, exploit these resources for their own gain, indifferent to the lasting effects of their activities. But economic and natural ruin await.

It's an interesting approach, and in the wake of our own greed-driven economic calamities is timely. Had I not read about this beforehand, I'm not sure that "American" or "West" would have immediately sprung to mind (though Alberich's entrance in Scene One is obviously that of a prospector looking for gold, perhaps during one of the 19th century's gold rushes). But the costuming and sets (Valhalla is a huge steel and cement tower in an early 20th century style) reveal enough for the metaphor to fly.

The problem with such approaches, though, is that as soon as we put the action into a specific time and place, we run the risk of losing its sense of timelessness, its universality. If Wagner's stated aim was to combine psychology and myth, the myth side of the equation can greatly suffer under this kind of treatment. That said, I'm not opposed to putting "the classics" into unconventional settings -- the great works can tolerate such treatment precisely because they have universal application: they can be put anywhere and their message will still come through. But if one decides to put them into such a specific setting, then hopefully the audience gains insight and understanding they would not have had before -- otherwise, what's the point? It's still too early to know whether or not this production theme will open up the story in a unique way, but in the meantime I have a concern: where do the characters fit in with all this?

Let's start with Alberich. Whether he be a 19th century prospector or a dwarf of legend, he still needs a reason to renounce love. It has to be more than, "I got spurned by the Rhinemaidens so, what the heck, I'll go over to the Dark Side." We need to sense that his rejection is more than sexual frustration -- it's the final humiliation, the final straw of rejection and hurt in a lifetime of rejection and hurt. He's had it. And he is so consumed with the failure of his life, his searing loneliness, that there's nothing left but the lust for power, a power that will be so absolute as to finally drown out his pain.

Hawkins sings wonderfully, but his character came off as nothing more than an angry brute. His renunciation of love seemed random, insufficiently set up by his preceding interactions with the Rhinemaidens. His curse of the ring after it has been seized by Wotan was flat, lacking in menace or any of what should be seething hatred for the gods and everything they represent. For to Alberich, Wotan is far more than the one who has stolen the ring; he is the embodiment of the "winners" who have always triumphed over him -- and then gloated over the victory. But we got nothing of this last night.

Likewise, our Fricka failed to show her more nuanced dimensions. Instead, per usual, she was played as just a shallow nag of a wife. But I've always felt that Fricka was a kind of comparison case with Alberich: frustrated and humiliated by Wotan's ongoing infidelities, she too has a choice of what to do with her pain; her love of creature comforts (Valhalla, hoping the Rhine's gold might make some pretty jewelry) are really just faint compensations. Deep down, her self-righteous attitude is driven by that deeper pain: virtue is all she has left, and so she clings to it. It takes an accomplished and subtle actress, and careful direction, to pull this off; I wish I'd seen it last night.

And of course, we have Wotan. Playing him as an industrial baron works in terms of highlighting his flaws -- his greed, his lust for power, his tragic lack of introspection, his deafness to Erda's warning -- but we lose his god-like characteristics. His closing monologue, as the gods prepare to cross the Rainbow Bridge, lacked grandeur. We see his nagging doubt as he turns his back on the pleading Rhinemaidens, but we don't see what it is that is giving him the confidence to do so -- his status as a god. It comes off purely as arrogance, as hubris.

And perhaps that is Zambello's intent: that all we view as great and powerful is just an illusion -- an illusion that will literally go down in flames before it's all over. But the arc of the story, from the golden heights of Valhalla to the flames and destruction at the end, still requires the strength of the individual characters to carry it -- regardless of the particular setting the director chooses. And that is my hesitation at this early stage: not whether or not this particular approach will work, but whether or not there is a sufficient connection between that approach and the shaping of the characters.

All of this aside, it is still a remarkable experience to sit in an opera house and experience this work Live, with world-class singers and orchestra. Wagner's world, which we have just begun to enter, is vast and glorious and moving almost irrespective of the directorial treatment. As with all great works, the greatness has a way of shining through. But one comes to the Ring hoping for transcendence, and the jury is still out on whether or not that awaits us; we will learn much on this question tonight as we go into Walküre.

And so we go back to the beginning of this post: that pivotal moment of orchestral anguish following Alberich's renunciation of love. Did I shed any tears?

Yes, but only a little.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Awaiting the birth of the World...

By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch

This morning when I woke up -- before I even had my first sip of coffee -- I went over to the piano and announced: "Today's sonority is..." and I played the climbing E-flat arpeggio that opens Das Rheingold.

And then the skies opened up.

Apparently, E-flat is the key for water -- whether it be the steady rains of San Francisco or the pulsing waters of the Rhine.

It's also the key of beginnings, for the opening bars of Rheingold -- 130-something bars of E-flat (the first piece of minimalism, I like to say) -- are more than a prelude to a vast operatic cycle. They are nothing short of the beginning of the world.

I'll write more about that after tonight's performance, but as a kick-off to the week I thought I'd link to the talk I gave last year at the Colorado Music Festival (which Taminophile also linked for us last week when he announced my guest appearance here). I reference that because it gets into this whole question of the scope of this cycle, and how for Wagner it was (in the words of Thomas Mann), "The combining of psychology and myth." Much more than political allegory or just a cool bit of Nordic-inspired folk story, the Ring is concerned with nothing less than the scope of creation and humanity's place in it.

(Here it is.)

Meanwhile, the rain pours on here today, blanketing the world in water and mist, as if to begin submerging us in the very waters of the Rhine, where shortly our story will begin...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Heading out to San Francisco...

By Guest Blogger Jeff Nytch

Well, friends, I'm ready to head to the airport and begin my journey to San Francisco for this week's production of the Ring. I thought I'd begin by thanking Taminophile Blogmeister David Browning for inviting me to share my experience with all of you as I take in one of the great monuments of operatic culture (if not Western culture in general).

I was speaking with a friend last week who wished me "courage" as I embarked on my first, full, Live, Ring production. At first I thought that was a curious sentiment, but the more I thought about it the more I could understand where he was coming from. At somewhere in the neighborhood of 14-15 hours in length (not counting intermissions, and depending on the tempi of the conductor) and taking four nights to traverse, a complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen is indeed a huge undertaking. But more than its size is its emotional heft, the sheer vastness of its canvass -- physically, emotionally, dramatically, spiritually. Indeed, it is not for the faint of heart.

Still, as I prepare for my journey and look ahead to tomorrow night's Rheingold (which Wagner called, "A Preliminary Evening to the Festival Play"), I'm feeling more giddy excitement than anything else. I can't seem to get Ives's song about the opera, the first of his "Two Memories," out of my head. If you don't know it, it's sung at a breathless pace and captures the joy of a little kid (or, in this case today, an adult) anxiously awaiting the curtain:

We're sitting in the opera house,
the opera house, the opera house,
We're waiting for the curtain to arise
With joy and wonders for our eyes,
A feeling of expectancy,
A certain kind of ecstasy,
Expectancy and ecstasy,
Expectancy and ecstasy,

See you tomorrow in San Francisco!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Never Mind the Why and Wherefore

Those people at Caramoor are at it again! Your intrepid reporter happily ventured once again to the wilds of northern Westchester for a lovely afternoon and evening of singing. I've written before about Caramoor performances I enjoyed tremendously. I love Caramoor's focus on bel canto and on presenting young singers.

Photo courtesy
For Caramoor to present HMS Pinafore might appear a bit odd, a contradiction. But things are seldom as they seem, as Caramoor Director of Opera Will Crutchfield states in his program notes. (See how I cleverly worked in a line from the Buttercup-Captain Corcoran duet? I'm smart like that.) Sir Arthur Sullivan, the composer half of the famed Gilbert & Sullivan pair, was steeped in the bel canto tradition, having studied on the continent and worked as editor and arranger of selections of the operas of the day--Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi--for sheet music publication. The compositional structure and melodic style of the great Italian operas of the mid-19th century is evident on careful analysis and listening. W.S. Gilbert's story lines contained many of the same elements of the opera of the day--stratification of the social and economic classes, falling in love across class lines, sudden revelation that makes the proposed marriage possible, throwing the wrong baby on the fire, etc. (OK, maybe not that last thing, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn even that was part of some obscure G & S operetta I don't know.) As dear Anna Russell says here and here, "So long as you follow this formula, you can put your opera where you like!"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Aber abseits wer ist's?

Mr. Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg posted a video of his wife, the lovely Ann Hallenberg, singing the Altrhapsodie (Alto Rhapsody) of Mr. Brahms, so I got started listening to performance after performance of this beautiful work for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra. Here is Ann's video. There are more videos and the text behind the cut.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Upcoming posts about the San Francisco Ring

You may remember my post last July, where I linked the brilliant Jeffrey Nytch's speech entitled The Wagner Dilemma. (Here is the speech. Here is Jeff's web site.)

I'm totally excited to announce Jeff has agreed to be a guest blogger as he attends performances of Mr. Wagner's Ring in San Francisco in the coming weeks! How cool is that? I promise lots of insight from the very wise and thoughtful (and cute!) Jeff.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Nicolai Gedda

I absolutely can't think how I've managed to do this blog and the LJ community that preceded all this time without featuring Nicolai Gedda. I mean, look at him!  And listen!

Adolphe Adam's Le Postillon

Those are high Ds, folks.  Much more rare in the mid 20th century, before the bel canto revolution that began in the late 50s.

Mr. Gedda is still with us, and one hopes he is still sharing (at 85) his obvious deep understanding of vocal technique with new generations of singers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Special Guest Star: Jacques Snyman, Countertenor, for the It Gets Better Campaign

Most people who read this blog will have seen the videos of Jacques Snyman, the hunky former rugby player and fitness model who likes to sing.  Here is one:

Frankly, for less than a year of formal training as a countertenor,  I think Jacques sounds pretty damn good.  Commenters on some other opera blogs--you know which ones--have said all sorts of things about Jacques, not realizing he isn't trying to present himself as a budding opera star or usurp the places of David Daniels and Brian Asawa.  Maybe they did realize, but wanted to be mean anyway. You know how bullies can be.  I know that my readers are the kind and gentle sort, and they think before they speak.

Do you remember the It Gets Better Project ?  It began after the rash of gay teen suicides last year, and is still going strong.  Jacques is doing concerts (probably fully clothed, but one never knows, does one?) in the US to raise money and awareness for the project.

I was fortunate that Jacques gladly accepted my invitation to do a profile here.  So here we are:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Another blatant attempt to increase readership

Just like in this post, I've looked at my stats to see what the most popular searches are that land people on this humble blog. Here they are:

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Fritz Wunderlich, again

I've written about Frizt Wunderlich in these posts.  But since I worship and adore der Fritz, I think it's time for another post.  To date, however,I haven't posted any clips of dear Fritz singing German operetta.

"Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns by Mr. Lehar

"Grüß mir mein Wien" from Gräfin Mariza by Mr. Kálmán.

"Sei nicht bös'" from Der Obersteiger by Carl Zeller

Der Fritz singt auf englisch! "Be My Love", better than Mario Lanza ever dreamed of singing!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Dame Gwyneth Jones

I do have every intention of posting a singer from the 20th century's golden age of opera every week.  Last week's post about Giorgio Tozzi's death had to suffice as the post for the week.

Today we have Dame Gwyneth Jones when she was young. What remarkable subtlety in her singing in this video!

Friday, June 3, 2011

More From Bass Daniel Mobbs

Remember that handsome Daniel Mobbs, whom I featured not long ago? He's just contributed an article to the Caramoor blog:

Creating at Caramoor: My 12th Summer at Caramoor! 

Since this summer will be my twelfth season at Caramoor, it seems a good time to write about what has gone on before and how things are progressing this summer.

Last summer my dear friend and mentor, Will Crutchfield, asked me to join the music staff for the Bel Canto Young Artist Program at Caramoor. He trusted me with this position because, after so many years of singing with him and the amazing Orchestra of St. Luke's, I had a pretty good idea of the program style and what it was trying to present to the public. He also felt that, in addition to having great pianists on staff, getting a singer's approach would be beneficial to the young singers we are training. I humbly said yes.

Best opportunity and best decision I ever made......

Read the rest

Daniel has a special message:

Dear Taminophile readers,

Not only is Caramoor presenting Guillaume Tell this summer, but we're actually opening the entire season with a gala performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore.  This show not only stars some of Caramoor's favorite singers like Georgia Jarman and Robert McPhereson, but a number of former and current members of our Young Artist Program.

Daniel as Sir Joseph in HMS Pinafore, age 16
Louisville Performing Arts High School
Vanessa Cariddi, mezzo-soprano
Tynan Davis, mezzo-soprano
Jorell Williams, baritone
Scott Bearden, baritone
Jason Plourde, baritone
Nicholas Masters, bass
Jeffrey Beruan, bass

This really is a showcase of what our YA program can produce. Vanessa was a stand out in our program last year in Maria di Rohan, and Will wanted to really showcase her return this season and asked her to star as Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore. She'll also sing Hedwige in Guillaume Tell.

The rest are all members of our YA program this season. They are young talents who are working very hard to give NY a fresh look into the bel canto approach to this wonderful comic operetta.

I won't be in this show, but I'll be there in the audience enjoying the fruits of all their hard work!

Come join us for a magical and really fun opening night at Caramoor!

Daniel Mobbs