Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Accentuate the positive

June 16, 2007

Joyce DiDonato as Octavian and Miah Persson as Sophie
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

My visit to this year’s summer season with the San Francisco Opera kicked off with their revival of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I’ve really been looking forward to this one because I love Strauss and former SF Opera director Pamela Rosenberg had put together a top-drawer cast – Soile Isokoski as The Marschallin, Joyce DiDonato as Octavian, and Miah Perssson as Sophie with Donald Runnicles conducting. In most ways, it did not disappoint and is very much worth seeing. The fact that the auditorium was far from capacity on the Friday night's second performance was frankly quite sad.

Before we get to the drawbacks, let's hear the copious good news. You won’t hear a better sung or played production anywhere today. DiDonato’s rapidly and deservedly rising star was no doubt the central attraction. I could say more, but you can read about her everywhere. Let me draw your attention to another great big talent in the cast – Miah Persson. Mostly known in Europe for her Mozart roles, the soprano has graced our shores recently in concert performances in LA and elsewhere. She is now venturing onto our opera stages, and last night she was fantastic. Clear, beautiful, and solid throughout, she was a joy to hear. The show was at its best when she and DiDonato were on stage together.
Soile Isokoski
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
I should also make note of Isokoski’s performance which was also a vocal pleasure. Kirstinn Sigmundsson did the Baron Ochs chores for the night and they weren’t entirely thankless either. Everyone could have used a little more acting support: DiDonato doesn’t quite have the male physical gestures down, Isokoski was too detached and Ochs could have affored to be a little more buffoonish and a little less boorish. Still, these are minor quibbles. Runnicles and the orchestra turned in a lively performance if not as exacting as I might have preferred.

Despite these many assets however, the negative of the evening is hard to eliminate. I’m not sure what is more shocking: that SF Opera mounted this dreadful, archaic Lofti Mansouri staging as “new” in 1993 or that they have had the gall to revive it now two times since then. It is so musty that it weighs everything down and nearly eliminates any enjoyable visual element from the proceedings. Blogger and SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman notes that he originally thought the production akin to “taxidermy” but that it has grown on him during repeated viewings. Apparently bad opera productions have an effect not dissimilar to TV violence – recurrent exposure makes one numb to its deleterious consequences. Still, this is a Rosenkavalier not to be missed - you may just want to keep your eyes closed for protection.

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