The star in the San Francisco Opera’s summer run of “Der Rosenkavalier,” which opened Saturday, is Richard Strauss’ music; higher compliment is difficult to come by. Under Donald Runnicles’ direction, the orchestra played marvelously the complex, interwoven layers of music that constitute this nearly century-old score that has lost none of its modernity and power.
From sweeping waltzes to raucous interjections, through shimmering passages and multilayered sweeping melodies, Runnicles kept it all together and moving, in a straightforward, unaffected manner, and yet squeezing every drop of ecstasy from the music. Strauss can be more pretty or passionate or grand, but not more “right” than it was opening night.
The same can be said of the production, originally created by Lotfi Mansouri on sets by Thierry Bosquet (based on the original Alfred Roller design), directed simply and effectively by Sandra Bernhard, actually visible in Thomas J. Munn’s lighting.
Onstage, the remarkable duo of Joyce DiDonato’s Octavian and Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Baron Ochs (who spend as much time together as those in the more, ahem, positive relationships) did remarkable work, both singing and acting. DiDonato’s silvery voice, committed portrayal of a 17-year-old hero/troublemaker, and well-known comic timing held her in good stead. Sigmundsson was big, very big — in stature, in voice, in dominating the stage, but, especially, in not pushing or overwhelming.
For every dozen Ochses, regardless of voice, who overdo the part, there is just one like Sigmundsson, who underplays the role. He can afford it, this Icelandic giant with the voice to match; his whisper still hits the solar plexus on top of the second balcony.
The three female leads were well matched in voice and dramatic interaction. DiDonato’s scene with Soile Isokoski’s Marschallin in the first act; DiDonato’s presentation of the rose, and her love duet with Miah Persson (Sophie); then the concluding Trio had impeccable balance.
The freshness in Persson’s voice and the brilliance in Isokoski’s were much appreciated. A minor complaint about Isokoski is that she doesn’t fully realize the Strauss-Hofmannsthal transformation from an elegant, vibrant, (and oh, yes, unfaithful) aristocrat to an ordinary human being who becomes aware of her mortality. She has a sort of steady “nice” approach.
Still, in the final Trio — which was well, but not brilliantly, performed — Isokoski managed to bring to the forward the goodness of an “older woman” letting go of her younger lover, even helping to pair him with a contemporary, and “better chance for happiness.”
The large cast — including many Merola and Adler program participants — acquitted itself splendidly. Standouts were Catherine Cook’s Anina, Robert McPherson’s Italian Singer (good voice, not particularly Italianate), and Heidi Melton’s big-voiced Marianne, substituting for Elza van den Heever, who took the role of Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni.”
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Tuesday and June 21 and 27; 1:30 p.m. June 24 and July 1
Tickets: $30 to $245
Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com
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