* Notes *
Composer Kaija Saariaho (pictured) died last Friday on June 2, and San Francisco Symphony's presentation of her 2005 opera Adriana Mater last night showed what a profound loss this is. Her music is wholly unique and is very much a case for live performance.
Saariaho turned Davies Hall into an instrument, her slow moving music has a physicality that is like being surrounded by a monumental sculpture that gradually appears and then dissipates. Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the orchestra very even and consistent. The piece has a lot of percussion, more than two dozen instruments, which undoubtedly help create the soundscape that feels so solid and palpable. The brass sounded very clear and the strings shimmered.
The opera, with libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, is set in present day, in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Adriana, a young woman, rebuffs the advances of a young ne'er-do-well Tsargo, and is later raped by him at home when her sister Refka is out. She becomes pregnant and keeps the child, a son she names Yonas, but is tormented by fears that he will be like his father. When Yonas discovers his true paternity, he seeks revenge by taking Tsargo's life, but finds he cannot and thus proves to Adriana that he is indeed her son, and her fears were unfounded.
Saariaho dedicated this opera to Peter Sellars, who directed the world premiere seventeen years ago at Opéra Bastille in Paris with Salonen conducting. Sellars is halfway through a four opera series at San Francisco Symphony that will continue next year with Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This new staging for Adriana Mater (Act II pictured, photograph by Brittany Hosea-Small) included four platforms for the four principal vocalists, two downstage, and two upstage. The orchestra is arranged in a diagonal dividing the platforms in half, and the chorus is above but continues the diagonal by being stage right. The lighting switches up from primary colors on different platforms, to fully green or pink depending on the tableau. The singers are all fine actors, I was especially impressed how well mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron (Adriana) was able to hold her body in place for such long periods and how transformed she was from Act I where she is a young adult to Act II when she has a fully grown son. The staging does include four iPads with the music for the singers, and I found this would occasionally take me out of the drama and the music as a singer would turn the page or carry the device to the floor if the choreograph demanded it.
The singing was all very beautiful, an interesting contrast to the dark and disturbing content of the opera. Baritone Christopher Purves is terrifying as the violent Tsargo, but his voice does have.a pretty warmth to it. Tenor Nicholas Phan is wrenching as son Yonas, his sweet, bright sound conveys a lot of emotion. Soprano Axelle Fanyo also has a sweet, full tone and gave a focused performance as Adriana's sister Refka. Barron is devastating in the title role, her deeply burnished mezzo embodied the pain of Adriana and her redemption.
* Tattling *
There was some light talking throughout the performance, which completely didn't make sense to me, as this experience was intense and immersive. A person in Row T Seat 3 of Premier Orchestra kept looking at her phone in the second act.
It seemed like almost everyone I knew who loves opera was at this performance. Even soprano Nina Stemme and baritone Johan Reuter, who are both in Die Frau Ohne Schatten over at San Francisco Opera were in attendance.