Sunday, August 25, 2013


How to describe the Seattle Opera bicentenary Ring cycle?

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I suppose the only fair description is unique, although the same could apply to any Ring performance. I stand by the word though; there is something quite particular about the Pacific Northwest and in particular its cities' and people's relationship to nature. This production's USP is the 'green', naturalistic staging by Stephen Wadsworth, with its über-realistic scenery by Thomas Lynch and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. This is the fourth iteration of the production which first saw the light of day in 2001, and it has gained great notoriety. Far from being staid or old-fashioned, it finds itself at a paradoxical cutting edge of Wagner staging by virtue of its closeness to the composer's vision. And whatever else one may think of the sets (mostly beautiful, sometimes astonishingly so) and costumes (an improvement on the tatty efforts seen at the Met and elsewhere in recent months), this is emphatically not a show in the 'Park and Bark' tradition. Indeed, this cycle is perhaps distinguished by the sheer detail in the direction of individual characters. Long swathes of the score that can occasionally drag (such as Walküre Act 2) are compellingly realized, and it is possible to focus on many of Wagner's original details rather than a directorial concept.

The gods enter Valhalla,
Das Rheingold
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I will talk about the individual parts in turn, but some general comments first. The theatre is beautiful, spacious, and audience-friendly. It also has a slightly curious wide horseshoe shape which I think leads to some diffusion of the sound; balance is mostly excellent but the sheer volume for the Gods' Entry to Valhalla or the Ride of the Valkyries isn't always achieved (the Funeral March came closest). The stage is wide and relatively low and this is in part responsible -- along with some of the designs -- for voices evaporating into the flies. The wonderful flying Rhinemaidens suffer in their first scene particularly, whilst the sudden focus brought to Alwyn Mellor's Brünnhilde simply by singing from in front of a shiny rock face was very striking.

Any Ring stands or falls by its conductor. Asher Fisch has benefitted from the tutelage of Daniel Barenboim and cannot have been ignorant of the latter's incandescent performances recently at the BBC Proms. To be fair, this reading was very much his own. Of course this was not the Berlin Philharmonic playing music that forms part of its lifeblood. But it is a perfectly tuned, skilfully played and artfully paced reading (with exceptions -- Why slam on the brakes just before the end of Siegfried? Not kind to one's hero and heroine at 11pm). I've already griped about missing the last ounce of raw power and I feel mean mentioning some flatulence in the brass which marred some important moments (but really, it didn't help Donner raise the storm - just a few titters - and the split in the horn call at the start of Act 3 of Siegfried was a bit unfortunate). The orchestra played better and better cycle went on though, and delivered a magnificently confident Götterdämmerung which left me (and probably others) wishing to return the next cycle.

Alwyn Mellor as Brunnhilde and
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
(Photo: Seattle Opera)
I saw the second cycle, which began with Das Rheingold on Monday, August 12th. The opening scene is charming: the flying, 'swimming' Rhinemaidens apparently situated underwater (Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, Renee Tatum - mellifluous if underpowered) are guarding their glowing gold. Richard Paul Fink is perhaps one of the most experienced Alberichs we have, if a little undernourished vocally these days--although still delivering the curse with telling, rasping power. Wadsworth directs this scene better than any producer I have seen, and Alberich's speedy disappearance below the earth with the gold chased by the Rhinemaidens is excitingly dynamic.

Indeed, throughout the cycle both scenery and direction manage to be both naturalistic, with big, solid scenic pieces, and mercurially fleet-footed. The Niebelheim scenes are achieved with the slightest of means, and the transformations are effective. Stage directions are meticulously followed, and for the first time the business of Freia being hidden by the gold made complete sense..

Meanwhile, we had an experienced Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, the classiest voice on stage and more complex and sympathetic than many) and Wotan (Greer Grimsley, a Seattle Ring veteran). The action of Rheingold is played "straight" with a sure directorial hand, avoiding longeurs. Particularly enjoyable was Grimsley's interaction with Mark Schowalter's Loge - crystal clear of voice and diction and perhaps the most sympathetic character in the piece, unusually; I have rarely seen the longevity of this relationship so clearly depicted throughout the cycle.

Praise too for Wendy Bryn Harmer as a vocally keen-edged, dramatically urgent Freia and Daniel Sumegi as Fafner, who both returned later in the cycle; Andrea Silvestrelli sounded off color as Fafner; I have heard this singer do much better and wondered if he had been unwell.

Indisposition had, in fact, already struck during Cycle 1. British soprano Alwyn Mellor, who has recently relaunched herself as a Wagnerian in Europe with some success, was a brave choice as Brünnhilde as she has not sung the complete cycle before (though she has been studying with Anne Evans, one of last century's greatest exponents of the role, and like Mellor a Brünnhilde in the lyric, rather than the dramatic, mould). She had gained good notices for Die Walküre but disappeared for the rest of Cycle 1, owing apparently to allergies, and was replaced by Lori Phillips, by all accounts a success. It was unclear by the time I saw Die Walküre on August 13th whether she would indeed appear (she did, of which more later).

As it happens, this was a pretty seasoned Seattle Walküre cast with most of the leads having sung them there before. Scenically, Hunding's hut and surrounding forest served both Act 1 and half of Act 2 -logical, if you think about it, to have Wotan, Brünnhilde and Fricka holding a post-mortem of the previous night's events at the scene of the crime. The annunciation of death and duel take place at a bare mountain pass and the Valkyrie Rock is the stuff of tradition - decent (hardly thrilling) pyrotechnics at the end, but once again detailed, thoughtful direction of the characters at every point - the value of which cannot be underestimated.

Siegmund was Stuart Skelton, gaining month by month in reputation as a Heldentenor. He had already appeared as Siegmund here. He is a burly and headstrong but sympathetic hero, burnished of tone but with an attractive glint at the top of the voice. I wondered, though, if the part lies a tad low for him; although the cries of 'Wälse!' hold no terrors, the voice can fade at the baritonal end of the part. To me he sounds like a thrilling Siegfried-to-be: here's hoping. His twin , Sieglinde, is the highly experienced Margaret Jane Wray - ample and generous if a little metallic of voice, touching of character (who didn't love her upturning of Hunding's crockery as she fled the house?). Her sound is reminiscent of Violeta Urmana's - herself a Bayreuth Sieglinde - but lacks the long phrasing that characterizes the greatest exponents of the role. Nonetheless she did not shortchange us at 'O hehrstes Wunder!', for which much thanks.

Returning from the night before were Blythe- again, a conflicted, plush voiced Fricka who won the argument fair and square - and Grimsley, who grew in stature as the evening went on. He is more baritone than bass - meaning the start of his narration is thin - but his acting is imbued with his years of experience in the role and his performance with Mellor in Act 3 heartbreaking. And he sings the last lines - daring he who is without fear to brave the fire - with a ringing security I have not heard bettered (and yes, I've heard Terfel). Silvestrelli returned as Hunding, again sounding watery and underpowered, although playing a convincing bully. We had good, loud, boisterous Valkyries who thankfully we not tempted to overplay their business in the Ride, owing to Wadsworth's sure hand.

And the titular Valkyrie herself? I remember Mellor from her days as Musetta, Mimi and others at English and Welsh National Opera; the voice was always big, with a dusky, almost throaty sound and a fast vibrato. The sound is beautiful and she is accurate in alt - the battle cry unusually so. Some of the low-lying parts such as annunciation of death were hard to hear (some residual indisposition too, perhaps). She made Act 3 her own and I left hoping her recovery continued as my instinct was that she would succeed where most Brünnhildes don't: Siegfried.

My chance to find out came with Part 3 on August 15th. It was quite wonderful, in no small part owing to the casting of the title role. I had been fortunate enough to hear Stefan Vinke's Siegfried in London last year, and though him the best I had heard. He received reasonable notices for his singing but less enthusiasm for his characterization. I find his voice solidly, cleanly produced and well-tuned if not conventionally beautiful (I have yet to hear a truly beautiful Siegfried). This production plays him as a sympathetic, innocent bruiser; his violent behaviour towards Mime, Fafner and Der Wanderer takes place in in the context of his own understanding of their communications to him (and I must mention the excellent English surtitles, translation uncredited, at this point - lagging slightly irritatingly behind the singers at times, but illuminating nonetheless). Perhaps oddly for a native German speaker, his diction wasn't always clear. Nonetheless he was tireless, fearless and always musical, and he was deservedly cheered to the rafters.

I did wonder during Act 1 whether this might be the best rendition of the piece I have yet seen; Dennis Petersen's wonderful Mime was vocal match for Vinke's at times during the forging song and throughout gave a dark and detailed rendition of this conflicted character. With them returned Grimsley as Der Wanderer, whose antiphonal, grave, noble music is some of the greatest in the cycle. The work of singer and director meant his situation has never seemed clearer to me; both desperate to goad the characters into asking him what he wants to tell them, but powerless to intervene. His majestic performance across the evening crowned his wonderful rendition across the whole cycle.

Acts 2 and 3 went similarly well - Wadsworth brings Siegfried to the same scenic point where his mother slept before Siegmund's death for his own musings about her; Fink's Alberich crept and snarled with Grimsley and Petersen most expertly. The dragon (balefully voiced offstage by Daniel Sumegi) was achieved by good old-fashioned stagecraft - no animatronics, video or 3-D - and wonderfully so. Jennifer Zetlan's Waldvogel sounded far away (I suppose she is); Wadsworth's realization of this character has rather less élan than that of Fafner's. Lucille Beer's occluded contralto robbed Erda's wonderful scene of some impact (as in her appearance in Das Rheingold), especially against the vivid Grimsley. Mellor, having benefited from her long sleep, fielded plenty of bright, womanly tone and the top Cs were present and correct (if not without effort). An ecstatic house left ready and excited to hear Vinke and Mellor again in the flame-grilled finale.

Götterdämmerung was on August 17th , played to an excited house. As I have indicated above, this was a wonderfully assured performance, masterfully paced. Wadsworth largely continues his vision of the previous episodes although the very human world of the Gibichungs feels rather different from the 'natural' world we have seen elsewhere. The set for their hall in Act 1 is the first 'building' we have seen in the cycle; it is a solid yet dynamic and theatrical space, full of shadowy corners. Wadsworth introduces extras throughout both to convey the sense of life during the wedding but also to produce a sense of unease and subterfuge; members of the household are present during the Immolation as is Hagen, who appears to be present just about everywhere in this production. The Rhinemaidens are earthbound this time, still singing gorgeously, and their play in and around the river is charming. The ending is economical but moving, using projections of fire and water, the Rhinemaidens once again airborne behind a gauze to take back the Ring (and drown Hagen), before a heart rending view of Wotan, Fricka and Loge in Valhalla. The final image, the forest scene from Das Rheingold and elsewhere, is beautiful, and right; order is restored and we are ready for Cycle 3.

The singing was mostly terrific. Vinke didn't put a foot wrong, less sympathetic than in Siegfried, of course, but really sings every note of this killer role. The occasional critical sniffiness round his performances mystifies me as I can't think of another singer today who could do the part better. Stephanie Blythe swept all before her in the Waltraute scene, a real highlight, and was a luxurious 2nd Norn (with Margaret Jane Wray returning as the 3rd and Luretta Bybee - a Valkyrie earlier in the week - as the 1st). Daniel Sumegi lacked the sumptuous, blackest tone of the great Hagens, but was constantly engaged and alert, dramatically holding the stage throughout Act 2 to propel the drama onwards - his scene with Fink's reliable Alberich went well. Strong Gibichungs from Markus Brück (an unremarkable Donner in Rheingold) and especially Wendy Bryn Harmer, whose ample voice and presence made me think she will be a Brünnhilde in the future, and an exciting one.

Götterdämmerung is carried, though, by Brünnhilde, whose personal journey traces the overall arc of the story and who of course brings proceedings to a close with the Immolation. Mellor herself takes us on a journey, vocally and dramatically, and presents a very different character from the teenager of Die Walküre. She has power for the big moments - fire-snortingly so in Act 2 - and isn't afraid to sing softly. Her voice production is very reminiscent of Cheryl Studer's (a distinguished Wagnerian although never a Brünnhilde) and her tone is always beautiful; however, a consistent lack of ballast at the lower end of the voice makes me question if hers is truly a Brünnhilde voice. She is a musical, touching and communicative heroine, though, and it will be exciting to watch her interpretation of this great role develop over time.

At the end an ecstatic house received Wadsworth and Seattle Opera Director General Speight Jenkins - presiding over his last Ring as he is about to leave the company; he exhorted attendees to retune -- the company would perform the Ring again. I believe him.

To conclude, this Ring is, above all, much more than the sum of its parts. There are some stellar individual performances, some indelible images and wonderful conducting; yet it is as a complete experience that I will treasure the memory of this cycle, perhaps the most satisfying I have yet seen. As the pioneer of the Gesamtkunstwerk, I suspect Wagner would have approved.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

In short there's simply not a more congenial spot......

Photo:  Mikey Tarts

I can't get enough of Glimmerglass Festival. I love the Glimmerglass Opera, I adore the Alice Busch Opera Theater at Glimmerglass, and I think Francesca Zambello can do no wrong.

I came to see the Young Artist performance of Camelot on August 23. At the close I tweeted, "Nothing will make me like Camelot as a show, but I'll be darned if @GOpera (Glimmerglass Opera) and @SuperGreek (Sharin Apostolou) didn't make me cry this time." And it's true.

Sharin Apostolou
I stand by all the statements in my post about Camelot a few weeks ago--weak direction, weak show itself, characters who lose their appeal as we get to know them, and saccharine music. When I first wrote about this production, I wrote about the visual beauty of the design and the extremely enthusiastic and able ensemble of Glimmerglass Young Artists. That hasn't changed.

What I failed to note sufficiently at the time was the talent of the musical theater veterans who were part of the cast. In particular I must mention the brilliance of young Jack Noseworthy, who played Mordred, Arthur's illegitimate son who arrives in Act II to stir up trouble. It is clear he has played this role several times and is a veteran musical theater actor. As directorial weakness made the show fizzle, I was quite grateful Mordred showed up to breathe some life into the flailing beast. His rousing number "Fie on goodness!" might be considered the most successful number in the show. I must also mention Wynn Harmon, who acted charmingly the dual roles of Merlin and Pellinore.

Wayne Hu as Sir Sagramore, ensemble member
Danny Lindgren, Clay Hilley as Sir Dinaden,
Noel Bouley as Sir Lionel
and Jack Noseworthy as Mordred.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
I adore Sharin Apostolou, Guinevere in the Young Artist cast of Camelot, and seen before in these pages. Dear Sharin was the standout, easily the most likable performer on stage, and one of the few who imbued her character with humanity and authenticity. In spite of the production, she made the stage come alive when she was on it.

While at Glimmerglass I also took in the final performance of Der Fliegende Holländer, which I'd seen and reviewed earlier in the season.  This opera was even more passionate, even more beautiful than in my initial impression.  Everything I wrote earlier about the production holds true in my estimation. Ryan McKinny and Melody Moore deserved the roars of approval they received at the curtain call. The chorus and the dancers, along with choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, deserve special mention after special mention.  (And I'll be darned if Sharin wasn't prominently featured in front row, center, of the sewing scene, and as the Steersman's girlfriend in Act III!)

The last performance of King for a Day, however, seemed to lack some of the energy it had in the early performance I'd viewed. Comic timing was a bit off and there was less dazzle to divert attention from libretto weaknesses.  I do believe the cast and chorus must have been subjected to  Knute Rockne-style halftime speech at intermission, however, because the second half was much better than the first, up to the standard of the earlier performance I'd seen.  And yes, Sharin was featured quite prominently in this opera, as well. Glimmerglass did not include her by name in the program, but The New York Times mentioned her by name in their review of all four Glimmerglass operas. Quite favorably, I might add.

I'm sorry that the Glimmerglass season is drawing to a close. As I'm sorry the summer itself is drawing to a close. Soon enough we'll be looking back on these beautiful, sunny days in Cooperstown with fond memories and with eager anticipation of going back to see more opera next season!

One more rave for the Overlook Mansion B&B, a short drive from Glimmerglass in charming Little Falls. Please click the link and check them out, and give them some business!

Friday, August 9, 2013

RIP Regina Resnik

As you've no doubt heard, dear Regina Resnik has left this world, where she blessed us for so many years with her singing and wisdom, for the next. Many others can eulogize her better than I can, and here are just a few links:

The Metropolitan Opera
More to come......

And of course the pics and videos:

As Carmen

Unattributed early publicity shot

Here she is in an early triumph as a soprano, Leonora in Ernani:

Long known as one of the definitive Carmens of the day, here she sings an excerpt from the musical Carmen Jones:

This Ballo in Maschera excerpt credits no one and gives no date, but ain't she glorious?:

Dear Lord! I had no idea this was available! The Febraury 1, 1958, radio broadcast of Vanessa in its entirety, shortly after its January 15 world premiere!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Featured singer: Ryan McKinny, baritone

I recently raved about Ryan McKinny in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Der Fliegende Holländer
Of course one must begin by discussing the Dutchman himself, sung by Barihunk Ryan McKinny. Not only were his singing and characterization beautiful and nuanced, but his stage presence was electric. His duet with Senta was spellbinding, and one could feel the pain when he believes Senta has betrayed him. And what a bit of bad-boy eye candy he is in costume!
Photo: Simon Pauly Photography
His accomplishments are many, and the Internet is dripping with praise for his singing and acting. Just two examples:
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny ... brought a huge, darkly resonant sound to the role of Jochanaan. Gripped from the start with an almost frightening religious intensity, McKinny seemed to exist in another spiritual realm, one that Salome had no hope of reaching, despite her seductive entreaties.
-George Dansker, Opera News, June 2012

Hercules [Gluck's Alceste] is ideally cast with Ryan McKinny. He imparts to the adolescent warrior a thoroughly self-ironic character without drifting into slap-stick. His sonorous baritone is wielded with elegance at all times, despite all the demanding stage action.
- Ingo Rekatzky, Leipzig Almanac, May 12, 2010

I was thrilled when the very kind public relations diva at Glimmerglass put me in touch with Ryan and forwarded some interview questions to him. Long-time readers might recognize some of the questions I ask every singer.

I can get background and training from your web site, but if you want to add anything to what's there, now is your opportunity.

Being a singer is a big part of my life, but the biggest thing in my life is my family. My wife Tonya, daughter Emma, son Louis, and I travel together to nearly all of my jobs. It is an amazing life. I am extremely grateful.

Photo: Karli Cadel for Glimmerglass
I hardly know what to ask about your status as barihunk.  We've all seen your pecs pics. Is there anything specific about being a barihunk you'd like to say?

Hmm. It's always a tricky thing to discuss. I am grateful for anything that will help bring people to the opera. On the other hand, if one is solely interested in seeing people with no clothes on, there is an entire Internet full of people who do that better than I do… and without the cost of an opera ticket! Having previously been an overweight person, I am interested in having a healthy body, more for the possibility of living a longer and happier life, than for showing off my abs in an opera. I do hope that when I look back on my career twenty or thirty years from now, that the word "Barihunk" is more of a footnote than the headline...

I've spoken with other very fit and athletic singers, who often have very strong opinions about this:  What do you think about casting as we seem to have it nowadays, which is often more for the HD broadcast than for the actual vocal requirements of the role?  What about less fit or less beautiful people who are very good singers and/or very exciting performers, who don't get the opportunities?

This seems to be a very hot topic of discussion lately. First of all, I'm not sure I agree with the premise that casting is done more for the HD broadcast than for vocal requirements. It is very difficult to parse out why one person is cast over another, even from our perspective. There are several young singers in my peer group, many of whom are my close friends, who are overweight or obese, but are singing major roles at major opera houses because their talent demands to be recognized. 

I believe in opera as an immersive musical dramatic experience. I want to limit the amount of time the audience spends asking themselves questions that take them out of that experience, such as "Well, she doesn't LOOK like she has consumption!"

However! Sometimes I think we go to extremes to indulge the prejudice of the audience. I once was at an after party for an opening of Cenerentola and I heard a patron say "Well I liked it, except I couldn't get over the fact that the prince was played by a black guy." This is obviously deplorable and thankfully in this case the fantastic tenor who sang Ramiro is invited to sing all over the world despite the occasional bigot in the audience, though race in opera is unfortunately not a closed issue either.

I realize there are multiple factors that make the two situations not entirely comparable. But I wonder why we think overweight people can't fall in love, or don't have their hearts broken, or don't want revenge, or don't die tragic deaths. I think opera is particularly good at compelling people toward empathy through music, and that is something we should protect by showcasing singers of all shapes, sizes, colors.

In my opinion the way to keep the audience in the world of the performance despite their all too human preconceived notions of beauty, is to be excellent actors and singers. We need to concentrate our abilities as story tellers and music makers and as human beings so intensely that the audience never has a chance to do anything other than go along with us. 

If any director asked you to show the full Monty--in other words, to perform completely naked--would you do it?  

I would say it's highly unlikely. I might possibly make an exception for a production/director I trusted, and if I knew it was one hundred percent necessary and not just exploitative.

Many singers have overcome bad training or other obstacles to have a career. Have you had any kind of roadblocks to success? 

I have been very lucky to have had very good training even early on in seemingly unlikely places like Pasadena City College. Great teachers and mentors have found their way to me every step along the way. The path hasn't always been easy, as I suppose is true for anyone pursuing something they deeply care about. The year-in, year-out grind of striving to be better, to learn more, to be recognized, to make a living, and ultimately to search for one's voice as an artist can take its toll. I am grateful to have made it to where I am now, relatively unscathed, without having given up, and with so many exciting things happening.

How old are you? How has your voice changed over the years?

I am 32 years old. A baby by dramatic baritone standards. My voice has certainly grown in color and size over the past 10 years as you would expect. Although I think learning to sing (an ongoing process) has had a bigger affect on the sounds I can make than my actual instrument.

What's your favorite role to sing? (And don't take the cop-out "Whatever I'm singing next!") 

I have to say, so far, the Dutchman is my favorite role to sing. The character is complex, the vocal writing is beautiful and intense and it just seems to fit me. A close second would probably be Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde.

Are there roles you'd love to sing that are outside of your fach? Are there roles within your fach you don't want to ever sing [again]? 

I am extremely lucky in this category in that I happen to love the music that my voice sings well. I imagine there are people who are bel canto experts who dream of singing Wagner, or heldentenors who would love to sing Rossini (hard for me to imagine!) but I have always really loved Wagner and Verdi.

Have you done much teaching or master class work?  How has that affected your own vocal technique and performing?

I have done some masterclass work, and hours of informal chatting with other singers about vocal technique, though no real teaching yet. I am in awe of excellent vocal teachers and coaches. So much of what we do is difficult to describe, and each of us has our own vocabulary for how things feel and sound. It certainly seems as much art as science.

What are some examples of dumb interview questions you get?  (Don't include mine!  :-P  )

You mean besides this one…? [n.b. Har har har...] I don't think I've quite yet achieved the level of fame that would earn me scores of interviews filled with dumb questions.

I have been asked several times lately if I got the giant chest tattoo just for this Dutchman production. I think they'd need to add a rider to my contract if I were going to be asked to permanently vandalize myself for a summer opera run!

My favorite question from "Inside the Actor's Studio": What's your favorite swear word? 

"Fuck!" I know it's a popular choice, but it's just so versatile. Though I don't use it as much as I used to, since having your small children parrot your vulgarities is decidedly a parenting fail.