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Is it possible to think of Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome as a great, overwhelming wall of sound, with singers struggling to be heard? That's a hasty association with its "sister opera," Elektra, about which there is a (possibly apocryphal) story of Strauss shouting at the orchestra: "Louder, I can still hear the singers!" Don't mention that idea to San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who is about to make his German-opera debut, conducting Salome Oct. 18 through Nov. 1.
When I did, asking what he is doing to allow the voices to come through, Luisotti said Strauss' "orchestration is so great that it's impossible to cover the voices." Impossible? Luisotti has thought about the opera for some 20 years. He spent the past two years studying the score, and now that he is in daily rehearsals, Luisotti lives and breathes Salome, and he certainly knows whereof he speaks. Sitting down with me, he opens the score to show — and sing — quiet orchestral passages all the way to page 47 where the first fortissimo marking appears ... "and no one is singing."
Luisotti then shows (and sings) orchestral pianissimos and even pianississimo ("ppp"), and how the instruments downshift in volume (diminuendo) instantly when voices appear. The "Dance of Seven Veils," of course, builds to one of the greatest climaxes in all opera ("orgiastic," the conductor says), but even during the work's horrific finale, there are those pp and ppp markings (even on page 325), so that the orchestra doesn't interfere with the voices.
"It's night music," Luisotti says, "about love and death, in a chaotic, thoroughly sick environment — with beauty lighting it up with every mention of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist — a tragedy of noncommunication between all the characters, and a cathartic end." Luisotti, a man of faith, in no way shares the century-old shock over Oscar Wilde's erotically charged play, the story's scandalous turns amplified by Strauss' sinewy music. After all his study of the work, Luisotti doesn't see it as the triangle of the lecherous King Herod, his necrophilia-craving stepdaughter, and the imprisoned, abused Jokanaan (John), but rather as a whirlpool of forces with "relevance to everybody." Salome, he says, with caring, "is only 18, growing up with a stepfather who killed her father; how 'healthy' can she be?"
He holds up two identical pieces of blank paper and crumples one: "this is 'good,' 'beautiful'," he says, pointing to the whole one, "and this is 'bad,' 'ugly,'" he says of the other. "They are the same, and different, parts of a whole." When he sees the devastating noncommunication between all characters in the opera, Luisotti doesn't judge them. "I ask myself: am I really in touch with people, do I hear what my wife tells me, do I really listen?"
A Lifelong PursuitThe moral, dramatic, and musicological complexity of the opera (with its then-new chromaticism and — for some — still not fully comfortable bitonality) so challenges and fascinates the music director that he says, simply and with conviction: "I will study Salome for the rest of my life." Luisotti first encountered the opera many years ago when working as a rehearsal pianist at a Torre del Lago Puccini Festival production (a double-bill with Suor Angelica). During his first discussions of repertory in San Francisco with General Director David Gockley, rather than assigning Salome to another conductor, Luisotti claimed it for himself; working with Gockley and the company's music staff, Luisotti also did the casting.
For the title role — "someone who is both a girl and a woman, who needs to be a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano, a coloratura, a mezzo-soprano, all in one" — the choice is German soprano Nadja Michael, whose London performance was reviewed as "blazing with dramatic intensity."
Irina Mishura sings Herodias, Kim Begley is Herod, Greer Grimsley is Jokanaan, and the early-expiring Narraboth (chronologically the first victim of noncommunication) is Garrett Sorenson.
The 105-minute, intermissionless, coproduction with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and L'Opéra de Montréal arrives here in Bruno Schwengl's design, with Seán Curran as stage director, and James Robinson as consulting director and dramaturg.
Having just passed by a poster of the Opera's current production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio), it occurred to me that Luisotti has already conducted Mozart — Don Giovanni in Miskolc, Hungary, and with the Tokyo Symphony (of which Luisotti is principal guest conductor), Le Nozze di Figaro in Tokyo this year, Così fan tutte in the Tokyo Suntory Hall next March — so is San Francisco's claim to Luisotti's first "German opera" valid?
He doesn't blink an eye, makes no geographical excuse (Salzburg-born Mozart's career took place in Vienna, which was German only anachronistically, during the Anschluss), says only that "Mozart's Italian-language operas are more Italian than German." And so they are. Bring on a real German opera! The Civic Grand Marshall of San Francisco's Columbus Day Italian Heritage Parade on Oct. 11 is ready.
PS: Why not discuss a possible Italian-German dichotomy with Luisotti? Because among the finest Wagner conductors of the past century were Toscanini, Sinopoli, De Sabata, Marinuzzi, Abbado, and Serafin ... just to start. As for Luisotti's San Francisco plans: "Bizet, Mozart, and — Wagner!"More about San Francisco Opera »
From the very apex of Society, thronging to the Opera Ball to the ranks of us, the proletariat, taking in the free Opera in the Park on Sept. 13, a cross section of San Francisco will be involved with opera’s big weekend. The decades-old free opera concert in Golden Gate Park draws an audience of about 20,000.The San Francisco Chronicle-sponsored Opera in the Park will feature Sondra Radvanovsky, Ewa Podleś, Marco Berti, Brandon Jovanovich, Quinn Kelsey, and Adler Fellows, with the concert conducted by Luisotti.
The dressy parade of the Opera Ball comes in three layers:
- A cocktail reception at 5 p.m.
- The opera itself, curtain going up at 7 p.m., and then, following the demise of everybody but bad-guy Count di Luna (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a rather decent fellow in real life)
- The real ball (dinner, drinks, dancing, and “further celebration”) takes place in City Hall from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. or thereabouts
There are also two important preseason, end-of-summer events coming up: the Merola Program’s Grand Finale in the Opera House at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 22; and the Stern Grove Festival’s final program, at 2 p.m., Aug. 23, featuring Marco Berti (the troubadour of Trovatore) and Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto, Daveda Karanas, Heidi Melton, and Tamara Wapinsky.
As if that weren’t enough, another major event in connection with the opening of the season is the Sept. 19 Webcor Builders free live simulcast of Trovatore in the AT&T Ballpark. This will be General Director David Gockley’s fourth such offering: The initial 2007 Samson and Delilah drew some 15,000 fans, the 2008 Lucia di Lammermoor 23,000, and the June 2009 Tosca netted 27,000.
Unless the city is finally getting some significant moisture from the sky on the appointed date, the Opera’s first Verdi in the Giants’ outdoor home — complete with garlic fries — may well swell to 30,000. That would mean the equivalent of 10 sold-out performances in the War Memorial Opera House.
As to the main event in all this, it’s well and good that Luisotti’s calling card will be Il trovatore, the most Italian composer’s most Italian opera — a nonstop series of rhythmic, melodic, pulsating arias, duets, and ensemble numbers. (If you think there are too many mentions herein of La Bella Italia, consider that it was an all-Italian board that gave birth to the San Francisco Opera in 1923.)
If you want to Twitter about Trovatore, you could go along with the Opera’s own “suspenseful story of a corrupt count, a dashing warrior and a Gypsy who plots to avenge her mother’s wrongful death” — well below the 140-character limit, and doing a fair job.
The production in the War Memorial features Marco Berti in the title role, with Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, Stephanie Blythe as Azucena, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna, and Burak Bilgili as Ferrando.
David McVicar is director, while Charles Edwards designed the sets for the production, coming from the Chicago Lyric and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The setting is updated from Spain in 1409 to the early 19th century, and it draws inspiration from Goya’s series of etchings called The Disasters of War.More about San Francisco Opera »
On Program IV of the festival, Aug. 3-5, Mendelssohn is represented by three of his Songs Without Words (Op. 19, No. 6; Op. 85, No. 2; and Op. 67, No. 4), Jalbert by his 1998 Piano Trio. Also in the running: the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata (Op. 47), and Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 26. [email protected] programs are always generous.
The program is called “Mendelssohn Perspectives,” and its purpose is to “illuminate the music of Mendelssohn’s predecessors and heirs.” Selections from the eight volumes of Songs Without Words well represent the romantic-lyrical-ethereal sound that’s part of Mendelssohn’s essence.
The Kreutzer was a Mendelssohn performance favorite, while the Brahms is called — somewhat vaguely — representative of “the latter half of the Romantic journey begun by Beethoven and propelled by Mendelssohn.”
And Jalbert? He “gives voice in our own time to the Mendelssohnian ideal of expressive pathos combined with impeccable design,” intones the festival announcement. If that sounds too general, “let’s look at the record,” and therein find another Mendelssohnian characteristic: fecundity.
Jalbert (“JAL-burt”), born in New Hampshire and gallivanting around the country virtually nonstop, has been making a deep impression around the Bay Area for almost a decade now. In 2002 alone, he made his mark as composer in residence with Barry Jekowsky’s California Symphony in Walnut Creek, and showed up on the program of Jeffrey Kahane’s farewell concert as he was leaving the Santa Rosa Symphony.
The same year, Jalbert began his residency with Kahane’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, premiering his work called Les Espaces infinis. It was described in an enthusiastic Los Angeles Times review as a piece “holding the listener through a canny blend of instrumental colors and combinations, chromatic but not dissonant, and ultimately pleasing.” It is the kind of characterization that often appears in reviews of his works.
Jalbert’s contributions to the Walnut Creek orchestra continued for years, even before he garnered the Rome Prize, the BBC Masterprize, and — more recently — the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2007 Stoeger Award.
His 1998 Piano Trio — a bold, craggy, expansive work — has been performed around the country and in Europe. As a “typical Jalbert,” it combines modal, tonal, and dissonant harmonies, but reassuringly settles in some sort of tonal center.
The first movement is titled “Life Cycles.” It was inspired by the sound of the “really really fast” heartbeat of his first son that Jalbert heard before the boy was born — “the pulse becoming the inspiration for the music.”
The second movement, “Agnus Dei,” is slow and lyrical, following the three-part structure of the prayer for which it’s named. It is dedicated to Mother Theresa, who died at the time of the Trio’s composition.
For a still-young composer (a profession in which everybody under 60 is considered “young”), Jalbert has a significant CD presence, including his Chamber Symphony performed by Kahane’s L.A. Chamber Orchestra; his Visual Abstract by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; Wood/Metal Music by the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble; the Trio (on the [email protected] program) from Cedille Records; and a handful more. Remarkable.
Amazingly productive, Jalbert has recently completed L’Œil écoute (The eye listens) for film/digitally created images with live music, premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble earlier this month; Sonata for Piano, premiered in Houston last month; String Trio, premiered by the commissioning Janaki String Trio in Los Angeles; Autumn Rhapsody for string orchestra, premiered by the Vermont Symphony; String Quartet No. 4, premiered by the Escher String Quartet at the Caramoor Festival last summer, and being performed on the Escher tour of Europe this year; and Sonata for Cello and Piano, premiered by David Finckel and Wu Han at the Aspen Music Festival.
New Jalbert projects include a string quartet for the Emerson, and Quattro Mani for piano duo and percussion.More »