Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Insomniac's Ring Cycle . . . '

For those who can't sleep tonight, there's always Wagner's Ring Cycle. Swiss Radio Crazy's Opera channel will be airing the complete Haitink Ring Cycle starting sometime after 9:00PM EST. This recording features Eva Marton (Brunnhilde), Siegfried Jerusalem (Siegmund), James Morris (Wotan), Cheryl Studer (Sieglinde), Reiner Goldberg (Sigfried), and Waltraud Meier (Fricka).


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Sunday, April 19, 2009


Sam Shirakawa attended the opening performance of this season's run of Siegfried at the Met, on Saturday afternoon/ Here's his squib:


18 APRIL 2009 Season Premiere

Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs has, in my view, two major inciting incidents. The first takes place in Rheingold, when Alberich curses love and steals the ring. The second incitement happens in the third act of Siegfried, which the Metropolitan Opera mounted for the first time this season at Saturday’s broadcast matinee -- the penultimate installment in the first of three Ring Cycles this season. Wotan’s mortal grandson challenges him at the proverbial crossroad and breaks his spear, thereby ending the god’s control of the world he created.

None of the nine Ring productions I’ve witnessed makes much of the spear-breaking. Except for a lightning flash in some stagings, it’s over in a blink. Wagner doesn't make much of it either: no anguished soliloquies, no Mozartean ensemble numbers, not even a da-da-da-dum from the orchestra to denote Destiny Descending. And yet, it marks the Beginning of The End, for which Wotan longs during his tortured narrative in Day One of the saga. Siegfried is now at liberty to go his merry way and do whatever he wants.

So what’s a liberated, horny teen love-child of an incestuous union to do? Commit incest, of course. And who better to guide him through the ins and outs of banging, than the archetypal Older Woman, namely his equally virginal but knowing great-aunt, Brünnhilde. (We’re not privy to the party that proceeds after the curtain falls on Act Three, but presumably, they know instinctively what goes where, when it comes to doin’ what comes unnaturally.)

Siegfried has occasionally been dubbed the “happy opera” of the Ring Cycle, given it’s flame-throwing dragon, chatty bird, nasty ogres and Sleeping Beauty. But while it has its sanguine moments, it’s really a somber setup for the six-hour tragedy to come in Day Three of the saga.

I’ve often complained that Siegfried has too many men barking at each other for far too long, before we get some feminine ear candy. But thanks to James Levine’s priorities, which places cantilena always at the top, we heard some wonderful singing from the guys bickering and bellowing during the first two acts on Saturday afternoon.

For me, the big pleasure of the afternoon was Christian Franz, making his Met debut as the eponymous hero. I’ve heard him several times over the past couple of years -- mostly in Berlin -- and was little impressed with his tendency to bark out phrases for emphasis, in much the way you expect from the Drum Major in Wozzeck. While he still yelps out some notes, this is essentially an all but reborn Christian. A Heldentenor in the Melchior vein Franz is not, but who is? Nearly always tone-perfect, he managed to maintain the requisite energy for this killer role all the way from the Forging Scene to the exhausting Awakening Duet at the finish.

The second major pleasure of being in the house on Saturday afternoon was hearing and seeing Irene Theorin as Brünnhilde. The role is comparatively small, but its pitfalls are huge, and Theorin avoided them all. Appearing even more radiant than she had looked in Walküre, she soared confidently from strength to strength, making the fitful transition from goddess to woman seemingly effortless. Hers is not a mega-voice, nor is it an emotional button-pusher like, say, Susan Boyle’s. But it shows a telltale sign of emerging major Wagner sopranos: a predisposition for grandly invigorating the dynamics Wagner prescribes. Its grace under pressure and the two bang-on high Cs reminds me of how Gwyneth Jones sounded all too rarely.

The sound of James Morris as Wotan/Wanderer was focused, on pitch and by turns effectively condescending in the Quiz Scene with Mime, cunningly brutish in dealing with Alberich, and just plain desperate in Wotan’s big scene with Erda in the third act.

Robert Brubaker is a bit tall to qualify as a dwarf, but his unctuous way with a whine makes him a memorable Mime. Richard Paul Fink turns Alberich into a fascinating portrait in slime.

It struck me as unfortunate that the role of the Fafner in dragon form (sung off-stage) prevents John Tomlinson from singing on stage. If his days as a top-notch Wotan and Sachs are behind him, he still has plenty of mileage left to portray backbench Wagner heavies.

The much-missed Lili Chookasian spoiled me for anybody else singing Erda, but Wendy White brings a dark, slender imperiousness to her brief appearance scolding Wotan for making a mess of Everything. Lisette Oropesa as the Woodbird sounded as if she had been placed too far off-stage, but the young native of the Big Easy has the right stuff for bigger things to come.

The legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall often said the big challenge in taking on the Ring is finding the right basic tempo. After years of imposing phlegmatic pacing on his readings of late Wagner, James Levine at last has found the right basic tempo that works for him and his listeners. And the relatively brisk pacing he’s taking currently enlivens the tetralogy immeasurably. You can feel the pulse arching over the entire work. There is finally a sense of inevitability in his Ring that makes it Levine’s Ring once and for all.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, April 10, 2009

DIE WÄLKURE - Season Premiere

Sam Shirakawa, peripatetic Wagnerian that he is, was at the opening night of Die Walküre at the Met on Monday night. His squib:

Season Premiere 6 April 2009
Metropolitan Opera

The Muses were in attendance at the Met on Monday night. I never thought “riveting” would be an appropriate way to describe James Levine’s reading of any score, but absent a lapse here and there, his umpteenth traversal of Wagner’s [who else’s?] Die Walküre was indeed riveting. The pacing seemed livelier, the dynamic thrust more propulsive than ever before.

After a briefly tentative start, James Morris sang possibly his finest Wotan at the Met to date. Few veteran singers get to show what they have learned over the years, because their voices give out before they get the chance. Morris is one of the lucky ones. Drawing from a wealth of acquired and innate reserves, he rendered a deeply moving account of an embattled god, forced to sacrifice two of his most beloved children. On Monday, though, his soft and heartbreaking farewell to his love child was overshadowed by the orchestra. Too loud, Jimmy!

The much anticipated curiosity of the evening was the debut of Iréne Theorin, a hastily recruited Brünnhilde, replacing the indisposed Christine Brewer. The Swedish soprano has an ample voice that’s evenly distributed from top to bottom, and she showed no signs of strain in scooping up to those treacherous Bs and Cs in the valkyrie’s signature war cry. What her voice lacks at this point in her young career is a personality that is distinctive and lingers in the ear. Withal, Theorin proved herself an effective actress on her first showing, and she needed no extra makeup to highlight her estimable comeliness.

The same can hardly be said of Jan Botha’s appearance. The stage lights may have been kept on extra low wattage to mask his corpulence. Ah, but the rotund sound of his Siegmund! Think Jon Vickers meets Franz Völker: seductive, sweet and potent. Too bad Wagner kills the Wälsung off at the end of the second act.

Too bad, too, that the composer also kills off Hunding almost at the same moment. Especially when the role is so deftly portrayed by John Tomlinson -- another veteran Wagnerian, who’s made a well-deserved name for himself as Wotan and Sachs over the years. As an acquaintance sagaciously commented during the first intermission, Tomlinson purveys a depth of understanding about the role that makes Hunding far more complex than a brutish cuckold. And it’s not all about the singing, about which: no complaints. The way he listens to Siegmund’s tale of woe and becomes aware that he’s giving hospitality to his arch-enemy; the way he makes his long-suffering trophy wife stand up so that he can sit down.

And speaking of that long-suffering wife, Waltraud Meyer is back again as Sieglinde. I’ve always liked her, but I don’t care for mezzo-Sieglindes. I long for that slightly girlish inflection that real sopranos bring to the role. But Meyer was in full possession of her dark powers on Monday night, and satisfied customers gave her huge ovations.
Yvonne Naef is a cooly bitchy Fricka in her Virginia Woolf encounter with Morris. When she quits the stage with no loss of perspiration, you know it’s Game Over.

The eight Valkyrie Sisters -- all in great shape.

Monday’s cast is set to appear on the broadcast matinee. Theorin will also appear in Siegfried, which is fortunate. But not, apparently, in the broadcast of Götterdämmerung, which is unfortunate.

A sidebar to Monday night’s performance: It was marred by the cacophony of cellphones beeping and jangling throughout the performance. The hall frequently sounded like an intensive care unit. Isn’t it time for a full-page ad opposite the cast listing in the program, telling patrons to shut off? Or maybe the security personnel at the entrances should make it mandatory. Even better, why not create a firewall around the building to prevent incoming calls? If Wotan could do it for Brühnnhilde way back in those pre-digital days of yore, certainly the Met management can do it for its public now.

© Sam Shirakawa

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Sam Shirakawa attended the Opening Night of this season's run of Das Rheingold at the Met on Wednesday evening. Here's his squib:

Das Rheingold

Season Premiere 25 March 2009
Metropolitan Opera

If Das Rheingold is on the boards, it must be springtime now and Ring time again at the Metropolitan Opera. Otto Schenk has returned to supervise the final incarnations of his grandly representational production dating from 1987. The new version of what one critic has called “the ultimate mini-series” is set for 2010 and promises to be something entirely different.

This year, there are extra performances of Rheingold and Walküre to supplement the usual three cycles beginning at today’s matineé broadcast and continuing through early May. Expect to hear a lot of Japanese, German, Brit-English and Russian spoken during intermissions. Even in these wretched economic times, the Met remains Mecca for financially intrepid Wagnerites.

The first performance of Rheingold this season turned out to be only the 150th time the company has mounted the work -- by far the least performed of the four Ring operas.

Many of the singers who appeared at the premiere of this production have long since retired, but in an age when change happens too fast and too often, it is comforting to many to have James Morris back once again as Wotan. The incursions of time have diminished his vocal powers, but he was able to summon the requisite strength at the most critical moments -- especially in “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” -- the god’s articulation of relief at the completion of Valhalla. The rest of the cast was about as fine as money can buy these days: Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Jill Grove (Erda), John Tomlinson and Franz-Josef Selig respectively as Fafner and Fasolt -- all in fine form. In a cast of equals Kim Begley (Loge), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and the trio of Lisette Oropesa, Kate Lindsey and Tamara Mumford as the Rhine Maidens were incandescent.

The other holdover from the production’s premiere, of course, is James Levine. Of some 20 odd times I’ve been present to hear him conduct Rheingold in the house, Wednesday evening’s performance was arguably his finest to date -- primarily because he seems to have discovered, finally, the recondite magic and sad sense of wonder in the work, which he palpably missed in his previous excursions into Nibelheim.

All of which led me to reflect afterwards on what take-away the performance may have offered. If nothing else, Rheingold, indeed the entire Ring, is about the Grand-Daddy of all Toxic Assets. The forged ring ultimately ruins everybody in a cumulative tidal wave of devastating collateral. The dire warnings of this intermittently hummable tale, adumbrated so seductively in swathes of wicked harmonies, continue to go unheeded, as the world sucks itself into the Augean stables of fiduciary feculence.

Sooner or later, though, what may get even worse gets better: We are, it seems, living out the Shakespearean-Wagnerian Dialectic. But how long in really real time is the journey between that deceptive E flat pedal which begins the infelicitous tetralogy in whose midst we now find ourselves -- and our arrival enfin at the redemptive D-flat Major coda that only the love which transcends understanding can win?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Philadelphia Orchestra Concert - Die Meistersinger 13 November 2008

Sam Shirakawa journeyed to Philadelphia last night to see and hear James Morris in some Die Meistersinger highlights with the Philadelphia Orchestra .... but.....well, read on:

The management of the Philadelphia Orchestra this week found that Friday the 13th fell on Thursday.

Mid-morning on 13 November, baritone and renowned Wagner singer James Morris declared indisposition and cancelled his appearance at that evening's concert in Verizon Hall. A frantic search ultimately led to Myrtle Beach, where a replacement was hastily recruited in the person of Tom Fox.

No announcement of the day's events was made to the audience in attendance until just before Mr. Fox appeared on stage -- possibly because he arrived at the hall after the first half of the concert had begun. Nobody, I guess, was sure if he would show up.

Well, he did show up, and an hour's worth of "bleeding chunks" from Die Meistersinger went off as though Mr. Fox had been originally scheduled. While his performance fell a tad short of commanding, his traversal of the Fliedermonolog, the Wahnmonolog and Hans Sach's final oration was imbued with confidence, a firm line, rhythmic incisiveness and stylistic grace.

It would be churlish to delve further into the performance of any last-minute replacement, especially one that literally had just popped in off the street, so I won't. If his name doesn't ring a bell, you may remember him as Alberich or as Jaroslav Prus [pop quiz: what's the opera?] at the Met. But all that was at least seven years ago, and Mr. Fox has spent the interim years building his sizable repertoire at numerous European venues, notably in Mannheim, where he appeared as Hans Sachs for the first time earlier this month in a new production of Meistersinger directed by Jens-Daniel Herzog and led by Friedemann Layer.

The current string of concerts is being led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a popular guest with the Orchestra and possibly one of the five most underrated conductors in the last third of the 20th century. [Pick the other four yourself.] Given the massive truncations necessary in reducing the Meistersinger excerpts to an hour's length and the requisite compromises in accommodating a last-minute stand-in, Frühbeck could only render an inkling of what he might do with a complete performance of Wagner's masterpiece. But it was a tantalizing inkling.

Brief and also tantalizing interjections were provided by Canadian tenor Jeffrey Halili and soprano Jessica Julin, as well as the Philadelphia Singers Chorale.

The only palpable evidence of mishaps occurred in the surtitles flashed above the performing platform. Mechanical failures or human error left the words "ignore them" on the scrim for an inordinately long time during the Fliedermonolog.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the program was the reading of Beethoven's Symphony Nr. 8, which took up the first half of the program. But a website devoted to opera is not the place for a discussion of it.

Whether James Morris will appear at all remains to be heard. He has two more chances: tonight and tomorrow [editor's note: according to the Philadelphia Orchestra website, Mr. Fox was scheduled to sing Friday's and Saturday's concerts]. If Tom Fox continues to replace him, it would be worth hearing how good a fit he makes by Saturday evening.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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