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OPERA REVIEW : Wagnerian Woes in San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO — Richard Wagner is alive but not well at the War Memorial Opera House.

Monday night, the San Francisco Opera ventured its first performance of "Tristan und Isolde" since 1980. In this sad instance, never might have been better than late.

Back in the so-called golden era, no one cared much about how Wagner's sprawling and swollen music-dramas looked. The canvas sky may have been wrinkled, the cardboard rocks creased, but the stage was dominated by giants: Flagstad and Melchior, Traubel and Svanholm, Nilsson and Windgassen. . . .

When appropriately superhuman singers threatened to become extinct, some brilliant stage directors provided valid compensation. Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, reinvented symbolic abstraction in Bayreuth. Patrice Chereau introduced a provocative political perspective on the "Ring." Jean-Pierre Ponnelle turned "Tristan" into a tragic surrealist fantasy.

The new "Tristan" in San Francisco offers neither vocal nor theatrical distinction. And, technically, it isn't even new.

The sets were designed for Paris and Cologne in 1985. The original staging plan--not universally applauded--was conceived by the director Michael Hampe and the designer Mauro Pagano.

Now, Hampe has turned his attention elsewhere (his name doesn't even appear in the local program), and Pagano has died. Lotfi Mansouri, general director of the San Francisco Opera, has added his own ideas and imposed his own traffic patterns.

It is hard to tell how much of the resulting hodgepodge was inherited and how much can be blamed on the resident team. The stage pictures, cluttered with expendable people as well as props, look suspiciously prettified. Stylistic clashes abound.

The kitsch-postcard sets vacillate between old-fashioned mock-realism and newfangled evasion. The action--the noun is used here with some trepidation--fluctuates between static freezes (which are boring) and silent-movie cliches (which prove risible). If there is a unifying interpretive philosophy at work here, its definition remains a mystery.

The long five-hour evening still might have been salvaged by a distinguished cast, assuming such a thing exists in 1991. Unfortunately, the screamers, warblers and wobblers assembled here offer little in the way of musical distraction.

William Johns, remembered for his brave participation in the Miller-Hockney-Mehta "Tristan" at the Music Center in 1987, was again drafted as the hero. He never was a genuine Heldentenor , and never will be.

On good nights, however, he paces himself carefully and musters a reasonably solid if stolid facsimile. On bad nights, such as this one, he sounds chronically dull and underpowered, tight and strained. His saving grace remains a sweet mezza-voce , bordering on a croon, that reinforces the lyricism of the love duet and the introspection of the delirium episode (here mercifully curtailed).

Confronting this strenuous vocal challenge, Johns settled for a concert in costume. Given his placid temperament, roundish figure and modest stature (elevator boots didn't help), expressive discretion must have been the best part of dramatic valor.

Gabriele Schnaut made her U.S. stage debut as an Isolde in the traditional, generous- Hausfrau mold.

Like many another pushed-up mezzo-soprano, she seems to have attained ringing top tones at the expense of a firm lower register. She can make a rough, undeniably mighty noise in the grandiose climaxes, but often resorts to a canny legato parlando elsewhere. There is a lot of elsewhere in this huge role.

Her histrionic range, as focused by Mansouri, tends toward statuesque stances. Perversely undead, she ends the "Liebestod" on her feet. In less sublime moments of stress, she gives way to clumsy lurches and desperate rolls on the floor. A woman of her proportions should never roll on the floor.

Hanna Schwarz seconded her, an intelligent, attractive Brangaene afflicted with an unsteady mezzo-soprano. Hartmut Welker came all the way from Germany to introduce a dull and strained mini-Kurwenal. Alfred Muff, who might have been a fine Kurwenal, droned on and on as monochromatic King Marke.

Michael Schade sounded uncommonly sweet as the offstage sailor. The others in minor roles--John David De Haan, Hong-Shen Li and Jere Torkelsen--seemed bland.

Peter Schneider, a veteran of numerous Wagnerian wars, conducted with dauntless breadth and primitive brio. Apart from some fleeting brass mishaps, the expanded orchestra responded appreciatively.

The applause was restrained. The house was hardly full. Something is wrong here.

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