Posted on Sat, Feb. 19, 2005

'Paradies' soars under Metzmacher


"Das Paradies und die Peri" (Paradise and the Peri) may be Robert Schumann's least-loved work, at least by contemporary audiences. An odd mix of the mystical and the melodramatic, the 1843 oratorio was considered one of the composer's large-scale masterpieces during his lifetime. Today, it's so rarely performed that many music lovers don't even know it exists.

Even committed Schumann fans admit to ambivalence about this hard-to-classify work. And, after Wednesday's San Francisco Symphony performance at Davies Symphony Hall, it's possible that a few hardhearted types may still dismiss it as Romantic claptrap. Others -- particularly those who admire Schumann's symphonies -- probably felt they'd discovered a new treasure.

For those in the second category, the reasons have much to do with German conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who led the most vibrant and propulsive performance of "Paradies" imaginable. The work made its San Francisco Symphony debut on this program (which had its final repeat Friday night), and it was a revelation.

Making his second appearance in Davies Hall in as many weeks (last week, he led the orchestra in music by Beethoven, Hartmann and Webern), Metzmacher lent Schumann's sprawling musical drama all the qualities it can lack in lesser hands: i.e., focus, dynamism and an enveloping sense of dramatic intensity. The resulting 90-minute performance -- given without intermission -- was as splendid as it was surprising. Romantic excess? Yes, but since it was expressed with such ecstatic audacity, the listener could only sit back and marvel.

"Paradies" is adapted from "Lalah Rookh," Thomas Moore's hyper-Romantic verse stories based on Persian folklore. It's a story of love, heroism, mysticism and redemption. The Peri of the title -- an airy sprite who is the child of a fallen angel and a mortal -- seeks to regain her rightful place as a demigoddess. The quest takes her to exotic climes such as India, Egypt, Syria and, eventually, the gates of heaven; the religious overtones are unmistakable, but this is an equal-opportunity vision -- a Christian parable set in Allah's land.

Schumann's score, with a libretto by Emil Flechsig, preserves the fragrant, otherworldly quality of Moore's original. Completed when he was just 33, it represents the composer at the height of his musical powers, and the music pours forth in one luminous episode after another (a writer from a previous generation compared it to "a bath in liquid honey"). The orchestral writing is on par with Schumann's symphonies, and the writing for vocal soloists is nothing short of sublime.

Metzmacher, general music director of the city of Hamburg since 1997 (he will become chief conductor of Netherlands Opera next season), had superior forces at his command, and he marshaled them admirably. The orchestra sounded keenly responsive from the get-go, supplying a wealth of diaphanous detail at the conductor's prompting and delivering the oratorio's heart-stopping outbursts with precision and fervor. The team of singers assembled onstage was first-rate.

In the dual role of Angel/Narrator, mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson was particularly strong: Wielding a large, luxuriant voice, she managed to create the aural equivalent of the aforementioned honey. Soprano Laura Aikin -- remembered by Bay Area audiences as the Angel in Messiaen's "Saint Francois d'Assise" for San Francisco Opera -- sang the role of the Peri, once again combining radiant tone with a brilliant sense of the ethereal. Tenor Christoph Pregardian was wonderfully responsive to every shading of music and text, and he handled his share of the Narrator's duties with eloquence.

Baritone William Dazeley, tenor Brian Frutiger and bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic made handsome contributions, and the quartet of female voices -- sopranos Jane Archibald and Ronit Widmann-Levy, with mezzo-sopranos Sonia Gariaeff and Catherine Cook -- blended sweetly.

Most impressive were the men and women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The individual voices of "Das Paradies und die Peri" tell the story, but it's left to the chorus to evoke Schumann's glorious glimpse of heaven. They did so, in a way that left little room for doubt.


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