Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lately with Smorg and Der Rosenkavalier at San Diego Opera

On the road again for another 10 days work trip. I was walking up the road toward the bus stop (the nearest bus stop from my current pad is a good 25-30 minutes walk away) when I spotted this rather curious carcass near the sidewalk.

A rabbit with snake-ish tail? A snake with fluffy fur? Or should I guess, a hungry snake was too busy swallowing his pre-Easter dinner to pay attention to traffic last night? Does this fall under 'death by gluttony'?

The past week was pretty busy, but mostly in a good way. A dear friend dropped in from out-of-town and we managed to catch the last performance of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at the San Diego Opera on Tuesday. It was quite good, though not all smooth-sailing. Twyla Robinson did quite well as Die Marschallin, though hers is such a sweet voice that I had a hard time pairing her with the title... Her voice seemed more suited to Sophie to me. But then, as the story goes, the Marschallin was something of a grown up Sophie - as she muses about it in her famous monologue. So that probably shouldn't matter much. Ms Robinson was quite dignified vocally and theatrically, and convinced in her own way.

San Diego Civic Theater stage from the upper balcony (12 April 2011)
As the title role was Anke Vondung as Octavian. She has the physique for the role, and her voice was quite pleasant when I could hear it. Unfortunately, hearing it was a challenge much of the time in that vast and acoustically-challenged space of the San Diego Civic Theater. We were up in the upper balcony and enjoyed the best acoustic in the house and had much less trouble hearing than the folks in the more expensive seats in the lower levels did. Maestro Perick, the conductor, really tried his best to help, but I suppose he would have had to literally knock out 2 of the 4 horns that spent much of the opera doubling Octavian's line for her to have a chance at all. I think in a smaller house she would really shine in this role, though.

One of the main attractions to this run of Der Rosenkavalier was the casting of Patrizia Ciofi, the great Italian bel canto soprano, as Sophie. I have many of her recordings and love them all. Alas, Sophie was for her, I think, a mis-cast. The voice is simply too dark and warm for the ingenue musical line. Sophie's voice really needs to sparkle like a clear bell, especially during the presentation of the rose, so that you are transported straight up to paradise when she hits the high B on "Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies." Theatrically she also tended to over-act a bit (well, perhaps more than a bit if it seems that way from the back of the upper balcony).

Anke Vondung as Octavian. San Diego Opera 2011 (Photo: Ken Howard)
Andrew Greenan was a very fine Baron Ochs, though. Musically he was up to the mine-field, though his lowest notes didn't project well against the orchestra. Theatrically he was a more layered Ochs than many, and never indulge in boorish behavior just for its own sake. Helene Schneiderman was wonderful and fun as the scheming Annina, with a voice so clear I would have traded it for that of Sophie in many scenes (not a practicality, I know, she is a mezzo!).

The staging by Lotfi Mansouri, as you can see from stage photos, was the definition of traditional. It was so traditional that it used the exact replica of the set and costumes used in the world premiere of this opera in 1911 Dresden. That made for many very static moments that annoyed another pair of friends who saw this opera for the first time during this show a bit (some latitude should be granted here since they - the friends - aren't very used to through-composed German opera). I think it was done just about as well as a traditional staging of this thing can go, though if I were a newcomer to Der Rosenkavalier, I think I would have preferred a more minimalistic one that allow the cast more comedic moments, like the one at Zurich Opera that is preserved on DVD.

It is true that Richard Strauss insisted to his librettist that the audience should be amused to laughter with this opera, but it is a wordy one with a really complexly layered orchestration.... And when most of the audience doesn't speak German (not that much of a handicap considering how knowing German didn't help me decipher the German as sung by Ms Robinson and Ms Ciofi much), and had to rely on reading the translated sur-title above the stage to know what was going on... Well, many who started the show in the balcony seats fled after the intermissions so that my friend and I got to move around a bit and heard the final act from a closer set of seats.

Austrian bass Peter Strummer replaced Hans Joachim Ketelsen as Herr von Faninal (Sophie's dad) for the night and made every bit of his short role count. I should also note the luxury casting of Stephen Costello as the Italian singer. He made minced meat of that dastardly difficult (and usually quite thankless) Italian aria in the middle of a very German opera and earned a warm round of applause when he exited the stage. Mr. Costello will star as Gounod's Faust at the San Diego Opera later this month.

My friend and I were both impressed with Maestro Christof Perick's guiding of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, though. They brought out a lot of details in the orchestra that cue what was happening on the stage that one doesn't often get to hear. Yep, they ended up covering the smaller voices a bit, but as loud as the SDSO could get, Maestro Perick held them to a tight rein when Octavian sang... It was just that her voice just wasn't big enough for this hall.

Patrizia Ciofi (Sophie), Anke Vondung (Octavian), Twyla Robinson (Die Marschallin). San Diego Opera 2011. (Photo: Ken Howard)
Oh, another sur-title malfunction toward the end sort prompted a round of premature clapping between the final trio and the duet (the thing went flashing as if asking for applause, and then went dead for the first 3 phrases or so of the duet). That was icky... though luckily silence was recovered before the singing resumed. 

It was a long-ish night at the opera, but we had a good time! We were sorry we didn't get to hear Anja Harteros and Furrucio Furlanetto who were slated to make their role debut as Die Marschallin and Baron Ochs, but both had to pull out of the entire run for different reasons. We were very happy with Ms Robinson and Mr Greenan, however.

Now that I'm on the road again, it isn't likely that I'll get to catch Faust... Though I still have hope for Carmen in May! 

Also... for fans of Vesselina Kasarova. Since the major European houses have released their 2011-12 season schedule, you can find the latest update of Frau K's performance schedule here. And here... is English translation of her latest interview with the Max Joseph Magazine (made possible with much appreciated help from the Bergerchef!).