This summer there are changes for all three operas on offer at San Francisco Opera. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (pictured) makes his San Francisco Opera debut as Medoro in Orlando, replacing David Daniels who was fired last November after serious allegations of sexual assault. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson is Vodník in Rusalka instead of Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has decided against adding the role to his repertory. Maestra Michelle Merrill takes the place of James Gaffigan conducting Carmen on June 20, though Gaffigan will be here for the rest of the performances.
San Francisco Opera
September 6– October 1 2019: Romeo et Juliette
September 7–22 2019: Billy Budd
October 11– November 1 2019: Le Nozze di Figaro
November 8–26 2019: Manon Lescaut
November 15–December 7 2019: Hansel und Gretel
June 7- July 2 2020: Ernani
June 12-27 2020: Partenope
June 20- July 3 2020: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
General Director Matthew Shilvock announced the 2019-2020 season for San Francisco Opera today. Tenor Bryan Hymel and soprano Nadine Sierra sing the lead roles in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette; tenor William Burden is Edward Fairfax Vere in Billy Budd; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel is Figaro; soprano Lianna Haroutounian is Manon; and tenor Russell Thomas is Ernani.
* Notes *
The West Coast premiere of It's a Wonderful Life (Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera on November 17. Based on Frank Capra's holiday film, the music here by Jake Heggie is sugary sweet, and though reminiscent of Bernstein is very much his own. There was fine stagecraft and beautiful singing as well.
The opera is set in 1916 to 1945 and has a certain earnestness. It is just on the edge of being cloying, but both composer Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer infuse the drama with enough humor to avoid the sickening saccharine. The repetition of themes such as "Dancing the Mekee Mekee" or Uncle Billy Bailey's "O boy, o boy, o boy" are funny rather than annoying. The set design from Robert Brill is appealing with dozens of screens in the air and on the ground, all the scene changes go very smoothly.
Maestro Patrick Summer conducted a fluid orchestra that never overwhelmed the singers. There are more than 30 characters in this piece, and many of the soloists are from the ranks of the talented San Francisco Opera Chorus. The Angels First Class is comprised of four current Adler Fellows: soprano Sarah Cambidge, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell.
They did sound angelic, as did soprano Golda Schultz, who plays guardian angel Clara (changed from Clarence in the movie) Odbody. Schultz is sympathetic and her high notes floated quite nicely. Evidently the role is meant for a woman of color. Schultz, a mixed-race South African, shares her duties at San Francisco Opera with Kearstin Piper Brown, who is African-American, as is Trevigne Talise, who sang Clara for the world premiere in Houston.
Baritone Rod Gilfrey is a perfectly evil Mr. Potter, while soprano Andriana Chuchman sang Mary Hatch with vim and lyricism. As George Bailey, tenor William Burden sounds as good as ever, warm and lovely.
* Tattling *
Unlike with many recent operas, I could easily hum a bar or two of the music, even though I've only heard it the once. I couldn't bring myself to sing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of the opera though Maestro Summers turned around to conduct us. Perhaps it was because I was crying an embarrassing amount. I've really gone soft in my old age.
I only made it to the fourth performance of the run, since I missed the premiere to escape the unhealthy air quality in the Bay Area due to the Camp Fire up in Butte County. I also did not manage to see the 1946 film version of It's a Wonderful Life before attending the opera, even though it is currently available on Amazon.
* Notes *
An elegant co-production of Arabella (Act III pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The orchestra and singers were all very strong in Strauss' glittering Viennese comedy.
The huge cast for this opera boasted many familiar faces, from mezzo-soprano Jill Grove (Merola 1995) as the fortune-teller to soprano Hye Jung Lee (Merola 2010) as the Fiakermilli. The only new singer to the War Memorial stage was tenor Daniel Johanssen as the melodramatic Matteo who loves Arabella but is loved by her sister Zdenka who lives as a boy. Johanssen looks the part and sounds terribly plaintive as he longs for even a glance from his beloved.
It was a pleasure to hear mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens (Countess Waldner) again singing something rather less grave than Cassandre from 2015 or Klytemnestra last year. Baritone Richard Paul Fink was perfect as Count Waldner, his diction is clear and he's very funny, so different than his Edward Teller in Doctor Atomic or his Alberich.
Soprano Heidi Stober is a great Zdenka, I remember loving her in this role when I heard it in Santa Fe back in 2012. Her physicality is tomboyish and completely convincing, her voice sparkles and has a beautiful flexibility. Baritone Brian Mulligan too is wonderfully cast as Mandryka, his robust voice is velvety and he is a fine actor. He looks like he could wrestle a bear, as he is purports to do just after receiving Count Waldner's letter. Soprano Ellie Dehn has a white, clean sound as Arabella herself, and looks as alluring as one would expect for someone sought after by no less than five suitors.
Director Tim Albery's production is very pretty, not least of all because of the set, designed by Tobias Hoheisel. The stylish grey interiors look great with the pops of color from flowers or the bright red jacket of the Fiakermilli.
Maestro Marc Albrecht had a promising debut. The orchestra gleamed, staying together without overwhelming the singers or being too square. I particularly loved hearing all the viola music in Act I.
* Tattling *
This was poorly attended, and I got standing room ticket 22 only 15 minutes before curtain. The young man in Row J Seat 103 of the balcony blinded me with his phone at one point during Act I, and the young woman next to him in Seat 105 looked at her Apple Watch throughout the performance.
* Notes *
The new production of Tosca (Act II with Scott Hendricks as Scarpia, Joel Sorensen as Spoletta, and Carmen Giannattasio as Tosca pictured left; photograph by Cory Weaver) that opened last night at San Francisco Opera is an ideal first opera. The set looks like a meticulous reproduction of the places featured within Rome and the singing is strong. The young cast looks very convincing.
I don't think I've ever seen a Tosca that didn't try to recreate Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant'Angelo, since they are such specific locales. This offering, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is no exception, but it was impressive how real everything looked. The costumes also look very genuine, there are no gratuitous wardrobe changes, Tosca doesn't even put on a coat to fetch Cavaradossi before their would-be escape. Shawna Lucey's direction is straightforward and effective. Act II was especially disturbing, Scarpia's sexual violence against Tosca is all the more palpable in light of current events and I winced from those scenes, even at the back of the balcony.
The cast is uniformly fine both vocally and dramatically. I was able to spot Hadleigh Adams (Angelotti), Dale Travis (a sacristan) and Joel Sorensen (Spoletta) right away, even without looking at the program, so often have I heard these singers from the War Memorial stage. Tenor Brian Jadge has also performed Cavaradossi here many times, and did well. His voice is as loud as ever, and his arias sounded great. His fall in Act III looked alarmingly authentic.
Soprano Carmen Giannattasio has a lovely vulnerablity as Tosca, her "Vissi d'arte" alone is worth the price of admission and she sang prostrate on the stage, but this did not seem to have any influence on the volume of her voice at all. She did sound shrill at times at first, but that suits the jealous questioning and nagging of her part in Act I. Scott Hendricks completely embodied Scarpia, he was slick and repulsive, his voice sounded suitably powerful.
Maestro Leo Hussain conducted the orchestra with vigor that bordered on chaos in Act I, but improved over time. There was a gorgeous solo from the harp and the brass played out with clarity.
* Tattling *
The audience was sparse, and the latecomers in the last row north of center were terribly ill-behaved and talked so much that I had to move to the other side of the balcony to get away from them. Because there were not many people back there, they were even audible from that distance.
I don't know if it is because I have two little kids of my own, but children's voices in opera often creep me out now. Zachary Zele as the shepherd boy made me completely uncomfortable.
* Notes *
A magnificently cast Roberto Devereux (opening scene pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is the second offering in San Francisco Opera's 96th season. Though somewhat marred by a tepid staging, the tragic opera by Donizetti is a fine vehicle for vocal fireworks and held together by a confident orchestra and chorus.
Maestro Riccardo Frizza had the orchestra well in hand, clear and synchronized. From the first notes, the sound was declarative and bright, but never overwhelmed the singers. Frizza was never in a rush but also did not drag in the least.
Stephen Lawless's production from the Canadian Opera Company is set in the Globe Theatre, in fact we see Shakespeare pop up out of a trunk during the overture, along with lots of explanatory notes on the supertitle screen setting the context for us about Queen Elizabeth's time. It was odd, given that the piece is not historically accurate, and it was a lot of reading to do before the singing even started. Then again, I am not much of a fan of Donizetti's music, the overture refers to "God Save The Queen," which of course sounds like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to us Americans, so a distraction was welcome enough.
There were some weird elements to the staging, for instance Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and a young Elizabeth appear in glass cases during the overture, Elizabeth thrashes around for a bit and then the cases move off the stage to be replaced by a new scenes. All of these were perfectly seamless, which made the set changes between actual scenes and acts all the more irritating. A red curtain came down as the stairways were moved or a bed was placed to indicate Sara's apartments while a note read "Please stay in your seats during this scene change" on the screen. This takes the audience out of the drama, giving them time to chat or look at their phones, and even though the changes were quick, the damage was done.
But the real reason for mounting this opera is certainly for the singers. Tenor Russell Thomas did not disappoint in the title role. His Act I "Nascondi, frena i palpiti" where Roberto Devereux denies loving anyone is convincing. He also sang "Come uno spirto angelico... Bagnato il sen di lagrime" with great beauty. I found the music here incongruously cheerful for the scene, in which Devereux is imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting death.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is the hapless Sara, beloved by Devereux and married off to the Duke of Nottingham through the machinations of Elizabeth I. Barton has a lovely, rich voice and she sings with utter ease. If memory serves, she nearly upstaged lead soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last time they sang together at San Francisco opera in Norma four years ago.
That was definitively untrue here. Radvanovsky is devastating as Elizabeth I, and it made you wonder why Donizetti didn't keep the title of the source text, Elisabeth d'Angleterre. Radvanovsky takes chances, her notes aren't perfectly clean and white, her voice crackles with emotion when necessary. Her voice is powerful and her rage is unmistakable. At times she seemed completely unhinged, yet she is able to show vulnerability, especially in the last scene.
* Tattling *
The opera was sparsely attended, at least in the balcony, quite undeserved given how strong the cast is. Standing room was even more empty than the night before, perhaps because rush tickets were available.
There many people using their devices in the upper balcony and more than one person was scolded by the ushers.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 of Das Rheingold pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are trickling in.
* Notes *
San Francisco Opera's first Ring cycle this summer came to a glorious end with Götterdämmerung (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) this evening. The singing was strong and the playing exquisite.
Maestro Donald Runnicles had the glittering orchestra sounding better than ever. The tempi are exciting without being rushed. The brass was vibrant, and the solo horn player deserved being singled out at the final ovation.
In this opera, soprano Iréne Theorin had fewer harsh notes as Brünnhilde. Her quieter singing in Act III could have had more warmth and vulnerability. Tenor Daniel Brenna somehow makes the unlikable character of Siegfried winsome. He pushed his voice somewhat in Act II as he recounts his history, but was otherwise in fine form, light and pleasing.
Baritone Brian Mulligan is a conflicted Gunther, his voice is very pretty and nuanced. The bottomless depths of Andrea Silvestrelli make him a perfect match for the villain Hagen. His scene with bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich) showed off both their voices. Soprano Melissa Citro minced around hilariously as Gutrune, fluffing pillows in Act I and growing more dignified as the dark events of the opera unfold.
Jamie Barton is an appealing Waltraute, her sound has a lot of colors to it. She began the performance splendidly as Second Norn, singing beautifully with Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn). The Rhinemaidens Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum sang brilliantly.
The set changes were remarkably quiet. The staging holds the attention with physical humor and jumbled projections during the instrumental parts of the music. The little girl planting a sapling at the end of the final scene was unnecessary though.
The house manager clarified that standees save at most two spots at the rail.
There was a lot of audience attrition during the long first third of the opera, there was some talking also. A latecomer forced to wait in orchestra standing room for this part of the opera had a lot of trouble with her purse, it made a lot of metallic sounds.
An alarm rang incessantly during a soft part near the end of the opera.
The orchestra seems more settled than in the previous two performances of the cycle, there were fewer intonation errors in the brass, and the horn solo in Act II was nearly perfect. Donald Runnicles seems to bring out the best in the musicians. I especially loved the harps. The singers were never overwhelmed by the orchestra, and almost always synchronized.
Tenor Daniel Brenna is a confident Siegfried, with a sweet, well-nuanced sound. He projects a youthful aplomb that suits the character. Soprano Iréne Theorin is a powerful Brünnhilde, some of her top notes can be harsh but she has a lot of strength.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley's Wanderer is likewise incisive and the contrast between him and the warm brightness of tenor David Cangelosi (Mime), the richer tones of bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich), and the lush timbre of mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Erda) all worked well.
Bass Raymond Aceto is effective of Fafner, his death scene conveyed both a sense of wonder and regret. Soprano Stacey Tappan sounds wonderfully bird-like as the Forest Bird, though I still don't think having her be a studious girl that gestures a lot makes much sense.
Other elements of the staging have the same holes as before too. It isn’t clear what Fafner’s hiding place is exactly, Grane is referred to but isn’t represented, and so forth. The colors of the projections — many are of clouds or fire — look much brighter, I noticed a lot more lime, pink, and purple.
I was scolded for taking all the spaces in orchestra standing room by someone looking for a spot at the rail because I was saving a place for a friend rushing over from work. I could see the woman's point, but on the other hand, I bought two tickets and ran out the door right after nursing my one-year old at 7:30am to secure a good position in line.
There wasn't much talking around us during the performance, and no electronic noise either. I thought I heard a crying infant in the first act at the back of the orchestra level, but it seems the baby was taken out into the lobby fairly quickly. I can only guess this was the child of one of the singers.
I think there were two mishaps onstage. One of Mime's eggs in Act I dropped and bounced off the floor. The Wood Bird tripped near the end of Act II. In both cases, the singers involved handled themselves with admirable calmness.
* Notes *
As with the previous installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera, Die Walküre (Act I pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) has beautiful playing from the orchestra and a powerful cast. Donald Runnicles drove a propulsive performance with very bright and exultant brass. The woodwinds were plaintive, especially the clarinet and bassoon.
The cast for Die Walküre has a lot of new singers compared to Das Rheingold since its last outing in 2011, most notably soprano Iréne Theorin. As Brünnhilde Theorin is able, she is icily strong and has good control of her dynamic range. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Wotan) could match Theorin in volume. While he's very good at sounding angry and authoritative, he did lack tenderness (at least in his voice) in the last scene as he says good-bye to Brünnhilde.
Soprano Karita Mattila's distinctive creamy tones are wonderful, but her voice isn't convincing as Sieglinde, a young woman. This was especially odd when she sang with Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), as he sounds sweetly youthful. But I still found her "Du bist der Lenz" moving, and her singing in Act III was poignant. Mattila also played well off of bass Raymond Aceto, who is a menacing Hunding.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was most impressive as Fricka, sounding bold and secure. As with everyone in the cast, she also moves well, every gesture or turn of the head conveying emotion with clarity.
The Walküren reminded me of a chorus from a Merola production, all the singers are great but very loud, and their voices did not cohere into a blended sound. In fact, most are former Merolini, only Lauren McNeese (Rossweise) is not, if memory serves. I could definitely recognize the voice of Melissa Citro as Helmwige, her piercing soprano is unmistakable, even though they are all costumed as paratroopers.
Mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum stood out as Waltraute. Laura Krumm (Siegrune), Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), Julie Adams (Gerhilde), and Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite) all were easy to hear and distinct. Their entrance got the most reaction from the audience as they parachute in for the Walkürenritt.
Director Francesca Zambello definitely has a good sense of humor and it is a welcome part of the production. The singers are all very fine actors and the various sight gags have their charm. The projections did not look noticeably different in content to me, the first scene still reminds me of The Blair Witch Project, but the colors do look brighter and more saturated.
* Tattling *
The audience in standing room on the orchestra level was quiet. I heard some electronic noise during some of the softer parts of Act I.
* Notes *
An exuberant orchestra and strong cast in Das Rheingold opened a revival of Francesca Zambello's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 pictured, photo by Cory Weaver) last night at San Francisco Opera.
It is a joy to hear Maestro Donald Runnicles conduct the orchestra, which sounded driven and robust. The brass, though not perfectly precise, sounded especially bright and effusive. The harpists and percussionists also did a very fine job.
The cast is solid. Since more than half the soloists are the same as in the premiere of this production (at least as a whole cycle) seven years ago, it is fascinating to compare the different singers. For me, the standouts are still tenor Štefan Margita as Loge and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller as Erda, both of whom had these roles in 2011. Margita’s voice is incisive without being the least bit harsh, he embodies his cunning role as demigod with a graceful ease. Miller is nothing less than a force of nature, the sumptuousness of her sound emerging from the floor of the stage as she rises from below for her entrance is very effective.
Also ably reprising their roles were the lovely Rheinmaidens Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), and Stacy Tappan (Woglinde). Their last scene with Margita is haunting and gave me chills.
As for those new to the cast, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is particularly promising, her Fricka is lush-voiced. I also look forward to hearing more of both bass-baritones Falk Struckmann (Alberich) and Greer Grimsley (Wotan). Struckmann has a richer tone than Grimsley, but there were heavily orchestrated moments in which I had difficulty hearing him. Grimsley is a secure presence and a good actor.
Zambello's production is wonderfully human, there's lot of great humorous moments, as when Loge tricks Alberich into becoming a toad in Scene 3 or the gods frolic in the beginning of Scene 2 and as they ascend Valhalla in Scene 4.
Revamped by S. Katy Tucker, the overwrought video projections are still the weakest link. It makes sense that visuals are needed between scenes, but it is gratuitous to add in effects that are perfectly handled by the music, as when Alberich curses the Ring. Also the descent into Nibelheim with scenes of moving through mountains paths and into caves looked especially awkward. Images of water, clouds, and fire looked best.
* Tattling *
I definitely annoyed myself the most during the performance and can hardly complain about anyone else, as I have a slight but lingering cough from asthma that's acting up because of a fire we had in our house a few weeks ago.
A woman had a seat in front of us in orchestra standing room, but she has a back condition at the moment and had to stand rather than sit. She was very apologetic when she explained her situation, saying she was the wife of "the main guy" in the opera. I wondered if she was Alberich or Wotan's wife, but it was very clear right away that it was the former.
Soprano Iréne Theorin (pictured left) replaces Evelyn Herlitzius as Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen this summer. Herlitzius has withdrawn for health reasons. This will be Theorin's first complete Ring Cycle in the United States. She was most recently heard on the War Memorial stage as Turandot in 2011.
September 7–30 2018: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci
September 8–27 2018: Roberto Devereux
October 3–30 2018: Tosca
October 16–November 3 2018: Arabella
November 17–December 9 2018: It's a Wonderful Life
June 5-29 2019: Carmen
June 9-27 2019: Orlando
June 16-28 2019: Rusalka
General Director Matthew Shilvock announced the 2018-2019 season for San Francisco Opera today. Highlights include Roberto Devereux with Sondra Radvanosky, Russell Thomas, Jamie Barton; Handel’s Orlando starring Sasha Cooke and David Daniels; and Rusalka with Rachel Willis-Sørensen in the title role opposite Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince.
Plácido Domingo gives a concert at the War Memorial on Sunday, October 21 at 2pm, with Jordi Bernàcer conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Other guests for the event include Ana María Martínez and Arturo Chacón-Cruz.
There are 6 conductor debuts: Marc Albrecht, Daniele Callegari, James Gaffigan, Leo Hussain, Eun Sun Kim, and Christopher Moulds. It will be interesting to see who the new music director will be.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Girls of the Golden West (Lorena Feijóo as Lola Montez pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) are not overwhelmingly positive but not without its proponents.
Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | Los Angeles Times | Opera West | San Francisco Classical Voice | Opera Wire | The Rehearsal Studio | The Stage | KQED | Limelight | Opera Warhorses | Financial Times | The Mercury News | Stark Insider | Civic Center | New York Times
* Notes *
Last night's world premiere of John Adams' Girls of the Golden West (Act I Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at San Francisco Opera had some gorgeous singing and playing. But neither the music nor the artful, elegant stagecraft could save a stilted and tedious libretto.
Tellingly, the best moment of the opera is without words. The music for Lola Montez's Spider Dance held my attention after the monotony of lines and lines of narration from Gold Rush era primary sources. It helps that ballerina Lorena Feijóo looked fantastic in her red, white, and blue ruffles and danced with absolute conviction.
The playing seemed very much together under the direction of Maestro Grant Gershon, and the woodwinds sounded especially lovely. The chorus too had a cohesiveness to be admired. In fact all of the singing and acting was impressive, from the supernumerary miners and dancing girls up to the youthful leads.
Much, if not all, of the opera's text comes from original sources rather than from librettist/director Peter Sellars, and as such, there is a lot more telling than showing. There is little in the way of dialogue and it isn't always easy to understand what exactly is going on since the characters sing at us rather than interact with each other. This is especially prominent for Dame Shirley, whose words are all her own, drawn from her letters. In this leading role is soprano Julia Bullock and her fine voice seems wasted on lines enumerating mining terms she doesn't understand and the like.
The parts of the libretto that work best are based on songs or poetry, as with the miners' songs sung by the chorus or the Cantonese rhymes brought to life by talented soprano Hye Jung Lee as prostitute Ah Sing. Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges is a dignified Josefa Segovia, a Mexican-American woman who kills her would-be rapist Joe Cannon and is subsequently judged guilty of murder and hanged. Her words come from poems by Alfonsina Storni.
I really wanted to like this opera as it features John Adams, my home state, and a brilliant cast that includes many people of color. But sadly I found myself rather bored, especially during the first act (the one bright spot being Davóne Tines' aria as Ned Peters at the end). It felt more like a discombobulating lecture in a dream than an opera, though I'll give the piece another chance next week, as it is in my subscription.
* Tattling *
The orchestra level and boxes looked very full, and standing room had a respectable crowd at the rail. A standee did collapse during Act I, but was apparently fine and did not need to be taken out of the hall.
The audience was very polite, and tried to clap after some of the main arias, but was most enthused by the Spider Dance. The opera did get a standing ovation, though I might have heard someone mutter that Peter Sellars deserved a pie in the face.