Sunday, June 04, 2023

June Classical Music Overload in SF

There is a wealth of rare, ambitious operas and concerts in San Francisco this month, so here are a few recommendations. The SF Opera centenary season began its final June stretch on Saturday with a new production of Puccini's 1904 Madama Butterfly with a mostly Asian cast and conductor. It was musically splendid, with Michael Fabiano standing out as B.F. Pinkerton, and dramatically silly, with lots of billowing curtains and random projections.

While watching the cruel story, I remembered a speech from the 1986 play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang where the Chinese opera singer deconstructs the opera for their French diplomat lover: "What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner -- ah! -- you find it beautiful!"
Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Richard Strauss's rarely performed, four-hour, gargantuan fairy tale opera opened this afternoon, and it was an overwhelming sonic experience. Ranking as one of the composer's richest, most ambitious scores, it asks for a huge orchestra ("10 horns!" a musician friend exclaimed at intermission), a great conductor, and a cast which requires five of the best singers in the world. And guess what? The San Francisco Opera pulled it off, with Donald Runnicles conducting beautifully and the cast led by Nina Stemme without a single weak link. The staging is too much park and bark, but the colorful 1992 production from painter David Hockney is fun and engaging. Try to catch one of the next four performances.
The last opera of the 100th season will be new, Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego. The production has already appeared at the San Diego Opera. which co-commissioned the work with San Francisco. It has gotten mostly positive reviews, particularly for the visual production.
Across the street at Davies Hall this week will be a staging of Kaija Saariaho's 2006 opera, Adriana Mater. The composer died last week at the age of 70 and it feels like a blessing to be able to hear one of her major works right now.
Operatic midwife Peter Sellars encouraged Saariaho to write operas in the first place, and he will directing his original production this week. Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted that Paris premiere and will be conducting it again this week with his new orchestra, the SF Symphony.
Following the Saariaho will be a two-week residency of the German pianist Igor Levit, who New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross has gone bonkers for lately. In addition to a chamber music concert and a solo recital, he'll be playing Beethoven's Fifth Concerto one week and Busoni's 1904 Piano Concerto the next. The latter work is the longest concerto ever written for an instrument and a large orchestra, and Busoni even threw in a male chorus for the final movement. This work is performed even more infrequently than Die Frau Ohne Schatten, so check it out.

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