San Francisco Opera

SF Opera's 2024-2025 Season

WMOH9_JoelPuliattiSeptember 6–27 2024: Un ballo en maschera
September 14–October 1 2024: Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale
October 19– November 1 2024: Tristan und Isolde
October 26 2024: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
November 13–December 1 2024: Carmen
June 3-21 2025: La bohème
June 14–25 2025 Idomeneo
June 27 2025: Pride Concert

San Francisco Opera's 102nd season was announced today. Only six operas will be presented in the 2024-2025 season, along with one performance of Beethoven's Ninth and a special Pride Concert.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim will conduct the Verdi, Wagner, and Beethoven this fall and returns for Mozart in 2025.

Press Release | Official Site

SF Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore

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A new production of L'elisir d'amore opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon. Updated to the 1950s and set in the Italian Riviera, today's performance was a delight to see and hear.

This co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago is definitely festive. The action takes place at the restaurant of the Hotel Adina (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), owned by Adina, where Nemorino is a waiter. We are outside and can see the sea. The set and costumes are supposed to evoke Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and many of the characters do look very stylish. There are also three Vespas on stage in one of the scenes. The only down side of the set is that they brought the curtain down twice to change scenes, even though the set essentially stayed the same. It seems that something more artful might have been employed though everything happened reasonably rapidly.

Conductor Ramón Tebar's San Francisco Opera debut sounded fine, the orchestra played well, especially the woodwinds. There were a few moments when the orchestra got slightly ahead of the singers, but got back on track quickly.

The chorus was very funny and all the choristers sang together robustly. Baritone David Bizic was suitably blustery and arrogant as Belcore, he does sound gravelly in his lower range but for this role was not a problem. Baritone Renato Girolami was very amusing as Dulcamara, and his voice too has texture to it, more of a gritty sound. I never much noticed the role of Giannetta before, but Alder Fellow soprano Arianna Rodriguez sounded lovely, her voice is very clean.

_75A0453Tenor Pene Pati is truly a charming Nemorino. His voice is absolutely beautiful, bright and clear throughout his range and he sings with ease. His "Quanto è bella, quanto è cara" in Act I was impressive, and his "Una furtiva lagrima" was plaintive. He was well matched with soprano Slávka Zámečníková, in her American debut. Her voice is elegant and very pretty, and she seems to sing without effort. Her Act II aria "Prendi, per me sei libero" was splendid.

* Tattling * 
The house looked entirely full, as this was both the prima and a matinée. There wasn't much talking  or electronic noise in Box Z, only lots of laughs around us. I did hear a cellular phone ring right before the Barcarolle in Act II, Scene 1.

There was some sort of very loud alarm that went off right before "Una furtiva lagrima" that sounded like a bird warbling. The maestro stopped the music and asked for it to be turned off before starting over again.

SF Opera's Omar

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Omar, an opera about a West African Islamic scholar sold into slavery, opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon. The opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels is an artful combination of rhythms, syncopation, textures, and lyricism.

The main character of the opera, Omar ibn Said, is based on a real person who was born in Futa Toro (present day Senegal) and spent more than twenty years studying with Muslim scholars. He was captured in 1807 and enslaved, taken to Charleston, South Carolina, sold to a cruel master, ran away to Fayetteville, North Carolina, was jailed, and then subsequently sold to one James Owen, who was fascinated by Omar's literacy in Arabic and used this as a kind of party trick, giving samples of his writing as gifts to friends. Half a dozen documents that Omar wrote in Arabic survive, including an autobiography.

The production (Act II, Scene 4 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Kaneza Schaal, is very attractive and involves quite a lot of cloth and Arabic calligraphy. The projections are thoughtful, I liked seeing Omar ibn Said's image from an ambrotype on the scrim before the piece began, and the way he was brought to life once the music started really worked well. Having the Arabic script projected as if it were being written was also a nice way to emphasize the importance of writing in this story. The costumes too were all covered with writing and it kept this opera from being a simple period piece. Having Omar enter from the audience dressed in contemporary clothing, and transforming himself into this character by putting on his costume on stage was effective, and drew us in right away. The dancing, choreographed by Kiara Ben, was often full of joy. The Ancestral Figure portrayed by Jermaine McGhee spun ecstatically in more than one scene.

The music has lots of West African drums, including the tar, the ghaval, the talking drum, and the djembes. There is also a focus on strings, there is even a viola solo at the beginning of Act I. A variety of influences could be heard, from spirituals to blues, but it is definitely an opera, with beautiful, sweeping lyricism. Conductor John Kennedy kept everyone together.

The 32 choristers sounded unified throughout the opera. It was especially moving to have them in the audience for the last scene, singing all around us. The rest of the cast was solid from top to bottom. Tenor Barry Banks has such a bright, sweet tone, that was absolutely disturbing as the auctioneer in Act I, Scene 3. He reappears as Taylor in Act II, sounding as lovely as ever. Baritone Daniel Okulitch plays both of Omar's masters, Johnson and Owen, and sounds strong.

_75A4890Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven is haunting as Omar's mother Fatima, her voice is dramatic and very clean. Soprano Brittany Renee, as fellow enslaved person Julie, also has a crystalline sound with a good heft to it. Her scene with Omar where she reveals her father was also a Muslim was very sympathetic. Best of all is tenor Jamez McCorkle (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in the title role. His voice is so pretty and clear, and his part is heartrending.

* Tattling * 
The audience was focused and quiet, I heard no electronic noise, people with phones out were admonished as were those who talked.

There were at least three people that were not able to make it through the last scene, and one even climbed over other people to get to the aisle.

SF Opera's Lohengrin

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David Alden's Lohengrin opened at San Francisco Opera on October 15, but I only managed to attend the fourth performance on Tuesday. The orchestra sounded perfectly transparent and there was much lovely singing including a powerful chorus.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim gets a very clear sound out of the orchestra, I feel like I can hear all the parts neatly stacked up, it feels very vertical and lucid to me. It was very different than Luisotti's performance of this work with San Francisco Opera back in 2012, and I feel lucky to be able to hear the contrast.

This very dark and incoherent production (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) comes from the Royal Opera House, London, and likely works a lot better in that smaller space. It premiered back in 2018, and uses a lot of war imagery, there are guns and spears. The costumes are mostly from the 1930s but then Elsa inexplicably wears a slip dress and footless tights in Act I that are very 1990s. It's also really difficult to see what is going on, and the singers sound different depending on how the stage is set up or where they are standing within the stage. I did like the way everything seemed to be on rollers and it all went very smoothly. And there were a few very funny moments, like when Elsa's fluffy wedding gown descended from the ceiling in Act II and when Lohengrin shoves the marital bed across the floor in Act III.

_75A5506The chorus sounded wonderful, very full and cohesive. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson sounded very shaky as King Heinrich, but perhaps it works for this role. In his San Francisco Opera debut baritone Thomas Lehman sounded very nice as the King’s Herald, his voice is pretty, but Alden had him act in some unsavory ways, he tries to shoot Elsa in the final scene. Mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi (pictured in Act II with Simon O'Neill and Julie Adams, photograph by Cory Weaver) likewise had a strong San Francisco Opera debut, her icy sound was downright terrifying. Her singing was very much well-suited to Ortrud.

I love the warm resonances of baritone Brian Mulligan, but his voice is too lovely and sympathetic for Friedrich von Telramund. It was a bit disorienting for me, as I have pretty recently heard Mulligan as the Herald in the Met's broadcast last season. As Elsa von Brabant, soprano Julie Adams has a beautiful, honeyed sound, but it's not very pure and innocent which would work better for her part. Tenor Simon O'Neill certainly paced himself well as Lohengrin, he was very consistent. His sound is loud and cuts through the orchestra, but has an unpleasant thin reediness to it.

* Tattling * 
There was a surprising amount of talking as the singers were singing. Usually Wagner attracts focused listeners, but people both in front of me in Row J of the orchestra level and behind me in Row L spoke at various times. There was also a lot of coughing and sneezing, and I myself had a coughing fit in Act II which I mostly got under control with some hot tea as quickly as I could.

Lots of people also left at each intermission, so that by the end I could see the conductor because fewer people were blocking my view.

SF Opera's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Steve-jobs-2023* Notes * 
Mason Bates' The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, opened at San Francisco Opera last night, after being postponed for three years because of the pandemic. The opera has a propellent energy and lots of great singing.

This opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell, about the Apple co-founder and CEO does not seem like it could work, but somehow the circular structure, fast-moving non-linear scenes, and humor pull it together. In certain ways the opera is pretty traditional, there's a hero's journey, a mentor, and a true love that saves the protagonist. There's even some moralizing at the end, which reminded me of the final ensemble of Don Giovanni.

The set, by Vita Tzykun, flows easily from scene to scene as it is mostly segments of walls that can have projections on them plus props that are rolled on and off or picked by singers or stagehands. Kevin Newbury's direction is straightforward. There were times when the projections were slightly tiresome, like the moving motherboard  ones (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), which reminded me of The PeopleMover Thru The World Of Tron ride at Disneyland back in the 1980s and 90s.

The music is percussion heavy, there are lots of mallets and seven timpani drums. The composer performs electronics in the piece using two MacBook Pros with the orchestra in the pit. There is also an acoustic guitar. Everything is amplified, including the singers, which is not unexpected but does somehow flatten the sound for me.

The chorus sounded very much together. Members of the chorus would have soli as Apple employees but would seamlessly rejoin the group. The principals were all quite strong as well. Adler mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag was startlingly beautiful as she sang about calligraphy as a teacher at Reed College and Adler soprano Olivia Smith's Chrisann Brennan was crystalline yet flexible. Tenor Bille Bruley was convincing as Steve Wozniak, his bright sound is pleasing.

Steve-jobs-principals-2023Baritone John Moore also has a bright, resonant voice, portraying Steve Jobs as a cruel megalomanic and a vulnerable human being. His interactions with bass Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs) were best. Wu had the most entertaining lines as the Zen priest and spiritual mentor of Jobs, though Moore has a pretty good one about Bach and mosquitos in Scene 10. Cooke was radiant, her voice is ethereal but well-supported.

* Tattling * 
The orchestra audience did not whisper or talk, but I did hear some cellophane being rustled by someone around Row G Seat 6. Worse yet was the cellular phone that rang in the middle of Row H during Scene 17. It was very loud, but at least the phone was shut off right away.

SF Opera's Il Trovatore

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Il Trovatore, the first opera at San Francisco Opera this season opened last night with lots of varied and beautiful playing from the orchestra. There was strong singing from the chorus and from the principals.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim continues to impress, her tempi hold my attention. The tradeoff is that there are moments when the free quality of the rubato causes a certain fuzziness. The orchestra does sound very full and fiery but it is always very easy to hear each individual line of the music.

This is a revival of David McVicar's elegant production (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) but directed here by Roy Rallo. It works well and the huge rotating set from Charles Edwards is surprisingly quiet.

The chorus is robust, "Vedi le fosche notturne" in Act II was rousing. The beginning of Act III showcased these singers well too. I found bass Robert Pomakov (Ferrando) creaky at first, but his voice opened up over the course of the evening. Baritone George Petean had a strong San Francisco Opera debut as Count di Luna. His voice has a pleasant roundness and his "Il balen del suo sorriso...Per me ora fatale" in Act II was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sounded weirdly ethereal as Azucena, it was not an interpretation I had considered before. Her voice doesn't have a lot of earthiness to it, but is very pretty and can be creepy.

_75A8856Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz makes for a handsome Manrico and though he hits all the notes, his timbre has a hollow quality. He seemed almost to be shrieking "Deserto sulla terra" offstage in Act I. I also could not hear him at the end of Act II Scene 1 at all, even though he and Semenchuk were all the way downstage and the mezzo was not overpowering him. He did sound better in the second half of the opera. On the other hand, soprano Angel Blue (pictured in Act IV, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a resonant sound from top to bottom. She conveys the text very clearly, and I felt all the emotions that poor Leonora experienced. Her Act IV "D'amor sull'ali rosee" was particularly moving.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was well-behaved, there was very little talking around us, and only when there was no music happening. I did hear a cellular phone at the beginning of Act IV when Leonora is brought before the dungeon keep.

I tried to keep my inappropriate giggling to a minimum, but this opera's plot is so convoluted and incomprehensible that I did feel some mirth bubbling up at times.

SF Opera's El último sueño de Frida y Diego

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The opening of Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera last night was vivid and visually impressive. There was much great singing, especially from the chorus, and the colors of the orchestra were on full display.

This Spanish-language opera premiered at San Diego Opera in October 2022. It is two acts, each about an hour long, and takes place on El Día de los Muertos in 1957. The narrative follows Diego Rivera's summoning of Frida Kahlo from the dead during this liminal time of year. La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead in the Aztec underworld (Mictlān) convinces Kahlo to crossover to the living world. Frank's music features a lot of slippery, sliding chromaticism and percussion. I liked hearing the celeste. I was less keen on Nilo Cruz's libretto, there were many jokes about Rivera's physical appearance, his pot-belly and fear of becoming fat, which seemed so sad given that he's 70 years old in the opera and close to death. This did garner much laughter, perhaps serving to humanize the famous muralist. In addition to the three main characters, there is the young actor Leonardo, who is Kahlo's buddy in Mictlān and wants to return to the living world impersonating Greta Garbo to please a fan of the actress. The character is a bit random but endearing.

Frank handles the chorus well, the 40 choristers sounded cohesive and powerful. All the singing was very fine. Countertenor Jake Ingbar is charming as Leonardo, his bright voice cut through the orchestration without being harsh. Soprano Yaritza Véliz has a lovely otherworldly quality as La Catrina, bird-like and angelic. Baritone Alfredo Daza is an imposing Diego Rivera, his voice is very strong. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack impressed as Frida Kahlo, no small feat given how iconic the painter is. I've heard her many times in a variety of repertoire, but this role really shows off the depths of her voice.

_DSC0168The production, directed by Lorena Maza, is sumptuous with lots of rich details. Jorge Ballina's set makes splendid use of color, the saturated marigold orange in the underworld and intense cobalt blue of La Casa Azul were particularly striking. The scenes switched easily and artfully, whether it was altars of flowers suspended from the ceiling or platforms rolled in to create different spaces. I especially liked how a blank mural wall hid the chorus at the beginning of Act II and then revealed Rivera's Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Of course, the recreations of Kahlo's paintings were also very beautifully done, Eloise Kazan's costumes certainly made that scene that occurs later in Act II work.

* Tattling *
It was great to see that the house was full for the prima of this opera. I situated myself in the middle of balcony standing room right behind two couples and had a great view of the stage where I could easily ignore the OperaVision screens.

There was a cell phone ring right before the music started which made the audience titter. There was a fair amount of light talking and lots of phone screens being checked for the time during Act II.

SF Opera's Die Frau Ohne Schatten

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Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of 34 years. The vibrant production by artist David Hockney premiered at Covent Garden way back in 1992, but still has much to recommend it, and the singing and playing were all wonderful.

The plot of this opera, as with so many of Strauss' operas, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is basically a fairy tale about a magical empress who has no shadow, meaning she is barren, and she must find a shadow or the emperor will turn to stone. She descends to the human realm with her nurse, and tries to gain a shadow from the wife of Barak the Dyer. There is much talk of the unborn. The empress eventually decides it is wrong to harm Barak, as his wife will unable to have children if she gives up her shadow, and in the end she is granted grace and given a shadow. This folktale is consider to be of Aarne-Thompson type 755, about forgiveness and redemption, and has origins in Scandinavia.

Hockney's set is as colorful as the music is, the many scenes are switched up with ease. I really loved how the earthly realm of Barak the Dyer and his wife looked like a rainbow salt mine, even the mortals live in technicolor. The costumes, from Ian Falconer of Olivia fame, looked to be influenced by Rajasthani or Mughal miniature painting.

_DSC2439The cast included 25 principals and not only the regular chorus but a children's chorus. Soprano Nina Stemme (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded as powerful and glittery as ever as Barak's Wife (Die Färberin). It was fun to hear her with soprano Linda Watson (Nurse/Die Amme), since they are both known for performing Brünnhilde. Watson has a more strident tone, but it works for this role, which was written for mezzo-soprano, and the two singers did sound very distinct. The Empress (Die Kaiserin), sung by soprano Camilla Nylund, seemed like a very challenging part, there were dizzying heights that were frankly shrill. But there was no mistaking Nylund for the other two sopranos. Baritone Johan Reuter was a very human Barak, and sang with warmth. Tenor David Butt Philip was certainly more otherworldly as the The Emperor.

The orchestra sounded magnificent under Maestro Donald Runnicles, there were so many colors and textures in the music that came out rather beautifully. This is definitely an opera to return to, and I'm very curious to read the score.

* Tattling *
The people in Box D Seats 7 and 8 arrived slightly late and left a few minutes before the end of the opera. We inconvenienced them by being in their seats at the start, as the person in Seat 4 kept going in and out of the box. The person in Seat 4 also spent a little time texting, but this was relatively brief. The person in Seat 8 smashed her plastic water bottle in order to drink, and this happened 2 or 3 times. She also left the bottle at her seat after leaving the performance.

Otherwise it was pretty quiet, most of the people in attendance very much wanted to be there and were listening intently.

SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

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San Francisco Opera resumed its 100th season with a new production of Madama Butterfly (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) directed by Amon Miyamoto and featuring a solid cast. The stars of the show for last night's prima were, however, San Francisco Opera's Music Director Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra.

In this production, we begin in silence with a scene of the elderly Pinkerton in his sick bed. He hands off a letter to his son Trouble and the words bring us back some thirty years to tell us the story of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. I appreciated the reframing of this problematic opera to be through the eyes of mixed race son, I am also a multiethnic Asian American with mixed race children. But the constant presence of actor John Charles Quimpo as the adult Trouble is very distressing and distracting, his movements were erratic and made me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps if he had been a more ghostly observer, it would have worked better, but obviously this was a directorial choice. The spartan set used judicious projections, the exploding flowers in Act II that were projected in the background were appealing. The costumes from Kenzō Takada are elegant.

The cast is strong. The chorus was lovely, as were all the supporting singers. It was nice to see that all the principal Japanese characters are Asian or Asian American and that Chiharu Shibata, who has been in so many San Francisco Opera productions, was the shadow dancer here.

Baritone Lucas Meachem is a perfect Sharpless, the warmth of his voice is sympathetic and kindly. I did like how he was directed to be more forceful than many others in this role, he throws a chair in frustration when Cio-Cio-San refuses to understand her situation in Act II. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, is well-suited vocally and dramatically for Suzuki. Her voice is big and rich.

_DSC0877Tenor Michael Fabiano (pictured in Act I with Karah Son) embodied Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, his bright, bold voice seems made for this music. He sounded equally great in the Act I aria "Dovunque al mondo" and the Act III aria "Addio, fiorito asil" and never overpowered in the many fine duets of the opera. Soprano Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) has a very interesting voice, she has a steel-tinged vibrato with an otherworldliness in her high notes, and her low notes seem deeply anchored. She's very dramatic and moving.

The orchestra sounds splendid under Maestra Kim, the sweep of the music has a distinct clarity and beauty. The brass did particularly well, as did the woodwinds, strings, and harp.

* Tattling *
Latecomers were shuffled into the back of the balcony and not allowed to sit, even though there were plenty of seats in the back rows of the house. I spent a lot of my time in Act I with my eyes closed trying to stay focused on the music, and I was mostly successful, even though I seemed to be surrounded by families with children or adoloscents.

There were some cellphone rings heard during quiet moments and at least two of dropped bottles, as one can bring drinks into the house, apparently.

Before Act III, I was told I could not take a picture of the stage while the curtain was down and there was the message "Please remain at your seats for this brief pause" by one of the ushers who also asked me where my seat was as I stood by myself in balcony standing room. Soon after this I was asked by another patron if I was the one who read the score of operas in the past in standing room, and it reminded me that I should probably attend another performance in this run of Butterfly and do that again.

SF Opera's 2023-2024 Season

WMOH9_JoelPuliattiSeptember 8 2023: Opera Ball: Concert with Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna, and Eun Sun Kim
September 12–October 1 2023: Il Trovatore
September 22–October 7 2023: Mason Bates' The Revolution of Steve Jobs
October 15– November 1 2023: Lohengrin
November 5–21 2023: Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels' Omar
November 19–December 9 2023: L'elisir d'amore
May 30–June 30 2024: Die Zauberflöte
June 1–21 2024: Kaija Saariaho's Innocence
June 15–28 2024: Partenope

Today General Director Matthew Shilvock announced San Francisco Opera's 101st season, which includes three contemporary operas.

Press Release | Official Site

SF Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice with Anne-Marie MacIntosh

MRW_5984* Notes * 
The last performance of Orfeo ed Euridice (Act III pictured, photograph by Matthew Washburn) this season at San Francisco Opera had soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh filling in as Euridice, as Meigui Zhang was indisposed. The December 1st performance was full and standing room in the balcony was rife with latecomers who were unable to be seated for this opera held without an intermission.

I was only able to watch Ms. MacIntosh's aria, "Che fiero momento," as I could tell I would be very much annoyed by the unwitting standees and chose instead to read the score in the back for the rest of the performance. Her voice was rather distinct from Ms. Zhang's and I could absolutely tell the voices apart from the first note of the recitative at the beginning of Act III. MacIntosh's sound is sweet and warm, she definitely seemed more distressed than Zhang when asking why Orfeo won't even look at her.

Though I missed most of MacIntosh's choreography, what I did see looked fine. She seemed comfortable with the movements in her aria and it wasn't noticeable that she had stepped in at the last minute. It was not obvious to me whether or not the choreography was simplified in this case, as the more complicated dancing does not happen during her biggest moment vocally.

I heard that some of the members of the chorus also took ill, but the choral parts of the opera sounded full and together anyway. Act II was impressive, I had the music of the furies and Elysium in my ears for several days afterward. I still very much enjoyed how much soprano Nicole Heaston (Amore) conveyed in her voice, even if I couldn't see her. Jakub Józef Orliński sounded as strong as ever, if anything he is even easier to hear at the back of the house. The orchestra was also clear and the horns were especially lucid.

* Tattling * 
General Director Matthew Shilvock announced the substitution from the stage before the evening began. We started late, but even still there were dozens of latecomers who were not seated in the balcony, as there were very few free seats, unlike the Sunday, November 26th performance. I felt particularly bad for a person that had arrived early for standing room but had a young woman wedge herself between this person and her companion. I could tell that if he gave her the space she wanted, he would probably be unable to see the stage, as the views in the balcony are easily obstructed by audience members that lean forward.

The woman that took my spot at the railing occasionally would sit down next to me on the bench as I read the score. She had quite a time looking for something in her purse and spent nearly 5 whole minutes zipping and unzipping the various compartments of her bag. I had to (silently) laugh, thinking to myself that I had not seen "Zipper" in the score.

SF Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice

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Matthew Ozawa's beautiful new production of Orfeo ed Euridice (Act III pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last week. I attended the second performance last night, and the debuts of Maestro Peter Whelan and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Orfeo were both impressive.

The musicians were laid out in quite an interesting way, with the horns next to the bassoons in the last row close to the prompter's box. The flutes and oboes were just ahead of them, and the clarinet was off to the side, where the basses usually are. Whelan's conducting was crisp but not metronomic. The woodwinds and harp were especially lovely.

The unfussy set, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, was essentially a turntable with projections, which are apparently of brain images. There are swings, making good use of the vertical space without having to take any pauses to switch the scenes. There are also 3 pairs of dancers, meant to represent the title couple in different stages of their life together. Rena Butler's choreography felt comfortingly familiar to me, it was sculptural without being static, and there was athleticism and acrobatics but also elegance. Jessica Jahn's costumes in warm shades for Orfeo and cool tones for Euridice were likewise tasteful, in keeping with the classical plot.

_DSC3225The chorus sounded powerful and together throughout the piece, they supported the principals without overwhelming them and negotiated the spinning set with ease. The principals are all clearly talented. I very much enjoyed the humor-infused performance of soprano Nicole Heaston (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) as Amore. Heaston sang with rich warmth and was charming.

The icier sound of soprano Meigui Zhang was suitable for Euridice. Her voice is clean and graceful, though perhaps not very distinctive, it did contrast with both of the others. Zhang did well with the dancing and did not look out of place among the dancers.

The same could be said of Orliński, the piece opens with him doing handstands and leaps during the overture. I was a little shocked to hear his voice, I had thought he was one of the dancers. His sound is strong and clear, very smooth throughout his range. His "Che farò senza Euridice?" was filled with pathos and very moving.

* Tattling * 
This was part of my subscription, and I loved peering at the orchestra from Box X. I was a bit concerned about the trio of chatty young men in Box Y, but they were very much into the opera and didn't say a word during the 90 minute performance.

In fact, I had such a nice experience, without talking, coughing, mobile phones, or watch alarms, that I'm a bit hesitant to attend this opera again, I'd like to hold on to this pleasant memory. But I will be there at least twice more, as this opera is rare and San Francisco Opera has only performed it in one other season.

SF Opera's La Traviata

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A brand new production of Verdi's La Traviata (Act II Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera yesterday evening, kicking off a series of operas by this composer conducted by our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim. The orchestra sounded lovely, but definitely more restrained than in previous outings of this piece in recent memory.

The overture was handled quite well by Maestra Kim, everyone sounded very beautiful, the tempi were not excessively fast. There were moments with the chorus in particular where there were issues with synchrony. The offstage bandas in both Act I and Act III sounded nice and together. The strings were exquisite in Act III, as Violetta dies.

There were six former Merolini in this opera, so a lot of familiar faces and voices. Most notable of these were mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven (2016) as a sympathetic Flora Bervoix and bass-baritone Philip Skinner (1985) as a rather terrifying Baron Dauphol.

_DSC2038For the three most important principals we had three San Francisco Opera debuts. Baritone Simone Piazzola had a lush warmth as Giorgio Germont, the right mixture of sternness and fatherly care. He sang both "Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia" and "Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?" very well, the latter stuck with me as a highlight of the evening. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman (Alfredo) had a very pretty moment in the Act I duet "Un dì, felice, eterea," but had a tendency to yell his high notes otherwise, he doesn't seem to have perfect control of his volume. Most interesting was the Violetta, soprano Pretty Yende. Her singing in Act I seemed a bit delicate and icily metallic, but she brought incredible pathos to Acts II and III, and the resonances of her voice worked very well for her duets with Germont and Alfredo. I found her "Gran Dio!...morir sì giovane" at the very end particularly arresting.

This new staging from director Shawna Lacey looks very much like her Tosca from 2018, and it isn't a surprise that the set designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, is the same. I do wish that they had taken this opportunity to make the scene change in Act II smoother, it really took a lot of time to change the set from Violetta's country house to Flora's party, and the audience did not settle down quickly enough when the music started again. The contrasts between the saturated, almost lurid colors of the party scenes with the others were stark.

The realism of sex, violence, and illness throughout were unsettling. The courtesans do some 19th century version of twerking at Flora's party, the Baron does seem dangerous and scary, and having Violetta cough all throughout the piece was effective. There was some colorful cross dressing in Act II Scene 2 from the Marquis, who wears a pink tutu with his tuxedo tails and from the dancers who had bisected costumes portraying masculine and feminine evening wear on each side. Violetta does look genuinely sick in the last act (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) and this only added to how distressing the end is.

* Tattling * 
The audience was enthusiastic and the fact that this performance was simulcast to the nearby baseball stadium certianly heightened the excitement. I did hear a cellular phone ring house left on the Orchestra Level as Pretty Yende sang "È strano! ... Ah, fors' è lui" in Act I. Also, the person in Row Q Seat 3 kept crinkling a plastic bottle at the beginning of Act II Scene 2. Though I felt annoyed by these disturbances, it is sort of nice that things are so much back to normal.

SF Opera's Dialogues of the Carmelites

Carmelites* Notes * 
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last weekend after an absence of forty years on the War Memorial stage. The stark production from Olivier Py that features a lot of flat cut outs, shadows, and chalk was moving. The music and singing were all very strong.

During last night's performance, the playing from the orchestra was lush and beautiful. Maestra Eun Sun Kim seemed in full control of the musicians, and I enjoyed watching and hearing them all. The woodwinds were particularly great, especially the English horn player Alix DiThomas, who had a solo in Act I. I've only heard this opera one time before, and the thing about it that I remember best is the guillotine sound effect at the end, which was achieved here using a saber box and played by the percussionist Victor Avdienko backstage.

There are a lot of voices in this opera, 24 principals and 38 offstage choristers. They sang well together, and that last scene was viscerally effective. The main singers are sopranos, and they all were quite distinct, which is a feat in casting. Soprano Deanna Breiwick was impressive as Sister Constance, her twittery but incisive sound was convincing. I liked hearing former Adler soprano Melody Moore as Sister Marie, her voice is creamy but powerful. Soprano Michaela Schuster has some dark tones as the old prioress Madame de Croissy and was pretty terrifying in her death scene. Soprano Michelle Bradley as the new prioress Madame Lidoine was likewise strong, very warm and poignant when she sings in Act III as she joins her sisters in a vow of martyrdom. Finally, soprano Heidi Stober seemed to embody Blanche de la Force quite perfectly, her textured, tinselly sound channeled the character's anxiety which made her transformation at the end all the more striking.

_DSC5637The staging, first seen at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 2013 and then at La Monnaie / De Munt in 2017, was directed here by Daniel Izzo. It has a stripped down quality to it, lots of grey and white. The play of light and shadow was pleasing. I liked the four tableaux the nuns depicted with flat cut out props: The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Last Supper, and The Crucifixion. The death scene of Madame de Croissy (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) was depicted on the wall, as if one was looking down into the room, and this was disturbing and very much in keeping with the events that unfold.

* Tattling * 
There were quite a lot of people at the performance, which was heartening. The orchestra level looked almost full. I was surprised that the two other people in Box X abandoned the performance at intermission, and was chagrined that the pair in Box Y returned late. For some reason the latter couple found the end of Act II hilarious and laughed loudly when poor Blanche drops and breaks Baby Jesus. I myself was raised in a very different religion than Catholicism, but can still empathize with this frightened young nun. But perhaps they were just nervous for her and the emotion came out as laughter. They did applaud a great deal for the performance at the ovation.

SF Opera's Eugene Onegin

_DSC2203* Notes * 
Robert Carsen's 1997 production of Eugene Onegin (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon with a youthful cast of newcomers and the vibrant debut of conductor Vassilis Christopoulos.

The overture sounded stately under Maestro Christopoulos, who had his U.S. debut with this performance. Not everything was completely together, the women's chorus at the begining of Act I Scene 3 seemed off-kilter at first, and there were other moments of small moments of chaos, but nothing terribly egregious. The dance music in Acts II and III were all charming, particularly the Polonaise in the last act. The woodwinds and harp were all very lovely.

There were familiar voices, starting with the first two mezzo-sopranos on stage, Deborah Nansteel as Madame Larina and Ronnita Miller as Filipyevna. I distinctly remember Nansteel from Merola, her nice clear tones and Miller as being an incredible Erda in the Ring Cycle here in San Francisco. Veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was moving as Prince Gremin in his Act III aria.

As for debuts on the War Memorial stage, most were quite strong. Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina (Olga) has a beautiful dark sound but also a fine lucidity and resonance to her voice. Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson was likewise winsome as Lensky, his voice is light and bright but has a pleasant heft to it, his Act I aria was filled with joy and his Act II aria absolutely plaintive.

Soprano Evgenia Muraveva has a delicacy that seems appropriate for Tatyana, shy and bookish, both in stature and in her sound. She was never shrill but the bottom of her voice is underpowered. Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner embodied Eugene Onegin rather well, he seemed so weird and awkward in his first scene, at first it was a bit difficult to see what Tatyana was charmed by, but it was a credible performance. The duel scene of Act II Scene 2 was convincing, as were the shifting feelings of Onegin in Act III. Bintner's last aria as he realizes he loves Tatyana was rich and warm (and maybe somewhat manical).

This production from Robert Carsen has been seen all over the world in its 25 years. The set is clean and open with PVC walls on three sides, and Act I features thousands of polyester birch leaves in many colors. For the most part, the space is defined by arrangements leaves or chairs, and it works well enough and isn't distracting. The revival here was done by director Peter McClintock, and everything went smoothly as far as I could tell.

* Tattling * 
My 8-year-old insisted on attending this opera, as he had learned about Tchaikovsky in music class last school year. To prepare we watched the version on the Met on Demand app, as it is the same production. Oddly enough, I was in the audience for that performance.

At the matinée today he was able to sit mostly still for the 2.5 hour performance, and was quite attentive. He was pleased to be in Row T of the orchestra, as he has two initials that start with this letter. He patiently met all my opera friends and answered their questions despite his shyness. At the end he declared that it was "amazing" and "magnificent."