I sadly missed most of San Francisco Opera’s very rich fall season, but I did catch two very interesting nights: I Capuletti ed i Montecchi on October 16, and the Adler Fellows Gala Concert on November 30.
Hence my attendance began at 8.12 when I sat down to a 7-minute performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1947 A Survivor from Warsaw, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and narrated by Tony-Award winner Shuler Hensley. Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of precision and assurance, and the men of the Symphony Chorus sang out powerfully. Hensley was unhappily over-miked at the start. I sensed that someone dialed down his volume perhaps two thirds of the way through, which restored some measure of balance to the mix, but I wish there had additionally been a way to dial down some of Hensley’s overt emotionality.
The pleasures to be had from a performance of Verdi’s Attila are a unique blend: one third Macbeth, one third Nabucco, and one third summer-camp hayride. The staging of San Francisco Opera’s ultimately satisfying revival occasionally reaches ill-advisedly towards something more sophisticated. When it does (i.e. all of Act III), um…er… one must close one’s eyes and think of Italy, because the visual results are mind-bogglingly annoying and meaningless. Happily, the exhilaration of this early Verdian work — led with commitment and panache by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti — transcends the needless awkwardness of the staging. Attila isn’t the most memorable score in the world, but it is pure, if unrefined, Italian opera. It allows singers to strut their stuff, to sing and emote with extravagance, and it makes for a great “coming attractions” reel for the masterpieces Verdi had yet to compose.
There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.
San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.
When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?
Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.