A tale of two orchestras, two conductors, two soloists, several accents, two continents... Indeed. Two recent musical evenings, performed back to back by our own San Francisco Symphony under James Conlon, and by the legendary Dresden Staatskapelle, on tour with Daniel Harding, were highly revealing of the differences which can still exist in the identity, tradition and manner of orchestras. By programming emotionally mainstream works, containing few neuroses or cataclysms, both conductors necessarily brought the focus of the audience's attention to beauty of execution, national perceptions of orchestral warmth and tone painting, and to their own manner of leadership.
Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740's Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless because, as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer's interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese cultural. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera's music and plot wouldn't exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l'Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is -- it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers' Guild five years before the opera's première, for what it's worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud's contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients' inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung "träumerisch": the young hero Octavian sings "Ist ein Traum..." just as the "secret of his dream is revealed" (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is "mere" warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie's lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs' style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.
I usually don't like to pick favourites, but of the Mozart operas it's hard to deny Le Nozze di Figaro. As such it has become familiar without become at all tired, and has probably sublimated a rather particular image of itself in my mind's eye and ear. The story of love giving way to jealousy, and then despair, and finally forgiveness, under the roof of an aristo ripe for Revolution, is bound to develop a thin farcical crust, but it never seemed a straight comedy, let alone a farce, to me. The characters are so genuine, even the myriad of supporting roles are so strong, that it's easy to sympathise with their harrowing trials. I see the opera more as the Orpheus and Eurydice story with a happy ending which makes sense. It also lovingly portrays the noble and logical humanist belief that (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) it is not impossible for human beings to solve problems that they themselves created. No parts for any God or gods nor even Cupid here. This production, directed by Neil Armfield perhaps wasn't exactly my idea of Figaro or quite sat on my sense of humour, but it did try some new things. Armfield does try to play it for laughs by filling the opera with over-the-top physical comedy, but he often risks hamminess. It is hard to keep up that kind of farce for over three hours and he doesn't always succeed in creating dark comedy in putting a fluff of laughter on violent, frightening or dark situations. He never ruins the comedy intrinsic to the libretto or the music, in fact at his best moments he even compliments this by adding detail to the scene with subtler acting in the background.
This week's concerts at Davies Hall marked a welcome return to the podium of Semyon Bychkov, who has become a favorite with San Francisco audiences in recent seasons. Mr. Bychkov has entered the admirable ranks of unattached guest conductors who travel the world conducting only the music they love, and the happy results are palpable. This year, his passion is the Walton First Symphony, and our audience is all the richer for what his advocacy has found in the music.