Opera Warhorses

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

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Dropping in on the Adler years: A bit more on the 1979 season . . .

April 8th, 2011

After sampling another batch of historic broadcasts, Arthur Bloomfield our guest commentator (and historian of the San Francisco Opera) writes:

When the Adler Years were settled into their cruising altitude back in the 1970s  there was usually a frisson when that earlierday auteur director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle came up with a new production. And there were quite a few of these conversation pieces as San Francisco was one of his major launching pads — Zurich was another.

By 1979 when his ’75 reconfiguring of Wagner’s Die Fliegende Hollander was revived, opera patrons were still arguing over this show that merged the roles of Erik and the Steersman and made, in fact, the first of these characters nothing other than the dream of the other. Certainly in its original presentation Ponnelle’s “alteration” was convincing if one took a small leap into the New and Different; four years later the surprise factor was gone, but it was still possible to buy into a concept that was far from frivolous.

[Below: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1975 production of Wagner’s “Fliegende Hollaender” created for the San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]

I remember interviewing Ponnelle at a Japanese restaurant  before the premiere and, if I may quote from my history of the company, “he noted, with affection more than contempt, that Hollander ‘is a young piece, not perfect, some parts are boring, it’s not very clever sometimes . . . always for me it’s been more boring than necesary.’ And then he talked about making the opera like a dream — ‘a dream from the Steersman who sings at the beginning about his sweetheart.'”

By the way, this wasn’t the only opera turned into a dream in that pre-Cambrian era of regie theater, but the device was in its bouncing-babe stage and held promise.

[Below: John-Pierre Ponnelle in 1980; edited image, based on a photograph from Strasbourg, France.]

So – in the Ponnelle Version the Steersman is in love with Senta the boss Captain Daland’s daughter, sings a pretty song about an unspecified girl that could be her, falls asleep on Wagnerian schedule early in the first act, dreaming a big chunk of the published opera in which Erik, Wagner’s other tenor, finds himself jilted by a heroine who’s obsessed with that strange figure the Hollander and obviously should have visited Dr. Freud to be cured of her irrational behavior.

This hefty dream seems to confirm what had evidently been the Steersman’s worst fear: rejection!

Reading the text of the big Senta-Erik duet in Act 2, it does suggest a classic bad dream, Senta’s position being so damnably inflexible, like a steel door out of a snake pit that won’t budge no matter how much shoulder is applied toward getting it open so one can escape the 1001 snakes on one’s heels.

The good news is: with his rather daring (for the 1970s) meddling Ponnelle did manage to convert a fairy tale of sorts into a psychological drama more immediate for a modern audience than the original. The ur-text Erik is quite a bore, a whiner, but as a lovesick slumberer’s projection he’s less so, and that is something to be grateful for.

At all events, Hollander/79 was no mere revival. Taking over from the estimable Theo Adam in the title role was Simon Estes who had recently performed it at Bayreuth and was receiving more invitations from the San Francisco Opera than its big American brethren to the east. With a flexible, ringing bass baritone, an individual and haunting timbre, and melting beauty when called for, he qualified for the description “ideal protagonist.”

[Below: Bass-baritone Simon Estes, 1979’s Dutchman; edited image, based on a promotional photograph.]

Marius Rintzler was a plummy Daland, singing in a Baron Ochs voice so to speak to the Wotan-ish instrument of Estes. And while William Lewis that sturdy character tenor who played the Merged Tenors was not the possessor of a mellifluous instrument his pingy nasality fit perfectly the stentorian sad sack music of Erik.

In her memoirs Marita Napier the South African soprano remembers Senta as one of her favorite assignments and she certainly had her moments. A bit of a rough diamond but a diamond none the less, at her best she sang with a youthful gleam, a sulphurous baby-doll quality that was, in two words, very sexy.

Perhaps it was the mixture of heroical and quasi-soubrette in her vocal makeup that caused her to turn shrill now and then. Not a huge problem: she was the sort of singer who gets under your skin.

Then there was the conductor Christof Perick who turned in a sizzling platter of a performance, brisk, breezy, drama-involved, with spitfire crescendos, the sailors’ music full of swagger, Senta’s just senta-mental enough.

Berislav Klobucar, recommended by Birgit Nilsson, presided over an Elektra of Richard Strauss that was enormously vital from the start, combining high tension with lush lyricism and banishing the Boulezian coolness, say, of a Christoph von Dohnanyi in this repertoire. The broadcast opened as if a sling shot had been fired at the audience.

[Below: Croatian conductor Berislav Klobucar; resized image, based on a promotional photograph from www.croatianhistory.net.]

Danila Mastilovic in the title part rolled out a creamy river of sound colored with an aura of advanced neurosis and then some. Yes Dr. Freud we need you again. As a perfect foil for this ball of fire there was Leonie Rysanek with the melting pathos of her Chrysothemis. And Franz Mazura with his lirico-expressionistico baritone was a first rate Orest. According to wikipedia Mazura was a specialist in “villains and unusual people.” Well, Orest is not a villain but he does qualify as unusual, he seems to arrive from outer space.

Julius Rudel who still conducts occasionally as he hits 90 was in charge of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, betraying no insufficiency of soul but not dwelling on the wispy. He was brisk and to the point, as if Debussy’s opera were an essay in pastel verismo, not flinching from the fact it has a violent side, centering on the stark figure of Golaud the unimaginative Angry Man (hey, you see them in the newspaper every day), almost a stock villain in this perhaps too well-made story.

The contrast here was between baritones with different vocal auras, Dale Duesing pouring out the color of ardor as Pelleas, Michael Devlin’s Golaud crisp, hard shades of jealousy. For Golaud, as Cyril Connolly might have put it, Melisande is the trophy wife spied in a rarely visited china shop of his mind.

[Below: Melisande (Maria Ewing) seems unable to articulate her feelings to Pelleas (Dale Duesing); edited image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

I was less taken by the Arkel of John Macurdy who played the old king with scarcely more emotion than that required to recite the Paris telephone book. I remember many years ago the critic Cecil Smith writing that if not done with a certain passion Pelleas et Melisande will sound like readings from the mighty Bottin on the concierge’s desk.

Caught between Messrs. Devlin and Duesing, Maria Ewing was an enchanting protagonist. And how would she know that three decades later I’d develop a crush on her lookalike daughter Rebecca Hall as seen in Woody Allen’s engrossing Vicky Cristina Barcelona! Rebecca’s father is of course Sir Peter Hall — I’ll never forget his haunting direction of Ileana Cotrubas as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden, this delicate creature sitting on a garden wall like an Alice in Wonderland having stumbled into a sadder place.

Arthur Bloomfield is the author of the new e-book More Than The Notes, The Conducting of Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Stokowski and Friends, available at morethanthenotes dot com

For Bloomfield’s previous essays on his review of the broadcasts of San Francisco Opera’s 1978 and 1979 seasons, see:

Dropping in on the Adler Years: The Spirit – and High B flats – of ’79….., and

Arthur Bloomfield – Dropping in On the Final Adler Years at the San Francisco Opera: The Spirit of ’78, and

The Final Adler Seasons at the San Francisco Opera with Arthur Bloomfield – The Spirit of ’78, Part 2.

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