Bayreuth by the Bay

By Krauss, Melvyn | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Bayreuth by the Bay


Krauss, Melvyn, The World and I


Rare is the Wagner Ring cycle that has top-notch singers, a superb orchestra, and terrific sets, costumes, and staging. The San Francisco's Opera had only great singers--but, what singers!

Mark Twain's incomparable attack on the German opera composer Richard Wagner--that "his music is not as bad as it sounds"--would seem to fall on deaf ears these days, when the demand for Wagner's music, particularly his epic Der Ring des Niebelungen, appears insatiable. No sooner had Amsterdam's Muziektheater completed its cycles of Wagner's famed tetrology this spring, for example, than it moved on to San Francisco for retelling during June and July. Next spring, New York's Metropolitan Opera plays host to Brfnnhilde and Company--and if that's not enough to satisfy the appetites of Wagnerites, there's always the Wagner summer shrine in Bayreuth, where the Ring is standard fare. Wagner's music, it would seem, goes down better in warm weather than cold.

Unlike Italian bel canto opera, the Ring is complete musical drama that requires great singers, a great orchestra, and great sets and staging to be truly effective. Economics, however, rears its ugly head in the lyric theater as elsewhere, and opera houses have to make choices and trade-offs. Amsterdam's Muziektheater (whose acoustics are so bad the house must be miked) puts its scarce resources into staging and sets. The San Francisco Opera (SFO), on the other hand, spends its money on singers. By engaging such outstanding current Wagnerians as James Morris (in the role of Wotan), Jane Eaglen (Br?nnhilde), and Deborah Voight (Sieglinde), the San Francisco Ring casts were as good as can be found in any opera house in the world today, bar none.

Of course, the argument that opera houses must make trade-offs is not, in and of itself, an argument for imbalance between production, orchestra, and singers. Yet imbalance was precisely the problem at the San Francisco Ring festival this year. The company did not put enough thought and money into its sets and staging. Instead of going for a fresh start with an original vision, the SFO used the several-times- revised Nickolaus Lehnhoff--John Conklin hand-me-down production, whose origins date to 1982. Andrei Serban, who had the dubious credentials of having neither directed nor even seen this or any other Ring before, was brought in to direct. Other than to garner some free press--in the New York Times, for example--Serban's influence was marginal. Both sets and staging seemed tired and conventional.

The SFO orchestra also was shortchanged by the powers that be. From June 9 to July 3, the SFO orchestra had to play sixteen performances and several rehearsals for two alternative casts. In one killer week, the orchestra played six performances in a row--and Wagner operas are not known for their brevity. Money may be scarce in San Francisco, but it was a false economy not to hire substitute musicians to spell the regulars. In every performance I attended, there were numerous and blatant miscues by the fatigued orchestra, particularly in the brass section.

Top Singers

Of course, had the singing in this Ring not been so satisfying, the shortcoming of production and orchestral playing would not have been so apparent. Among the many excellent singers participating in the festival, top honors go to the American from Baltimore, Morris--the great Wotan of our time. In Wagner's music, Morris' particular vocal qualities and musical expressivity come together to extraordinary effect. His first San Francisco Wotan was in 1985, and since then his interpretation has matured along with his voice. Wotan's restrained and lyrical farewell to Brannhilde was the high point of this Ring for me.

If Morris is the great Wotan of today, Eaglen is the great Brannhilde. No one upstages Jane Eaglen. Because of her huge size, huge talent, and operatic charisma, she is always the center of attention when she appears onstage. …

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