Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 38 / 18 September 2014
 
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Not just another summer season

Music

Coming up this season from San Francisco Opera


Mezzo Susan Graham offers a free concert. Photo: Courtesy SF Symphony
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The more I anticipate San Francisco Opera's summer season, the more excited I get. The free concert with Susan Graham, our Don Giovanni Mariusz Kwiecien, and Twyla Robinson kicks things off in Dolores Park on Sunday, May 27 at 2 p.m., three weeks before summer begins. Don Giovanni (June 2), Der Rosenkavalier (June 9) and Iphigenie en Tauride (June 14) all open before the solstice, and the tantalizing pairing of repertoire with performers is irresistible.

Mozart's Don Giovanni is so packed with gorgeous arias, duets, and ensembles that it's easy to forget just how dastardly the Don can be. The man rips through women faster than my neighbors polish off six-packs, and he leaves a trail of broken hearts and at least one dead man in his wake. I remember my shock upon first seeing Peter Sellars' controversial restaging of the opera (Decca DVD), and running back to the libretto to see if the man really was that bad. (He was.) Sellars may overstate his case — panning through the ruins of the South Bronx for the entire overture grows wearisome, and having the Don strip to his brief-briefs and gyrate his pelvis and muscular butt in our faces says more about Sellars' homoeroticism than Mozart's music — but he sure magnifies the dark side of the Don's personality. Playing on racial stereotypes by having the weight-lifting, African-American Perry brothers (Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello) seducing white women may take us in directions Mozart never intended, but the opportunity to see then-soprano Lorraine Hunt dressed as a gun-totting tramp is a detour I'll gladly follow.

For classic performances, there are five. I would never be without the two live Salzburg Festival Recordings from Furtwängler (1950, Arkadia; 1953, Orfeo), both featuring the incomparable Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as an over-the-top, hysterical Donna Elvira. 1950 pairs her with the equally wild Ljuba Welitsch (Donna Anna), while 1953 offers perhaps the finest Don of the past 50 years, the young Cesare Siepi. If only Schwarzkopf had agreed to perform in the 1954 film of the Furtwängler production (DG DVD), what a document we would have. Even so, the chance to see the dashing Siepi, his voice the epitome of evil seducer, his lithe body and attractive legs leaping from ledges, must not be missed. Equally important: the masterful Giulini (1959, EMI) with the unbeatable line-up of Schwarzkopf, Sutherland, and Sciutti; and the 1956 Mitropoulos live from Salzburg (Sony), again with Siepi. Together, these casts include every great Don Ottavio of the decade (Simoneau, Dermota, Alva), plus most of the great female Mozart/Strauss sopranos save Sena Jurinacs.

Yes, there are more recent CD and DVD sets in better sound. For DVD, Harnoncourt's (Arthaus Musik) stars Cecilia Bartoli as the only mezzo soprano who can rage with Schwarzkopf's brilliance, albeit by frequently singing sharp; Haitink's (Arthaus Musik) has the wonderful Leporello of Stafford Dean; and Harding's just-released 2002 Aix-en-Provence version (BelAir) has the fascinating, minimalist Peter Brooks staging, an athletic Don (Peter Mattei), and a fine Don Ottavio (Mark Padmore) who embellishes in correct Mozartian style. But once you get the gravitas of the pre-period instrument Furtwängler and eloquent Giulini in your soul, hear their sublime casts, and experience Furtwängler's heavenly handling of the transcendent ballroom trio "Protegga il giusto cielo," you may want to give the nod to period correctness and indulge in inauthentic rightness.

As for SFO's cast, the wild card of the under-recorded, highly lauded Mariusz Kwiecien (pronounced kvee-AY-chen) as the Don, paired with fairly young artists who are scoring major and supporting roles at the Met, Houston, Covent Garden, and major festivals, could prove a revelation, providing Runnicles doesn't weigh things down.

Women's work

There are no cast questions about the lovely Thierry Bosquet production of Richard Strauss' sometimes bumptious, oft-perfumed Der Rosenkavalier. The radiant depth of Soile Isokoski's soprano (The Marschallin) has put her Four Last Songs on the top of many lists, and recently garnered her Sibelius' Orchestral Songs Record of the Year Awards from both MIDEM and BBC maga

Soprano Soile Isokoski. Photo: Heikki Tuuli
zine. Isokoski has the voice, intelligence, and emotional commitment to make her Marschallin moving. The same goes for versatile mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who makes her highly anticipated role debut as Octavian. Miah Persson should prove a heavenly Sophie. Even if Kristinn Sigmundsson, who also sings his fair share of Wagner, proves more of a bore than a boor, and I have no reason to expect such, the women should carry the day.

Recordings? Simple. Unless you're attached to the creamy if plain Marschallin of Kiri Te Kanawa, go for the great Karajan recording with Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Stitch-Randall, and Edelmann (EMI); Varviso's highlights with Crespin, Gueden, and Söderström (Decca); the final trio with Natalie Dessay on her Strauss recital, Amor (Virgin); and the historic abridged recording (in lamentably compromised sound) featuring two of Strauss' favorite sopranos, Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann, plus the originator of the role of Ochs, Richard Mayr (Opera d'Oro/Naxos/EMI).

On DVD, essential for any Rosenkavalier lover are the black-and-white scene of Schwarzkopf doing the Marschallin's Monologue (EMI), and the two DVDs from the woefully underrepresented Carlos Kleiber (DG), some of whose other live Rosenkavaliers are on CD (Myto, Living Stage, Opera d'Oro, Melodram). For DVD, I would have said that Kleiber conducting Anne Sofie Von Otter's supremely confidant, boyish Octavian, Barbara Bonney's radiant Sophie, and Kurt Moll's obnoxious Ochs was the best until I saw his other version, with lesbian mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender delivering the most eloquent, passionate, and gorgeously voiced Octavian I ever expect to hear. If Joyce DiDonato tops it, we will be cheering all night. Add to the mix Gwyneth Jones' poignant Marschallin and Lucia Popp's soaring Sophie, and you've got a performance to stand beside the Karajan classic.

If you're unfamiliar with Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, you're not alone. But if you've heard Bartoli's extraordinary recital of Gluck arias (Decca), you know that his music is often as expressive and compelling as Handel's. Mezzo Susan Graham, singing Iphigénie in the same striking co-production recently lauded in Chicago, has been perfecting her portrayal since she first essayed the role in Salzburg in 2000 (Orfeo). We see her before she takes Iphigénie to the Met, which is saying a lot. With Patrick Summers an excellent conductor, and the first-rank Bo Skovhus and Paul Groves (who sang with Graham in 2000) in roles of equal dramatic and musical import, these should be performances long remembered.

When I spoke with Graham a few months back, she acknowledged that she is especially attracted to the sensuality and harmonic subtlety of French repertoire. "Since Salzburg," she said, "my singing has morphed a lot in portraying the pain and suffering Iphigénie goes through. My acting has changed as well. Iphig�nie is a classical character, and there's a lot of power in being still. Plus, the production is very stark and powerful. It's sort of timeless, with a lot of black; it's not togas and temples.�

To my everlasting shame, my collection lacks the live Callas 1957 Italian-language performance (Ifigenia in Tauride) from La Scala (EMI and Opera d'Oro) as well as the Orfeo Graham. But I take her at her word that we'll experience a far more expressive portrayal. Auditioning two period-instrument versions, Pearlman (Telarc) and Minkowski (Archiv), both recorded in 1999, I prefer the latter. Minkowski's Musiciens du Louvre make a fuller sound, and Mireille Delunsch is a far more impassioned Iphigénie than the lovely Christine Goerke. Next to Minkowski's Simon Keenlyside, Pearlman's gorgeously-voiced Rodney Gilfrey sounds at time more angry than committed. It's impossible not to fall in love with the music, whose tuneful sweep demands expressive brilliance and a voice lit from within by passion. Graham should have it all.






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