Friday, September 06, 2013
San Francisco Opera 2013 Fall Preview
The San Francisco Opera begins their season with an accidental Arrigo Boito (above) double bill. Boito (1842-1918) was a poet, journalist, novelist and occasional composer who wrote one opera to his own libretto, Mefistofole, based on Goethe's Faust. Unlike the 1859 Charles Gounod French Grand Opera version, it reflects the episodic, philosophical nature of Goethe's original, including arguments between God and the Devil in Heaven and an assignation through space and time with Helen of Troy. According to an Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, "While working on Mefistofele, Boito published articles, influenced by composer Richard Wagner, in which he vigorously attacked Italian music and musicians. Verdi was deeply offended by his remarks, and by 1868, when Mefistofele was produced at Milan, Boito’s polemics had provoked so much hostility that a near riot resulted. Consequently, the opera was withdrawn after two performances. A much-revised version, produced at Bologna in 1875, has remained in the Italian repertory."
The opera is eccentric, ambitious, and filled with memorable tunes, especially for the huge chorus who alternately portray heavenly hosts, demons on Walpurgis Night, Carnival revelers, and black-tie opera attendees. This production was the 1987 breakout for Canadian director Robert Carsen who has gone on to a long, exciting career in Europe. The reconstructed, repainted, and recostumed reconstruction is looking great, and the cast of Ildar Abdrazakov, Patricia Racette and Ramon Vargas is sounding equally good. If you're a first time opera attendee, Mefistofole would be a great choice because grand opera doesn't get much more lavish or colorful than this. (Click here for a one-minute YouTube promo by the SF Opera.) And if you have extrasensory perception, you will recognize me running across the stage as a devil in Act One.
Boito and Verdi above buried the hatchet in 1872, and the poet eventually wrote the libretti for the composer's two final operas, Otello and Falstaff.
Falstaff, with the legendary Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel performing the title role above, will be the third opera in the season in a 2000 Oliver Tambosi production from the Chicago Lyric Opera that is apparently well beloved. (Click here for a post about a 2008 revival at The Glittering Eye.) Verdi's final opera is extraordinarily modern and forward-looking in its dialogue driven musical setting that avoids stand and sing arias. This makes this opera difficult to assimilate at first, but once you do make the leap and fall in love with the piece, it completely repays the effort. San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti is conducting both Falstaff and Mefistofole and the music plays right into his strengths.
In between the Boito mini-festival, the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne by composer Tobias Picker (above left with conductor George Manahan and director James Robinson) will be presented for six performances. The operatic adaptation of a 1992 Stephen King novel about a homocidal housekeeper on a Maine island has already gone through plenty of offstage drama, including the withdrawal of Dolora Zajick in the title role that was written for her. According to General Director David Gockley, Dolora was suffering from a "plethora of physical issues" during the rehearsals and when she asked to leave the production two weeks ago, he did not try to dissuade her.
In these disastrous circumstances, it was director James Robinson (above left) who said, "Well, Patricia Racette (above right) is in town." Racette had already sung in world premieres of Picker operas Emmeline and An American Tragedy, and had worked with conductor Manahan. According to Gockley, she was never thought of as a backup for the role, and her presence in Mefistofole was pure serendipity. Still, the task ahead of her over the next two weeks is "monumental and slightly insane" according to the singer, and she has enlisted the daily musical coaching assistance of her mezzo-soprano wife Beth Clayton who also happens to be in town. Picker amusingly described how Clayton would bring notes "to the opera house from Madam" because Racette was too busy studying at home to do it herself.
One obvious question was how could a soprano sing a role written for a mezzo, and composer, singer and conductor responded that the role was actually written high for a mezzo. "There are transpositions," Picker said, "but surprisingly few." The conductor also discussed how he had added "a handful of musical cues in the orchestra" because there were a few moments where the orchestra was going in one direction and the soloist another, which would be impossible to learn in the time allowed. After the press conference above on Wednesday afternoon, we were invited to listen along with a score in front of us during a sitzprobe (singers sitting onstage in front of full orchestra), and they were right. The role is written high for a mezzo.
I'm not going to say anything else about the opera until it premieres, other than that the long rehearsal was completely absorbing and I'm looking forward to seeing the opera staged.
The final two operas of the Fall season are a pair of familiar warhorses, Wagner's first success, The Flying Dutchman, and Rossini's perennial comedy, The Barber of Seville. Dutchman is going to be in an expanded recent production from Belgium's Opera Royale de Wallonie (click here for a video of highlights on their website), and the Barber is a revised version of Emilio Sagi's colorful, well-traveled 2005 Madrid production that you can find on a DVD with Juan Diego Florez. (Click here for a video of the production's Largo al factotum.)