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Our Italian Maestro's German-Opera Debut

San Francisco Opera

Oct. 18 - Nov. 1

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 Pursuit The 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!"

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].