Stratospheric Soprano in Excerpts from Adès’s Tempest

United StatesUnited States Mendelssohn, Adès: Audrey Luna (soprano), Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Alek Shrader (tenor), Rod Gilfry (baritone), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.10.2013 (HS)

Mendelssohn: Suite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Thomas Adès: Scenes from The Tempest
Mendelssohn: The First Walpurgis Night


Until San Francisco Opera gets around to presenting English composer Thomas Adès’s astonishingly inventive take on The Tempest, Bay Area audiences will have to make do with several tantalizing excerpts from the San Francisco Symphony, heard Friday in Davies Symphony Hall, across the street from the opera house. This musically challenging score was the highlight of a concert that leaned heavily on theatrical music and featured some brilliant singing and conducting.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, who is making quite a name for himself in the opera world, brought precision and vibrancy to the music of Adès and Berlioz-like flash to the orchestra’s first performances of a splashy cantata by Mendelssohn.

Most fascinating among the vocal soloists was soprano Audrey Luna, who handled Adès’s stratospheric writing for Ariel in The Tempest excerpts with unbelievable ease. To capture the character’s ethereal nature, the score makes her live in music written above the staff, not just for the occasional eighth note (as in Mozart’s music for the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, a role Luna has sung often) but even for sustained and quiet legato passages. Miraculously, Luna is able to execute these notes without apparent strain, make them sound rich and fully filled out, and even make us understand at least some of the words.

A soprano singing lyrical music centered on high D’s, E’s, F’s and, yes, G’s above high C, occasionally plunging an octave or two, communicates unmistakably that we’re not dealing a mortal human. The effect in the setting by Adès and librettist Meredith Oakes of “Five fathoms deep” (“Full fathom five” in Shakespeare) is mesmerizing, especially when delivered with Luna’s precision and elegance. In lesser hands—or vocal cords—it might have been a series of screeches. (Luna sang this role last season in a stunning production at the Metropolitan Opera.)

Adès’s musical lines move in unexpected directions, always ending up making a cogent case for arriving at a destination, something few modern opera composers seem able to do consistently. His writing for Prospero, sung here by the dashing baritone Rod Gilfrey (who handled the role in 2006 at Santa Fe Opera), can wander off into strange juxtapositions with the ever-roiling orchestra, but it always makes its core point forcefully and clearly. Gilfrey was in resplendent voice, singing without benefit of the scores the other singers required.

The excerpts drew from two sequences. In the first, Ariel and Prospero argue over when he might finally free her from her obligation to serve him. Later, love music for Miranda and Ferdinand leaves behind the jittery dissonances of the Prospero-Ariel scenes, but its quietly sonorous triads don’t always go where expect. The result was ravishing, as Heras-Casado drew softly sonorous playing from the orchestra. Caressing the melodic lines were lyric tenor Alex Shrader and creamy-voiced mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, both of whom are in town to sing Count Almaviva and Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville at San Francisco Opera next month.

Shrader joined Gilfrey and broader-voiced mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant in the solo roles of Mendelssohn’s “The First Walpurgisnacht.” Written about the same time as the “Italian” Symphony, it demonstrates Mendelssohn’s command of form and orchestration to color a story. In this case Goethe describes the origins of a sort of witch’s sabbath, which also appears in other well-known works such as Gounod’s Faust, Boito’s Mefistofile, and notably, the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

The program notes say that Mendelssohn got to know Berlioz in Rome, but had harsh words for that finale, finding it vulgar. His version does seem to fashion at least some of its musical language in similar terms, with definitely more blare and oomph than one usually hears from the ever-elegant Mendelssohn, and it suits the story of Druids and other “heathens” finding safe haven in the mountains to practice their rites despite oppression from German Christians of the day. After much storming and blustering, it ends with a chorus of Druids voicing a very Lutheran-sounding hymn, and beautifully sung by the San Francisco Symphony chorus.

The program began with actual theater music by Mendelssohn. Heras-Casado led the standard five-movement suite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with little flexibility, making it feel disconcertingly foursquare and blocky, despite responsive playing by the musicians. But that all changed with the Adès.

Harvey Steiman