Opera, opera, opera

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 15, 2006

More canny was this season’s program of five operas. In W.H. Auden’s lectures on Shakespeare, he paired The Tempest with Die Zauberflöte — both beginning with seeming catastrophes, both having pairs of young lovers put to difficult tests, and both having plots driven by enlightenment and forgiveness fighting the powers of darkness and revenge. So the Adès and Mozart productions made a neat comparison. There were also two operas — Bizet’s Carmen and Strauss’s Salome — centered on dangerously seductive women. And one — Massenet’s marzipan Cinderella story, Cendrillon — in which an innocent and victimized heroine triumphs over her tormentors. For drama and music, this was a well-balanced series.

French director/costume-designer Laurent Pelly provided the most imaginative and witty stage images for Cendrillon. The set opened like a story book, with the words written across Barbara de Limburg’s fairy-tale architecture. Pelly’s mad red headdresses and grotesque red ballgowns (some wide at the hips, others pinched) were a source of continual hilarity; Cinderella herself, the pretty and rose-petal-voiced mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato (a former apprentice who now sings at the Met and Covent Garden), looked and sounded like the princess of one’s dreams. She had wonderful support from everyone around her: Judith Forst as her broad-bottomed stepmother, Cuban coloratura Eglise Gutiérrez as her dazzling godmother, warm-toned mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway as the prince (a female Prince Charming — what was Massenet thinking?), and touching baritone Richard Stillwell as Cinderella’s loving but henpecked father. (Stillwell was the Count in that 1971 Figaro, and only his hair shows his age.)

Carmen was the most controversial piece. Neil Patel’s set was stark and bleak, and Kersti Vitali Rudolfsson’s updated costumes (Spain in the 1950s) even bleaker. (Carmen herself stood out in muted gray-pink.) Tall Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, with a black wig, isn’t the lavish-voiced and uninhibited Gypsy we’re used to. Yet the updating never got in the way, and director Lars Rudolfsson got Otter and her hapless soldier boy, strong tenor William Joyner, to focus on what they were feeling. Dashing French baritone Laurent Naoury, husband of French star soprano Natalie Dessay, had just taken over as Escamillo, and though his glamorous voice was not entirely in place, he made a charismatic toreador. The touching Micaela was sweet-voiced young soprano Jennifer Black, who only last year was an apprentice. But the best thing about this Carmen was SFO’s music director, Alan Gilbert, whose evocative, imaginative conducting made every note come alive. Although the season’s other conductors weren’t always this good, the orchestra was first-rate in every production.

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DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE: SFO regular Natalie Dessay was a ravishing and tender Pamina.
Gilbert also delivered a secure and polished performance of The Tempest, with its complex and challenging score. I was enthralled, though I have several reservations. Meredith Oakes’s libretto follows Shakespeare’s plot but not always his language. Ariel’s song to young Ferdinand about his shipwrecked father begins:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
But Oakes gives Adès:
Five fathoms deep your father lies
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that was mortal
Is the same. His bones are coral.

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