18 March 2006

Good Old Reliable Nathan

From June 2005: I went to the first two performances of Cosi at San Francisco Opera. I had seen the production last fall but had to go again when Nathan Gunn joined the cast. I really liked this production. It's set at the onset of World War I, so it captures the last gasp of an orderly European society, one in which people could talk casually of war, before it slides into 20th century chaos. The reminders of the war went from the obvious (the women are in Red Cross nurses's uniforms when they take care of the "poisoned" sailors) to the subtle (one of the flower vases was filled with red poppies of the sort they used to sell on Veteran's Day). At the end, the men are with their original women, then they switch off, and then they are actually called off to war. Some reviewers objected to the call to war, but I thought it was appropriate -- after all, it just hurries up the risk of death, which is inevitable, and it makes suddenly real what had been a jape. I also loved Frederica von Stade as a more experienced, worldly wise Despina -- so much more satisfying dramatically than the overly cute soubrette we usually get. By the way, total props to Gunn and Katherine Rohrer (Dorabella) for maintaining their composure the first night when a lounge chair collapsed beneath them. Here are Gunn-centric excerpts from a couple of the local reviews, which for once I agree with. It's interesting that both agree on Gunn, since the first reviewer blasted the conductor (Anne Manson) for her "sluggish tempos and lax ensemble" and the second one praised her highly, singling out her ensembles. What different people hear at the same performance is one of the enduring fascinations of the theater. Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle: "The other new face in the cast was baritone Nathan Gunn, succeeding Hanno Muller-Brachman as Gugliemo. His performance was marked by his trademark amiability and charisma, though the sunny strains grew more glowering in time for the Act 2 aria 'Donne mie la fate a tanti.'" Now Robert Commanday, from the e-mail newsletter SF Classical Voice: "Secondly, the youth who played Guglielmo cluelessly in the fall was replaced by a man, Nathan Gunn, admired here for his Figaro (Rossini) in 2004 and his Billy Budd last fall. His intense manner and presence made Guglielmo a keen opposite to the Ferrando of Paul Groves. This Guglielmo had the confident, swaggering bearing that's called for and sets up his comeuppance. Towards the end of the opera, when he has to swallow his anger and jealousy and face the consequences of the game he has been playing, the climax is splendid."
The day after the second performance I heard Gunn sing the Bernstein Arias & Barcarolles with the SF Symphony, as part of their festival celebrating the Jewish influence on American music and theater. Candide is one of my favorite musicals but other than that I tend to have mixed feelings about Bernstein. I can see the appeal of this cycle, since it deals with a broad range of experiences in a man's life and a married couple's life that maybe don't get that much coverage in the song literature, but I have to say it's hard for something like that to stand up after you've just seen Cosi twice, though of course that's not Bernstein's fault. I did enjoy the performance and enjoyed Gunn acting out some of the songs.
I also saw The Pearl Fishers at SF Opera. It was a more opulent production than the one I saw in May 2004 in Philadelphia (it was designed by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes -- I loved the colors but found some of the sets too cartoony for my taste). No offense to the guy here who sang Zurga, since he was fine, but he just wasn't Nathan Gunn. I guess what it comes down to is that in Philadelphia the opera to me was about Zurga's emotional dilemma: betray his friend or take revenge for his rejected love? Whereas in SF it was more about the two lovers finding each other and escaping. Still satisfying, but it didn't have quite the emotional impact on me. I don't know if it's Gunn's greater skill as an actor (I remember clearly specific looks and gestures in his performance) or just charisma, but he just brings an extra dimension to these roles.

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