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Lights Out on Opening Night

July 17, 2007

You'd think that nothing could steal the thunder from the likes of Frederica von Stade, Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway, and the Russian National Orchestra. But Friday the 13th brought a decidedly unmusical close to Festival del Sole's opening night in Napa. That the potential fiasco was handled with copious amounts of charm and grace shone a much-deserved light on the evening's unjustifiably shadowed conductor, Stéphane Denève.
Before I tell the tale, let me say a few words about Festival del Sole of the Napa Valley. Now in its second year, the 10-day festival, founded by Barrett Wissman and Richard Walker, is a sister festival to both the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy, founded in 2003, and the Singapore Sun Festival, which debuts next October. As befits the region, the Napa edition combines star-power musicianship (including no fewer than four contributions by resident composer John Corigliano) with fine wine, pricey cuisine, master classes in cooking and music, displays of art, and the opportunity to see and be seen.

The audience, especially that in the Lincoln Theater, was a curious mixture of the cultural elite, the monied, unsophisticated classical music lovers, people who should have let their skin age naturally, and elderly concertgoers. The latter sometimes added unexpected sonic touches: whistling oxygen canisters and hearing aids, consumptive coughing, inappropriate applause, and the occasional verbal exclamation. Nothing short of an architectural makeover, however, could remedy the dry acoustics of the festival's main venue, Yountville's Lincoln Theater, which sucks the life out of sound that travels beyond the 10th row.

The concert began with James Galway, outfitted in a silver jacket and purple tie, performing Saverio Mercadante's three-movement Flute Concerto in E Minor. Galway's bright tone and impeccable technique ran rings around the concerto itself. Where he and Denève seemed to part company was in the middle movement Largo; above the RNO's beautifully nurtured, vulnerable tone, Galway's tone remained bright and unyielding. Perhaps he sounded different to those seated closer to the stage than I was. Still, his virtuosity was a wonder to experience.
Bright, Seamless Singing
With flute ceding to voice, mezzo-soprano von Stade and soprano Melody Moore entered to perform "Ah guarda sorella" from Mozart's Così fan tutte. Outfitted in tails, slacks, and delightfully colored bodice, von Stade (or "Flicka," as she is affectionately known) was in fine voice, her scales seamless and her diminuendo perfect. Equally appealing was the freedom and charm of her smiling shtick, which pulled the reticent, plainer-outfitted, beautifully full-voiced Moore into the act.

Frederica von Stade

Photo by Scott G. Winterton / Deseret Morning News

I've always lamented the modern tendency to take "Sull'aria," the letter from Le nozze di Figaro, at a fast clip. Be that as it may, Flicka and the equally svelte, gorgeous Marnie Breckenridge did a fine job. Breckenridge looked adorable holding a huge, white-and-blue-feathered pen, although the shine of her slim soprano was gobbled up by the acoustics.

The set concluded with the final scene from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (with Flicka preparing for Moore's fine "Ja, Ja" by singing Faninal's line). As the Marschallin, Moore, who looked far more hurt than regal, disappointingly cut her high B short on her crucial solo entrance, prematurely sliding down to the next note. Denève chose a somewhat faster pace than Runnicles in the recent production at San Francisco Opera and seemed more concerned with the orchestra than the singers arrayed behind him. With musicians playing full blast, and von Stade's mature voice, which is thicker than of yore, singing full bore, any possibility of subtle expression was lost as the women belted out their notes in an attempt to be heard.

As trio ceded to duet, Denève (like Runnicles) failed to bring out the magical orchestral transition that communicates Octavian's and Sophie's realization that they can now unite. Breckenridge lost her place momentarily, recovering to hit some beautiful highs. Flicka's ability to communicate emotion via face, posture, and voice shone supreme.
Flutists Followed by Blackouts
After intermission, Jeanne Galway, replete with ultrablonde coiffure and a fabulous shiny dress whose purple bodice gradually transitioned to silver, joined her Sir for a tuneful rendition of Domenico Cimarosa's inconsequential Concerto for Two Flutes and Orchestra in G Major. It was a heavy-sounding affair, what with the theater's acoustics compounding the modern instruments' lack of transparency.

The Russian National Orchestra made a jaunty start to Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances for Orchestra (Op. 45) but was hampered by a major trumpet blooper and then by some solo woodwind interplay that seemed way off, with the harmonizing instrument constantly overpowering the melody line.

Soon a light show began. First, the lighting over part of the orchestra went dark, then so did the conductor's podium, then another part, then the entire stage, then part of it, then lights came up in the house. Denève continued conducting, eliciting some beautifully romantic playing as RNO members performed from memory. Eventually he gave up. Acknowledging that the musicians loved the music so much that they were playing from their hearts, he announced a five-minute break.

With major problems at the lighting console allowing no simple solution, Denève eventually came back onstage to offer replacement tickets for two other, potentially excellent concerts. Noting that he was about to get married, he invited people to return for his first concert as a married man. To this audience member, the charm with which he bid us adieu provided compensation enough.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.