Five years ago James Conlon led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in an absolutely stunning performance of Verdi’s Requiem that remains high on my list of all-time favorites, so I wasn’t at all disappointed when it was announced he would be replacing Fabio Luisi on the podium. For those performances, the soloists were Christina Brewer, Stephanie Blythe, Frank Lopardo and Vitalij Kowaljow- a formidable line-up, all of whom were splendid, but it was the pairing of Brewer and Blythe that made it extraordinary.
This year’s model had an equally impressive list of soloists which for me made this one of the most highly anticipated concerts on the schedule: Sondra Radvanovsky, Dolora Zajick, Lopardo, and Ain Anger. However, the pairing of Radvanovsky and Zajick, which looked so good on paper, ended up being so oddly distracting to me that it left me feeling underwhelmed by what otherwise was a very strong performance from everyone else onstage. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus has probably never sounded better- they were truly the stars of the evening, delivering their lines with amazing clarity, force and conviction, especially during the Dies irae, where the brass also particularly shined, making many of the moments terrifying but gorgeous. This section also contains a lot of music Verdi stole from himself- the opening of Otello, the melody of “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto, snippets highly reminiscent of Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra. At least he stole from his best stuff.
The strings were also wonderful throughout, creating an especially fleeting sound during the Sanctus. Conlon delivered as expected, which is to say, he was great- in total command of everything (and conducting without a score), he once again demonstrated his impressive mastery of this piece. In typical Conlon fashion he held his hand aloft for an extended time at the conclusion of Libera me, so the impact could be felt by all in the house and not ruined by immediate applause. When he lowered his hand the applause came, and in the form of an extended and enthusiastic standing ovation from the full house.
Having heard all of these singers before, I thought if there was to be a soft spot it would be found in Lopardo, but he was excellent this evening, especially in the Offertorio, where his tone was particularly well-matched with the orchestra. Anger, who truly looks like a movie star, developed some roughness in his voice during the performance, but it cleared by the Lux aeterna and overall he was solid- his voice has an impressive depth and I look forward to hearing more of him. I’d also love to see Tarantino cast him in something.
There’s probably no soprano I’d rather hear sing Verdi than Radvanovsky. Her voice is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard and watching her stride onstage in a stunning blue gown was simply exciting. She sounded fantastic, though it was apparent she was struggling with something, judging by her expressions and the amount of water she drank (turns out she felt quite ill the next day). Watching her, you could tell she was engaged in everything- a fully alive presence onstage.
But what was up between Radvanovsky and Zajick? When she wasn’t singing, Zajick sat there staring at the poor souls in the front of the orchestra like she was waiting for a doctor to give her a terrible diagnosis. The sour look on her face only left when she rose to sing solo; otherwise she looked annoyed all evening, and most noticeably, never once looked at Radvanovsky, even when they sang together. Not once- it was as if Zajick, looking a bit frumpy in her glittery black pantsuit, resented having to sit next to the glamorous Radvanovsky, much less perform alongside her. It was just weird, and it went on through the entire show, to the point where it became as distracting as Alisa Weilerstein’s “sexy face.” Radvanovsky would look at her for cues, or just because, and Zajick just stared straight ahead all night.
Now I know there are people reading this and saying to themselves, “Why don’t you just close your eyes? What difference does it make what the performer looks like- what matters is what they sound like.” Sorry, but I don’t agree with that sentiment. Watching what takes place onstage is part of the reason I attend performances in the first place. It’s not that I expect a soloist to somehow sit there and look charming all evening or even acknowledge the audience, but this looked like one person being extremely annoyed by the other. Isabella noticed it as well, commenting afterward that Zajick seemed to display four or five different personalities during the concert, and only one that was animated. It was so distracting I have to admit it detracted from my appreciation of the whole more than once, because I kept thinking “what the hell is wrong with her?” I found myself having to look up into the chorus to divert my attention, and I noticed someone I know is now singing in it- which was a pleasant surprise. How did Zajick sound? Fine, but the pairing of these two great Verdians didn't create the sparks I expected.
Hopefully the ladies worked it out and Radvanovsky’s recovered from whatever was ailing her last night because there are still two more performances of this masterpiece and my bet is they’re going to get successively better.