Monday, September 07, 2009
San Francisco Opera 2009 Fall Preview
San Francisco Opera's Fall season opens this Friday evening with Verdi's "Il Trovatore," a truly great opera that's just about impossible to stage and to cast. I'm probably spoiled forever, having heard Leontyne Price with Brendel and Cossotto in 1981 at the SF Opera, and Sutherland, Pavarotti, Verrett, and Wixell in 1975. The productions were actually fairly awful but the singing was something else.
This year's edition is definitely promising, with Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing Leonora and the Count di Luna respectively, roles they just had a huge success with at the Met in New York, which is where this new David McVicar production is coming from. Stephanie Blythe is singing the crazy gypsy stregha Azucena, and the reports on her from around the world tend to be breathless praise. The only weak link on paper is the tenor Marco Berti, and who knows, maybe he'll be fabulous. Luisotti, the very Italian new music director at the company, will be conducting in what should be a treat.
If you're a newcomer to the opera or poor or both, I'd suggest buying tickets at the very top balcony of the opera house where the natural sound is superb. Try to get tickets for one of the three performances in each opera's run where they are featuring "OperaVision," two retractable Jumbotron screens halfway down the balcony on the left and right where you can see closeups of the action without opera glasses.
Even though I'm not a Puccini fan, the second opera, "Il Trittico" is a must-see. Patricia Racette is taking on all three leading soprano roles in the trio of one-act operas for the first time, and the singer is in the prime of her career. (Click here for a nice interview with her by Lisa Hirsch.) The vocally and visually beautiful tenor Brandon Jovanovich is in "Il Tabarro" as her young lover. In "Suor Angelica," the beyond legendary contralto Ewa Podles is finally making her San Francisco Opera debut at the age of 57 as The [Evil] Princess. I heard her once singing at the end of Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" at the San Francisco Symphony, and her voice was up there with Leontyne Price for sheer richness. This production is a 2002 New York City Opera affair, directed by James Robinson, the newly named artistic director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio" is next in a new co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the concept production by designer David Zinn and young director Chas Rader-Shieber was mostly panned. The reviews all loved the singing, however, including Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte who will be repeating the role here. He'll be joined by a good young cast, including Mary Dunleavy, Anna Christy, and Andrew Bidlack. Most of Mozart's operas are in Italian, but this is a singspiel in German (like "The Magic Flute") with impossibly difficult arias, lots of spoken dialogue, and an abundance of comic schtick. The dialogue will be in English in this production, and let's hope the comedy is actually funny. The new hot shot young German conductor with a perfect name, Cornelius Meister, will be conducting in his house debut.
Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" is a bit of comic fluff in a widely praised production created by Laurent Pelly that San Francisco is sharing with the Met, Covent Garden, and the Vienna State Opera. It was designed originally for Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, the Peruvian tenor who blew everyone away in New York with his perfect high notes in the role of Tonio at the Met. Dessay is being replaced in this production by German soprano Diana Damrau, which will be her debut in both the role and at the San Francisco Opera.
"Salome" is being sung by the East German soprano Nadja Michael who has been performing the role all over the world recently. You can see video of her in the role at La Scala where she's kissing John the Baptist's severed head quite pornographically. The word on the internet about Ms. Michael, a former East German swimming star, is that she's extraordinarily beautiful but her voice is a bit screechy.
I grew to despise this opera when I was a supernumerary in the infamous Peter Hall production of the early 1990s where he had his crazy ex-wife Maria Ewing do the full monty during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Strauss wrote this kind of loud, over-the-top, decadent music much better in his subsequent "Elektra." The production is shared with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which premiered it in their small house in May of this year, and it's directed by a choreographer, Sean Curran, with the assistance of James Robinson.
Verdi's "Otello" ends the fall season with the huge, in every sense of the word, Johan Botha making his debut in the title role. This is a great opera that tends to have a curse on it at the San Francisco Opera. Maybe conductor Luisotti's good vibes can change that fate, but except for Placido Domingo singing the role in his early prime here, I haven't heard a singer in the role who wasn't painful. It's insanely difficult and a real voice-shredder. One of the reasons Domingo is still singing is that he didn't keep it in his repertory very long (an assertion correctly disputed in the comments, mea culpa). In fact, the last time it was performed here, there were something like five different tenors filling in for each other over the seven-performance run.
This is an old Peter Hall production created for Ben Heppner and Renee Fleming in 2001 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Keep your fingers crossed.