As if to complement the current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff by the San Francisco Opera in the War Memorial Opera House, the second week of the festival highlighting the music of Felix Mendelssohn and Thomas Adès, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall (across the street), featured compositions inspired by William Shakespeare. The more familiar of these was a suite of Mendelssohn’s music inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including his 1826 concert overture and four of the instrumental movements composed sixteen years later in 1842 and included in the incidental music he composed for a production by Ludwig Tieck. This was followed by the first SFS performances of four excerpts from Thomas Adès’ opera The Tempest, which included vocal parts for Prospero (baritone Rod Gilfry), Ariel (soprano Audrey Luna), Miranda (mezzo Isabel Leonard), and Ferdinand (tenor Alek Shrader).
Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado brought the same freshness and lucid control of resources to Mendelssohn that he has summoned for last week’s performance of the Opus 56 (“Scottish”) symphony in A minor. Indeed, just as Opus 56 was as much tone poem as symphony, each of the first four movements of the suite provided an evocation of the forest in which most of Shakespeare’s action takes place, all involving confrontations between its supernatural inhabitants and the mere mortals unfortunate enough to encounter them. Only with the final “Wedding March” do we return to the “solid reality” of Athens (although Shakespeare would have us believe that the fairies are outside the palace taking their own joy in the spectacle).
In the concert overture Mendelssohn captured the more sinister aspects of the forest by giving the bass line to the ophicleide, a now-obsolete instrument that put a brass mouthpiece onto a keyed conical-bore body (sort of a trumpet-saxophone hybrid). That part is usually taken by a tuba in contemporary performances, and Jeffrey Anderson’s execution excellently realized the dark rhetoric that Mendelssohn had intended. Equally effective was the work of the wind section in depicting the arrival of the “rude mechanicals” in the forest to rehearse their play without being discovered. This was the one selection of the suite involving a confrontation between mortals and the supernatural. Mendelssohn handled it with delightful wit, and Heras-Casado communicated that spirit perfectly.
If the excerpts performed last night were representative, then Adès’ approach to Shakespeare was more one of reflection than depiction. For one thing the libretto by Meredith Oakes is a text that honors Shakespeare’s plot but establishes its own unique language and discourse. Many believe that The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote. If this is the case, then he may have taken it as a personal reflection on his craft, writing it for his own satisfaction, rather than for the pleasures of mass consumption by an audience. If that were the case, then it would serve as a parallel to Verdi’s Falstaff opera, in which the composer seems more concerned with the logical flow of the music than with dazzling his audience with another round of show-stopping arias.
Last night’s selections provided the audience with several different views of Prospero, most of which tended to break with the ways in which the play is traditionally staged. Most fascinating was the relationship between Prospero and Ariel. Ariel’s powers are clearly far stronger than Prospero’s; but Ariel is in service under a twelve-year contract, which is about to expire. As sung by Audrey Luna, he was a furious dynamo of untapped energy, so agitated that only Prospero can understand his words. (Even with the aid of the text in the program book, those of us on audience side were not so lucky.) This Ariel is far more frightening than any of the inhabitants of that forest outside Athens, and one quickly appreciated how far Adès’ opera had taken this tale beyond its basic plot line.
Equally effective was Prospero’s awareness of the love growing between Miranda and Ferdinand. Indeed, on the basis of these excerpts, one would believe that Adès and Oakes conceived this opera as the story of a man coming to grips with the loss of his powers, perhaps even a metaphor for the fear we all experience in thinking about Alzheimer’s disease. I, for one, would now be curious to experience how this opera chose to interpret the scene in which Prospero relinquishes his magical powers. This was Shakespeare’s epilogue; but, in the opera, the mortals leave the island, which, once again, becomes the domain of Caliban and Ariel.
The second half of the evening provided a less familiar encounter with the supernatural. Mendelssohn was again represented, this time by his Opus 60 secular cantata on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die erste Walpurgisnacht (the first Walpurgis Night). This has nothing to do with the Walpurgis Night scene from the first part of Goethe’s Faust play. Rather, it is sort of a philosophical dialogue between the “old” revels of the pagan Druids and the emergence of “new” Christian practices. The performance required the full resources of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director), as well as solo work by Shrader, Gilfry, and mezzo Charlotte Hellekant.
The music itself is a raucous spectacle in which the Druid revels prevail over “Diese dumpfen Pfaffenchristen” (these dull Christian priests). This could well be the mightiest noise that Mendelssohn ever summoned for the stage of a concert hall, and Heras-Casado certainly gave it a stirring account. This was clearly a performance in which spectacle trumped much of the formal discipline behind Mendelssohn’s more familiar compositions. It was certainly enjoyable to be exposed to this other side of Mendelssohn’s creative spirit, but it is not necessarily the sort of experience one would wish to repeat in the near future.