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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Romantic Icons and Archetypes in San Francisco

By Marc Geelhoed / July 2, 2003

Berlioz–La Damnation de Faust, Donald Runnicles, cond.
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
June 20, 2003

Wagner–Der fliegende Hollander
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
Davies Symphony Hall
June 21, 2003

Two distinct ways of presenting operas, or an opera and a dramatic legend, were seen and heard in San Francisco last week. The Opera performed Thomas Langhoff’s staging of Berlioz’s "dramatic legend" La Damnation de Faust, while the next evening, across the street, the Symphony performed Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander in a concert performance that was well-nigh staged. One was more successful than the other.

Berlioz and Wagner were two of the leading lights of the Romantic age. Both were championed by Liszt, who tried to reconcile them into a unified conception of the music of the future, with little luck. Berlioz did not share Liszt’s and Wagner’s idea of a single path of progressive music, taking a more pluralistic view, and the doctrinaire Germans could never really understand his thinking. With this in mind, concertgoers were treated to both aspects of the progressive-minded nineteenth-century over the course of the two evenings.

Berlioz’s Faust was not intended for the stage, and as such there is not much transitional music, or really any chance for staging to add to the performance. Much of the color is contained in the score, and as David Cairns, Berlioz’s biographer and champion, wrote, "It is an opera of the mind’s eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination, hardly realizable within a framework of live drama." So the San Francisco Opera had its work cut out for itself in bringing it to the stage. For this, the company recreated the Munich Opera’s production by Thomas Langhoff and Jürgen Rose.

The raked stage, walls, and ceiling tapered to a point at the stage’s rear in a sort of four-sided cone. This created a three-dimensional space similar to a painting in which the actors move higher as they move to the back. The chorus-members were dressed in tuxedos and evening wear and seated in front of the cone-like structure and up along its sides, in opera boxes.

The assembled cast was led by an imposing Mephistopheles, the Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson. He gave the role plenty of malice and vocal color and commanded his minions forcefully (more about them later). Soprano Angela Denoke as Marguerite brought a vulnerable air to the doomed girl, and sang her Romance and ballad of the King of Thule with sweet simplicity. The role was written for a mezzo, but Denoke fit it to her soprano easily. The Faust was by far the most disappointing, for David Kuebler’s tenor was constricted and sounded pained the entire evening. Conductor and Music Director Donald Runnicles led an unidiomatic performance, with little of the French verve and wit the score possesses.

Now for the production. The choir was placed (for the most part) in the postmodern role of commenting on rather than taking part in the action. Faust comes upon a group of shepherds in Act I who are dancing and enjoying themselves, but Langhoff had the men roughly forcing the reluctant women to dance. According to the libretto, the peasants are happy, but they definitely weren’t here. Anyone with even passing knowledge of the German Romantic thought knows that peasants were idealized as easy-going and relaxed, not beset by the problems that bedevil others. Langhoff all but turned them into wife-beaters.

The other key problem was Mephistopheles’s minions, who came on stage to beguile Faust with visions of his beloved Marguerite. Rose’s costumes consisted of S & M dominatrix outfits, with leather masks, chains, and the works. Part of demons’s mystique, whether we believe in them or not, is that we don’t know what they look like. By making them into something immediately recognizable, any fear is gone, and the audience is merely left feeling slightly disturbed.

Another small problem with the production was the famous Amen fugue, in which Berlioz has a group of drunken students sing the kind of academically correct composition he always opposed. As the students sang the fugue, nuns, cardinals, and bishops came out and had their crepe paper costumes torn off by the students, revealing their skimpy underwear.

This would have been fine if Berlioz had been mocking the church, but he wasn’t; it was his attack on boring academic music. Langhoff missed this, or, what may be worse, didn’t care. The first rule of any rethinking of an opera is that it make the conventional wisdom clearer and show the need for a rethinking. Langhoff didn’t achieve this.

It was a different story on Saturday night at the symphony, where a fine cast and a stellar orchestra performed Der Fliegende Hollander. For these performances, sheets of fabric suggesting sails were stretched along the walls and four platforms were built, one each on stages left and right above the orchestra, one above the brass, and another on the stage where the last few rows of the orchestra would normally sit. Dramatic lighting completed the picture.

The Symphony’s choir was excellent throughout, with crystal-clear enunciation and performing panache. Many of the choristers performed without music, a rare feat. The Daland and Dutchman, Stephen Milling and Mark Delavan, were forceful actors and singers, pouring forth torrents of sound. Jill Grove, as the schoolteacher Mary, was sweet and ingratiating, and the replacement Erik (Thomas Studebaker) played Senta’s wounded suitor with tenderness.

But the star of this production was Jane Eaglen as Senta, whose huge soprano voice rang throughout the hall. Her voice is pure and focused, with top notes that never seem to tire. Michael Tilson Thomas drew a rapt and brisk reading from the San Francisco Symphony that never skimped on orchestral power when it was needed. This sort of production, where the audience is given a sketch of what could be done with more staging, was far more effective than the Opera, which tried to show everything, but ultimately showed little.


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