Tuesday, June 09, 2015
French Opera Weekend in San Francisco
The 78-year-old Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit brought along a new toupee and a wonderful musical program at the San Francisco Symphony last week, focusing on French composer Maurice Ravel sounding Spanish with his 1905 Alborada del gracioso and Spanish composer Manuel de Falla sounding French in the 1916 Nights in the Gardens of Spain.
After the sumptuous, short Ravel curtain raiser on Saturday evening, Javier Perianes above was the piano soloist for the three-movement impressionistic work by De Falla. A friend disparaged the piece by calling it a subpar Rachmaninoff Fifth Piano Concerto, but I enjoyed the music and the pianist.
The second half was devoted to Ravel's 1907 one-act opera, L'heure espagnole, based on a risqué French sex farce about a Spanish wife who needs to have a scratch itched by someone other than her husband, the clockmaker Torquemada. During the hour he is away on municipal duties, she tries to have an assignation with the poet Gonzalve but complications ensue when a delivery man/muleteer is told to wait around the shop for an hour, and a rich, lecherous old banker also shows up with sexual shenanigans on his mind. The gorgeous mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard above sang the unashamed wife lusciously while John Mark Ainsley on her right was amusing as the would-be lover more interested in reciting poetry than actually kissing.
The punchline and happy ending of the opera occurs when Concepcion, our heroine, finally realizes that the narcissism of a poet and the lechery of a fat old rich man is trumped by the muleteer Ramiro, with his beautiful biceps and sweet, accommodating soul. (Pictured above are Jean-Paul Fouchecourt as Torquemada, Jena-Luc Ballestra as Ramiro, and David Wilson-Johnson as the banker.) The cast projected well over the huge orchestra with wonderful French diction, and they were good, funny actors who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. The orchestra accompaniment was consistently brilliant, with skittish parlando musical lines bursting into lyricism unexpectedly.
The next day, the San Francisco Opera opened its summer season with Hector Berlioz's five-hour, rarely performed masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans). I joined fellow musical blogging buddies Charlise Tiee and Terence Shek above in balcony standing room, and the three of us were enchanted and emotionally overwhelmed by the ambition and sheer beauty of the opera based on Virgil's Aeneid. The leading singers Bryan Hymel, Susan Graham, and Anna Caterina Antonacci were extraordinary, and Brian Mulligan and Sasha Cooke were luxury casting in smaller roles. They joined a huge, accomplished ensemble and a 90-person chorus who sang their hearts out. The orchestra under former SF Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles was astonishing all afternoon, making even the dumb ballets absorbing because the music was so well played. The David McVicar production from London's Covent Garden is surprisingly clunky, setting Acts 1, 2, and 5 in vaguely 19th century warlike settings and Acts 3 and 4 in a North African diorama that never made much sense. The intention seemed to be about "making a strong statement" that war is bad and love is good, but at least the production didn't get in the way of the characters and their stories.
This was the first time I had heard the opera live after listening to the Colin Davis recording for 40 years, and the music sounded even better in the opera house than I had hoped. In fact, I am still vibrating from the performance two days later. The last 30 minutes of Act IV, starting with a tenor's paean to the goddess Ceres and ending with the gentlest, sweetest and sexiest love duet ever written, had me dissolved in blubbering tears, barely able to make it down the stairs to intermission. For once, the marketing slogan "once in a lifetime" is not hyperbole because Les Troyens is a grand, rare, intense undertaking. So I will be returning again on Friday evening when there is a new singer rotating in as Cassandra, and you will probably see me there during other performances too if you are lucky enough to snag a ticket.