Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, August 14, 2009.

Story. Hagen, son of Alberich, gets Gunther and Gutrune to give Siegfried a magic potion that erases his memory of Brunnhilde. For Siegfried to marry Gutrune, he has to get Brunnhilde for Gunther. Brunnhilde is warned by Waltraute, one of the Valkyries, to give up the ring. She will not do it as it is an emblem of love Siegfried has given her. Siegfried uses the Tarnhelm to disguise himself as Gunther, goes to the fiery rock, and takes Brunnhilde and the ring. Brunnhilde sees the ring and calls Siegfried on his deception. Enraged by Siegried's betrayal, she plots with Hagen and Gunther the murder of Siegfried and points out that the backside of Siegfried is unprotected. Siegfried is asked by the Rhine maidens to return the ring but refuses. Distracted by two ravens, Siegfried is killed by Hagen during the hunt. Everyone eventually catches on that it is the poison that started the chain of events, Gunther is killed, Guthrune commits suicide, and Brunnhilde immolates herself by walking into the funeral pyre of Siegfried. The Rhine maidens reclaim the ring and the story ends with an image of Wotan with his family.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Norns – Luretta Bybee, Stephanie Blythe, Margaret Jane Wray, Brunnhilde, Siegfried, Guther – Gordon Hawkins, Gutrune – Marie Plette, Alberich, Hagen – Daniel Sumegi, Waltraute – Stephanie Blythe, Flosshilde – Jennifer Hines, Wellgunde – Michele Losier, Woglinde – Julianne Gearhart.

All good things have to come to an end. Actually, all things have to come to an end. The ring cycle concludes with tonight's performance that lasted 5 ½ hours. The three acts are of durations 117, 64, and 77 minutes per the board by the entrance, and there are two 30-minute intermissions.

Technical problems prevented the curtains to be raised at the right time (twice) and the orchestra had to do a re-start. The explanation given by Speight Jenkins was a computer glitch, true or convenient, I don't know. At least he had the courage and decency to take responsibility, which is good.

This is the most interesting of the 4 operas. The story goes along at a good pace, and the singing was generally good. Stephanie Bythe, who played Fricka in earlier episodes, came back as a Norn and Walttraute (one of the Valkyries) and did an excellent job. She would be a most famous diva if she were a bit lighter and has another 3 notes or so in her range. I recall enjoying her singing as a witch in Rusalka.

I was expecting a lot of fire for the last scene and looked forward to it with anticipation. Alas, it was images of fires offstage and projected onto the curtain. The overall effect was interesting but at the end disappointing. The singing during this last scene was powerful, but failed to move the audience that a scene of such emotion generally would.

However, they did save the best for last.

Indeed the Ring is a challenge for everyone involved. I found myself drifting off every now and then (no doubt in part due to our doing other things during the week), but the artists couldn't do so. The conductor, who had to be “on” during the whole time, probably had the hardest mental job. Everyone else gets to relax here and there, but the conductor had no rest. The orchestra generally did okay, but there were some serious lapses. Tonight there were many passages that sounded very confused.

Countless books have been written and lectures have been given on the Ring. And I imagine there is a lot to study and learn about the topic. Wagner, after all, spent over 30 years (including the 12-year hiatus) composing the work. However, I suspect the story isn't really completely nailed down, and no amount of scholarly study would fix that problem. Another inevitability is comparison with Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien epic hangs together much better in terms of character development. The reader knows whom he should be rooting for.

Wagner may have decided to write his characters in such a way that they all have their strong points and character flaws. Instead of good triumphing over evil, everything gets destroyed at the end. (That doesn't explain why we see Wotan and family at the end, though.) The lecturer said the title could be translated “Gods' Gloaming”, thus not distinguishing between dawn or twilight. I don't see how Valhalla's destruction can be read as anything but “Twilight of the Gods.” In the end, there is not much moral to this story.

So, my feelings are mixed. I admire the effort in putting the Ring together, and am glad I sat through it (even though I dozed off a few times.) Beyond that I don't have much to say. Perhaps my appreciation will increase with time, or with additional attendance in other Ring cycles. Not sure how likely that would be, though.

Note added 9/20/2009. I couldn't find a review of the performances after I returned to NJ. However, today I saw a New York Times Article that talks about the Ring in general and the Seattle performances in particular. Rather interesting take on the subject, not a review though.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Siegfried, August 12, 2009.

Story. Siegfried's mother Sieglinde dies after giving birth to him, and he is raised by Alberich's brother Mime to be a brave young man. Siegfried manages to restore the sword Nothung and uses it to slay Fafner who has turned into a dragon to guard the ring and the gold. After tasting the dragon's blood, Siegfried can understand the woodbird which leads him to the fiery rock where Brunnhilde is sleeping. He wakes her up by kissing her and the two eventually fall in love.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Mime – Dennis Petersen, Siegfried – Stig Andersen, The Bear – JC Casiano, The Wanderer – Greer Grimsley, Alberich, Fafner, Forest Bird – Julianne Gearhart, Erda, Brunnhilde, Horn Call – Mark Robins.

This is a rather simple story, and at no time do they have more than three actors on the stage (as far as I can remember). And somehow Wagner manages to write a 4-hour opera (plus an hour of intermission) out of it.

Someone said it best about how simple the story was: Siegfried grows up, kills his foster father Mime, restores the sword, kills the dragon, revives Brunnhilde and marries her. So I should be excused to find the opera a bit drawn out (I am sure Anne fell asleep during the show) and a bit tough to focus at times.

Yesterday was a day off for the Ring. Anne and I flew down to San Francisco to have dinner with Ellie, Joe and Jessica. This morning we woke up at 6 am, had breakfast with Joe and Jessica, flew back up to Seattle, checked in at the hotel, and walked to Seattle Center to catch the 4:30 pm lecture. That craziness may have contributed to how tired I feel also. Perhaps the lesson here is: focus on going to the concerts and don’t try to squeeze so many other things. Fat chance.

A few words on some interesting facts we learned from the lectures so far. Wagner wrote the libretti first (beginning around 1848), starting with Gotterdammerung and working backwards to Das Rheingold. Music, however, was written in “chronological” order. But between Acts II and III of this third opera were 12 or so years during which Wagner worked on other projects including Tristan and Isolde and Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg. His style supposed changed considerably during this time. I frankly would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Before the opera began, a gentleman (Speight Jenkins) came on stage to make a short announcement: Stig Andersen had been sick but felt good enough to sing the role of Siegfried. I had never heard Andersen before so didn’t know how he would sound if he was 100% healthy; as it was, he sounded quite weak.

Given the prominent role of Siegfried in this and the last opera, it was a surprise to us that he was basically a young and somewhat crude boy. The notes did say Wagner probably didn’t realize it would be difficult to get a young tenor to sing such a demanding role. While there was nothing “wrong” with Siegfried, he wasn’t a sympathetic figure as he went about his bumbling ways. Perhaps we would get a deeper insight if we see the opera for a second time?

While Wagner had well-defined leitmotifs (Valhalla’s is particularly distinct), most of the time they appear in the orchestral music, the singing is usually part of the “accompaniment” (for lack of a better word.) I am sure people with better knowledge of Wagner’s music would appreciate this arrangement, but to me it is a bit hard to follow. I get the same reaction with his other operas such as The Flying Dutchman and Tristan & Isolde.

A rather disappointing opera that I might have appreciated more if I had not tired myself out.

Seattle Opera – Wagner’s Die Walkure. August 10, 2009.

Story. See previous blog.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Siegmund – Stuart Skelton, Sieglinde – Margaret Jane Wray, Hunding, Wotan, Brunnhilde – Janice Baird, Fricka, Gerhilde – Miriam Murphy, Helmwige – Sally Wolf, Waltraute – Luretta Bybee, Schwertleite – Jennifer Hines, Ortlinde – Marie Plette, Siegrune – Sarah Heltzel, Grimgerde – Michele Losier, Rossweisse – Maria Streijffert.

During the pre-concert talk, Jonathan Dean drew parallels between characters in Das Rheingold and Die Walkuries. Indeed some singers take on other roles in other operas. For instance, Michele Rosier, Jennifer Hines and Maria Streijffert are cast as Valkyries.

We saw the same opera at the Met in February, 2008, and comparison with that performance - with Lorin Maazel conducting, and Deborah Voight in the role of Sieglinde – unavoidable. I remember enjoying that concert very much (such memory is confirmed by re-reading the blog), and Seattle Opera comes up considerably short in comparison. The only aspect Seattle excels in comparison is the fire scene, they do better pyrotechnics here. My complaints regarding Das Rheingold apply here. Janice Baird, singing Brunnhilde, will figure prominently in this and subsequent operas. Her singing is fine, albeit unsteady at times.

In seeing this opera for the second time, more issues come into focus. Fricka, for example, expressed her reservations about Sigmund and Sieglinde getting married since they are twins. I understand a bit better how Wotan felt about Brunnhilde’s betrayal. Perhaps the English subtitles are clearer, or just because seeing something a second time always helps.

I overheard someone saying this is his third Ring. I wonder if I would have the urge to do that. Certainly not now!

Seattle Opera - Wagner’s Das Rheingold, August 9, 2009.

McCaw Hall, Second Tier, Aisle S (Seat N3, $118.50)

Anne and I are on our own “quest” for the Ring. Not that we love Wagner so much, but we are rather curious about the stamina required (both of the artists and the audience) and would like to experience it for ourselves. The four operas in the series total about 14 hours (17 hours with intermissions). We initially booked tickets to the series at the Washington DC Opera for later this summer, but that got canceled because of financial problems at that organization. Turns out the Met announced its own Ring series right about we bought tickets to the DC series, and all the moderately priced seats were gone by the time we looked. That left Seattle, which still had reasonably priced tickets left. We also bought tickets to the pre-concert talks for $8 a session.

When we bought the tickets, we thought it would be nice to spend a week during the summer in Seattle anyway. Despite it notorious always-overcast reputation, our prior visits to Seattle have been enjoyable. As things turn out, Ellie is now in San Francisco on her fellowship, and Joe and Jessica will be there on August 11. So we decided to fly down on the day “off” to SFO to meet up with them for dinner. (I am on UA133 SEA-SFO as I type this.) It was rainy as we drove to the airport this morning, and it was overcast yesterday, so perhaps we are not missing much on the touring end.

I unfortunately caught a cold just before I left New Jersey, the coughing hasn't been so bad (and manageable with OTC drugs), but the sinus problem is causing my right ear to feel really clogged up. While bearable, it does make me a bit grumpy.

All said and done, this trip is going to cost quite a bit of money. Much more than just biting the bullet and buying the better seats at the Met. I wonder how I would feel when it is all said and done.

On with the review ...

Story. Alberich the Nibelung steals the Rheingold from the Rhine, and forges a ring from it that gives him a lot of power. He also has a Tranhelm (helmet) made that can turn him into any form he chooses. Wotan asks the giants Fafner and Fasolt to complete Valhalla for him in exchange for Friea. Wotan's wife Fricka gets Wotan to try to “renegotiate” the deal. Wotan and Loge manage to trick Alberich to turn himself into a toad, capture him, and wrest the gold and ring away from him. Alberich curses anyone who would subsequently possess the ring. The giants agree to take the gold and the ring, and immediately Fafner kills Fasolt. Wotan then retreats to Valhalla.

Conductor – Robert Spano; Woglinde – Julianne Gearhart, Wellgunde – Michele Losier, Flosshilde – Jennifer Hines, Alberich – Richard Paul Fink, Fricka – Stephanie Blythe, Wotan – Greer Grimsley, Freia – Marie Plette, Fasolt – Andrea Silvestrelli, Fafner – Daniel Sumegi, Froh – Jason Collins, Donner – Gordon Hawkins, Loge – Kobie van Rensburg, Mime – Dennis Petersen, Erda – Maria Streijffert.

The lecture was given by Jonathan Dean, who provided the translation for the subtitles. His talk was a bit long at an hour or so, leaving no time to do anything between the talk and the concert (e.g., to get some decent food.) Since we are not here to gorge ourselves on food, the sandwich we shared afterwards was okay (we bought some cup of noodles after the concert.)

One would expect from these pre-concert talks some historical background, why the music is significant, and in the case of the Ring, a description of the leitmotifs. We get that. However, the speaker felt the need to add a considerable amount of post-modern and green-crazy editorial remarks to his speech that I find unnecessary and contrived. The set for the Seattle Ring is called “green” I think mainly due to the heavy use of trees and woods. Ecology conscious, perhaps, but certainly not ecological.

He did have a few interesting observations. One was how Wagner weaved together old Germanic myths, Greek tragedies, heavy romantic music, and philosophical questions into the operas. The other was how the characters can be grouped into water, earth, air, and fire (today's analogy would be liquid, solid, gas, and plasma, according to him). Whether he is merely quoting others, or he arrived at the insight himself, I do not know. But I find his remark that there are no/few pure good and bad characters to be very true. (I have seen two operas as I type this.)

Onto the performance. Overall the two I have seen so far are just so-so. I will make the Walkurie-specific comments in the blog on that opera.

The Hall was plunged into darkness (except for the Exit signs) for quite a while when the concert started. Then a soft sound emanated from the orchestra. A very interesting way to begin, and I have no idea how the members communicated with one another.

The beginning scene with the Rhine maidens was technically interesting. The three maidens are on harnesses that make them “swim” in the river quite effortlessly. They have to sing while being moved about in three dimensions, and move their tail fins (feet) all the time. Somehow they can keep their postures straight, spin around, and do some rather difficult passages.

As McCaw Hall was opened in 2003 or so, the poor acoustics was a surprise to me. The sound was generally muffled. This is particularly true of the orchestra which just sounded chaotic. I am sure the orchestra's playing contributed some, but the acoustics must bear some of the blame. The horns were quite unsteady, especially at the beginning. The overall playing improved as the concert went on, though. This was opening night, after all.

Most of the singing was just so-so. Wotan figures prominently in the advertising, but his voice didn't project well at all. The one notable exception is Fricka, sung by Blythe. Her voice was great and carried very well. Anne had particular problems with the giants, although I found their style quite appropriate for the roles.

Dean pointed out in this opera there are no human beings. Other than broad brushes, I don't find it very important to distinguish one type of being from another (gods, demi-gods, giants, Nibelungs, humans, etc.) Books have been written about the Ring on issues that Wagner probably wouldn't have imagined,

This opera is the shortest of the four at 2 hours 30 minutes, no intermission. It was generally okay. I wonder how we would feel about the series after our last concert Friday.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra - Edward Gardner, conductor. August 1, 2009.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat U116, $30).

Overture to Die Zauberflote, K. 620 (1791) by Mozart.
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456 (1784) by Mozart.
Serande for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943) by Britten.
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543 (1788) by Mozart.

Toby Spence, Tenor; Lawrence DiBello, Horn; Piotr Anderszewski, Piano.

This was the first MM concert we attended despite having lived in the area for 30 years. I guess there were no compelling reasons to go to one; the concerts occur during the summer and we are usually too tired from the regular season to want to make it into NYC. While the programs tend to contain works by other composers, an all-Mozart concert is a bit much for me: another reason for my general lack of excitement.

We got half-price tickets from (we did have to pay $6.50 each for processing fee). The concert was quite well attended, there were many people outside looking to buy tickets. Our seats were quite good. They also had seats on the stage.

The overture was well-done and (unfortunately) set expectations that were not met by the rest of the program. The orchestra was precise, the dynamic range was good, and the music had a bounciness to it that was enjoyable.

I was not familiar with the piano concerto. At 30 minutes it is on the long side for Mozart. Anderszewski's performance is okay but not inspiring. Anne and I agree he pounds on the instrument a bit much. The performance reminds me of the one by Mustonen, described as quirky by a critic. The concerto contains the traditional movements Allegro vivace, Andante un poco sostenuto, and Allegro vivace.

Britten's Seranade was written with his companion Peter Pears in mind. It is an interesting construction utilizing diverse poems written by different authors. The piece is bookended by a prologue and epilogue played by the horn, with the epilogue played off stage. The horn player left during the last movement (the Sonnet), bringing with him the mute that we never saw him use. The movements of the work are (i) Pastoral, text by Charles Cotton; (ii) Nocturne, Lord Tennyson; (iii) Elegy, William Blake; (iv) Dirge, anonymous "Lyke-Wake" Dirge; (v) Hymn, Ben Jonson; and (vi) Sonnet, John Keats. One feels that the horn player (the principal horn of the orchestra) was out of his league. While he probably got most/all of the notes, the sound was quite muddled. The tenor is a young Englishman. His voice projected quite well, but the falsetto was a bit too obvious.

The Symphony was also unfamiliar. The program notes describes this as the least commonly played of the "Final Trilogy" written by Mozart during the summer of 1788. By this time the orchestra's playing was not nearly as precise as it was at the beginning. Sounds were muddled, precision was off, and the crispness that one would like to hear had by-and-large disappeared. Perhaps the program (three 30-minutes pieces and the overture) was a bit long and the artists' couldn't hold their concentration that long? The symphony's four movements are Adagio - Allegro; Andante con moto; Menuetto: Allegreto; and Finale: Allegro.

I don't have much to say about the conductor other than he is another young Englishman.

At the end of the day, what matters is that it was still an enjoyable evening. However, this concert is definitely in the take-it-or-leave-it category. Despite our plans to travel during the month, we may still be able to make a couple of additional concerts. Will we? Stay tuned.