Saturday, September 01, 2012

San Francisco Opera 2012 Fall Preview

When the wooden planks and white roofs of society party tents start going up in the neighborhood, it is a sign that the foggy San Francisco summer is about to end, and the High Culture Season is about to begin.

The San Francisco Opera has an oddly weighted schedule this fall, probably out of a need to economize on the cost of union stagehands tearing down and reassembling repertory productions every day. September starts with one production double cast for twelve performances, followed by three operas in repertory through October and the first half of November, and ends with another single opera with a double cast for twelve performances.

September belongs to a revival of Verdi's Rigoletto in the old Michael Yeargan production which is serviceable and not much more. Though I have problems with the opera itself, particularly the deliberate cruelty of its anti-royalist story and the chirpy masochism of the innocent heroine Gilda, the music is great and the A-Cast Rigoletto is the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who is being hailed as the best singer of the role in the world right now. There's also the luxury casting of Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli in the role of Sparafucile, the scary assassin for hire. Music Director Luisotti is conducting and will probably be fabulous in this music.

The three repertory operas start with a new production of Bellini's "I Capuleti e I Montecchi" or as the SF Opera is calling it "The Capulets and The Montagues," distantly related one presumes to the Hatfields and McCoys. The narrative follows the Italian version of the tale rather than the Shakespeare adaptation, which means that Romeo and Juliet are already secret lovers before the curtain goes up, and the two families are warring political clans. Romeo tries to bring about peace but Juliet's father is a warring badass, and you know the rest of the story with Father Lorenzo and poison and lots of bel canto singing while dying.

This production premiered last year at the Bavarian State Opera, and from the photos at the operacritic site, it looks spectacularly beautiful. The costume designer is none other than Christian Lacroix, and if he's good enough for Patsy and Edina of AbFab to worship, he's good enough for me. The luxury casting here is mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and bass Eric Owens as the bad daddy Capellio.

Sharing the stage with the Bellini is a new opera based on Melville's Moby Dick by Jake Heggie that has received reviews in Dallas and Calgary that ranged from happily surprised to rapturous. Ben Heppner shares Ahab duties with Jay Hunter Morris, and baritone Robert Orth returns in a character role. I have not been interested so far in any music that Heggie has written, but maybe this will be the revelatory moment. Or not. In any case, the world premiere production is reportedly very good simply as theatre.

This plays in repertory with Wagner's Lohengrin, the tale of a mystical knight and a swan and an evil mezzo and baritone conspiring against beauty and purity as represented by a tenor and soprano, for four-plus hours. This was the opera that sent Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria completely around the bend in his worship of Wagner. The production is from the Houston Grand Opera which coproduced it with the Grand Theatre de Geneve (click here for some production stills). The midcentury Stalinist updating by British director Daniel Slater supposedly doesn't get in the way of the medieval fairy tale story, according to reviews of the 2009 Houston production which starred this summer's Chairman Mao, none other than Simon O'Neill. San Francisco will be hearing Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin in his role debut while music director Luisotti will be conducting his first Wagner opera at the house. This could spell either disaster or triumph (or both).

The season ends with twelve performances of Puccini's Tosca, with Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette swapping duties as the tormented diva. Even though I admire both Gheorghiu and Racette immensely, life is too short to waste time and energy at another Tosca ever again. If you are an opera newbie, it's not a bad starter opera: short, melodramatic, and with recognizable tunes. But if you have seen it one too many times, the damned thing is painful.

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