Karmic Retribution: Melton in Verdi’s Requiem
Surely the ghosts of Verdi and Britten (not to mention St. Patty, aka Patricia Racette) conjured up this gift! After the very disappointing cancellation of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the San Francisco Opera, robbing diva Heidi Melton (and us) of her formal debut in a leading role (Ellen Orford) on its stage, what glorious news the title of this May 28th SFO “Media Advisory” bore:
SOPRANO HEIDI MELTON TO REPLACE PATRICIA RACETTE
IN MAY 29 VERDI REQUIEM CONCERT CONDUCTED BY
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA MUSIC DIRECTOR DONALD RUNNICLES
This was especially welcome, after Heidi had a cancellation of her own mid-week, from Berkeley Opera’s Annual Gala, celebrating their 30th anniversary. At the time, I didn’t care if she was only to sing a single aria, I had to be there. Little did anyone know that a few days later she’d be delivering up one of the most demanding and exciting parts in the entire Italian (opera) rep.
This performance was crafted in honor of Donald Runnicles, and his 17 years as Music Director of the SFO. Although I hadn’t originally intended to go, with Heidi on board, it was NOT be missed.
It was a sold-out house, packed to the gills. It was heartening to see this, as Runnicle’s commitment to the company, and investment in the evolution of the orchestra, choir, and artists has been invaluable. He has set the bar very high for Luisotti, and the orchestra on a trajectory for the finest quality. In particular, his musical tastes seem to be very in line with mine…built on a foundation of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner (a not so subtly german trio!).
After my friend scored a single last-minute seat in the Orchestra, I scaled the heights to find the last standing room spot in the Balcony (aka “nose-bleeds”). When the first notes of the Requiem started and I looked around me, I felt as if we were in our spiritual home, here to worship Verdi, Runnicles (and Heidi…NOT in that order!) at the altar of music. It sent a chill up my back. It’s so rare to experience rep like this in the opera house, so it was truly special.
I was reminded that where I stood was the real acoustic sweet spot of the house, and nowhere else can one hear such fine textures in the soundscape, far better than in the rear Orchestra, where I first scavenged for a spot. It does seem to favor voices over instruments, as the chorus actually seemed to overpower the orchestra a bit…but I’m certain that’s just a slight acoustic imbalance, and was hardly a problem.
When basso Andrea Silvestrelli sang his first “Kyrie”, out of him spilled a generous, throaty, almost “black” Russian-like tone. However, he was capable of reigning it in to render more tender expressions as well. It was hard to believe he could extend such a dark sound up to the upper reaches of his range. There is something wild and untamed about his instrument, which is also supported by hints of the Italianate lisp I most associate with the operatic lion himself, Corelli.
Mezzo Stephanie Blythe offered her signature smooth tone and sensitivity to the score, but knew when to draw some thrilling edge forth from her voice. Her recent Amnerises have likely helped take her even further to these Simionato extremes. She is a model for what it means to be a truly collaborative artist. When singing with Heidi, she would lean into her, look at her, and exchange in a real give-and-take, as the phrases allowed it. And, when not singing, she was rapt and intent on those who were…really listening. Beautiful!
Tenor Stefano Secco was a shade lyric in this company, and relative to the great recordings I’ve grown accustomed to, but he sang with beauty of tone, blended well in the ensemble, and nailed every challenge in the score. He had the required squillo one is wanting from this piece.
It was overwhelming to see Heidi Melton perform this piece, on the stage of her beloved SFO, in her final year as an Adler Fellow. She has truly “arrived”, and it was clear she was meant to be, and deserved to be up there in that company. I’m so pleased that with the memory of this grand experience, she is supportively launched into her international career. I think her voice was born for Wagner and Strauss (german rep.), but she proved she is a worthy Verdian too. In particular, she shaped beautiful phrases in the “Salve me”, from voluminous fortes to caressed pianissimi. She also exhibited a lovely trill. She sustained a perfectly supported mezza voce in the Agnus Dei, and sang as one voice with Blythe. Perhaps because of the Caballe/Cossotto recording, I never feel this movement is conducted slowly enough, but imagine the breath support required to do so would be cruel. She commanded the stage in the scena Libera Me, and effectively rode the orchestra through its swells and crests.
Maestro Runnicles led his forces with vigor, and let the score guide him, rather than imposing an “interpretation”. In my 15 years in the Bay Area, he is the only SFO Music Director I have “known”, so this is truly the end of an era, and a book-end on a glorious run. His presence and manner alone have always lent a gravitas and reverence to our Company, and this art form we cherish.
Having just attended the Requiem at the SF Symphony last season it was interesting to draw some comparisons. This piece is more standard rep for a Symphony Orch and Choruses’, and they had the benefit of an actual run, so this may have contributed to it being the cleaner and more nuanced performance. Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe (again) put their own magic imprint on the material (shades of Sutherland/Horne as Norma/Adalgisa). BUT, the Verdi Requiem is really more operatic in character than “oratorio” or “symphonic”, and was rightfully performed in the opera house this time around. And, the Opera Orchestra and Chorus delivered a take-no-prisoners drama, with red-blooded fervor…a bit rougher around the edges, but fully committed.
Afterwards, SFO General Director David Gockley, Chairman of the Board of Directors John Gunn, and President of the San Francisco Opera Association George Hume presented Maestro Runnicles with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Company to an artistic professional (created by Kurt Herbert Adler in 1970). This was a very moving tribute, especially since it’s not frequently given (and rarely to conductors). Other recipient highlights include: Dorothy Kirsten (1970), Leontyne Price (1977), Joan Sutherland (1984), Marilyn Horne (1990), Plácido Domingo (1994), Frederica von Stade (1997), Samuel Ramey (2003), Pamela Rosenberg (2005), and Ruth Ann Swenson (2008).
Runnicles offered a very heart-felt and sincere acceptance and acknowledgement of the SFO and SF as his home, and expressed his great love for all his fellow artists, and us, the SF audience. He offered a special mention of Heidi, who he shared could have had no idea two days before when she woke up what opportunity would come her way. AND, he made the official public announcement that she will be joining him at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, as a member of its famed ensemble. I felt so proud for Heidi…she must have just been beside herself. Having been so scarce on the mainstage of late, this was a true triumph of performance and recognition!
And, there’s more good news to report on the horizon…her bio insert announced that she is scheduled to perform the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and Ada in Wagner’s rarely heard Die Feen with Frankfurt Opera, both in 2011. That she would make her home in Germany, at least in the short term comes as no surprise, and I hope is a very nurturing setting for her rare gifts!