Sunday, October 15, 2006
On an impulse, I bought a standing room ticket early Saturday evening for a performance of Wagner's five-hour opera "Tristan und Isolde" at the San Francisco Opera, and to my complete surprise I happily stood through the entire performance behind the top balcony railing.
The surprise stemmed from the fact that I'm not much of a Wagnerian, and would rather read George Bernard Shaw writing about Wagner's operas than actually sitting through the endless things.
Plus, I had never seen "Tristan und Isolde" live before, partly because the casts in San Francisco have been decidedly subpar ever since the legendary performances by Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas in 1974.
This year's Tristan and Isolde, Thomas Moser and Christine Brewer, had a disastrous outing together last year in Beethoven's "Fidelio" where they were both in terrible voice so the announced casting didn't inspire a lot of confidence. Though the two singers were not supremely great this evening, in the Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson sense, they were still very, very good. Thomas Moser, in particular, is an intelligent, sensitive singer and he made his extremely long death scene in Act Three continuously interesting. The strange, beautiful love duet in Act Two was similarly wonderful, and Christine Brewer had power to spare for the "Liebestod" finale four-and-a-half hours into the evening.
There are certain roles that are famous voice wreckers such as Abigaille in "Nabucco," or Minnie in "The Girl of the Golden West," and Tristan and Isolde are among the most notorious in the repertory. One of the real pleasures of the evening was watching the two singers husband their resources over the long evening without worrying about whether they were destroying their vocal cords.
The real star of the evening, as it often is in a successful Wagner performance, was the orchestra who were all braving repetitive stress syndrome while giving a really sublime reading of the music.
The news that Donald Runnicles is not going to continue as Music Director at the San Francisco Opera makes me sad. I've been watching and listening to him since 1990 and he's conducted more beautiful, committed, and exciting performances in this opera house than probably any other conductor in its history. Plus, he's been growing and getting wiser and turning into a better conductor every year. Hell, we're going to be losing him just as he hits his true prime.
There are three more performances on Wednesday, October 18 at 7, Sunday, October 22 at 1, and Friday, October 27 at 7. The chances of hearing a live "Tristan und Isolde" this good are not all that frequent, so get down there. And standing room is still only $10, which is one of the most enlightened bits of cultural pricing in San Francisco.