Gods and Monsters: haunting classical music events

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday October 18, 2022
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'Dialogues of the Carmelites' photo: Vincent Pontet, Théatre des Champs-Élysées
'Dialogues of the Carmelites' photo: Vincent Pontet, Théatre des Champs-Élysées

Evening fog chills the city, making a mysterious cover for things that go bump in the night. The San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera are providing the soundtrack as Halloween creeps near.

'Dialogues of the Carmelites' photo: Vincent Pontet, Théatre des Champs-Élysées  

Nuns above
San Francisco Opera's (SFO) Centennial Season continues with gay composer Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" at the War Memorial Opera House (WMOH), October 15—30.

There are singing nuns in the powerful psychological drama to be sure, but they are hardly the sunny-faced stereotypes of "The Sound of Music" or "Sister Act." They are not stern or abusive caricatures either, but individual human beings with personalities ranging from timid to heroic. One doesn't need to be Catholic or even Christian to identify with them. Atheists and agnostics have the conviction of their own beliefs too.

The question is, would they be willing to die for them?

Poulenc based his own insightful libretto on a work by Georges Bernanos, adding lyrical expression, exquisitely orchestrated, to the deeply moving story of a group of Carmelite nuns facing the Reign of Terror during the most violent period of the French Revolution.

The highly praised production by French director Olivier Py brings Poulenc's elevating masterpiece back to the WMOH after four decades. SFO presented the American premiere in 1957 with legendary Erich Leinsdorf conducting and featuring the American opera debut of Leontyne Price as Lidoine. A 1963 revival included Regina Resnik as Madame de Croissy and another groundbreaking African-American soprano Reri Grist (Consuelo in Bernstein's original cast of "West Side Story") as Sister Constance.

The most recent revival was Director John Dexter's production in 1982 with Henry Lewis conducting. The cast included Carol Vaness as Blanche, Leontyne Price repeating the role of Lidoine and French superstar Regine Crespin as the Mother Superior.

Olivier Py's reimagining, a co-production between companies in Paris and Brussels, will create new history, mounted for SFO by stage director Daniel Izzo with sets and costumes by designer Pierre-Andre Weitz and lighting designed by Bertrand Killy, all making their Company debuts. SFO Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducts.

The cast employs some Company veterans, notably soprano Heidi Stober making her role debut as terrified Blanche de la Force, and tenor Ben Bliss returns as the Chevalier de la Force. Bass-baritone Dale Travis is Blanche's and the Chevalier's father, the Marquis de la Force, and favorite mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is Mother Jeanne.

In her house and role debuts, Michaela Schuster is the Mother Superior, Madame de Croissy. Soprano Deanna Breiwick makes her SFO debut as Sister Constance.

The Friday, October 21 performance will be livestreamed at 7:30pm and the performance will be available to watch on-demand October 22-24.

It is not really a spoiler to call the conclusion of the opera an understated, but shattering coup de theatre. The power of the climax will haunt your dreams. www.sfopera.com

Disney's 'Hocus Pocus' with a live orchestra  

Goblins and Murderers
Take a careful walk across Grove Street to Davies Symphony Hall (DSH) for an altogether spooky fortnight of Halloween themed concerts and events October 20-29 with the San Francisco Symphony.

October 20—22, Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts a bill including Mussorgsky's feverish "Night on Bald Mountain" (remember Disney's "Fantasia"?) with Hector Berlioz's moody orchestral showpiece "Symphonie fantastique" (complete with 'Dream of a witches' Sabbath' and 'March to the scaffold'). Franz Liszt's "Totentanz (Dance of the Dead)," features French pianist Bertrand Chamayou in his Orchestral Series debut.

On October 25, 7:30pm, Sarah Hicks conducts the SFS in a performance of Disney's "Hocus Pocus"-film with a live orchestra, vitalizing composer John Debney's atmospheric score. The movie is enjoying an anniversary and renaissance of sorts this year with the release of a sequel. Besides, who could resist the trio of over-the-top witches, Bette Midler (Winifred), Sarah Jessica Parker (Sarah), and Kathy Najimy (Mary)?

SF Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen;
baritone Christopher Purves  

Frankly, my dear
October 27-29, Salonen leads a performance of HK Gruber's thoroughly insane "Frankenstein!!," featuring baritone Christopher Purves making his Orchestral Series debut. He may have to change his name to Christopher Pervy for the occasion. Based on frighteningly eccentric children's rhymes by H.C. Artmann, is "Frankenstein!!" a cabaret, jazzed up song cycle or surreal performance piece? Who knows, who cares? It provides a unique and thoroughly engaging experience.

On the same bill, Salonen includes music that has won praise for him on disc with other orchestras: a suite drawn from Bernard Herrmann's memorable score to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Bela Bartok's savage Suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin." The Hungarian composer's shocking depiction of murder and thievery is a tour de force for orchestra.

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