12 May 2009
Verdi’s Requiem in Santa Fe
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
Christine Brewer Commands Performance in Last Minute Appearance
In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary the first week of May, the Santa Fe Symphony encountered unexpected drama in an attempt — ultimately successful — to present a festive performance of the Verdi Requiem.
First, soprano Kallen Esperian, after several days of rehearsal, came down with laryngitis and canceled Friday noon, with scheduled performances Saturday and Sunday.
Gregory W. Heltman, SFSO’s energetic founding director and manager, contacted General Director Charles MacKay at the Santa Fe Opera to see if his resources included a Verdi soprano on 24-hours’ notice. It so happened MacKay could help. He knew Christine Brewer, a veteran of many a Verdi Requiem, was at her home in suburban St. Louis recovering from a bad knee that kept her out of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Wagner’s Ring cycle. A quick telephone call, a fast favorable decision and the problem was solved. Almost.
Brewer’s plane from St. Louis Saturday morning was due at Albuquerque’s Sunport at 1:20 p.m., presumably allowing time enough to make the 60-mile drive to Santa Fe, check in the Eldorado Hotel, walk across the street to the Lensic Performing Arts Center for a few minutes of rehearsal before dressing for the 6 p.m. concert. But the plane, a victim of weather delays, did not put Brewer on the ground until 4:40, into the awaiting arms of the frantic symphony managers.
After a fast hour’s drive through the rain directly to the stage door of the Lensic in downtown Santa Fe, an intensely focused Brewer headed straight to her dressing room, unpacked her gown, accepted help with make-up, drank a liter of cool water, and was led on stage by conductor Stephen Smith, along with the three other soloists, at 6:40 pm. The audience was ready — they had been kept in place by a lecture and an award made to a venerable music educator.
Brewer looked composed and calm in a black silk gown with a colorful over-cape, and stood next to contralto Kathleen Clawson as if it were business-as-usual, which is about how it turned out, plus a little more. In January Brewer had sung, and recorded, Verdi’s great operatic requiem in England with Sir Colin Davis, and a month later repeated it with the St. Louis Symphony. She had it down cold, and her duets with Clawson were as well-honed as if she had been rehearsing all week. (“We listened to each other,” Clawson later said.) All the soloists’ ensemble work went beautifully, and the “Recordare” was radiant as the two women’s voices blended with rare elegance. Brewer’s fine-spun high tones, one of her great gifts, playing against Clawson’s mature, dark contralto provided an Aida moment, which is perhaps just what Verdi had in mind. Brewer was up to the dramatic requirements of the “Lachrymosa”, and triumphed in the “Libera me” with dramatic parlando outbursts, stunning fortes and ultimately a return to her trademark high pianissimi in the finale.
The last time SFSO essayed the Verdi Requiem was five years ago, the season of its twentieth anniversary, and at that time mezzo-soprano Clawson stood out as the predominant soloist. This year Brewer earned the honors, both for her last-minute effort to save the show, and her supremely refined and confident singing of the challenging soprano lines — pure opera, in effect, by the 19th C. Italian master of dramatic music theatre. Few sopranos I know combine Brewer’s strengths at present — exactly the qualities needed to make memorable this nameless operatic heroine. One has only to experience the “Libera me” as presented by a great dramatic singer to appreciate the generous measure of Brewer’s talent. This was Leonora or Amelia or Aida at her highest emotional pitch. Brewer’s unusually large physical size and a long-held preference for platform singing, will likely continue to keep her from performing staged Italian operatic repertory. Yet, her “Recordare” duet with the mellow Clawson left one yearning to hear these voices in Aida — a frequent point of reference for those who enjoy the Requiem.
Clawson showed a warm rather dark mezzo; if it did not project fully in the lowest register, her tone was plentiful and easy in the middle range and top. She was a worthy proponent of Verdi and partner to Brewer. The male side was a bit less impressive: Robert Bréault, whom I hear as a Britten-Vaughan Williams tenor, was a thorough professional even if his tonal qualities were not of Verdian stripe, and in the bass part Kevin Maynor was similarly earnest if lacking in thunder. Linda Rainey, who is ‘Ms. Choral Director’ of Northern New Mexico, had assembled various forces, the Santa Fe Men’s Camerata, Ken Knight, conductor, and her Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, which along with the Symphony’s volunteer chorus comprised a group of a hundred singers that was well rehearsed by Rainey and responsive, if not of especially distinguished tonal quality.
Steven Smith, for a decade music director and conductor of SFSO, presented a good standard performance of the Verdi score. Smith has a solid background with the Eastman School and Cleveland Orchestra, and still combines duties in Cleveland with his symphonic concerts each season at Santa Fe, as well as musical direction at the Brevard Festival. We are not talking about a Toscanini fire-and-brimstone Verdi Requiem, rather an affecting and touching reading of the score, well beyond what one might expect to find in a small mountain city in the lower Rockies.
Santa Fe continues to surprise.
J. A. Van Sant © 2009