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Schumann ascends in spite of himself
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, February 18, 2005

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Everyone wants to get into heaven, but not everybody is willing to do what's required. On Wednesday night in Davies Symphony Hall, conductor Ingo Metzmacher and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus regaled a rapt audience with the story of one who was.

Metzmacher presided over the first Symphony performance of Schumann's oratorio "Paradise and the Peri," and together with a splendid array of vocal soloists made a superb case for this rarely heard work.

Leading his forces with the combination of clarity and force that has become the hallmark of his San Francisco visits, Metzmacher deftly avoided the score's tendencies toward gooey sentimentality to get at the dramatic power beneath. The result was an evening of surprising radiance.

It would not be accurate to call the neglect of "Paradise and the Peri" unjust, although it is perhaps excessive in its thoroughness. The work's flaws are obvious, beginning with a libretto that, if it's not entirely worthless, will certainly do until worthless comes along.

And Schumann's lifelong struggle to expand the scale of his creative palette from the intimate arenas of songs and piano music to the larger forms is evident here, in what he saw as his first step on the path toward opera. The theatrical impulse is fitful, the choral writing often blunt and pedantic.

Yet the musical splendors scattered throughout this 90-minute opus are, if anything, even more arresting. The vocal solos are modeled on the early Romantic operas of Wagner and Weber, but infused with the heady lyricism of Schumann's songs.

Most striking of all, as Schumann himself well knew, is the work's formal fluidity, a technical innovation of which he was justifiably proud. Although the score is divided into numbers for the sake of convenience, the breaks don't register in performance.

One elusively shaped aria or chorus flows directly into the next and tempos change fleetingly, and the protean form that results helps to counterbalance the oratorio's tendency toward stiff formality.

The text scarcely bears thinking about. Based on an excerpt from "Lalla Rookh," the Irish poet Thomas Moore's 1817 exercise in Orientalism, it depicts Heaven as a sort of celestial Studio 54 with a supremely kitschy gift shop.

Standing outside the pearly gates, longing to get in, is a peri, the offspring in Persian folklore of a fallen angel and a mortal whose suspect lineage keeps her away from the isles of the blest. But seraphic gatekeepers, it turns out, are not above a little baksheesh, and our protagonist may yet be admitted if she can return from earth with a gift of sufficiently appalling corniness.

She strikes out with her first two offerings, the blood of a warrior slain in battle against a tyrant and the last breath of a young maiden who braves a plague to die with her beloved. Success comes on the third attempt, with the tears of a hardened criminal shamed into repentance at the sight of a praying child.

All of this was sung in German with English supertitles, though more fastidious listeners soon learned to avert their eyes. Except in Schumann's most impressive pictorial stretches -- the Mendelssohnian dance of the Nile spirits, or the ominously hollow chords depicting the plague-wasted landscape -- it was better not to know.

Musically, though, the experience was unbeatable, with the orchestra lavishing delicacy and vigor on the instrumental writing and Vance George's Symphony Chorus singing with unmatched fervor and precision.

Soprano Laura Aikin, who seems to specialize in otherworldly creatures (she made her unforgettable San Francisco Opera debut as the Angel in Messiaen's "Saint François d'Assise"), was the evening's heroine, bringing energy and tonal beauty to the role of the Peri. Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson was a magnificent Angel, and there were strong contributions as well from tenors Christoph Prégardien and William Dazeley and bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. today in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $30-$103. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www. sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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