Thursday, October 01, 2009
Il Trittico at the San Francisco Opera
Since watching "The Rake's Progress" from standing room in 1970 when I was a teenage hitchhiker blowing through San Francisco, the Opera House has felt like my personal magical playhouse. At different times over the last 40 years, I have been a subscriber in the last row of the balcony, an occasional front-row orchestra patron for beloved productions, an obsessive standee, and a bored-with-opera nonattendee, depending on what was being offered.
In 1991, there was a radio ad on KDFC for supernumeraries (non-singing extras) for the five-hour Prokofiev "War and Peace," which is when I first went backstage, along with Steve Lavezzoli above. The amazing part was that backstage at the San Francisco Opera House was not even remotely disappointing.
However, tonight was a first for me at the Opera House, because I was attending on a press ticket thanks to this blog. On top of that, the orchestra seat was fantastic, my companions on either side were perfect fellow patrons, and the penultimate performance of Puccini's "Il Trittico" turned out to be a great show, confirming just about everyone's accounts except for a few dissidents who preferred the recent Los Angeles version.
I thought the opening "Il Tabarro," set on a Parisian barge, was the least convincing of the three one-acts for a number of absurd reasons. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.) Patricia Racette's black fright wig and slinky outfit, complete with cigarette in hand, was unfortunately reminiscent of Bette Davis in "Beyond The Forest," which is one of Ms. Davis' most ridiculous films. ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" starts out with a description of it, "Where's it from, George, when Bette Davis says "What A Dump!?") Also, Brandon Jovanovich was so strikingly sexy and beautiful sounding as the young lover Luigi that it barely seemed like adultery for Patricia to be sleeping with him, merely sane. One wondered why the two of them didn't just run off together.
The performances by everyone were fine, with Catherine Cook's aria about her tawny striped cat and Andrea Silvestrelli as her dumb lug husband particular standouts.
"Suor Angelica" was a complete surprise, a miniature "Madama Butterfly" complete with ritual seppuku, except in this version it's poisonous herbs rather than an ancestral sword. The updating to a 1950s Catholic children's hospital didn't make a whole lot of sense in terms of the actual libretto but it worked in other ways, visually desentimentalizing a very mawkish tale. Patricia Racette didn't sound all that comfortable to me in "Il Tabarro" but this opera was perfect for her voice and her acting range. When Ewa Podles, as the evil Princess who's dividing up the real estate comes in and casually tells Angelica that her illegitimate son has died, it was easily one of the greatest theatrical moments I've seen on that stage. There were reports from earlier performances that Ms. Podles' voice was problematic in the upper registers while her famous contralto was just fine, but tonight she had complete control over her entire voice and Racette matched her note for note. The ovation at the end for both of them was delirious and well deserved.
You have one more chance to see this soon-to-be legendary performance, Saturday the 3rd, and I would recommend that you not miss it if at all possible.
"Gianni Schicci," the comic palate cleanser, also about dividing up real estate, felt like a welcome relief after the preceding two acts and suddenly "Il Trittico" actually made sense as a cohesive, emotional whole. I've never been a big fan of Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli but his performance in this opera was expert. Among a huge group of character parts, the voice that kept coming through the most powerfully was contralto Meredith Arwady. She sounds like an Ewa Podles in training.
Last but not least, Mike Harvey as Buoso Donati gave one of the great supernumerary performances of all time, dying in the first few minutes of the opera and then being smothered by a pillow, mourned over, dressed, propped up in front of a TV, and finally thrown out the door. It was one of the evening's many triumphs.