20 June 2009

faery lands forlorn

Here’s a programming tip: if you feel the work you want to perform will be lost in your concert hall without massive amplification, then – well, ideally you would blow up your concert hall and build something less like a barn, but barring such an expensive act of radical sanity you should just forego the desired work, however reluctantly.

I was in the front row for the San Francisco Symphony’s season-ending performance of Iolanthe on Thursday, and I immediately realized that was a bad place to be, though I doubt the effect was better elsewhere in the hall. It’s very odd to see people singing right in front of you and yet to hear them as if you were listening to a CD broadcast in a canyon. I pretty much know all the words and the singers were right there and I still couldn’t always make out what they were singing. The sound might have been even muddier farther back. I can’t really comment on the orchestra because after the overture the unbalanced sound meant that the voices completely swamped the accompaniment. That was a real disappointment since I had been looking forward to hearing a topnotch symphony perform delicate magic on this wonderful and wide-ranging score.

It’s a real shame because the potential was there in the talented cast and in the clever staging by Patricia Birch. I particularly enjoyed such touches as the frog brooches on Iolanthe’s cloak when she first rises from her pond (the costumes were by Dona Granata). The San Francisco Ballet School provided a charming company of fairies and pages; I recognized several of the dancers from the Bolshoi’s La Bayadere at Cal two weeks ago, so those little girls have been working very hard.

Lucas Meacham as Strephon was also a surprisingly capable dancer, and he and his Phyllis, Sally Matthews, brought operatic heft to their roles, but again the sound just steamrollered everything. Sasha Cooke was as touching and delicate an Iolanthe as the amplification allowed, but a big emotional moment like her reunion with her husband, the Lord Chancellor, who has assumed for years that she was dead, didn’t have the power it should have had. Possibly this was because Richard Suart as the Chancellor, for all his comic cleverness, couldn’t make the transition to the dramatic swiftly and subtly enough, but I can’t help feeling that the real problem here as elsewhere was the amplified removal of nuance and naturalness.

Though I’ve said the staging was clever, I think the direction could have toned down some of the more obvious jokeyness. Gilbert and Sullivan have to be played seriously and with the appropriately stylized dramatic conviction, to keep the material from tipping over into the overly arch and adorable. I would have liked more dignity and presence in the Queen of the Fairies, but since Joyce Castle was (I understand) a fairly last-minute replacement in the part, I can’t get too harsh. Gilbert gets a lot of automatic criticism for his satirical cruelty towards older women, but I find an endearing dignity about them, and they often have truly moving love-laments – for the Queen of the Fairies, it’s Oh foolish fay; my favorite example is Katisha’s Hearts Do Not Break. And they always end up with the man they want.

Last January I saw Iolanthe performed by the Lamplighters, and despite a much more vocally uneven cast than the Symphony’s, that performance had an emotional power this one lacked. The reunion of Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor was genuinely touching, the entry march of the peers was genuinely rousing (as well as full of clever and funny stage business), the Act I finale (which the Symphony staged, bizarrely but somewhat amusingly, as the sort of gospel-jazzhands number now obligatory in most musicals) had genuine dramatic heft.

It was a sadly flat end to the Symphony’s season. Didn’t any of those musicians notice what the amplification did to the music?


Civic Center said...

Wow. You posted a review within 72 hours of a performance. Love the first paragraph.

This production seemed doomed from the start. Remember when Tilson Thomas announced the season and said the reason he was programming "Iolanthe" was because he personally loved it? I don't know where he thought he was going to get the energy to do a semi-staged production of anything after three weeks of his Berg/Schubert festival, and dropping out of "Iolanthe" seemed inevitable. Then singers started canceling. Finally, "sound design" got involved and the disaster was sealed.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm occasionally timely. I (currently) have no tickets until the end of July, so I hope to do some catching up.

I think the only thing that doomed this production from the start was Davies Hall. Add in the "sound design" and it's over, but it did look both promising and plausible. I think Tilson Thomas's enthusiasms can sometimes really energize the other performers. And he has conducted similar shows at this time of year -- the Gershwin doubleheader (Of Thee I Sing/Let Them Eat Cake), for example. I think this was a labor of love gone wrong, which is what makes it sadder.

Civic Center said...

I disliked the Gershwin doubleheader, and I think there were some amplification issues with that one too. Loved a "Candide" they semi-staged there once in the summer as part of the Pops season but don't remember whether it was amped or not.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I did like the Gershwin doubleheader, but there were indeed amplification problems with it. I also loved that Candide -- I think it might have been amped, because they seem to do that with these works. And I have to say I don't understand that -- they present things like the Damnation of Faust or Paradies und die Peri without amplification, so why do they need it for works that use a lighter orchestra? Is it the spoken dialogue? I think they could find a way around that problem that didn't involve distorting the music. Oddly, I've seen plays at Berkeley Rep where they used amplification because of the songs -- so which is the problem, and how much does it depend on the configuration of the theater?