Nights at the Opera

With the director of the San Francisco Opera retiring, Jim wanted to see a few of the productions in his last season, so we bought a “4 pack.”  Trust me, if you want to see opera in San Francisco, a “short” subscription of at least 4 productions will make the per-opera cost much more reasonable.  Last year we only wanted to see 2 productions, so we couldn’t get a subscription; this year our 4 opera subscription cost us less than the 2 sets of 2 tickets.

Last week we saw Die Zauberflöte, aka the Magic Flute.  Now, I like Mozart, and I like the Magic Flute, silly as it is.  But I thought SF Opera’s production was odd.  In an opera talking about the worship of Isis and Osiris, they chose to costume all the temple priests like characters in a Japanese Noh play, including whiteface makeup and very odd headdresses.  The hero and heroine, and the Queen of the Night and her court, wore more or less normal stylized costumes; but the “3 boys” who guide the hero through his mystical trials floated in inverted cones suspended on visible wires, and were dressed like Indian servants in a movie about the British Raj, including turbans.

The singing was glorious – SF Opera’s vocal performance is superb, and I always get a chill when the Queen of the Night hits those high Fs!  But the director decided to put Papageno in whiteface, wearing a sort of jester’s bodysuit; and I think that was a mistake, because it took away some of his humanity – it distanced him.  We saw Flute performed in concert staging last summer, at the Carmel Bach Festival, and Papageno was the absolute heart of the show, sung by baritone Peter Harvey, who wore a workman’s clothing.  He was charming, funny, awkward, and above all, human.  I’m afraid Efraín Solís, the perfectly competent tenor singing Papageno in the San Francisco performance, didn’t quite come across as well because of the whiteface makeup, and it took something away from the show for me.  Not his fault.

The sets in the Magic Flute really bothered me – they did the whole thing by projecting light and color patterns on screens onstage, including drawing colored plaid patterns and moving colored circles during the introduction.  I had to close my eyes to listen to the music.  Later in the performance, the set management was much better integrated into the plot, but in the introduction and the first few scenes I found those moving colored patterns on the back wall extremely distracting.

Our night at the opera this weekend was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  I enjoyed Wagner’s major comic opera, but I didn’t realize when I ordered the tickets that the production would run for six hours!   OK, five hours thirty-eight minutes, with 2 intermissions.  We just barely made the last BART train home to Oakland.  The production was gorgeous, the singing superb.  Somehow nobody in a Wagner opera can ever sing something just once.  The opera cast handled the big crowd scenes wonderfully – during the riot at the end of act 2 I was actually afraid some of them might fall off the stage into the pit!  They managed to avoid it, but it really did look like a street fight.

I must be getting older – I found Walther von Stolzing, the prospective Meistersinger, a little too much the arrogant Romantic hero.  One heard him thinking, I’m obviously wonderful and I appreciate Nature, why should I not qualify immediately for a profession that most people spend years studying?  (OK, I’m turning into a curmudgeon.)  He did sing very well, an excellent tenor, and he was very handsome.  But I really enjoyed Hans Sachs, the cobbler poet, sung by British baritone James Rutherford with great authority.  In some circles Meistersinger gets a bad rap because it was Hitler’s favorite Wagner opera – he loved all the German nationalism, of which there is a lot in the third act.  The play itself has almost no connection to the appalling culture the Nazis developed, thank God.

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