Friday, April 11, 2008

Hombre de La Mancha at the Symphony

The great Swiss-Canadian conductor Charles Dutoit is conducting a pair of infrequently performed pieces about Don Quixote this week at the San Francisco Symphony and it's a wonderful program. The first half is devoted to Manuel de Falla's 1923 puppet opera, "Master Peter's Puppet Show," for a chamber orchestra and three vocal soloists.

The opera is very strange and funny, sort of an amalgamation of pseudo-16th century Spanish music, including lots of harp and harpsichord, along with turn-of-the-Twentieth century modernism. It's also a witty illustration of The Unreliable Narrator, who at first we think is going to be Master Peter, sung nicely by Gustavo Pena, who is putting on a puppet show at an inn attended by Quixote and Sancho Panza. Early on, however, the narrator turns out to be his boy soprano sidekick (here sung by the lovely Awet Andemicael, above) who narrates the story of Charlegmane's daughter who has been kidnapped by Moors in Spain, and her lazy husband who would rather play chess than look for her. The soprano doesn't quite sing, but rather shouts sections of the story, which are followed by exquisite orchestral interludes where the actual puppet show is supposed to happen.

The boy also starts adding editorial asides, like "the Moors...have no due process similar to our own," which irritates Don Quixote, until he loses it altogether and becomes the narrator himself as he destroys all the Moorish puppets who are chasing our fair maiden on her way back to France, thinking they are real. Hector Vasquez, the San Francisco Opera veteran, sang Quixote beautifully.

My only criticism, besides there not being a puppet show, is that the harpsichord and the harp should have been brought to the front of the stage like the composer requested because they tended to get lost in the mix. The symphony should also consider keeping the lights up in the auditorium so the audience can read the libretto, or provide some supertitles. I learned how to read in the dark as a child somehow, so I could read along with the program, but most of the audience was lost throughout the piece. (By the way, I've never seen a more inappropriate place to fire up a computer at intermission in my life.)

The second half of the concert was dedicated to one of Richard Strauss' early tone poems based on incidents from the entire novel, "Don Quixote," and to my surprise the rambling, episodic piece was wonderful.

The huge orchestra played gorgeously and with delicacy for Dutoit, with all the parts articulated and never turning into sludge which is a real danger in Strauss. And in a personal note to Mr. Dutoit, who I hope doesn't take offense, please use a different hair dye next time, because whatever you are using isn't doing you any favors.

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