Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Correspondence with Stephen

January 5th, 2006

November, 2005

I enjoyed the site very much. Looking forward to reading more. I think we were both at that Faust; some of them are still alive. Wild horses couldn’t drag me to a performance of that opera these days, though. It just hasn’t worn well with me. But of course then, it was sheer magic. Keep sending . . . Best, Stephen

Thanks, Stephen. Gounod’s “Faust” has achieved a high degree of critical disrespect over the nearly a century and a half of its existence, and certainly does not wear well if performances are poorly executed (what opera does?). I think we are in a period where the French operas of the mid-19th century are being re-evaluated. Obviously, a new production of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” was a big hit in both San Diego (2003) and San Francisco (2005), and Los Angeles was treated to a stunning presentation of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliette” with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko earlier this year. I had the good fortune to be present for performances of all three.

“Faust” still needs a major new production in San Francisco, that treats it seriously and plays it straight, but the commitment to the opera by Covent Garden and the Metropolitan over the last year or two is a sign that the opera’s hold on the repertory is strengthening. I will have a lot more to say about “Faust” over the next several weeks. However, I believe the “sheer magic” in the opera is possible to revive.

December, 2005

Hi Bill: I’m anxious to read your review of PARSIFAL. I saw an earlier performance and Domingo was in beautiful voice. Sorry he was a little under the weather for you. Have to rush at the moment, but after the holidays we’ll chat about the Wilson production. Your website is wonderful. Best, Stephen

Hi Stephen. My comments about “Richard Wagner’s Parsifal” (the music review) are found in the entry “Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound Parsifal”. My comments about “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” (the production review) are found in the entry “Robert Wilson’s ‘Parsifal’ in L A – Whose Spell is it Anyway?”

January, 2006

Hi Bill –

I will reply to your “Parsifal” comments . . . (found the production a revelation; stand by for blinding light!)

More soon, Stephen

Hi Stephen –

I have entitled those comments “More on the L. A. Parsifal: the Case for Wilson’s Spell” and have given them their own webpage in the “Guest Reviews” section of the website.

Hi Bill –

Re: the Santa Fe “Italiana”: it was a hoot from first note to last, and, in fact, through the aisles of the theatre during the overture, miniature planes were flown on the ends of long sticks manipulated by stagehands all in black — a la Noh Theatre. It was fabulous.

By all means skip this coming summer in Santa Fe. It is the drabbest season anyone can remember! The word is out from friends I have who are affiliated there (or were –one resigned last month).

Thanks for posting [my comments on Robert Wilson’s “Parsifal”.] What did you think of my ideas?

Best, Stephen

Your thoughts are very interesting, and I am still sorting them through in my mind. Let me know your take on the Youth who accompanies Amfortas.

Well, the youth can be just about anything, but I saw him as the pure innocence of Parsifal, and of, what once was, that of Amfortas as well; he is perhaps the promise of redemption as well (it is he who first steps off the rhythm of the Grail music), or something like that.

Best, Stephen

We can certainly speculate on whether a person who has been dead for almost 125 years would approve of a production that strays far from his directions. We know a quote of his that appears to express frustration that existing stage and lighting technology in the latter part of the 19th century did not match his ideas. You and I are guessing what his reaction would be; but, of course, whatever that guess is, there is no way to ever know what Wagner would actually say. MY guess is that he would like a lot of the lighting ideas, and might agree with some of the efforts to make the sets less concrete and with less emphasis on picture postcard realism.

But I also believe he would not have approved of any attempts to abolish what Wilson apparently regards as merely stage props and old-fashioned stage directions. My companions at the performance I attended, Tom and Andrew, were outraged at the idea of the Holy Grail being ice and fire instead of a cup — THE cup — towards which centuries of medieval effort and bravado was directed. The Kiss and Kundry’s bathing of Parsifal’s feet, to refer to two actions that most Wagnerians had assumed were crucial to the story, apparently were uninteresting to Wilson. As you have read in my critique of the production, my thinking may be closer to Tom and Andrew than to yours on these points, and I do believe Wagner would be in our corner also.

However, you were a student of persons composed of Richard Wagner’s DNA, and I value your thoughts on these matters. You got me hooked on opera in general and Wagner in particular by encouraging me to follow the Met’s 1954 broadcast of “Tannhauser” with its piano score. The two of us as teenagers saw our first Wagner together — San Francisco Opera’s “Walkuere” production in 1956 (on its post-season tour of Los Angeles) that introduced Birgit Nillson and Leonie Rysanek to the United States.

You were with me and my wife sitting in the first row in San Francisco just behind conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn when Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s new production of “Fliegende Hollaender” introduced me to the tenth of Wagner’s ten most important operas. It is my intention to continue to reflect on what you regard as important insights that Wilson brings to “Parsifal”. I have no doubt that we both get “Parsifal”. I am not yet sure that we both get all of Robert Wilson.

By the way, my desert island opera would be the Ring. If it were required that I could have only one of the four, it would be “Goetterdaemerung”.


Hi Bill –

Thank you for your comments. They are very interesting. I certainly do agree about both the kiss and the foot washing; as I told you the two principals [Domingo and Watson] were both very saddened by the absence of these in the production, and so was I. They ARE crucial.

While I was at Bayreuth the joke of 1966 was how Wieland Wagner managed to stage the descending dove at the end of PARSIFAL so that ONLY [conductor Hans] Knappertsbusch could see it. (He had died in ’65.) He would not conduct without it and Wieland hated the bird so — no one told the old man, and he died smiling, one may assume. And so it goes. The world went into a swivet in ’24 when Siegfried Wagner stripped “Tannhauser” of a lot of its trappings; that was STILL being discussed Bayreuth in ’66 (no business is EVER finished there!). Whatever Wilson does or does not do, there is an intelligence behind it that generally I respect.

By the way, I have read that more than one critic thinks GOETTERDAEMERUNG [to be] Wagner’s most successful and fully accomplished music drama! It is sure hard to beat!

I remember [Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1975 San Francisco Opera] “Hollander” very fondly. Generally known and recalled now as “the Tea Cozy” Hollander! I also recall that your wife was or is not fond of Wagner.

She gets great delight in offering her first row San Francisco Opera seat for the “Wagners” to those infected with the Wagner bug. This includes our younger son, who, as a child would watch the videotapes of Patrice Chereau’s “Ring” with fascination. In fact, he, along with myself, Tom and Andrew, attended all four operas of the latest San Francisco “Ring” (1999). He saw his first performance of “Walkuere” at about the same age as we did, and “did” the Ring at age 19, at a much earlier age than I first experienced it.

It was Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times who referred to Ponnelle’s costumes for the women at their spinning wheels and the women on shore (excitedly hopping up and down in anticipation the sailors returning on Daland’s ship) as “tea cozies”.

Hi Bill –

I remember Friedelind Wagner cackling in delight as she introducted [Patrice] Chereau to her formidable mother (whom I met several times) — the terrifying Winifred, who had loudly exclaimed how she hated the Chereau RING. The Wagners love to do horrible things to each other. Apparently, Winnie and Patrice were very civil to each other.

Best, Stephen

Tags: General correspondence