Thursday, September 17, 2009
A Night at The Opera
The San Francisco Opera opened its 86th season with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" in the first seriously good production of that opera I've ever seen. The cast was as strong as any in the world right now, the orchestra under new music director Nicola Luisotti played with a propulsive drive that carried all before it, and the David McVicar production with its cool turntable is swift and coherent, avoiding the usual clunkiness and absurdity of the many other versions San Francisco has seen over the last couple of decades.
At the second performance of the run on Wednesday evening, we didn't have to contend with the opening night socialites who tend to be a fairly unappreciative crowd, and the audience was mostly silent and loudly enthusiastic at the proper moments. There was a middle-aged standee in the balcony who passed out cold during Azucena's big aria in the gypsy camp, which necessitated a long, noisy session with a doctor and a few useless ushers while everyone in the balcony strained their necks trying to see what the ruckus was all about. And in a demonstration of the power of gypsy witch curses being flung about recklessly onstage, we were greeted at the exit by a fire/rescue truck and an ambulance careening to the carriage entrance at the end of the opera.
I bought a standing room ticket and went to the top of the house for the OperaVision experience, which are two retractable Jumbotron screens which come from the roof at the front of the balcony. However, last night the screens only came halfway down and all the shots were framed at a ridiculous widescreen aspect ratio, which made me feel sorry for the fine videographers. In any case, the experiment didn't work very well as it felt a bit like watching a Cinerama film on an iPhone.
Update: It turns out that the ballpark screen where "Il Trovatore" is being broadcast on Saturday is quite a bit wider than it is tall. According to General Director David Gockley, "The squat image was because we were rehearsing shots for the shape of the ball park screen. We should have stuffed an explanation in the balcony programs. We'll make sure that it does not happen again, though actually it will happen once more Saturday, the actual simulcast. Usually we have Opera Vision at the end of the run, when we are better prepared with the shots. No excuses."
The only weak link in the cast on Wednesday was the Swaggering Siberian, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as the evil Count di Luna. His beautiful voice and stage presence are still remarkable but he seemed to be having vocal problems, and in his big "Il balen" aria, he was audibly gulping down huge breaths between each phrase. I hope he recovers soon from whatever the problem might be. Stephanie Blythe as the gypsy witch Azucena couldn't obliterate the memory of Dolora Zajick, who has owned the part here for the last two decades, but Blythe's voice is a force of nature. I haven't had my ears pinned to the back balcony wall by a mezzo soprano quite like this since Olga Borodina sang Dalilah back in 2001.
Most of the lavish praise in the reviews for this production have been for Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, and she's fabulous in a famously difficult role. I don't particularly like the sound of her voice, but that's a taste issue which is completely subjective. She gave a great performance. Marco Berti as Manrico has been a bit trashed in the reviews, but I liked the sound of his voice. There was nothing very elegant or particularly musical in his performance but he was not even remotely overpowered by the two strong women singers and his Italian belting style was just fine for the lover/soldier/hero.
Finally, the expanded men's chorus was simply sensational all night, as they bounced back and forth being gypsies and soldiers, and they followed Luisotti's sometimes eccentric tempos seamlessly.
David Gockley (above) is to be congratulated for putting on a warhorse with such care, unlike in years past when repertory staples were often undercast in San Francisco because the powers that be figured it didn't matter. It's a very good sign of things to come.