Fifty years ago in Los Angeles, when I saw my first Wagnerian Opera, it was the San Francisco Opera company that travelled to Southern California to share its wealth of “world class” opera performances. Now, we have had the unpleasant experience of a decade of decline in San Francisco, which the new management of David Gockley is struggling to reverse.
It is becoming increasingly obvious to many who treasure the San Francisco Opera legacy that, for a while now, one has to travel to Los Angeles and Costa Mesa, to experience the kinds of operatic performances and production values that we used to take for granted at S. F.’s War Memorial Opera House. And one of the more extraordinary aspects of this, perhaps temporary, reversal of fortune is that some considerable evidence points to the S. F. Opera Company’s last decade of pre-Gockley management as creating situations whose result is the artistic enrichment of the Southern California companies.
Most of the world’s important Wagnerian opera singers of the last two-thirds of the 20th century performed at the S. F. Opera, in respectable productions, to enthusiastic and loyal audiences. When the company presented Wagner, they could expect sold out performances. Many of the productions were artistic triumphs — Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s “Fliegende Hollaender”, Beni Montresor’s “Lohengrin”, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” conceived by Nicholas Lehnhoff with sets by John Conklin — celebrating German art with an enthusiasm that would have gotten a thumbs up from Hans Sachs.
Then, as the new millenium approached, newer S.F. opera managements decided on new tacks. First, they would do almost no Wagner at all, and if they did do it, they would opt for the products of Lehnhoff’s more recent dark and pessimistic collaborations with set designer Raimund Bauer and costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer – “Parsifal” in 2000 and “Fliegende Hollaender” in 2004. Even those parts of Dark Lehnhoff period productions that might be considered interesting, have little to do with what Wagner intended us to see.
In addition, the Opera’s managers between 1995 and 2005, (as far as I can determine), decided to destroy all of the physical productions of Wagnerian operas (including the Lehnhoff-Conklin “Ring”) that previous managements had invested in, thus undermining the capacity of the company to mount any of the ten standard Wagnerian operas it wished in legitimate productions at such times as the right casts were available.
But Wagner had not been the only source of S. F. Opera’s former glory. In 1992, the company began a series of co-productions with the Kirov Opera of St Petersburg, that introduced an amazing series of Russian operas: Profokiev’s “War and Peace”, “Fiery Angel” and “Betrothal in a Monastery”, Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila” and Borodin’s “Prince Igor”. The impetus for this collaboration was the brilliant conductor Valery Gergiev, assisted in the Borodin work by his fellow Russian, Alexander Anissimov.
And it was not only the Russian repertoire with which Gergiev was associated. He showed his wide-ranging interests by introducing Massenet’s “Herodiade” to S. F. Opera audiences, with the brilliant cast of Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming and Dolora Zajick. This became the last of a brilliant run of new productions of Jules Massenet’s works that started in 1971 with “Manon” and continued with “Esclarmonde”, “Werther”, “Thais”, “Le Cid”, “Cendrillon” and “Don Quichotte”. Adler and his immediate successors built S. F. Opera into a house where French operas, especially Massenet, were performed resplendently.
Eventually, however, Gergiev’s vision of the future departed from that of the S. F. management, and San Francisco ended up producing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride” without Gergiev. With Gergiev gone, Domingo, who had been one of San Francisco Opera’s most popular super-stars between 1969 and 1994, but busy with opera management obligations in Los Angeles and Washington DC and with scheduled performances throughout the world, could not be coaxed back to San Francisco.
The Domingo-Gergiev “Herodiade” co-star, Renee Fleming, was insulted by the new S. F. Opera management of Pamela Rosenberg, who withdrew a Massenet opera from the schedule being mounted for Ms Fleming and Thomas Hampson, because Rosenberg did not like the opera (“Thais”), apparently without any consideration of the financial cost and bitterness that would ensue from her quixotic contract-breaking act, nor the chilling effect it would have on other artists who might have done business with the San Franciscans.
Thus, the company that Gaetano Merola and Kurt Herbert Adler had built to one of the greatest in the world, stood with it new-won reputation as some sort of an operatic backwater, while the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa (that did not exist during the Adler regime) emerged as the cultural center where Gergiev’s artistic conceptualization of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, was to be introduced to the United States, to be followed next Summer with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
And Domingo added his personal prestige (as he has with performances of the Kirov Ring in Europe) by taking the role of Siegmund in the Ring’s second opera. Domingo even created a kind of informal Southern California “opera festival weeks” by scheduling performances of another Massenet opera, “Manon”, with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before and between performances of the Kirov Opera in nearby Costa Mesa. So, Los Angeles and Costa Mesa had Wagner and Massenet, Gergiev and Domingo, Netrebko and Villazon, and San Francisco has only the promise (and a bit of early evidence to suggest that the promise will be kept) that a white knight from Houston will work to restore its Opera to its former glory.
The Kirov Ring
Gergiev’s recent work has been in collaboration with set designer George Tsypin, famous for opera sets that use a much greater part than usual of the vast spaces that some opera house stages encompass. Gergiev and Tsypin have conceptualized a “Ring” that exists deep in the Earth’s prehistory. Their “Ring” is no commentary on the course of the modern world nor on a post-apocalyptic future, but is placed (as Wagner intended) in a time when human affairs had limited impact, and non-human forces held sway over the Earth. “Rheingold” is, after all, an opera in which no humans appear at all.
“Rheingold” opens in an unsophisticated time, when Rhinemaidens believe it impossible, even unthinkable, that a being could renounce love, and when he, who would become leader of the gods by agreeing to be the enforcer of contracts, could imagine no harm would come if he himself tried to renege on a contract, employing theft and trickery when his mere repudiation of it did not work.
Since it is a time before humanity was important, the Rheingold world, Gergiev and Tsypin show us, is the one that exists in the stories known to all human cultures about how their peoples came to be. Even if these cultural memories of this ancient eon appear to differ from one another, Gergiev and Tsypin will demonstrate to us that we in our different languages are speaking about the same primeval time – when the fate of the world was determined by gods and giants and dwarves and Rhinemaidens and woodbirds and dragons.
The very notes of Rheingold, signify not only the Rhine but evoke the mystery of this most ancient time. We, the audience, our attentions focused by the Kirov Ring’s imaginative lighting designer, Gleb Filshtinsky, begin to perceive beings with strands of blue-green neon headgear. Head coverings and headdresses all have obvious (even if often furtive) significance in the Gergiev-Tsypin Ring. The three Rhinemaidens, decked out in blue dresses encrusted with marine life (the Rhine must have been saltier in those days) were beautifully sung and enchantingly acted by Margarita Alaverdian, Irina Vasilieva and Lyubov Sokolova. They tease Dark Alberich, played by Edem Umerov, who stole the show as well as the Gold, in a chartreuse and purplish costume appendaged by extremely long fingers.
[Below: Alberich (Edem Umerov) edited image, based on a Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]
The Rhinegold is a cage of squashed hexagons formed into a hollow ball that seems like the frame of Cinderella’s coach, caught midway between pumpkin and coupe. In the next scene it will provide enough headroom for a crouched Freia, to get into it and stand nearly upright.
[Below: the Mariinsky conceptualization of the Rhine Gold, in which the goddess Freia is caged; edited image, based on a Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]
Always in the background are several small beings, that sometimes seem like unkempt schmoos from Al Capp’s 1950’s “L’il Abner” comic strip, who reappear in different forms throughout the Ring.
After Dark Alberich’s renunciation of love, we enter the realm of Light Alberich (Wotan), played, as he would be the next day in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, by Mikhail Kit, although we got a cast change for Wotan in the third opera three nights later. (Kit, under Gergiev’s direction, recorded the title role in Borodin’s “Prince Igor”.)
His team of gods in general were admirably cast, with the Donner of large-voiced Andrey Spehov particularly noteworthy. The appealing Froh was Alexander Timchenkov. Vasiliy Gorschkov made Loge’s long monologue particularly memorable.
[Below: Vassily Gorchkov as Loge; edited image, based on Damon Winter photograph for New York Times.]
Only the small-voiced, nasal Fricka of Svetlana Volkova disappointed. Since the great Larisa Diadkova was scheduled to sing the more important star turn for Fricka in “Die Walkuere” the next night, one assumes it was Diadkova’s preference not to sing back-to-back performances that led to the casting of Volkova. In an extraordinary conception, the building contractors to the gods, the giants Fafner and Fasolt, are represented as very large living boulders, possibly chips off of some batholith that formed in earlier geologic time.
[Below: The giant Fasolt becomes enamored of the goddess Freia, edited image of a photograph of the Mariinsky Theatre production.]
In the third scene, in the Nibelheim, we meet Alberich’s gifted but untrustworthy brother Mime, costumed in a cloak filled with spoons and other metal pieces. Played by Nikolai Gassiev, who had appeared in the San Francisco production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Tsar’s Bride”, he proved a convincing foil to his sinister sibling. Mime’s greatest creation, the magical Tarnhelm, itself changed shapes at various times in the production. The Nibelungen, played by children, were themselves dressed in little black cloaks in the style of Mime’s, each with far fewer spoons. As expected, the kids would shriek when Alberich threatened them with the Ring. Their anvils were the schmoo-like characters that now gave off an internal red light. Dancers, dressed in black with red neon wigs, represented fire, and they would reappear throughout the Ring whenever that element was called for.
In the final scene, we have Alberich’s curse, and Wotan’s Plan B for paying for Valhalla, where enough Rhine Gold is supposed to be stacked up to completely hide Freia. That requirement, of course, to Wotan’s considerable discomfort, is met only by adding the Ring and the Tarnhelm to the Giant’s cache. Counseled to let go of the Ring by the Earth Mother Erda, played by Zlata Bulycheva (in a headdress that reminded me of some wood-carving inspired by the side-horns of a Texas longhorn), Wotan relents. The ensuing fight between the mega-boulder giants resulting in the slaying of Fasolt proved to be awkward stage business, but cannot be faulted for lacking originality.
A truly distinctive feature of the Kirov Ring, that would be obvious to anyone seeing the promotional pictures, are the uses of four megaliths in virtually every scene, that usually have human faces (or, alternatively, reptilian heads) and are often internally lit. But with this essay being a long review of the shortest opera in the Kirov Ring, discussion of megaliths can be deferred to my comments on the later operas.
[Below: the realm of the gods, edited image, based on a Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]
The most unexpected part of the final scene was the introduction of an Egyptian ceremony to represent the crossing into Valhalla on Froh’s Rainbow Bridge. Froh, Donner, and Freia don headcoverings representing major Egyptian gods, and retreat to the depths of center stage while Wotan and Fricka, both now donned in white (although Wotan’s costume will change to black when the Wotan-Fricka conversation is resumed in Act II of “Die Walkuere”) themselves take on the headcoverings of Anubis and his consort.
[Below: the costume that Fricka wears on her way to Valhalla; edited image, based on a Mariinsky Theatre photograph.]
This was the clearest indication that Gergiev and Tsypin are approaching myths of human origins from a universal cultural perspective, rather like the late Joseph Campbell in his “The Power of Myth”. Assuming that this “Ring” is filled with references to myths from every continent, one can imagine an ongoing discussion over time (which would be welcome on this website) as to the intended significance of the costumes, head-coverings, movement and internal lighting of the megalithic figures and schmoo-things, and the color palette associated with Filshtinsky’s lighting design.
How does one rank this “Rheingold” with other performances of “Rheingold” in California over the past half century? (The major mountings of the work occurred almost exclusively at San Francisco Opera, except for an opera-a-year “Ring” presented in San Diego in the mid-1970s, using what were then Seattle’s sets. In San Diego, then Director Tito Capobiano submitted the issue of whether “The Rhine Gold” should have an intermission to the opera board, which voted in favor of one.)
My preference is still for the elegant Lehnhoff-Conklin production of “Rheingold”, which debuted in 1983 and was repeated in 1985, 1990 and 1999. Alas, I believe it no longer exists. My dream cast, culled from all San Francisco, San Diego and Costa Mesa performances over the 50 years would star the Alberich of German artist Walter Berry (SF 1983 and 1985), the Wotan of James Morris (SF 1985, 1990 and 1999) or Michael Devlin (1983), the Fricka of either Irene Dalis (SF 1967), Hanna Schwarz (SF debut 1977, 1983 and 1985) or Helga Dernesch (1990), the Loge of Jess Thomas (SF 1967), any of several superb SF Freias (Arlene Saunders (1967), Mary Jane Johnson (1983), Nancy Gustafson (1985), Patricia Racette (1990) or Nicolle Foland (1999), the Donner of Andrey Spehov (CM 2006), the Froh of Alexander Timchenko (CM 2006), the Fasolt of Hans Tschammer (SF 1983), the Fafner of Joseph Greindl (SF 1967), the Mimes of Helmut Pampuch (SF 1985 and 1990) and the Erda of either Mignon Dunn (SF 1967) or Elena Zaremba (SF 1999). I would have no problem with enlisting the Kirov Rhinemaidens as a package for the dream cast.
For my reviews of the other three operas in the Kirov/Mariinsky Ring, see: