I was in Civic Center Saturday night at 10 p.m. because I'd just gotten out of the San Francisco Symphony's next-to-last performance of the Verdi Requiem. I wish I'd gotten to it earlier in the run, because I would have loved to hear it multiple times. It was nearly perfect: I only say that because I know something must have gone wrong, that there must have been a bobble in there someplace. Whatever it was, I didn't hear it.
What I did hear was the sound of the Symphony Chorus, ethereal or thunderous as needed; the Symphony itself, with a richer and more luminous sound than what's typical when MTT is conducting; four outstanding soloists; and a performance with the emotional range, heroic scale, and drama the work itself requires. James Conlon, returning to SFS for the first time in many years, led a beautiful, shapely, wholly involving performance. At the end, he seemed faintly embarrassed by the ovation he got, deferring repeatedly to outgoing Symphony Chorus director Vance George, the soloists, the orchestra, and the chorus itself.
Well, really, everyone made marvelous contributions. The soloists were the kind of quartet I dream about: uniformly musical, comfortable with the style, and in sound vocal condition. That said, they were not all equal. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow sang well, but a bit anonymously. Tenor Frank Lopardo is now working with a voice that has lost its nap; still, he sang stylishly, with a fine Verdian line, very beautiful soft singing, and a lovely trill.
The vocal stars of the show were certainly soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo Stephanie Blythe. I think you could not ask for a better pairing; they sounded marvelous together, and, really, what I want now is to hear them as Aida and Amneris. There were plenty of decibels; more importantly, there were two beautiful and even voices, up high and down below, easily produced, perfectly steady, and with seemingly endless reserves of breath and power. The line went on and on and on - really, they were breathtaking, putting nearly every dramatic soprano or mezzo walking the earth in their shadows.
On June 9, I heard Conlon's first program of three in the Romantic Visions festival, consisting of three dances from operas inspired by Oscar Wilde, written by Zemlinsky, Shreker, and Strauss, and Zemlinsky's one-act shocker A Florentine Tragedy, also written by Zemlinsky (and also based on Wilde). The dances were, comparatively, fluff, though of course Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" is integral to the eponymous opera. They gave you a nice glimpse of the composers but mostly leave you wanting more.
The opera, though - whoa. It is from about 1916, and is quite firmly in the lush, splashy, style of Richard Strauss. It's written with enormous confidence and skill, brilliant orchestration, and plenty of drama. Not very much happens during the 90-minute confrontation between a merchant, his wife, and her aristocratic lover; it's largely a psychological drama. The outcome is....not what you might expect. I'm not giving it away, and, frankly, if you ever have a chance to see this piece, don't read the libretto or synopsis.
It got a bang-up performance. James Johnson provided a tour-de-force of focussed dramatic singing as Simone, the merchant. He has Wotan in his repertory, and all things considered, it is amazing that James Morris and Greer Grimsley are hired ahead of him. I'd love to hear him in the role. Kim Begley was convincing as Guido Bardi, the lover. Bianca, Simone's wife, has a tiny part, amounting to no more than five or ten minutes of work; still, Kate Aldrich made plenty of impact, and I hope she'll sing in SF again. Conlon could have kept the orchestra down a bit; the singers were overwhelmed a few times. Still, the performance was passionate and cohesive.
It's too bad the piece doesn't appear more often. I think it would fit very, very well on a double bill with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.
Conlon's a marvelous conductor - not so many conductors will do brilliantly with works as different as the Verdi and Zemlinsky. I hope he'll back soon, either at SFS or across the street in the Opera House. I'm sorry I didn't get to the Liszt/Tchaikowsky concert, since who knows when either of the works on that program will cross my path again?
Minor Updates on Wednesday, June 28.