Seldom have I heard a Verdi Requiem so completely dominated and made
worthwhile by the soloists as at tonight's "Gala Concert in Celebration
of Donald Runnicles' Tenure (1992-2009)" in the San Francisco War
Memorial Opera House.
First and foremost, there was young Heidi Melton, an Adler Fellow,
told that she would sing the torturous soprano role just a day and a
half ago, when Patricia Racette realized that she wasn't well enough
Melton, certain to be a phenomenal Wagnerian soon, sang splendidly, with
great power and accuracy (except for a couple of misjudged high notes),
"Rrrrrequiem" and all. Were it not for the fact that "locals" already
know what she can do, it would have been a "star is born" evening for
her. Given the circumstances, it was still a night to remember.
Surprisingly, it was Stephanie Blythe's SFO debut, although she sang
here - with the SF Symphony and in recital - for years. She was tremendous
tonight, a great big voice in the service of the music, and she exhibited
heartwarming collegiality singing and breathing with Melton, standing
close and leading the young one. A singer with a big voice and a big
Big is the word for Andrea Silvestrelli in every way: height, hair...
and an amazing Godunov/Fafner/Sparafucile/Sarastro voice coming from an
echo chamber filled with storm clouds. The more quietly Silvestrelli
sang, the more impressive the voice became. And throughout the 85-minute
performance, not one look at the score!
That was in painful contrast with Stefano Secco (also in an SFO debut),
glued to the score, and giving the impression of being familiar only
with the big tenor aria. Contrasting with the bass also in height (about
5.3 vs. 6.5), when Secco starts singing, it's a pleasant surprise -
there is volume and heft there, a very good voice and fine voice production.
It's just that Verdi cannot be sung right "from the book."
(Going back to Melton and Blythe for a moment, I just crossed Grove
Street for the Requiem from the SF Symphony's 6:30 SchuBerg festival
Michelle DeYoung's performance of Berg's "Seven Early Songs." She, Melton
and Blythe share big voices, and are spectacular performers in many ways,
but none of them "sing beautifully" a la Caballe, Tebaldi, Rysanek or -
coming closer to these days and our upcoming "Traviata" run - Elizabeth
Futral or young Ailyn Perez. Sure, "lyrical soprano" is a voice
classification, but singing lyrically could - and should - be practiced
by spinto and Wagnerian sopranos too, one hopes.)
Why did the soloists dominate? First, of course, because of Verdi: he
was so much more generous with individual roles than, say, Brahms and
those two arias in the "German Requiem." But also, those large forces
behind the front-line soloists tonight didn't quite live up to the "gala"
The very opening of the work was near-disastrous, the Opera Chorus
either not conducted by Runnicles or not watching him - or both. There
were individual voices heard and sections were not balanced well at all.
Things improved quickly and the rest of the evening went well enough,
but this is a good opera chorus, not a great symphonic choir, period.
The orchestra is much closer to the mark, but the overall performance
ranged from OK to very good. What they and Runnicles offered tonight
was short on chills and thrills. No gripping, inner tension; no power,
only loud sounds; no overwhelming yearning for peace or mercy, only the
In the end, there was much applause as Runnicles received the Opera
Medal, and endured - with baton unintentionally wiggling in his hand -
triplicate speeches about his contributions... which have been great
indeed, especially in the Wagner-Britten-new works domain.
May 29: Runnicles and Jay Leno retire, both after 17 years on the job,
neither really going away. And so it goes.
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