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Can a simple story, deliberately lacking in operatic gestures, make a good play? Thornton Wilder's 1938 Our Town certainly did. It was a subtle, laid-back, and whimsical account of small-town America, more of an archetypal abstraction than practical reality. But can the same slow-moving, relaxed material be made into an opera, a genre whose essence is tension, conflict, and high emotions?
What do you know: a grand operatic discovery at a chamber-music concert. But consider the source. He was both the "Paganini of the Double Bass" and the conductor of the Cairo premiere of Verdi's Aida. He was a composer who went on stage with the double bass at the intermissions of performances he conducted, to play fantasies on the opera's themes.
I don't know how many Danielle de Nieses there are, but I have already heard two of them. The first was a terrific Cleopatra in a remarkable presentation of excerpts from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa on July 14. The second appeared a week later in an hour-long song recital, in the Napa Valley Opera House, accompanied by Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano. As the French say, Quel difference! But there was no Vive for this performance.
As the lights were going down in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night, I caught a line in the program book asking "What are we to make of Prokofiev ..." but had no chance to read further before the hall went dark. The question — after a childhood of mandatory Prokofiev in a Soviet-occupied country and a subsequent lifetime of listening to him by choice — didn't make sense. What is there to "make" of the composer of the ever-loving Romeo and Juliet, of the sparkling piano concertos, of great film scores?
The star in the San Francisco Opera's summer run of Der Rosenkavalier, which opened Saturday, is Richard Strauss' music; higher praise is difficult to come by. Under Donald Runnicles' direction, the orchestra played marvelously the complex, interwoven layers of music that constitute this nearly century-old score, which has lost none of its modernity and power.
You may notice her 6-foot-plus height first, but when Kendall Gladen begins to sing, she makes another, far more important impression. Even at an age that's young for a mezzo, and at the beginning of her career, Gladen has the "it" of the It Girl, a certain something, the je ne sais quoi. She had fierce, if collegial, competition Monday night: four excellent singers from the San Francisco Opera Center, at a concert closing the Music at Meyer season in Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary. Soprano Heidi Melton has a huge, rafter-shaking voice.
During her recent Merola and Adler years, Melody Moore developed a reputation and an avid fan base. Her operatic and song cycle performances well earned her both. High esteem and fans followed her on Sunday into the Martin Meyer Sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El and she received an ovation as she first appeared.
... and then there was the concert against carbon dioxide.
Inspired by Al Gore's (and now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's) environmental campaign, and the film An Inconvenient Truth, opera conductor Sara Jobin and environmentalist Monisha Mustapha have organized the "Cozy Concert for Climate Concerns," an impromptu musical celebration of the national campaign for "cutting carbon dioxide 80 percent by 2050." The series began on Saturday evening, in San Francisco's First Unitarian Universalist Church.