June 12, 2007
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. From sweeping waltzes to raucous interjections, through shimmering passages and multilayered sweeping melodies, Runnicles kept it all together and moving, in a straightforward, unaffected manner, and yet squeezing every drop of ecstasy from the music. Strauss can be prettier, or more passionate or grand, but not more "right" than it was on Saturday.
The same can be said of the production. It was originally created by Lotfi Mansouri on sets by Thierry Bosquet (based on the original Alfred Roller design), was directed simply and effectively by Sandra Bernhard, and was actually visible in Thomas J. Munn's lighting (unlike the current dark Don Giovanni). Simple, straightforward, honest — these are values to be treasured when the work speaks for itself and does so as magnificently as in the case of Der Rosenkavalier.
DiDonato, Sigmundsson — the Standouts
Onstage, the remarkable duo of Joyce DiDonato's Octavian and Kristinn Sigmundsson's Baron Ochs (who spend as much time together as those in the opera's more, ahem, positive relationships) did remarkable work, both in singing and in acting. DiDonato's silvery voice, her committed portrayal of a 17-year-old hero/troublemaker, and her well-known comic timing all held her in good stead. Sigmundsson was big, very big — in stature, in voice, in dominating the stage, but most especially in not overwhelming the other characters.
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
For every dozen singers portraying Ochs who, regardless of voice, overdo the part, there is only one like Sigmundsson, who underplays the role. He can afford it, this Icelandic giant with the bass voice to match. His whisper still hit the solar plexus of patrons seated at the top of the second balcony (where, unfortunately, no supertitle screens were to be found). How someone can sing "quid pro quo" so powerfully from sotto voce is just astonishing.
The three female leads were well-matched in both voice and dramatic interaction. DiDonato's scene with Soile Isokoski's Marschallin in the first act; DiDonato's presentation of the rose, and her love duet with Miah Persson (Sophie); then the concluding Trio — all scenes were impeccably well-balanced.
The freshness in Persson's voice and the brilliance in Isokoski's were much appreciated. One minor complaint about Isokoski is that she doesn't fully realize the Strauss-Hofmannsthal transformation from an elegant, vibrant (and, oh yes, unfaithful) aristocrat to an ordinary human being who becomes aware of her mortality. She has a sort of steady "nice" approach, not moving from one state of mind to another. When Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the greatest performers in the role, made the short journey from a vision of elegance to a saddened woman looking into her mirror with naked eyes, that act, in the context of the music, usually just tore the heart out of the audience. Not so on Saturday night.
Still, in the final Trio, which was well, though not brilliantly performed, Isokoski managed to bring to the fore the goodness of an "older woman" letting go of her younger lover, even helping to pair him off with a contemporary and give him a "better chance for happiness."
The large cast — which included many Merola and Adler program participants — acquitted itself splendidly. Standouts were Catherine Cook's Anina, Robert McPherson's Italian Singer (who has a good voice, yet not particularly Italianate), and Heidi Melton's big-voiced Marianne, substituting for Elza van den Heever, who had recently taken over the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni.