by Philip Campbell
The new year's side of the San Francisco Symphony's 2012-13 season is moving right along with ambitious concert productions and elegant evenings featuring superstar guest artists. Soprano Renee Fleming, at the peak of her lustrous international career, appeared at Davies Symphony Hall early in January singing songs of Debussy and Canteloube. The big news of the performance was the world premiere of English composer Robin Holloway's orchestration of Debussy's C'est L'extase (Settings of Paul Verlaine).
An SFS commission, it stemmed from Holloway's proven ability to idiomatically flesh out Debussy's piano scoring (2004's En blanc et noir, an orchestration of a Debussy work for two pianos, was performed by the Orchestra on tour in the US and Europe). The newest enhancement proved a beautiful addition to the repertoire, and a special gift for La Fleming to present to her fans.
Whenever I see the glamorous diva on TV, video, or at the San Francisco Opera and DSH, I am reminded of Kiri Te Kanawa, another big star with a similar voice and personality. Both shine greatest in the Straussian roles, but also make a meal of the gorgeous Canteloube pieces taken from his Chants d'Auvergne. Both look marvelous in couture gowns, but most importantly each singer possesses that creaminess of tone with an exquisitely clear edge that seems to typify the most successful lyric sopranos.
Fleming's appearance was framed by conductor and SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas by two big Debussy works: the ballet Jeux from late in the composer's career (1912), and his evergreen masterpiece of 1905, La Mer. MTT's sinewy approach to the great Impressionist suits me fine, and he elicited powerful, sensuous response from the orchestra. The more abstract Jeux benefited greatly, and it was refreshing to hear La Mer sound like the majestic sea in all of its awesome power.
Holloway was on hand to take a bow, and he returned to Davies last week for the high-striving, semi-staged performances of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt that featured a significant portion of one of his own scores as incidental music. Describing this multi-media concoction might be as confusing as the actual experience, but it is worth the attempt, as the intentions and much of the execution were quite excellent, at times meaningful and engaging.
Ibsen's play about title character Peer Gynt is an epic, combining realistic, folk, mystical and philosophical elements to describe a selfish life of reckless adventure that barrels along without care. Does he sound like a lot of guys we know (or women of the Ayn Rand persuasion)? The women in Peer's life ultimately save his sorry butt from an anonymous end. While the only bad girl among them, the daughter of the Troll King, gets much to do plotwise, Peer's mother and patient standby girl Solveig anchor the tale with warmth and humanity.
MTT has a confessed fascination with the story, and his attempt to make a cogent two-hour show out of a sprawling four-hour pageant underlines his determination to bring audiences onboard. Inevitably, his vision could not be realized without a lot more rehearsal, editing and re-direction, but given the time allowed, the results were pretty amazing. Moody projections by video designer Adam Larsen provided a visual narrative, helped by lighting designer and associate production designer Cameron Jaye Mock. Their contributions to dramaturg Michael Paller's adaptation and head honcho James Darrah's direction and production design made the best case for a presentation that featured enough incidental music to beg the question, "Why was it necessary to do this semi-staged?" The music ostensibly gave an impetus to bring the extravaganza into DSH in the first place.
The truncated script (in a bald English translation) was served well enough by an attractive cast of actors, but ironically it was the singing actress portraying Solveig (bright-toned and sweet Joelle Harvey) who made the strongest impression. Handsome young Ben Huber in the title role took the show to PG-13 level when he was stripped of his shirt in the hall of the mountain king, and he was believable in his early scenes. The story requires Peer to age and awaken to the confusion of his wasted life, and Huber just didn't have the necessary range. We felt for him, but only in theory.
It was possible to feel more for Rose Portillo as Peer's loyal (there's another kind?) mother Ase. She also didn't sing, but her ability to combine a certain humor with pathos, despite the obviousness of the text, made her characterization emotionally touching. Peabody Southwell as the Woman in Green (or Troll King's daughter) in her scenes of seductive trickery, and Jesse Merlin as both her father and Solveig's were as convincing as possible under the circumstances. Still, we couldn't help longing for the next orchestral sequence to appear, then wishing (with one notable exception) it would last longer when it did.
So why not just line everybody up at lecterns and do a more conventional concert performance of a difficult play? Well, we would have had to forego the enjoyable stretch of music, illuminated by a wonderful light show, which took over a long portion of the second half. Holloway's Ocean Voyage was probably most in keeping with MTT's new approach to the work, and Alfred Schnittke's marvelous pieces used to describe the mysterious Boyg (don't ask) and as a prologue also needed the visual help. Edvard Grieg's beloved incidental music needed no such help, and one could feel the audience breathing better whenever it was played. We won't fault anyone for making the grand attempt. If this were an out-of-town tryout or even a shaky opening night, we would still praise the maestro and his committed crew for their fitfully successful creation of a new work of art illuminating an old one.