Thursday, January 28, 2016

Racette and Moody and Beethoven and Strauss!

Music Director Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra continued their Beethoven cycle Tuesday evening with a performance of the Eighth Symphony. When young, obsessed with, and studying the symphonies, I found Number 8 his weakest, its spry, lightness holding the least amount of interest for me. As I've grown older, my mind has changed and it has become something altogether different and seen and heard in a new light. The PSO's performance brought forth all of its strengths, humor and sense of fun. In one of the technically most assured performances I've heard from this orchestra the symphony burst with appropriately taut, crisp, life, its syncopated and exaggerated rhythms, crazy key modulations, instant dynamic changes all brought to the fore. Nowhere was this more true than in the fourth movement, with its sense of propulsive energy, the madcap quality of the extended coda and Beethoven seemingly making a joke at how a symphony should end. The applause came fast and furious and the faces of Maestro Moody and his orchestra were unmistakably those of who knew they'd just done something fairly spectacular.

Before the concert Moody explained his arranging four separate pieces from operas of Richard Strauss to constitute a sort of “symphony.” He requested the audience withhold its applause between its “movements” . . . even when guest star, soprano Patricia Racette entered for the final scene from Salome, emphasizing Ms. Racette's desire to "enter the stage already as Salome.” The notion of cobbling together a symphony from four fairly disparate works seemed on one hand, an odd one, yet on the other, an intriguing exercise in charting the development of a composer.

The two opening "movements” exhibited Strauss’ debt, and dedication, to the Wagnerian model. With its shimmering, pianissimo strings, and delicately gauzy winds, the Prelude from Guntram could easily have been mistaken as a preliminary draft for Lohengrin. Similarly, the love music from Feuersnot had elements that bore more than a mere whiff of Parsifal. This is not to dismiss Strauss’ originality, for in this music could also be heard elements of future works including both Salome and Elektra. In Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils, the orchestra was convincing in putting forth Strauss' brand of perfumed Orientalism as well as letting loose with a wonderful display of a sometimes breathless savagery.

Padded with added brass and a small village of percussionists, the PSO reveled in the luxuriousness of those four pieces, producing an ever increasing richness of sound that grew, exponentially, to its climax: the Final Scene from Salome.

Ravishing in a figure hugging gown of dark purple, Ms. Racette entered the stage to complete silence with time seemingly standing still until violently broken by the jagged cello wail and drum thunder that begins opera’s most celebrated scene of deranged beauty. Racette's voice, with its Sills-like brightness is deceptive in its size, her silvery tone shining through the roles most difficult passages with ease. There is an enormous difference between singing with a full Strauss orchestra in the pit versus having the band onstage and at times I feared Moody would get carried away by the opportunity of showing the sheer sound-capacity of such an ensemble, particularly in the score's loudest sections. The soprano did get overpowered, not where one would think, but rather in some of the role's lower passages where she could still be heard, if just barely, as the orchestra roared with thunder. Some brakes, perhaps, should have been applied in such moments. The major climaxes however, held no such problems, with Racette's voice easily soaring, the high notes, bright, focused and secure. Her phrasing, nuance of text and belief in this music made me, now more than ever, wish to experience her in the complete role. She really was that good. (Note: It was recently announced Racette will be bringing the role to LA Opera next season: California, here I come!)

If the singing were all that mattered, a bonus was having Racette's well thought out absorption of the role. While never straying from the small space allotted to her on the crowded stage, Racette's facial expressions, arms and hands brought a full portrait of Strauss and Wilde's twisted teen. As her arms extended, one could see the platter holding the prophet's severed head as she sensuously brought it up to her own before going in for opera's most demented kiss. At Herod's order of her murder, Salome's arms shot up, to protect or protest, but ultimately proved useless as her face realized the final horror. It was lugubriously delicious.

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