Review: The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in San Francisco – October 22, 2006

Conductor Donald Runnicles has had an extraordinary impact over more than a decade and a half of musical performances at the San Francisco Opera, serving with three quite different personalities holding the General Director position – Lotfi Mansouri, Pamela Rosenberg, and David Gockley.

The Fall, 2006 S. F. Opera season is notable for two events.  The first was the announcement that Runnicles will be leaving his music director position three seasons from now.  The second was the return of mature and undefaced “heroic” Wagner, under Runnicles masterful care, after years of frustration for Wagnerians during Rosenberg’s seemingly hostile-to-Wagner regime.

[Below: Christine Brewer as Isolde; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Runnicles’ Tristan project has been in preparation for some time, and has included the mentorship of the talented soprano Christine Brewer, with whom he has worked in a series of act by act concert performances, until both he and she agreed she was ready to take on the role in performance for the first time ever in San Francisco

Also near the beginning of his career with this opera, was the Tristan, Thomas Moser, who first sang it at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2003 with Deborah Voigt.  Moser and Brewer performed together last season at S. F. Opera in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”.

[Below: The David Hockney sets for “Tristan’s” Act I; edited images, based on a Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Of course, it was Rosenberg who planned (or at least authorized) “Tristan” for the 2006 season, not in the elegant production from David Hockney mounted here, but in a controversial Seattle production that neither matched the War Memorial stage nor the mood of much of the Northern California Wagner community.

As the difficulties that would be faced with the Seattle production became apparent, the new management took advantage of the availability of the Los Angeles Opera’s Hockney sets.   There proved to be considerable security in choosing Hockney’s artistic conceptualization, which conforms to Wagner’s intentions, and yet provides a perspective on the work that most of the San Francisco audiences have not seen.

The Los Angeles Opera presented the Hockney version in two different years.  It premiered in 1987 with William Johns and Jeannine Altmeyer as the lovers, with Florence Quivar and Martti Talvela, conducted by Zubin Mehta and directed by Jonathan Miller.  It was revived in 1997 with Siegfried Jerusalem and Renate Behle in the title roles, with Jane Henschel and Sir Donald McIntyre, conducted by Richard Armstrong and directed personally by Hockney.  I was in attendance for both of the L. A. mountings of this inspired production.

In fact, it seemed to many of us that San Francisco Opera had conceded the idea of producing California’s highest quality “Tristan” performances to the Los Angeles Opera in the nearly two decades that have elapsed since the Hockney sets debuted, an extraordinary idea for a company whose reputation had been built by Kurt Herbert Adler.

[Below: Thomas Moser as Tristan; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

During Adler’s tenure there had been two new “Tristan” productions, each performed in two separate seasons.  Adler had a new production created in 1967 by Leni Bauer-Ecsy (Paul Hager directing) to introduce Jess Thomas and Irene Dalis to the title roles, supported by a cast that included Mignon Dunn and Josef Greindl, and conducted by Horst Stein. (Although I found Dalis to be an impressive Isolde, she felt uncomfortable in the role and never assayed it again beyond four scheduled S. F. performances.)

The Bauer-Ecsy sets returned again in 1970, when the great tenor Wolfgang Windgassen was persuaded to take over a role that Jon Vickers had been signed for, but Vickers withdrew when he felt he needed more time to prepare for the role.  Windgassen’s Isolde was the reigning Wagnerian soprano of the day, Birgit Nilsson, supported by Janis Martin’s Brangaene and Giorgio Tozzi’s Marke and conducted by Otmar Suitner.

Only four years later, “Tristan” returned again, for Thomas and Nilsson,  in a new production by the team of Dietrich Haugk and Roman Weyl.  The conductor was Silvio Varviso, and the Brangaene and Marke were respectively Yvonne Minton and Kurt Moll. (The 2006 S. F. Opera “Tristan” program includes a color picture of what it described as “the 1974 San Francisco Opera production [of “Tristan’] by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle”, that caused some of the multi-decade subscribers to wonder if they had developed collective amnesia about a Ponnelle production no one could recall seeing.)

The Haugk-Weyl production returned in 1980 with Spas Wenkoff and Dame Gwyneth Jones (memorable for their wildly agitated Liebesnacht, as if they had imbibed the street drug “angel dust” rather than just a love potion), with Ruza Baldani and Simon Estes and conducted by Maestro Adler himself.

[Below: King Marke (Kristinn Sigmundsson) questions Tristan (Thomas Moser); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In 1991 Lotfi Mansouri launched a third new-to-San Francisco production, by Mauro Pagano, with Mansouri as stage director and Peter Schneider the conductor.  This provided the vehicle for Gabriele Schnaut’s American debut, with Johns repeating his Tristan for the Bay Area audiences, and Hanna Schwarz and Alfred Muff as Brangaene and Marke.

That production was reprised in 1998 (with Michael Hampe as stage director).  It was in 1998 that Runnicles got his first opportunity to conduct “Tristan” (which he considers his favorite opera) with the S. F. Opera Orchestra, which has been central to much of his creative energy in the past decade and a half. Wolfgang Schmidt and Elizabeth Connell sang the title roles with Violeta Urmana (American debut) and Victor von Halem as Brangaene and Marke.

But it is almost certainly the 2006 performances on which Runnicles’ S. F. “Tristan” reputation will be based.  The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, considerably augmented as it always is for Wagner’s “Ring”, “Tristan” and “Meistersinger”, played virtually flawlessly (a statement that could not be made for the Kirov Orchestra, performing its “Ring” in Costa Mesa earlier in the month).

[Below: Jane Irwin as Brangaene, edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

It is not only Conductor Runnicles and Set Designer Hockney; the brilliant costumes by Hockney’s young collaborator, costume designer Ian Falconer; and the cast that made this performance work. Stage Director Thor Steingraber, in his San Francisco Opera debut, engaged us with coherent stage action throughout the performance that, as Wagner wished, showed true insight into the pyschological interplay between these characters.

San Franciscans should be pleased that Gockley is securing for us the kind of stage direction that opera companies in Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago, all of whom know Steingraber’s skills, expect.  It had already been announced that Steingraber will be directing a revival of the Hockney production in Los Angeles in 2008.

As the last notes of the Prelude were heard, Hockney’s Cornish ship began to appear.  The focal point, the ship’s bow curved to audience left, the ship’s mainsails crossing the stage.  Sean Pannikar, the steersman, his back to the stage, sang beautifully. The colorful ship had an orange and turquoise railing with Celtic designs, with a lock-box, containing yellow jars of Isolde’s various potions (the death potion marked with a Black X), resting on the deck alongside the bow railing.

Hockney’s and Falconer’s love of color, even in such a sombre work as “Tristan” is evident everywhere. Brewer, seated on a purplish-colored divan was costumed in Red, and the Brangaene (Britain’s Jane Irwin in a North American debut) in Green. When Tristan appeared he was in dark blue, Kurwenal (Israel’s Boaz Daniel, also in a North American debut) in lighter blue.

A strong Isolde and Brangaene will dominate the first Act and Brewer and Irwin just did that.  Brewer’s vehemently-delivered curse showed her potential as a great Isolde. Irwin’s attractive stage presence and full-voiced mezzo were impressive.  Moser, whose role requires extraordinary vocal stamina, was an interesting Tristan, guarding his vocal resources for the long haul, while making this most conflicted of heroes believable.  Steingraber added coordinated hand motions between the title characters (whose dramatic purpose we would divine in the final scene), as the effects of the love potion began to be understood.

For the second act, the eye followed a curved path up the raked stage, dividing a castle wall, evident on stage right, from a grove of rough-barked trees to the left. Curls and spirals represented the trees’ canopy.  Now Isolde’s dress was red-orange; Brangaene was in yellow; Tristan in purple; Marke in red and Tristan’s friend and nemesis Melot in green.  During the Liebesnacht, the sky darkened to blue with a field of stars, that disappeared as Brangaene warned of the coming of dawn. Moser’s voice sometimes seemed to be swallowed by the Liebesnacht’s orchestral sonorities, but on balance the Act was world class.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s King Marke was the most impressive role of this Icelandic basso’s three with the company so far.  With two additional roles scheduled for Summer 2007, one hopes that he is being engaged for San Francisco Opera assignments for many more seasons to come.  Only Matthew O’Neill, the Melot, whom I had praised in the small role of Borsa in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, seemed inadequate in a role that was not that much longer, although sung over a much larger orchestra.

The third act was a craggy cliff in Tristan’s boyhood home in Brittany, with two large rock boulders and a jagged rock in the foreground.  The ground was covered with large pebbles (Moser, in bare feet, may well have found the stage floor uncomfortable.)  A stone wall of an ancient castle was at stage right.  The dying Tristan leans against a stone monolith.  Panikkar was back in the role of the Shepherd, in another excellent performance.

Moser demonstrated his mastery of the voice control needed for Tristan’s long process of dying, interspersed by bursts of life-draining energy (as happens with Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”).  Brewer’s Liebestod was scintillating.  At its end, in a stage action that might sound hokey on paper but was executed beautifully and proved affecting – the dead Tristan resurrects himself and stands in the spotlight with Isolde as the rest of the scene fades from view, both of them lifting their arms in the gestures Steingraber prepared us for earlier in the opera.

As we reflect on this performance in future years, we may well regard this as a transitional performance for the San Francisco Opera.  We suspect now that in the future we will see less of Runnicles, who has been the principal conductor in almost every corner of the repertoire over the past 17 seasons. Even so, he has contracted to perform Ring cycles in the 2010-2011 season and will still be a presence here before then.  Considering just the Wagnerian operas, one notes that since his debut season in 1990 (conducting the Ring) he conducted 77 Wagner opera performances – 58 performances during Mansouri’s General Directorship, 13 (of “Meistersinger” and “Dutchman”) during Rosenberg’s, and six Tristans at the beginning of the Gockley era.

Although during this 17 season period there would be a “Ring” or two conducted by another person and sometimes a performance or two at the end of a string of performances, Runnicles has conducted over three times as many Wagner performances as all of the other conductors combined during that period.  No other period in the history of the San Francisco Opera has the responsibility for conducting Wagner been so dominated by a single person. This is not a complaint.  He is an extraordinarily gifted conductor.  (What I do complain about is that he had so little opportunity to conduct Wagner over the five seasons preceding this one.)

The Hockney sets are such a treasure that, were Los Angeles Opera to permit it, it might be worth exploring to see if San Francisco Opera could become a joint owner of it.  (Although the circumstances were somewhat different, S. F. Opera did end up purchasing Hockney’s “Rake’s Progress” sets from a European company.)  Hockney’s productions appear to have an aura about them, that considers them an art form that should not be casually destroyed.  S. F. Opera would have greatly benefited had such a standard been applied to the many extraordinary operatic productions that that Kurt Herbert Adler, investing the contributions of so many Californians, had assembled.

What Wagnerian productions does the San Francisco Opera now own?  If one looks at the list of San Francisco Opera productions offered as rentals to other performing companies (and assume that this is a reasonable inventory of what exists in the company’s warehouses), there is only the quirky Nicholas Lehnhoff-Raimund Bauer ”Parsifal” from Summer 2000 and John Coyne’s serviceable “Meistersinger” from 2001.   Apart from that list, there is a new “Ring” being shown on a one opera a year schedule at the Kennedy Center, that S. F. Opera co-owns with the Washington National Opera.  Perhaps scouting the world (obviously now including Los Angeles) for the “best of show” productions of each opera and securing some long-term agreements from the opera companies that own them to show them here in future seasons may be the best way to assure that all ten of the major Wagnerian works are periodically seen.