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Bay Area fests opt for sonic adventures

Opera and orchestra choose seldom-heard Prokofiev pieces and Gluck's `Tauride.'

June 19, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — "When Greeks met Scythians" was the headline over a review Monday in these pages of a new exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, featuring ancient art from the Black Sea region. And the interaction between classical Greek culture and the fierce warriors and splendid gold workers of the Central Asian steppes is certainly very interesting. But the otherwise fine scholars at the J. Paul Getty Museum missed another lively connection: when San Franciscans met Scythians.

That curious meeting, in fact, is still going on. June is when the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera hold their summer festivals. At Davies Symphony Hall, the orchestra is devoting four concerts to Prokofiev, all conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Across the street, at the War Memorial Opera House, the opera company's summer season is busy with three productions.

Both companies are playing it a bit safer this year than they sometimes have in the past. The symphony has programmed such favorites as music from the ballets "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella" and the "Lieutenant Kije" Suite. The June operas include the ever popular "Don Giovanni" and "Der Rosenkavalier."

But both organizations are also moving into a few repertory byways. The orchestra is not neglecting the Modernist Prokofiev, and his "Scythian" Suite will conclude its festival next Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile the third opera is Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride." In it, the daughter of Agamemnon, Iphigenie, has been supposedly whisked from danger by the goddess Diana to the Black Sea peninsula of Taurus, run by the Scythian king Thaos, who thinks it wise to slaughter all foreigners.

Bless those Scythians, bloodthirsty pagans to Prokofiev and Gluck. The "Scythian" Suite is the Russian composer's noisiest score. "Tauride," Gluck's penultimate opera, is the most strikingly dramatic work by this 18th century opera reformer.

The symphony and opera events I was able to attend this past weekend made a striking pair. Saturday night, Tilson Thomas led two raucous, slightly crazy and too seldom-heard Prokofiev pieces -- the Second Piano Concerto and the Third Symphony -- both in the composer's Modernist, "Scythian" mode. Sunday afternoon, Susan Graham starred in Robert Carson's stark, highly wrought production of Gluck's opera.

Focusing on Prokofiev is an intriguing counterpoint to the Shostakovich craze. Where Shostakovich festivals nearly always require historical, political and biographical context, this one, devoted to his rival, trusts the music. Even the standard preconcert talks are being replaced by mini piano recitals. But the orchestra does supply first-rate program notes.

The five piano concertos, performed by four Russians, are the festival's centerpiece, and the second was played Saturday by Vladimir Feltsman. Written in 1913, it dates from Prokofiev's student years in St. Petersburg but was lost during the Russian Revolution and then reconstructed by the composer in 1924. The Third Symphony was built out of material from Prokofiev's 1919 opera "The Fiery Angel," which was far too fiery for the stage in those days.

The performances of both works Saturday -- along with the inconsequential "American" Overture, given in its oddball chamber version -- were sagacious. Now in his early 60s, Tilson Thomas seems to have matured out of his firebrand phase. However extreme Prokofiev got, Tilson Thomas reminded listeners of an inherent lyricism in all the composer's music.

He did not shy away from a few ear-shattering climaxes, but rich expression was a higher priority. "Beautiful" is not how the exciting Third Symphony, with its music taken from an opera that includes an outrageous nun orgy, is usually described. But this was a beautiful reading, as was Feltsman's commanding performance, deep of tone and feeling, of the concerto.

At the opera the next afternoon, nothing felt sagacious. "Tauride," never that much of a rarity -- Maria Callas sang it in the '50s -- is really catching on these days. Achim Freyer designed an amazing production that traveled around Europe in the '90s. Graham is today's Iphigenie of choice, and the role suits her mezzo-soprano extremely well. She has appeared in a whacked-out staging in Salzburg. Next season, she and Placido Domingo are scheduled to star in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera.

Carson's version, shared by Chicago Lyric Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, asks Graham to tear her hair from beginning to end and is the weakest work I've witnessed from this often provocative Canadian director. It may not have helped that the staging was turned over to Jean Michel Criqui or that Philippe Giraudeau's original choreography looked like warmed-over Pina Bausch, at least as realized by Lawrence Pech in San Francisco.

Dance is at the heart of the production, which is presented in a black box. Everyone is dressed in black. Men wear shoes. Women are barefoot. The chorus sits in the pit. The Furies and the meanie Scythians are dancers who slit throats, throw one another around and slink menacingly on the floor. Iphigenie, her brother Orestes and his friend Pylade are presented as hysterics. A hint of homoeroticism is added to liven up an opera noted for its utter lack of eroticism. But mainly Carson compensates by staging raw, disembodied emotion.

The singing, though, is terrific. Graham may be asked to try too hard, but she pours forth wonderful sound. Bo Skovhus is an electrifying Orestes and Paul Groves a strong Pylade.

Mark S. Doss is the threatening Scythian king. Patrick Summers conducts without subtlety, as if from a Scythian point of view, one that seems all the rage this summer in a town once known as Baghdad by the Bay.

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