Thursday, June 11, 2009

Auf wiedersehn, Donald

After 17 years as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles is at the end of his contract and off to other important posts, as music director of the Deutsch Oper Berlin and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For his farewell gala, he led a performance of the Verdi Requiem - an odd choice, or an interesting one, depending on your standpoint, because his clearest strengths have been in German and 20th/21st century opera, from Mozart to Wagner to Strauss to Janacek to Messiaen and Ligeti. Oh, and that most Wagnerian of Italians, Puccini. I've heard improvement over time in his Verdi, capped by the fine Simon Boccanegra last year, and it'll be interesting to hear what he does with the summer La Traviata production, but maybe not as interesting as what Nicola Luisotti would do with Traviata.

The company announced a starry group of soloists, Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe, Stefano Secco, and Andrea Silvestrelli, with Blythe and Secco, who will be singing in staged operas next season, both making their house debuts. Racette took ill and cancelled the day before the performance, replaced by Heidi Melton, the young dramatic soprano who has been dropping jaws left and right since appearing as Marianne in Rosenkavalier and the goddess Diana in Iphegenie en Tauride a couple of years back.

Given this particular mix of ingredients, the big surprise in last Friday's performance was just how badly it started out. The first third sounded under-rehearsed, badly balanced, and badly coordinated. The orchestra, making a rare on-stage appearance, overwhelmed the chorus, which was pushed to the rear of the stage and sounded both distant and timid.

The great hallmark of a Runnicles performance is typically its clarity and orchestral transparency; here, all was mud and murk. I was seated in Row T of the orchestra, and in one early passage the winds sounded as though they were floating 15 feet over my head while the chorus sang from somewhere out on Franklin Street. Throughout the first third, even when chorus, orchestra, and soloists were on the same beat, they sounded so out of harmony as to be in separate worlds. Even the first fierce "Dies irae" didn't quite jell.

Somewhere around the "Quid sum miser" or "Rex tremenda" Runnicles finally got everything under control, and the Requiem came together at last, with shape, confidence, and momentum. From that point, my program has numerous exclamation points and positive notes. The chorus sang with more gusto and audibility, reaching a peak a light and joyous account of the complicated fugue in the Sanctus. I still would have liked an addition 50 or more singers on stage, and - I'm guessing - more rehearsal time; there was no comparison with how the SF Symphony Chorus sounded in the same piece a couple of years back with James Conlon.

Each of the soloists had some great moments during the Requiem, though as a group they weren't perfectly matched. Stefano Secco has a good voice, thought sometimes too tight at the top; some fire in his temperament; a deep sense of the words; and the ability to maintain a good line, and yet - his voice is simply built on a smaller scale than those of the other soloists. He was never inaudible, but neither was he able to match or properly balance them. He was at his best in the "Ingemisco," singing operatically and gorgeously, and in the Lux Aeterna.

This performance marked bass Andrea Silvestrelli's third appearance at the War Memorial Opera House. His first was a decade ago, singing Oroveso in an ill-starred Norma whose vocal highlights were Gary Rideout as Flavio, handily outsinging the Pollione, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as a dramatic Adalgisa with a very short top. When I saw him cast as Fasolt in last year's Rheingold, I felt dread, but to my surprise, he made a superb and moving giant.

I now think that perhaps the German repertory suits him better than the Italian The start of the Requiem found him in the same hollow voice I remembered from Norma, but as he warmed up, he found the tonal core of his voice and produced some beautiful singing, especially in soft sections. Like Secco, he understands the style and sings with operatic fervor.

He doesn't always mind the conductor, though. At one point, Runnicles gave him a look and a gesture, and kept glacing at him every few seconds for the next half-minute or more. I would say "Bad bass!" but I agreed with him: it would have been a good point to push ahead a bit more.

Blythe and Melton, with their creamy, well-blended sounds, made an interesting contrast to the men. Both the men impressed me as very Italian, with some edge and vibrancy to their voices and a native-speaker's feeling for style. Blythe and Melton sound as though they'd be more at home in Strauss than in Verdi, and both have a more "international" - or maybe I mean American - sound than the men.

The two women made a well-matched team, nonetheless, whether in the treacherous section in octaves or singing in thirds elsewhere. Their voices are similarly expansive, their styles bold. Melton made a good run at getting the words out in the "Libera me" and floated exquisitely elesewhere.

In the end, while the evening came together satisfactorily for the last 2/3 - and while I understand the conductor's desire to showcase the chorus - I have to wonder if we might have had a better celebration with an all-German evening. Melton, Blythe (a superb Fricka in Seattle's Ring), and Silvestrelli, at least, would have been in their element.

I'm sorry to even be saying "Auf wiedersehn" to Donald Runnicles. I've admired his conducting deeply, and I'm with him in prefering the adventurous programming of the Rosenberg era to the preponderance of Italian staples and conservative commissions that I fear we're in for in the Gockley. (See Joshua Kosman's exist interview with Runnicles, in the Chron a couple of weeks ago.) I hope we'll have him as a regular guest conductor, for Britten, for Strauss, for Wagner, for Janacek, for, well, anything he'd like to do.

No comments: