Locals call the feverish heat of parties, dinners and dances that surround the gala openings of the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera "Hell Week." Following hard on the heels of Labor Day and with the Jewish New Year falling right smack-dab in the middle, it was a particularly intense and pleasantly exhausting go-round for the social set this year. Of course, no one would want to start the fall any other way. For the glitterati, it is a post-vacation chance to show off the spoils of a slowly improving economy with haute couture and air kisses, and real music-lovers can party their way back into Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, too, with a program book in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.
The 91st season of the San Francisco Opera couldn't have started with a more appropriate offering. The third appearance in repertory of director Robert Carsen's legendary production of Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" was first seen here in 1989 and most recently in 1994, but the years have done nothing to diminish its impact. The stunning musical pageant could survive another quarter-century if it continues to be curated this well.
Carsen's vision owes everything to designer Michael Levine for helping create a breathtaking blend of spectacle and entertainment. From the overwhelmingly grand Prologue in Heaven (depicted, appropriately enough, with tiers of ornate opera boxes) to the almost equally impressive Epilogue (where Faust gets out of his pact with the devil too easily, and old Satan is carried off whistling in justifiable fury), director Laurie Feldman has mounted the original with care and attention to detail, and made certain all the remarkable imagery remains intact.
Boito was a good, not a great, and a definitely non-prolific composer, but he knew how to fashion a tight script (he was the librettist for Verdi's late Shakespearean adaptations "Falstaff" and "Otello"), and his take on Goethe's "Faust" is witty and concise, even if it is still awfully long. The start-stop nature of the scenario isn't solved by Carsen's massive staging, but it is made acceptable by sheer grandeur and his sweeping gestures. It is big-time opera lavishly produced.
The music is often beautiful, and the Prologue has always been a thrilling stand-alone concert piece. Memorable tunes abound, and while it seems laughable now that critics originally decried the score as too Wagnerian, there are recognizable motifs and weighty musical consonances. Conductor Nicola Luisotti respected Boito's ebb and flow with a committed and passionate reading that will be better accepted as the run progresses. The crowd on opening night was just too rowdy to appreciate his luxurious approach. At the top of Act III, the maestro actually had to face the noisy revelers to ask for some quiet, a cringe-worthy moment that still couldn't completely stop the Philistines among us.
Ramon Vargas as Faust in San Francisco Opera's Mefistofele. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO
It was Boito himself who finally shut them up with the power of his own dramatic writing, and the cast helped immeasurably, making the most of their broadly conceived but cleverly detailed roles. Ramon Vargas as Faust started small, though he ended well. He was lost in the shuffle during the Easter Sunday scene, and admittedly, his character is pretty namby-pamby, but we have heard him sing more forcefully and with sweeter tone before.
Maybe he was a little unfairly matched at first with the incredible Patricia Racette, who seems unable to take a wrong step onstage, all the while singing with her wonderfully nuanced voice. Her pitiful realization of the wronged Marguerite was as moving as her Butterfly in its own way, and we marvel at her willingness to disappear within a role.
Racette owns the house, and we can't wait to see what she does with the upcoming "Dolores Claiborne," but opening night was all about the title character, and everyone was wondering if bass Ildar Abdrazakov could fill the shoes of the beloved Samuel Ramey, who wowed us in the part not only once but twice before. In a word: yes. Differently of course, but yes. Abdrazakov may lack just a touch of Ramey's devilish elegance and insouciance, but he also brings his own impressive range of acting and rich tone to create a satisfying portrayal. He doesn't lack in humor, either. Director Feldman retains the large blue balloon that represents the globe for him to bounce during his great aria in the Witches' Sabbath scene, "Ecco il mondo," and he pricks it finally with his own gleeful nonchalance.
Ian Robertson's huge Chorus also set the seal on a worthy revival and a knock-your-socks-off opening night.
Earlier in the week, the San Francisco Symphony's kick-off was every bit as celebratory as the Opera's, even if it was (as always) relatively more subdued. No one could survive two Opera-sized openings. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has branded his leadership of the SFS to the point where we pretty much know what to expect from the new season's gala. He smartly decided years ago to focus more on the party aspects of the concert without getting too low-brow with the repertoire.
2013-14 began and ended with a Jazz Age feeling. The aptly titled "Jazz Symphony" by George Antheil bookended the appearance of a well-loved guest soloist with George Gershwin's own jaunty take on expatriation, "An American in Paris." It was an ingenious and characteristically well-executed bill of fare. It was also loads of fun.
The soloist was darling soprano Audra McDonald, bringing a marvelous selection of American show tunes that managed (with only two notable exceptions) to be not only off-beat but also delightfully fulfilling. McDonald doesn't have to sell herself to SFS crowds. She got us at hello a long time back. Watching her playful talk with MTT and hearing her lovely voice rip through some wonderful Jule Styne and Leonard Bernstein songs was just a happy reminder. No one will ever sing "Make Someone Happy" or even "I Could Have Danced All Night" with fresher conviction, so just forget about it. Two virtually forgotten but worthy numbers, both from lesser musicals ("Steel Pier" and "1776"), also got the down-to-earth diva's special treatment, and the party just kept getting better.
Mark Inouye's terrifically idiomatic trumpet solo during the Antheil Jazz Symphony actually stopped the show with applause earlier in the night, and the feeling of being in some fabulous jazz club continued with McDonald's two sets. Hell Week was a lot closer to heaven this year.