Friday, August 30, 2013

Lotfi Mansouri (1929-2013)

Sad news: Lotfi Mansouri, the inventive and tireless former general director of the San Francisco Opera, has died at 84. Obituary is here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

SFS Personnel

From the press department at the SF Symphony comes word of new developments on the orchestra roster:

Jacob Nissly, formerly of the Cleveland Orchestra, succeeds the retired Jack Van Geem as principal percussion.

Alex Orfaly steps in as acting principal timpani for one year while David Herbert cases the situation in Chicago. In addition to being a percussionist, Orfaly is apparently a composer of some ability. Interesting!

Jonathan Fischer, who's been on leave while serving as principal oboe with the Houston Symphony, will be acting principal oboe in the wake of Bill Bennett's death, although he'll be splitting his time between here and Texas.

Dan Nobuhiko Smiley, who's been principal second violin for several years, has evidently elected to move down to fourth chair, leaving Dan Carlson, Paul Brancato and John Chisholm to each move up a notch. I can't help remarking that Smiley's predecessor, Daniel Kobialka (in the SFS, all second violinists are named Dan), also self-demoted.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Domingo Day

I spent a little time today trying to set up a quick phoner with Plácido Domingo in advance of his upcoming appearance at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. During that window,

• the SF Symphony announced that Domingo will be joining MTT and the orchestra in January for an 80th birthday celebration of Gordon Getty — the first time he's appeared with the Symphony since 1973;

• it turns out that one of the two winners of Domingo's Operalia competition over the weekend was the baritone Ao Li, well known in these parts as a fine Adler Fellow, and

• Domingo's new CD of Verdi baritone arias came sailing through the mail slot.

That's a lot of Domingo for one afternoon.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oggi il mio nome non è Dolora

Lisa Hirsch had scoped it out before the e-mail had even made it out of the SF Opera press department: Dolora Zajick won't be singing the title role in Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, which was written for her. She'll be replaced by Patricia Racette for the first four of the six performances, followed by Catherine Cook, who's been covering the role from the get-go.

Zajick's statement says the assignment "proved to be more challenging physically and vocally than I had anticipated, and, exacerbated by my knee problems, I feel it is best to withdraw at this point rather than try to push forward."

Racette, of course, is already on the schedule for Marguerite and Elena in Mefistofele, as well as Show Boat and Butterfly come next June. A number of years ago, when she sang a Violetta here that was the lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary Traviata, I suggested that the company's smart move would be just to "hire Racette for everything." I was, y'know, kidding.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Götterdämmerung in Seattle (Shamefully Belated)

Well, this is why the smart move is to keep your blogging up-to-date (and why newspaper deadlines, as onerous as they are, are necessary aids for some of us). Otherwise you leave Ring-ville — and the all-encompassing mindset that comes with a full week's immersion in Wagner's masterpiece — and return to your everyday life with all its attendant obligations and trivia, and before you know it the sense of the experience is starting to slip away. And you cry, "Verweile doch! du bist so schön!" but good luck with that.

In any case, the Götterdämmerung of the first Seattle cycle (we're talking August 9 now) was very much in keeping with what had come before. Alwyn Mellor, the scheduled Brünnhilde, was still under the weather, which meant that Lori Phillips stepped in once again, as she'd done for the third act of Siegfried — and that in turn meant that between her and tenor Stefan Vinke, this performance boasted the single best Brünnfried combo the Stephen Wadsworth production has yet witnessed. I wouldn't want to venture much of an opinion about Mellor on the basis of her Walküre Brünnhilde, but Phillips — even with some understudy shakiness — sure seems like the real deal. She's got a big, tireless voice with enough color and clarity to do more than simply ride out the assignment; she brought pathos and emotional transparency to Act 2; and if her final Immolation wasn't quite the commanding flame-out one might dream of, it was still a forceful and canny response to the scene's challenges.

Vinke, meanwhile, improved even further on his Siegfried Siegfried, adding greater musical suavity on top of the virtues of physical stamina and theatrical vividness. I'd complained about a lack of color in his sound, but for the cycle's finale he brought out a new range of tonalities that hadn't been evident before. In particular, when Siegfried pledged to Brünnhilde before drinking the potion, there was a ringing sweetness to Vinke's delivery that was absolutely heartbreaking; you could hear the depth of his love, and feel keenly how much everything was about to go astray (cheap irony, perhaps, but damned effective). The Act 3 scene with the Rhinemaidens (one of Wadsworth's most wonderful comic inventions) played as delightfully as ever.

The Gibichungs were a mixed bag, with Wendy Bryn Harmer's sympathetic and strong-willed Gutrune in marked contrast to Markus Brück's weaker-than-necessary Gunther. Daniel Sumegi was a rather unprepossessing Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, who was a superb Hagen in San Francisco two years back, was on hand singing Fasolt and Hunding, but I guess they decided to go a different way). Asher Fisch conducted with the same blend of sonic finesse and rhythmic flabbiness that he'd brought to the entire cycle.

And, as always, there was what I now think of as the Stephanie Blythe Problem — the fact that she's such a powerhouse, both vocally and theatrically, that nothing else seems to matter when she's on the stage. One of the great things about the burgeoning strength of Greer Grimsley's Wotan is that he can actually hold the stage with Blythe. But the Norns scene in Götterdämmerung was a weirdly imbalanced spectacle that seemed to be all about the Second Norn and two other gals who didn't really matter. And as good as Lori Phillips' Brünnhilde was, once Blythe appeared as Waltraute she became the focus of the entire drama.

Beyond anything having to do with casting or specific moments, though, the evening's biggest emotional charge involved saying goodbye to this magnificent production, with its extraordinary combination of visual splendor and dramatic specificity. I've gone to Seattle every four years just because I can't bear to let an opportunity pass to experience it — to see Thomas Lynch's impeccably detailed storybook sets, their colors sumptuously lit by Peter Kaczorowski; to watch the Rhinemaidens do their aqueous ballet far above the stage and see the jets of fire spring up around Brünnhilde's mountain; and above all, to go along with the characters in Wadsworth's deeply felt and precisely etched staging. Aw, hell. Alles was ist, endet — but still.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Siegfried in Seattle

The vocal and dramatic demands that Wagner piled onto the title role of Siegfried are, on the face of it, absurd: hours of singing at full voice above a crashing orchestra, running around like a hopped-up teenager, conveying the character's strange blend of arrogance and naïveté and heroic strength, all before settling in for a marathon love duet opposite a well-rested soprano. It's absurd, that is, until you witness someone pull it off as handsomely as Stefan Vinke did during Wednesday's Seattle Opera performance, at which point you think, "Well, maybe that wasn't so hard." But also: "Zowie."

Siegfried has been a bit of a star-crossed assignment for the Stephen Wadsworth Ring ever since it was new 12 years ago; the tenors who have come through have never been all-out failures, but they've never fully measured up either (and one of them tripped over an exercise machine right before the opera, leaving him able to sing but not to appear on stage). Vinke, a young German artist, is the strongest Siegfried this production has had yet, a fount of seemingly endless vocal power with the physical stamina and youthful persona to go with it. Act 1 was scarcely underway before he made it clear how effortlessly he was going to sail through the challenges of the role, and everything that followed made good on the promise. His "Forging Song" was lusty and rhythmically robust, the comic bits of Act 2 were lively and genuinely amusing (if perhaps a little overextended when it came to reed-cutting), and Vinke spent Act 3 pouring out waves of ardent romantic sound. There's one downside to Vinke's singing, which is that his tone isn't especially bright or colorful; it tends a bit toward the gray. But hearing the role sung and embodied with such fervor is more than adequate compensation.

Wednesday's performance brought another, equally memorable thrill, which was soprano Lori Phillips' full-throated and beautifully expressive Brünnhilde. Phillips — the cover for Alwyn Mellor, who was ailing — is a graduate of the Opera San Jose program (although I don't recall ever having encountered her there), who's gone on to sing Senta at the Met and elsewhere, and most recently, Turandot here. You don't usually want to face any last-minute substitutions in the Ring, and certainly not Brünnhilde; but Phillips gave a superb performance, marked by throaty, richly colored vocalism and a wonderfully focused theatrical demeanor. If there were any fumbles in the staging, they didn't register in the audience.

Alongside Vinke and Phillips, the evening boasted two well-established assets: the dark-hued, majestic Wanderer of Greer Grimsley and the twitchy, malevolent but radiantly sung Mime of Dennis Petersen. Their quiz-show face-off in Act 1 was as dramatically charged as I've ever seen it. Richard Paul Fink's return as Alberich carried plenty of malice alongside a certain wounded nobility that made the twinning of him and Wotan feel plausible. Only Lucille Beer's watery, out-of-tune Erda (no better here than it had been during Rheingold three nights earlier) let down the side.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Walküre in Seattle

Even more overtly than Rheingold, the Walküre of the Seattle Ring staged by Stephen Wadsworth is all about the marriage of Wotan and Fricka, and the fierce and richly argued scene between them at the beginning of Act 2 is both the dramatic turning point of the entire cycle and the production's most probing bit of stagecraft. Everything about their relationship that was established in Rheingold — from the deep erotic undercurrent that informs their dealings to the sense of moral parity that they both depend on — pays off here in a transaction of terrific transparency. Fricka doesn't wear Wotan down with legalisms or merely badger him into submission. Rather, she reminds him — forcefully and sometimes wordlessly — that she is every bit his intellectual and moral equal, and that when she tells him Siegmund has to die he can trust that she knows what she's talking about. Wotan's final capitulation ("Nimm den Eid!") is neither grudging nor despairing; it carries a sense of relief, the knowledge that for the moment at least, his helpmeet has guided him onto the right path. Regrets and complications come later.

It helps that Stephanie Blythe has been the Fricka in every go-round of this production — her dramatic and vocal majesty growing, if anything, more assured with every revival — and that Greer Grimsley, after a shaky start in 2005, has fully grown into the demands of his role. On Monday night, both of them worked this scene with the skill of practiced masters, infusing their singing with effortless, surging vocal power that only added to the moral urgency of the interaction. It was breathtaking stuff.

And the rest of the performance was nearly as fine, beginning with an emotionally charged Act 1 built around the gifts of Stuart Skelton, Margaret Jane Wray and Andrea Silvestrelli. Wadsworth's staging in the first half of the act is taut and physically constrained, with a lot of pacing and watchfulness, so that when the Wälsungs do finally burst out of the hut into the flush of love the moment carries a kinetic charge (Peter Kaczorowski's lighting is superb here, switching from shadowy moonlight to brightness without a hint of sentimentality). The precision with which Wadsworth and his cast differentiate the Valkyries at the beginning of Act 3, and the fact that their high jinks are actually funny, continues to amaze. Another unforgettable moment is the dying fall that Silvestrelli (a huge man) takes at the end of Act 2, fearlessly toppling to the stage like a felled oak.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Alwyn Mellor's Brünnhilde — especially with two more operas to go — but her singing on Monday was rather bland, and her characterization stood out in this context for it lack of nuance. There was plenty of kittenish bouncing around in Act 2 and a sudden flood of pathos in Act 3, none of which seemed built on a solid dramatic foundation. Mellor has the laser-like power and precision for the challenging high notes (although her singing fades a bit in the middle), and she clearly has the stamina for this assignment. So far, though, she hasn't brought much zest or electricity to the role. Nor has conductor Asher Fisch — even with splendid playing from the orchestra — given the proceedings the propulsiveness they need. Siegmund's frantic opening dash through the forest sounded more like a midnight jog; I've never missed Donald Runnicles' ferocious rhythmic leadership so acutely.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Rheingold in Seattle

Greer Grimsley as Wotan (photo Alan Alabastro)
The simultaneous appearance of Frank Castorf's bizarre-sounding new Ring at Bayreuth and the final quadrennial outing of the Seattle Opera's achingly beautiful and perfectly traditional Ring is the kind of thing that would cause you to mistrust the writer if you happened upon it in a novel. The contrasts are too glib and obvious — yet another case, in an old friend's ever-useful formulation, of "life imitating bad art." (Although I would love to actually read a novel, even a crappy one, in which competing Ring productions were a governing metaphor for ... well, for anything.)

In place of crocodiles and blow jobs, director Stephen Wadsworth gives us a spear and a rainbow bridge and chain-mail headgear, as well as various other items and situations that can be encountered in Wagner's libretto. This, of course, is not necessarily a desideratum in its own right; a by-the-books approach is perfectly capable of being dull and predictable. But it does clear the decks, as it were, for some uncluttered attention on the musical and dramatic specifics of the work. And a director as brilliantly sensitive as Wadsworth can bring out worlds of emotion and moral complexity without resorting to shock tactics or cheap symbolism.

The Rheingold that opened the first cycle on Sunday night focused chiefly on two themes that will resonate throughout the ensuing operas: love, and the intricate moral calculus underlying the entire drama. The portrayal of Wotan and Fricka's relationship — sexy, profound, and prickly — is one of the great triumphs of Wadsworth's staging, especially in the extraordinarily nuanced and sure-footed performances by Greer Grimsley and Stephanie Blythe. These two share a deep bond whose vicissitudes have nothing to do with henpeckery or ball-and-chain cliches.

At the beginning of Scene 2, Fricka wakes her husband from sleep with a long, impassioned kiss that stiffens his entire body (no blow jobs here, but at least one implied boner); and the pride with which she gazes on the new-built Valhalla carries a poignant suggestion that there was a time, at least, when this was a shared project between them. What subsequently happens to that feeling, and to the changing emotional tenor of their long marriage, has its roots in that first scene.

The other thing Wadsworth zeroes in on is the moral imbalance unleashed by the chain of thefts in Rheingold — Alberich from the Rhinemaidens, Wotan from Alberich. Four years ago, Wadsworth had Fricka stay behind as the other gods passed into Valhalla, mourning the corpse of Fasolt as the first in a series of victims of the ring's curse. This time, Loge joins her, expostulating silently about the urgent need to get the ring back into the Rhine now. I'm not sure I quite buy this idea, which is at odds with Loge's studied cynicism, but it adds an interesting layer to the scene.

On top of the precision and specificity of Wadsworth's Personenregie, there is the utter visual beauty of this production — the gleaming greens and blacks of Thomas Lynch's mountaintop sets, Peter Kaczorowski's expressive lighting and the sumptuous colors of the late Martin Pakledinaz's costumes. After the final notes of the opera and before the actual bows begin, the curtain rises on a magnificent tableau, with the entire cast splayed across the stage with all the glamour and care of a Vanity Fair cover. It's pure delight.

Grimsley and Blythe were the vocal as well as dramatic stars of Sunday's performance, turning in performances of effortless power and tonal elegance. Richard Paul Fink, Seattle's Alberich since seemingly forever, returned in all his dark-toned malevolence, and there were superb contributions by Mark Schowalter as Loge, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia and Ric Furman as a clarion-voiced Froh.

The weak spot in the Seattle Ring has always been the conducting, which has never quite measured up to what was on stage. After his splendid San Francisco Symphony debut in October, I was hoping Asher Fisch might be the one to break that curse, but his efforts were inconsistent; there was some fine orchestral work (especially during Donner's mustering of the storm clouds), but rhythmically the performance tended to be a little sluggish. Perhaps that will improve as the week progresses.

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Bit o' Britten

The folks at SF Opera have reached a labor agreement that will allow them to broadcast some of the performances from the archives — beginning this Sunday with the 1976 production of Peter Grimes featuring Jon Vickers, Heather Harper and Geraint Evans (8 p.m. on KDFC).

It's a wee gesture, I guess, to mark the composer's centennial, and personally, I would have welcomed an actual mainstage production alongside the Verdi and Wagner. But look, we take what we can get.