An opera giant's farewell

Even in this electronic age, there is something remarkable about being able to see a performance and know one will be able to hear it again on the radio or see it again on TV.

In the case of Strauss's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" at the San Francisco Opera, Nov. 7 is the date National Public Radio will be airing this important chapter in American operatic history (in some cities the date will differ somewhat -- so check your listings).

Why historic? Because Birgit Nilsson was singing her last new role -- that of the Dyer's wife -- for the first time in the United States and was very probably singing her last operatic role on these shores.

It was fitting that the Empress in this series of performances was Leonie Rysanek, whose tenure in a role that is emphatically her unique possession, is a record in itself. Also in the cast, Jemes King's veteran Emperor; Ruth Hesse, who is one of the few artists singing the role of the Nurse these days; and Gerd Feldhoff, making his san Francisco Opera debut as the Dyer.

There are those who find this allegorical tale of the search for true humanity to be at best middle -- or bottom-drawer -- Strauss. Hugo von Hoffmansthal's text is at times confusing, ambitious, flawed, but also compelling. Strauss wrote music to match -- music that reveals its secrets only after it becomes familiar to the listener.

The San Francisco production by Nikolaus Lenhoff (designed by Jorg Zimmermann) handsomely captures the two worlds of the opera, as well as the magic, without the aid of stage elevators, turntables, etc., though the pandemonium that ends Act II is too tame.

But Act III, the dramatic-musical climax of the work, is an iridescent marvel of inventive effects that abets the Empress's mighty struggle with her conscience and heart.

This is the Empress's opera, and it calls for a singer who can ride an orchestra, has endless reserves in the upper ranges, and a consummate ability to convey passion, tenderness, emotional struggle, and supreme femininity. Miss rysanek's histrionic abilities to cope with this uniquely demanding role have hardly diminished, though the night I heard her she was a bit cautious vocally in the earlier part, saving up for that grueling last act.

Nevertheless, her Empress remains a thing of beauty and extraordinary human insight -- one of the great performances of this operatic age.

Miss Nilsson brings great depths of tragic power to the Dyer's wife. Hers is not the most subtly detailed performance, but it surely is the most consistently audible -- able to ride the fiercest climax with ease while giving the audience a vivid sense of the plight of this hapless woman. What Miss Nilsson has lost as a singer (which is very little -- except, perhaps, by her own exalted standards) she seems to have gained as an actress. The soprano moved with more conviction and grace than one remembers from past encounters.

James King still manages most of the Emperor rather well, if a bit dryly nowadays.

In the pit, Berislav Klobucar led a diligent, accurate account of the work -- not high on mood or magic, but very competent, holding the large orchestra together and giving splendidly helpful balances to his singers. 'Samson'

The production of "Samson et Dalila" is a triumph. Visually, Douglas Schmidt has used as his starting point the works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema -- a vintage Victorian artist who painted classical themes with gauzy, billow-clad bodies voluptuously posed. Carrie Robbins has executed the costumes, and they are almost all superb.

Director Nicolas Joel rightfully decided that a Victorian opera that borders on oratorio needs a Victorian feel in production rather than a mystical or 'biblical one. Joel-Schmidt include a massive eclipse in the first act, a dazzling thunderstorm for Act II, and plenty of smoke and fire for the temple scene. When the walls finally fall, it is grand-scale spectacle.

Seeing these memorable sets so superbly lit by Thomas Munn -- one could actually see faces and detailing -- makes one wonder why the trend today is toward lugubrious obscurity. Apparently the lighting had been altered for the TV cameras taping the show for future telecast, (NPR will broadcast around Oct. 24 -- date to be announced), but it was highly satisfactory.

Musically, things were in vivid hands with Julius Rudel at the helm, and on stage Wolfgang Brendel took top honors. The role of the High Priest suits him handsomely, and if the very top of the range is not ideally focused, he was the most vivid presence on the stage each time he appeared.

Placido Domingo should be a grand Samson, but he is only a good one. As is so often the case, Domingo plays a heroic role as if it were a louder version of the Puccini leads he does so well, and here his attention to words was very generalized.

Shirley Verrett is not in an enviable position. She forsook most mezzo roles a few years ago to sing Tosca, Aida, Norma, and other soprano parts, and has managed them rather poorly, for the most part. This current return to the Mezzo literature as Saint-Saens' superb sirene found her vocally inadequate. 'Simon'

"Simon Boccanegra" was of particular interest because of Renato Bruson's imposing performance in the title role -- warm, generous, sensitive, and majestic when needed, though the voice lacks the cutting power for the biggest climaxes.

Giorgio Lamberti's Gabriele was undercut by pinched delivery and rather off-putting stage presence.

In the pit, Lamberto Gardelli was at home in the tender moments, and rather underpowered for the dramatic moments. But the playing he elicited from the orchestra -- a rather young new group formed at the beginning of the season now that the symphony and opera no longer share quarters -- was magnificent. In fact, for all three operas, this orchestra proved to be something to cheer about , a committed, enthusiastic ensemble that gives a new dimension to opera- going in San Francisco.

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