God Rocks the House in San Francisco and Palo Alto: Verdi’s Requiem with the SF Symphony and Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera

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The Power of God on a Shoestring Budget: West Bay Opera's Samson et Dalila

The Power of God on a Shoestring Budget: West Bay Opera’s Samson et Dalila

San Francisco sustained two palpable if not destructive earthquakes (3.9 and 4.0) on Thursday October 20th, and the memory lingered with me for a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Friday the 21st with the San Francisco Symphony and  for a matinee performance of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila with the West Bay Opera on Sunday the 23rd in Palo Alto.

James Conlon had conducted the Symphony’s previous offerings of the Requiem in 2006. He reprised the work this season in the wake of Fabio Luisi’s withdrawal from the assignment (along with many others around the world) to fill in at the Met for the ailing James Levine. Conducting from memory, Conlon led a solid quartet of soloists, the orchestra, and the beautifully prepared chorus in a concentrated and rhythmically firm, fiery rendition, that reverberated threateningly in the very live acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. In general Conlon encouraged the forceful moments of the score—I have never known the bass drum strokes to explode so violently in the “Dies Irae”—more than he did the poignant expressions of fear or tenderness.

Perhaps for this reason Frank Lopardo (the tenor soloist from Conlon’s performances in 2006 also) stood out among the quartet. Possessing the least heroic voice of the four, he sang with the widest expressive range, risking and triumphing with an exquisite voix mixte in the “Ingemisco” and the “Hostias.” Had his colleagues engaged as imaginatively with the music or the text, this Requiem might have been even more profound, but they were interpretively a fairly mainstream bunch.

Leaving that regret aside, one has to bow before the assurance and power of Dolora Zajick, who after singing this work for decades (she made her SFS debut with it in 1992), shows zero evidence of vocal decline. There was little show of vulnerability in her traversal of the score —the voice scaled down to a mezzo piano at its quietest and facially she remains emotionally blank—but such a display of vocal health and virtuosity is no everyday occurrence. I doubt any mezzo alive can match her in this music.

Sondra Radvanovsky looked regal and commanded ample voice with a strong top and plush chest register. She demonstrated excellent control over the transformational entrance at “sed signifer” (also producing a fine trill at “transire ad vitam”) in the “Offertorio.” In addition to spinning a fine high B-flat in the “Libera Me,” she actively listened and responded to the chorus as if in dialogue with them (something I’ve not seen a Requiem soprano do before). I got the sense she might have been up for more nuanced duet singing in the “Recordare” and the “Agnus Dei” with someone other than Ms. Zajick. Together they managed a clean precision in their phrasing and intonation, but there was less of elasticity and tenderness.

Bass Ain Anger sang a smooth line with a rough voice. Overall, he gave a respectable performance, but moments of inexact intonation could not be ignored, and, more alarmingly given his youth, a hint of wobble never fully faded out.

The virtuosic San Francisco Symphony lacked neither precision or power. The cello line introducing the “Domine Jesu Christe” was played with haunting beauty as were the chords following the Amen of the “Lacrimosa.” I still wish Conlon had searched more deeply for atmosphere and emotion in lieu of austerity and rigor. As an example, the offstage trumpets in the “Tuba Mirum” made little impact, with little discernible purpose to their distant placement.

Nothing but praise for the Symphony Chorus, prepared by Ragnar Bohlin. In their work Conlon’s poetic and spiritual side was most palpable. They stormed violently as needed, but their full, soft-textured, piano singing conjured the cathedral in the concert hall. All in all, a very impressive and stylish Requiem, but only rarely a moving one.

An hour down the coast, on Sunday the 23rd the ancient God again made theatrical contact with a 21st -century public via a 19th century masterwork. While the Samson story concludes with a palpable miracle, West Bay Opera again conjured one of their own, achieving the full impact of grandest opera through astonishingly limited resources.

The Lucie Stern Theatre boasts a small stage with a low proscenium. The orchestra pit can welcome only a small band, and the company itself dared to produce the classic French biblical spectacle with 22 choristers, 3 dancers, and 3 choristers, making absolutely no cuts in the score, ballet included. Approaching Samson et Dalila with those forces invokes a different biblical narrative entirely—David battling Goliath. The odds were so improbable that the victory was all the more dramatic and the miracle should be proclaimed. Though their kitchen may be small, West Bay Opera knows how to cook.

Tenor Percy Martinez (Alvaro in last season’s Forza) has a voice of heroic metal but not of heroic size. He sang and acted a more than plausible and sympathetic Samson with enough assurance that no prayers were required of the audience for the maintenance of his strength.

Cybele Gouverneur is still at the beginning of her career. The voice has a rich texture, and she sang with an old-school voluptuousness that matched her tall exotic beauty. She moved impressively and was costumed flatteringly in the first and third acts; being too tightly clad in the second act.

Matthew Lovell made a strong impact in his brief moment as Abimelech, and Carlos Aguilar sang with strength as the Old Hebrew. David Cox more than met the vocal and dramatic challenges of the High Priest of Dagon, although he conjured the image of Victor Buono as King Tut in the old Batman series.

Director Ragnar Conde triumphed, and triumphed big, where the challenges were the greatest: the crowd scenes of the first and third acts. Strangely, Act II, where he had only solos and duets to stage, was the least magical. Here the otherwise excellent scenic design of Jean-Francois Revon verged towards camp and the decor radiated economy rather than ingenuity. Conde encouraged too much groping in the crucial scene between Dalila and the High Priest, overplaying the sexual element of the priest’s authority over the seductress. Nonetheless, the story was told literately and energetically, and lacked grace only in comparison to the very successful staging of the grandest scenes of this extremely grand opera.

I fear sounding suspiciously smitten with the achievements of this company, but under the artistic leadership of Jose Luis Moscovich, I would label West Bay Opera as one of the most reliable purveyors of grand opera to be found. I witnessed a profoundly satisfying Forza del Destino last season and heard high praise from those who saw their Turandot (Turandot, with a chorus of 25 for crying out loud!) last spring. Without doubt they did it again with Saint-Saens’ remarkably tricky opera/oratorio in October.

Once past the very opening scene, in which the thinness of the orchestral strings and the spareness of the chorus made a dubious first impression, Moscovich, director Conde, and choreographer Yannis Adoniou gave the audience as full an experience of Samson et Dalila as one could desire. Moscovich clearly rehearses his forces demandingly. The chorus projected piety and depravity as required. Even the supers moved purposefully and plausibly. West Bay’s leader shares with his directors and choreographers the secret of generating high impact from small forces on a small stage.

Conde and Adoniou were ingenious in blending the work of dancers, supers, choristers, and soloists. Revon’s designs and effects gave movement to the picture even when there was no place on the tiny stage for anyone to travel. The final effect of the collapsing Temple was effective and dramatic. In a show where risible is almost always an option, West Bay was musical and stylish.

Anyone in the Bay Area who wants to experience the sumptuousness of grand opera, would be well advised to go to Palo Alto where it can be found for a top ticket price of $65. Don Giovanni in February, and, yes, Aida (!) in May and June.

About the author

David Dunn Bauer

David Dunn Bauer is a rabbi, critic, and educator formerly based in San Francisco, now in New York City. He writes regularly on issues of Torah, sexuality, Queer culture and community, and the arts. Before his rabbinical studies, he spent 15 years directing theatre and opera productions around the United States, Israel, and Europe. Having served as a congregational rabbi for many years, he now teaches about religion, Queer Judaism, and the nexus of spirituality and eros at colleges, synagogues, churches, and retreat centers nationwide. He is an alumnus of Yale University, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality rabbinic leadership program, and the certificate program in Sexuality and Religion at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. He studied music with Nadia Boulanger in 1976 and movement with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 2010 and 2011. His contribution to the “It Gets Better Project” can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIWDxPjhTSo. David creates Queer Jewish programming in the Bay Area for Nehirim (www.nehirim.org) and has a private Spiritual Counseling practice based in Queer theology, available to everyone (www.queerspiritualcounseling.com).

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