La Scena Musicale

Monday, 28 June 2010

San Francisco Opera Summer Season A Feast for the Eyes and Ears

Die Walkure Act 3 Final Scene with Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brunnhilde) Photo: Cory Weaver

By Joseph K. So

San Francisco Opera is reputed to be the second largest opera company in the U.S. in terms of the number of productions, budget, and attendance figures. When it comes to casting, it is decidedly world class, with some of the best singers today on its roster. I've just had the pleasure of catching SFO's summer season, with its interesting offerings of Die Walkure, Faust, and La fanciulla del West. SFO's Walkure, the second installment of its upcoming Ring Cycle next June, is for me the highlight. (As I write this, there is one last performance on Wednesday June 30) Heading the cast is Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who has gained the reputation as one of today's best Wagnerians. I have heard her live a number of times, including her Senta at the Met about ten years ago. Stemme has since become the great hochdramatisch sopran of choice in the Wagner/Strauss repertoires. The exciting cast also features Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, whom I have seen as a fabulous Chrysothemis and Jenufa in Munich. She will also be Sieglinde in the Lepage Ring next season. British tenor Christopher Ventris, who was magnificent in the title role of Pfitzner's Palestrina in Munich last season, is Siegmund. The head god is taken on by American baritone Mark Delavan. The highly respected, former long-time SFO music director and chief conductor Donald Runnicles is at the helm. American stage director Francesca Zambello gives us her take on the Ring Cycle. This is a co-production with Washington National Opera, and had its premiere in March 2007. In such capable hands, this run promised to be superlative, and by and large I was not disappointed.

I attended the performance of Walkure on June 22. Before the performance began, a man came out with a piece of paper, which is always a bad sign! As expected, it elicited a collective groan from the full house. He announced that Stemme was suffering from some bronchial problems but consented to sing and asked for the audience's indulgence. I was fearing for the worst, but whatever was ailing her, she showed no ill effects. Her singing was strong and assured, with her customary dark-hued tone. Her characterization of Brunnhilde was altogether winning, exuding youthful energy at her entrance, and plenty of spunk in her interaction with Fricka. Her playful Ho-jo-to-ho was girlishly engaging. Later in the opera, her characterization darkened, with a mature, melancholic, heart-felt expression that was touching. It's clear that Stemme is now the great new Brunnhilde. American baritone Mark Delavan, whom I had heard several times before in Santa Fe and New York, possesses the beautiful voice and the intelligence and musicality for a role like Wotan, if only just a little light-weight for the part. He sang very well on June 22, with the most secure high notes I have heard from any Wotan. So it was unfortunate that his voice was a size too small for the large opera house. There were moments when he was swarmed by the orchestra, and making less of an impact as one would have liked elsewhere. I give him full credit for not pushing his instrument to achieve a bigger sound. Given the quality of his sound and his musicality, Delavan would be a perfect Wotan in smaller houses like Zurich or Dresden. Similarly, Christopher Ventris' beautiful lyric tenor was stretched by the dramatic demands of Siegmund, especially at the low end of his range. He sang beautifully in Act 1, except for a raspy high A near the end when he put too much pressure on the cords. Such a glitch was minor considering how well he sang when his performance was taken in its totality. Debuting German mezzo Janina Baechle cut a matronly figure as Fricka, and she's a bit short on top. Dramatically her Fricka was a slightly hysterical figure bothering on the caricature, but she sang well enough. A highlight of the evening was the Sieglinde of Eva Maria Westbroek, who made an impressive sound. Her high notes were firm and powerful; the quieter moments exquisite. Raymond Aceto was a suitably menacing Hunding - too bad physically he's a bit small for the large-framed Westbroek, making his manhandling of her less than believable. The valkyries were generally fine, with kudos to Tamara Wapinsky for her laser-beam high Cs as Helmwige. Francesca Zambello has some very interesting ideas for the women in this opera, with a vaguely feminist bent to her interpretation. The valkyries are made up to resemble female aviatrices, and their cheer-leader like formation at the end of the Ride of the Valkyries was an unintentionally funny moment. The part where the valkyries supposedly arrived by parachutes also brought chuckles from the audience. The set design by Michael Yeargan is a mix of the traditional and the abstract. Hunding's hut looked rather old fashioned - with all the animal heads and hunting trophies, it wouldn't look out of place as a cabin in the great outdoors of the American West. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this production is its heavy reliance on video projections at the beginning of each act. I do believe that the Ring Cycle, being a fantasy to end all fantasies, would benefit greatly from today's video technologies in its story telling. This hi-tech approach appears to be favored in recent major productions such as the Valencia Ring. Donald Runnicles conducted a beautifully paced, sensitive, lyrical performance, holding the orchestra down to allow the singers to be heard.

There's nothing high tech about the second opera I saw at SFO - a good old fashioned Faust. (Frankly I am grateful, after having suffered through several Regietheater Fausts in European houses the last few years!) Once among the most popular of operas, its star has dimmed, perhaps because its heavy religiosity doesn't sit too well with contemporary sensibilities. It's above all a singer's opera, and SFO's cast is exceptionally strong. Canadian bass John Relyea, a staple at the Met, is surely one of the greatest Mefistopheles today. He combines a sonorous and smooth basso cantante with a handsome and uncommonly charismatic stage presence - devils don't come more charming than Mr. Relyea! Italian tenor Stefano Secco is known for his bright, clarion tenor with its brilliant upper register. American soprano Patricia Racette is a singing actor through and through. This handsome production comes from the Chicago Lyric. Deftly directed by Jose Maria Condemi, the drama moves along nicely. Mind you, the cutting of the Walpurgisnacht helped to speed up a very long opera. The performance on June 23 was riveting, with Relyea a suavely insinuating Mefisto, singing with resplendent tone. Racette was a passionate and tragic Marguerite. The voice sounded a touch heavy for Marguerite and not so comfortable in the coloratura, occasionally going sharp at the end of a rising phrase. But it's an expressive and beautiful instrument. Combined her vocal qualities with an inherent dramatic instinct, Racette's Marguerite was a winning portrayal. If I were to nitpick, it would be her acting in the Jewel Song which was a little too funny - this Marguerite behaves more like Manon Lescaut! It brought hearty guffaws from the audience. But let's not forget that Marguerite is a tragic figure! As Faust, Stefano Secco wasn't the most dramatically acute performer on stage, but he sang with ardent tone and brilliant high notes, including a poised and truly lovely "Salut! Demeure." As Valentin, Brian Mulligan displayed a pleasant and youthful baritone, singing a good "Avant de quitter ces lieux". Among the supporting characters, mezzos Daniela Mack (Siebel) and Catherine Cook (Marthe) were both standouts. An old hand in this repertoire, conductor Maurizio Benini offered sympathetic support to the singers, drawing torrents of beautiful sounds from the orchestra. I liked Robert Perdziola's set design, especially with the "staircase to heaven" finale. The final performance is on Thursday, July 1.

My third show on this trip was the Puccini horse opera, La fanciulla del West in a production from Teatro Massimo in Palermo. Fanciulla is a diva vehicle pure and simple. Convention has the soprano coming on stage in Act 1 firing a pistol to break up a fight, and with all the miners calling out "Minnie! Hello Minnie!" - talk about an operatic grand entrance! The best exponent of this role for me was Renata Tebaldi, whom I saw at the Met in 1970. Her voice was past its prime, but she exuded such star quality that it was a huge success. Now we have Deborah Voigt's star turn, before she assays it at the Met and Chicago Lyric. It would be less than truthful to say Voigt's voice is in pristine shape - it has changed substantially the past few years. The sound is leaner, less opulent, a little shrill and hard at the top, and the lower register lacking solidity. But there is enough remaining - including a reliable top, coupled with engaging stage persona - to make her portrayal of Minnie an enjoyable experience. She was partnered by Sicilian tenor Salvatore Licitra, who sang with idiomatic Italianate sound. Other than the one phrase in Act 1 when he had to attack a high B which he tightened up and belted out, his Dick Johnson was very well sung. Incidentally, I heartily agree with the decision to omit putting Dick Johnson's name in the surtitles in that little exchange between Minnie and him in Act Two - there was already enough laughter from the laughter-prone audience for one evening. Baritone Roberto Frontali was an idiomatic Jack Rance, seizing the few moments of this role to shine. But the real star of the evening was the orchestra under new SFO music director Nicola Luisotti, who lavished loving care on the score, bringing out impressive, if sometimes overly loud, sounds from the orchestra. Whether one likes this "original spaghetti western" or not, this revival (first since 1979 at SFO!) offers a great opportunity to experience this rare Puccini opera. From my perspective, it makes for an entertaining evening at the theatre. There are two more performances, on June 29 and July 2.

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