Grüss Gott, everyone! Im just back the opera festivals in Munich and Bayreuth and its like the last 11 years at SFO has just been a warm-up for the real thing!
First up was Ariadne auf Naxos. Deborah Polaski and Christine Schaefer fulfilled expectations, high as they were, but of course one expects Deborah Polaski to sound spectacular. No surprises, no complaints. The Composer was Susan Graham from Roswell, New Mexico, and her voice was so out of this world I just hope shes from an alien experiment that can be replicated! The production was also a bit unearthly, a surreal bit of geometric mixing modern and classical motifs so the day-glo new wave renditions of 18 th century drag worked with a minimalist décor to set the tone. Act Two set the opera stage/island on a sea of theatre seats, the curves of the seat backs serving as waves, and providing resting places for Zerbinetta and her merry men. Three great sopranos, one perhaps of ET descent, inspired hi-jinks from the Zerbinauts, wig fu, gondola fu, Gertie Bob says check it out. Whoops! Too late. Well, if you see any Antony McDonald productions headed your way, give em a look see, and if Susan McDonald beams down to your planet you just tell her that Gertie says, "Klaatu Nikto Baradu" which is Martian for "You go, Girlfriend!"
The National Theatre in Munich is just a stunning little jewel box, and the nosh at intermission is already my idea of what snacks are like in heaven. But I didnt fly halfway around the world for divine smoked salmon! The next night was spent doing the love trio from Iphigenia in Latex, but Im too polite to go into those details, and surely youre much too polite to ask.
Jonathan Miller's production of Anna Bolena featured mostly unobtusive sets by Peter J. Davison. Everything was based on a boxy kind of grid pattern that may have reflected that eras search for order at the beginning of the Reformation. Or maybe it represented a cage the cage of royal whims? Whatever. At least the costumes were in period and there was a delicious eeriness about the little redheaded girl who always stood so perfectly still almost apart from the ladies-in-waiting, staring stonefaced across and just a little upstage.
Bulgaria seems to be Europes answer to the Appalachians; they cant produce anything youd even want to hear about -- except singers the likes of Ljuba Welitsch, Boris Christoff, and now Vesselina Kasarova . She may have a name that you cant resist messing around with, but I dont want to mess around with that girl after hearing her sing like an angel. Not only can she sing, but she can act. (Lotfi Mansouri seems to think its enough to do one or the other, but the way he runs SFO, one may think that simultaneous perambulation and mastication are just as far beyond him.) I had to check to see if Edita Gruberova might not be another Bulgarian, but no, shes from Bratislava. Since the program doesnt mention what year she was born, I have no idea what country that might have been in. If Kasarova sings like an angel (and she does!) La Gruberova sings like a choir of Seraphim! Her clarity, her technique, her presence on stage were all stupendous. Even when she lost her mind, made up and wigged like Baby Jane Hudson, she retained a regal dignity manqué. I cannot write anything to give La Gruberova the praise she deserves, except to note that the thousands of dollars spent on this trip were worthwhile just to hear her ring the "bel" in bel canto!
Jose Bros as Riccardo Percy was a treat for the eyes as well as the ears; a luscious teddy bear with a voice like honey. But I get my thrills out of bass pleasures, and the bass in this production, Roberto Scandiuzzi, was a Henry VIII with a voice like polished oak; a deep, full, rich basso, that made his low notes a real high note!
It gets better! On July 16 David Daniels gave a concert at the Prinzregententheater. Sitting almost dead center in the fourth row, I could imagine he was making all those sexy expressions just for me. Hes such a luscious teddybear, but even more than being a sexy looking man, he is a tremendously sexy sounding man. He sings with an exuberance, sometimes celebratory, sometimes passionate, but more often than not just downright cocky, with high notes just dripping with testosterone. Zing! went the strings of my prostate; this was one of the most thrillingly erotic evenings of my life. (Was it good for you, too, David?)
Simon Boccanegra brought me back down to earth with a crashing thud. It was very well sung, but nowhere near transcendently marvelous. The stark geometric set looked very seventies-avant-garde in a way that suggested a Nino Rota operatic setting of Barbarella! Had I not expected Renee Fleming, I might have been more impressed with Miriam Gauci, who actually was quite good. Amelias no ingénue and Gauci could handle her shifts of tone, mood, and dynamic like a Maserati. Roberto Scandiuzzi, as Fiesco, was back in fine form, with the kind of deep open bottom that makes for bass ecstasy.
In between operas I made a trip out to Dachau. The town itself is a charming little suburban village that makes one wonder how people could live so normally so close to but, after all, here in America people live in just such communities ignoring racist and sexist violence that exists just next door, even while they lap up slightly sanitized versions of the same horrors in their TV and movies. A large display showed the system of triangles and symbols used to identify different classes of prisoners. A whole column of pink triangles under the word "homosexuelle" was completely ignored in the notes and guidebook. Elsewhere on the grounds an "artistic" monument collaged triangles of every permutation except, of course, the pink one. I voiced my displeasure to the archive staff about the apparent negation of queer history. After all, in a place dedicated to commemorating horror in order to prevent its repetition, this bit of selective amnesia is obscene. The young gentleman who was assisting me in my research admitted that, yes, it is a problem which they are working on rectifying. Still, I got a chance to do some family research and actually got a few leads on poor Uncle Max. Plus I brought home a t-shirt that reads, "My family went to Dachau and all I got was an emptied Swiss bank account."
Back in Munich, I found the Christopher Street Day celebration kicking into full swing. The mood is very like San Francisco in the 70s familial, free-flowing, with excitingly innovative drag, not nearly enough dykes, and (thankgawd) little of the institutional commercialization that has taken over the San Francisco event. I marched for a while with Yachad, the Jewish Queer group, right there in the city that Hitler chose to be the home of his movement. White mommies pushing their mulatto babies in prams contribute to the joyous evidence of victory over fascism. But in Dachau and elsewhere we still need to kick some butts into gear!
Well, you can always count on Catherine Malfitano for kick-ass great singing! The trouble is, shes just too strong to play an invertebrate like Katya Kabanova. It was kind of tough watching her get pushed around by her also-invertebrate husband and that mother-in-law who keeps sonny-boys nuts in a locket hanging on her neck. You know Malfitano could wipe the floor with both of these jerks. But Cathy is simply exquisite when she does her surfs-up finale, just squirming around on that razor blade between staying in hell on earth and taking her karmic chances at the bottom of the Volga.
Sally Burgess as Maminko, stomping around in a velvet gown à la mode de Margaret Hamilton, looked nasty enough to be singing, "I can cause accidents, too, my little pretty! And that goes for that mangy little mutt of yours, too," in Czech. Like, whod know the difference? At the curtain call I was torn between yelling "Brava" and "Bitch!" Raymond Very looked adorable as Kudryash. With his ten-day beard, he looked deliciously Gay and he gets to San Francisco enough to know it. One may hope. Oh, yeah he sings real nice too.
Somewhere between Ariadne and Elektra, a little side trip to Vienna provided a Strauss of a different color. The Wiener Kammeroper was offering Die Fledermaus, but the Kammer itself nearly stole the show. The Schönbrunn Schloßtheater was built as a birthday present from the Empress Maria Theresa for her husband -- who seems to be nearly forgotten, eclipsed by his one-woman WPA of a wife. The Empress's favorite color, something between mustard and goldenrod that I call "Mary Teri Canary," is ubiquitous. The theatre, a Baroque indulgence attached to the Habsburgs summer palace, is just too precious for words. One could easily imagine the whole Habsburg mishpoca sitting in for a concert and Mary Teri telling little Marie Antoinette to "Sit still or you wont get any cake!"
Beautiful British soprano Morenike Fadayomi was a wonderful Rosalinde. Her comic delivery was spot-on, all the better with her hugely expressive feline eyes. Her voice was, bright, clear, and big enough that you could almost hear it begging for a hall where she could really open up. I want to see this girl doing Carmen! Also a treat was Rupert Bergmann as Frank. A handsome bear of a man with a honeyed baritone, he should have had more to do. As Frosch, Andreas Stix was a real crowd-pleaser. My German isnt nearly good enough to decipher his slang and dialect, but he kept the rest of the audience laughing. Froschs comic schtick with "Herr Director" Frank was especially well-timed. The two make an excellent comic team. When I later found out that theyre ex-lovers, the on-stage chemistry with Froschs impertinent tweaks and Franks long-suffering hollering, made a lot of sense.
Back in Munich for Elektra (a.k.a. "Throw Mama from my Brain") and the eternal question can this opera be done on stage without shrieking? The music is so gorgeous! On recordings it can capture beauty that Ive never heard on any stage. Its demanding as hell, and my hats off to any soprano who even tries to sing it. Deborah Polaski gave it her best shot and was at times captivating, but keeping up that psychotic energy for those incredibly long ariosos and filling a house with the gorgeous tones you can get in a studio seems to require power even beyond La Polaski. Inga Nielsen as Chrysothemis had an easier time of it. Within the lesser (though still considerable) demands of her role she was able to produce the crystalline tones that make this nightmare so appealing.
Marjana Lipovsek must have the market cornered on shrewish harridans. She made a marvelous Fricka in the SF Ring and here she sang Klytaemnestra with marvelous manic swings between the terror of her nightmares and the tower of self-confidence that barely reveals that even she knows could tumble any second. Monte Pederson makes a wonderful Orest! Now, I knew Monte and his then-lover when he was starting out in San Francisco. Its great to see a homo homeboy making good! And my own prejudices aside, good he makes! Tall, handsome, blond, and quite slim, hes easily made to look rather gaunt, reedy, and ethereal, bringing eerie physical contrast to his dark, open bass voice. The effect is so ghostly that you wonder if Orest hadnt perhaps died after all.
Questioning the presence of life and death could be a full time occupation in Bayreuth. With opera queens in from all over the world, youd think the locals would try to put a little more "Fest" into the Festspiele. Like, couldn't the leather club from Nuremburg rent a house here and host a "Gayreuther Fistspiele?" Now, it is true that homos were ubiquitous around the Festspielhaus, but in such tight little cliques and severe attitudes as to render them unapproachable.
Under the general heading of "extreme morbidity" we find the artistic direction of Wolfgang Wagner. Is Parsifal anti-Semitic? Maybe yes, maybe no, but a good production, it seems to me, would try to emphasize the the mystic symbolism, showing the Christian mythology as one view of universal truths. But Wolgang's production is anything but "good," suggesting that hasnt considered anything remotely spiritual since his confirmation. Violeta Urmana was a fabulous Kundry. As the big pistil among the Flowermaidens she exuded delicious sensuality. Falk Struckman sang Amfortas well enough, but he was so gotten up to resemble Jesus, even kneeling and praying just like a Sunday schoolbook picture, one had to listen with closed eyes to enjoy his performance. As Klingsor, Günter von Kannens already huge schnozz was made up to look even more so. (If its true what they say about mens noses, this is a guy Id like to nose uh, I mean "know"!) All around marks for great singing. If they ever make a CD with this cast, buy it! But pass on the video.
"My Jewish little heart was screaming, get me out of here!" said Bette Midler once about performing in Berlin, and that's just how I felt during that paean to German nationalism in Die Meistersinger, also in a listless Wolfgang staging. Walter Dean Smith and Endrik Wottrich made such a lovely couple as Walther and David, I kept hoping theyd just forget Eva and that stupid prize and move to Munich. Birgitta Svendens bright, clear singing as Magdalene provided the high point of the show, and Barenboims conducting made me close my eyes and luxuriate in the beauty of the music in this most acoustical of opera houses.
When Wolfgang gets out of the way, the Festspielhaus is capable of putting on a spectacular show. Tristan und Isolde was brilliantly staged in a series of dark abstractions, giving the whole production a hallucinatory feel. Colored rectangles projected onto scrims defined regions of dark clarity and light haziness. The immediate visual impact was reminiscent of Mark Rothkos paintings, but the sense of visual definition quickly took over and clearly illuminated the emotional-spiritual quandaries of the characters. Heiner Müller gets full marks for this brilliant production. Waltraud Meier was in such spectacular form as Isolde the audience demanded (and got) a curtain call encore of the Liebestod. Siegfried Jerusalem, rumored to be showing all of his sixty years, sang his role with full vigor. A scene with his shirt open revealed a torso that, like his voice, could easily have belonged to a man twenty years younger.
The new production of Lohengrin continued the dark, hallucinatory mood which apparently prevails here when Wolfi is out of the house. Keith Warners production sometimes went over the top and now and then was more confusing than enlightening, but in general was simply delicious. A variety of mobile platforms divided the stage into realms of spirit and matter, nobility and baseness, ruthless sexuality and sterile virtue. Gabrielle Schnaut was perfect as Ortrud, vicious and manipulative, and much sexier than expected! The harshness in her voice that wrecked her SFO Turandot last year was just the right venom for Ortrud. Jean-Philippe LaFont as Friedrich was a properly sniveling bit of putty in her hands, but the sexual energy between them drew an erotic frame around the Barbie and Ken wholesomeness of the leads. Roland Wagenführer and Melanie Dieter shone brightly in the darkness, as bright, white, and clear as a package of Twinkies.
Fliegende Holländer starred the big, big voice of Cheryl Studer, who played Senta as a strong woman with a mission and a destiny. No frail little maiden chasing a dream here! Dieter Dorns vision of the work was, you guessed it, dark and hallucinatory. The haunted ship appeared like a redwinged bat from hell and the demonic crew materialized out of cracks and corners. The last act ensemble-standoff between fishermen and demons was some of the finest choral work Ive ever heard.
Richard Wagner wanted his audience to spend a week totally absorbed in his works; my tickets kept me tied to Bayreuth for almost three weeks. And, mind you, this is a town that makes Colorado Springs look like downtown Gomorrah! If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, be sure to keep your Deutschbahn pass and the schedule for trains to Munich close beside you. Its a gay tourists paradise, with a queer community big enough to support a whole range of fun clubs, and small enough for all the locals to prick up their noses at the scent of "fresh meat!" Think of it as taking a break from the sterile virtue of Elsa and Lohengrin for a wild night chez Telramund and Ortrud.
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