The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the Touhill. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

We’re still nearly three months away from opening night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, but last Sunday (March 3) Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra decided to “spring ahead” with a consistently entertaining afternoon of opera’s Greatest Orchestra Hits.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

The program jumped into high gear immediately with the attention-grabbing fanfare of the “Toccata” from “L’Orfeo” by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). It’s generally regarded as the first true opera, a musical genre that (in the words of Maestro Denève) “unites different cultures—which is what music does best.”

From there the concert proceeded more or less chronologically, starting with a pair of overtures to operas based on plays by the multi-talented playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799): “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Mozart (1756–1791) and “The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini (1793–1868).  

“Figaro” is, as Denève pointed out, an international work. “Figaro” has a libretto adapted from a French play by Lorenzo da Ponte (born in Venice, died in New York) and music by an Austrian composer; and although it was first performed in Vienna, it became an actual hit in Prague. The fleet-footed reading of this lively work Sunday combined the SLSO’s big sound with the kind of grace and precision that you’d expect from a Mozart-sized orchestra.

Melissa Brooks
Photo courtesy of the SLSO 

The ”Barber” overture was just as brisk and bright. Both works had nifty solo passages by, among others, Jelena Dirks (oboe), Andrea Kaplan (flute), Thomas Jöstlein (horn), Andrew Cuneo (bassoon), and Erin Svoboda-Scott (clarinet). The strings lightly tripped through their parts like Fred Astaire.

Next was the Intermezzo from "Manon Lescaut" Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924. In it, we hear the journey of Manon to the gloomy prison at Le Havre, where she and other disgraced women are being exiled to New Orleans. Opening with quiet solos for cello and viola (played with great sensitivity by Daniel Lee and Beth Guterman Chu, respectively), the work rises to a despairing cri de cœur for full orchestra that, in Denève’s hands, conveyed a powerful emotional impact. It was a reminder that Denève began his career on the operatic stage and has retained his exceptional ability to tell musical stories.

After the first of several stage changes (which Denève humorously described as “the violins going on strike”), Associate Principal Cello Melissa Brooks took center stage for an arrangement for cello and orchestra by (I think) Mathieu Herzog of “Casta Diva” from “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835). Brooks handled the vocal line’s ornamentation with grace and a singing tone. She even dressed for the role with a flowing white top and matching pants that suggested the robe a priestess of the Druidic moon goddess like that which Norma might wear.

The first half of the program concluded with the familiar strains of the “Dance of the Hours” from “La Gioconda” by Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886). If you can block out the animation from Disney’s “Fantasia” and/or the voice of Alan Sherman, it’s possible to appreciate what a skillfully constructed and unfailingly melodic work it is. From the delicate violin figures of the opening “Dawn” section to the invigorating con brio of the concluding “Night,” Denève and the band delivered the delightful goods, including many great moments for the high winds.

The second half of the concert opened with another overture, this time to the 1866 opéra comique “Mignon” by Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896). Denève pointed out that in its time “Mignon” was one of the three most popular operas in France, the other two being Gounod’s “Faust” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” These days “Mignon” is remembered only by this lyrical and vivacious overture.

There are extended solos here: clarinet, flute, horn, and harp expertly rendered by, respectively, Scott Andrews, Matthew Roitstein, Roger Kaza, and Katie Ventura. They’re all highly “exposed” (i.e., little or no orchestral accompaniment), so they only work when played with the kind of skill we heard Sunday afternoon.

Next it was a nod and a wink from the podium followed by a spirited “Les Toréadors” from the first of the two orchestral suites assembled by Ernest Guiraud from the score for the aforementioned “Carmen” by Georges Bizet (1838–1875). Then there was another “violin strike” to set the stage for the program’s second soloist, SLSO Associate Concertmaster Erin Schreiber.

Erin Schreiber
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

She was there to perform the 1883 “Carmen Fantasy” for violin and orchestra by the Spanish violinist/composer Pablo de Sarasate. A performer of legendary skill, Sarasate stuffed this mini concerto with technical challenges, including an elaborately ornamented version of the famous “Habanera” and the insanely fast finale, based on the Act II “Danse bohème.” Schreiber has performed this with the SLSO twice in the past (most recently in 2021) but this time was different in that she was using her new violin.

In a talk-back session after the concert, Schreiber related that she had been looking for a new instrument for around five years. Her old violin had served her well for two decades, but she felt that she needed something “a little more powerful.” Last summer she found it: a 1753 Carlo Landolfi. “The moment I played a few notes on it,” she recalled, “I just knew that it was the one.”

 “Violinists,” it has been said, “have special relationships with their instruments, almost like marriages.” Based on Schreiber’s drop-dead stunning performance Sunday, I’d say she has found the right musical partner.  The “Habanera” was seductive, the harmonics crystal clear in the Lento assai vocalise that is Carmen’s teasing response to her arrest, and the frenetic “Danse bohème” was a virtuoso fireworks display. The applause, not surprisingly, was thunderous.

Like Melissa Brooks, Schreiber came costumed for her role. In her case, it was the same long, high-necked red Spanish-style lace dress that she wore in 2021. What could be more appropriate for Carmen?

All too soon, it was time for the finale: a double scoop of Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880): the “Barcarolle” from his “Les contes Hoffmann” (“The Tales of Hoffman,” left unfinished at his death) and selections from the last four numbers from the 1938 ballet “Gaîté Parisienne,” assembled from Offenbach’s operas by French composer/conductor Manuel Rosenthal (1904–2003).

The “Barcarolle” was sweet and lilting, but the selections from the ballet were the real hit, concluding as they did with the “Galop infernal” (a.k.a. “The Can-Can”) from Offenbach’s first hit “Orfée aux enfers” (“Orpheus in the Underworld”) from 1858. Based on this amuse bouche I’d love to hear Denève conduct the complete ballet someday, but meanwhile this was a delightful way to bring the afternoon to a close. Denève encored the “Can-Can,” encouraging the audience to clap along the way the Viennese do to the “Radetzky March” on New Year’s Day. Only a true curmudgeon could fail to join in.

It is, perhaps, somewhat unreasonable to expect music to unite our culturally fragmented world. But after a concert like this one, it at least felt possible. The way things are going these days, I’ll settle for that.

Note: The concert was recorded and will be broadcast on Saturday, March 9, at 7:30 pm on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3. It will also be available for a limited time afterwards at the SLSO web site.

Next from the SLSO: Anthony Parnther conducts the orchestra for a showing of the Disney film “Encanto” Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm, March 9 and 10. The regular season returns Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, March 16 and 17, as Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra in “Picture Studies” by contemporary American composer Adam Schoenberg and selections from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev. The Big Muddy Dance Company will perform choreography created for the occasion by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. Both programs take place at the Sifel Theatre downtown.

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