Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Martyrdom of Saint Janacek

Everybody was at the San Francisco Symphony last week, including the operatic actors Charlie Lichtman and Ron Mann above. They were featuring Janacek's late, great Sinfonietta and Debussy's incidental music to a weird, five-hour, pretentious performance piece from 1911 about The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien.

Sitting across the aisle from us was composer John Adams, seen above with fellow composer Mason Bates. The two are sharing world premieres at the upcoming American Mavericks concerts at the Symphony later in the season.

The short first half of the concert, with Janacek's brass-filled Sinfonietta, was sensational, with extra horn players ringing the sides of the stage. Poor Debussy in the second half hardly stood a chance after that mighty blast.

Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien sounds like one of those fabulous messes that could only be accomplished by putting together lots of talented people on the wrong project, and one of the major instigators for Debussy's participation was Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, who was the model for Proust's homosexual aristocrat in Remembrance of Things Past, the Baron de Charlus. The dancer and poseur Ida Rubenstein mimed the titular saint originally, and the playwright was the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, whose verse in translation is laughably terrible.

The performances in San Francisco were of the complete incidental music along with narration by recently retired mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, along with beautiful solo singing by Karina Gauvin, Joanna Taber, and Sasha Cooke, all of whom walked on and off tall platforms above the orchestra with the chorus sitting in between them. There were also groovy string cheese video screens of different shapes above the orchestra with video and still projections by Anne Patterson, who directed the show. Unfortunately, for all the talent and good work involved, the evening was something of a somnolent failure.

Whenever I shut my eyes, the Debussy music would be evocative and soothing, but when I would reopen my eyes they would be to some beautifully declaimed French phrase by von Stade that would be translated as "I love you, my brother, in God, as a lily" or some nonsense and you'd wish they hadn't bothered with projected titles at all.

Many of the video sequences featured the San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Damian Smith (above left) in some kind of loincloth but his talents were sadly wasted, in that the choreography by Myles Thatcher seemed to consist of a lot of stationary writhing, and the focus most of the time was on Damian's armpit. Mr. Smith is a very handsome man and has a handsome armpit, but he's also an excellent dancer and it would have been nice to see an actual dance to some of the score.

I have no clue what Anne Patterson (above center, with MTT on her right), the director and designer of the production, could have done with this strange piece, but her tasteful choices were dull, and one almost wished for an oratorio-style sit and stand performance that simply concentrated on the lovely, unfamiliar music. I'm glad I heard and saw it, though, and the performers were beyond reproach. Even just speaking in French, amplified, Frederica von Stade is still a vocal goddess.

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