The star in the San Francisco Opera's summer run of "Der Rosenkavalier,"
which opened tonight, is Richard Strauss' music; higher compliment is
difficult to come by. Under Donald Runnicles' direction, the orchestra
played the complex, clashing layers of sound that constitute this nearly
century-old score that has lost none of its modernity and power.
From sweeping waltzes to raucous injections, through shimmering
passages and multi-layered sweeping melodies, Runnicles kept it all
together and moving, in a straightforward, unaffected manner, and yet
squeezing every drop of ecstasy from the music. Strauss can be more
pretty or passionate or grand, but not more "right" than it was tonight.
The same can be said of the production, originally created by Lotfi
Mansouri on sets by Thierry Bosquet (based on the original Alfred Roller
design), directed simply and effectively by Sandra Bernhard, actually
visible in Thomas J. Munn's lighting (unlike the current "Don Giovanni").
Simple, straightforward, honest - these are values to be treasured when
the work itself speaks for itself and does as magnificently as in case
of "Der Rosenkavalier." When all comes together, all those machinations
in18th-century Vienna speak to today audiences... and tomorrow's.
On stage, the remarkable duo of Joyce DiDonato's Octavian and Kristinn
Sigmundsson's Baron Ochs (who spend as much time together as those in
the more customary love affairs) did remarkable work, both in singing
and acting. DiDonato's silvery voice, committed portrayal of a 17-year-old
hero/troublemaker, and well-known comic timing held her in good stead.
Sigmundsson was big, very big - in stature, in voice, in dominating the
stage, but most especially in not pushing or overwhelming.
For every dozen Ochs, regardless of voice, who overdo the part, there
is just one like Sigmundsson, who underplays the role. He can afford
it, this Icelandic giant with the voice to match, his whisper still hits
the solar plexus on top of the second balcony (where, unfortunately, no
screens were to be found). How somebody can sing "quid pro quo" so
powerfully from sotto voce is just astonishing.
The three female leads were well matched in voice and dramatic interaction.
DiDonato's scene with Soile Isokoski's Marschallin in the first act;
DiDonato's presentation of the rose, and her love duet with Miah Persson
(Sophie); then the concluding Trio had impeccable balance. The freshness
in Persson's voice and the brilliance in Isokoski's were much appreciated.
A minor complaints about Isokoski is that she doesn't fully realize the
Strauss-Hofmannsthal transformation from an elegant, vibrant, (and oh,
yes, unfaithful) aristocrat to a ordinary human being who becomes aware
of her mortality. She has a sort of steady "nice" approach, not moving
from one situation to another. When Schwarzkopf made the short journey
from a vision of elegance to a saddened woman looking into her mirror
with naked eyes, that act, in the context of the music, usually just
tore the heart out of the audience. Not so tonight.
Still, in the Trio - which was well, but not brilliantly performed
tonight - Isokoski managed to bring to the forward the goodness of an
"older woman" letting go of her younger lover, even helping to pair him
with a contemporary, and "better chance for happines."
The large cast - including a dozen former Merola and Adler program
participants - acquitted itself splendidly. Standouts were Catherine
Cook's Anina, Robert McPherson's Italian Singer (good voice, not a
particularly Italian one), and Heidi Melton's big-voiced Marianne,
substituting for Elza van den Heever, who took the role of Donna Anna
in "Don Giovanno."
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