Thursday, May 19, 2016

SF Opera Summer Preview

The San Francisco Opera is presenting three of my all-time favorite works this summer and they are offering a 30% discount offer if you buy tickets for all of them. Call the box office at (415) 864-3330 to check out the details. I heartily recommend that you do so and following are a few reasons why.

The mini-season begins on Friday, May 27th with Carmen, Bizet's perennial warhorse about the Spanish gypsy who is eventually murdered by her spurned soldier lover Don Jose. There are probably more catchy earworm tunes in this opera than any other musical theater piece in history. You probably know at least a half dozen of them whether you realize it or not. The opera can be problematic to stage, because it's a mixture of sweet and harsh, sexy and violent, that can easily devolve into castanet-clicking cliches. The late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created a wonderful production for the SF Opera in 1981 starring the great Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza (above), but it kept being endlessly restaged by less inspired assistant directors over the years until it started looking like an amateur community pageant.

This summer the production will be from Calixto Bieito, the Spanish opera director who has been scandalizing Europe with his bizarre, scatalogical, violent, and sexual reimaginings of established classics, and this Carmen is supposedly one of his better efforts. It's also the first time one of his productions has been staged in the United States, which is a big deal. Recently seen at the English National Opera in 2015, this updated, stark, violently macho version was almost universally well-received by critics. The double casting of major roles at the SF Opera isn't particularly impressive on paper, but maybe we'll be happily surprised.

The second opera is the massive, four-and-a-half hour Verdi masterpiece Don Carlo, easily my favorite opera by one of my favorite composers. Set in Inquisition era Spain during the reign of Philip II, the libretto is from a serious Schiller play that stands up well, with dramatically complex characters, an endlessly fascinating look at how power corrupts, and a damning denunciation of the Catholic Church in all its cruelties. It also contains some of the most beautiful music Verdi ever wrote, including the great bromance duet between the title character and his best friend Rodrigo. I saw the opera for the first time in 1979 with German baritone Wolfgang Brendel above as Rodrigo and Spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall as Don Carlo, and was so overwhelmed by their characters and the greatness of the musical score that I attended every performance.

Though I never need to see Verdi's La Traviata or Aida again, the chance to experience Don Carlo live will always be welcome. The casting for this summer's production is outstanding and star-filled, with tenor Michael Fabiano as the neurotic prince Don Carlo and the great baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo. Though it will be hard to sound better than soprano Carol Vaness (above) as Queen Elisabetta in 1992, Ana María Martínez is luxury casting in the role this summer as is the magnificent bass Rene Pape as Phillip II. The conductor will be Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who has just announced his retirement after the 2017-18 season, and this music should play to all of his strengths.

Finally, there is Leoš Janáček's breakout masterpiece, Jenufa, an opera that converted me into a genuine Opera Fanatic back in 1980. The San Francisco Opera has a good track record with Janáček, starting with that 1980 production featuring Sena Jurinac (above right), the legendary Vienna State Opera star who late in her career sang the part of the murderous, morally upright Kostelnička. Her stepdaughter Jenufa was sung by the great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström (above left), who was then in her 50's but who was a completely convincing teenager onstage. Even though this was before the advent of supertitles and the opera was being presented in the original Czech (which is all-important for Janáček because his musical rhythms so closely mirror the language he uses), audiences were overwhelmed by the powerful beauty of the music drama.

In 1986, Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek above took the two lead roles and brought a similar level of dramatic perfection to the opera. This year we have the young Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Jenufa, one of the most admirable characters in all of opera, and Karita Mattila as her driven to desperate insanity stepmother. Mattila knocked out everyone in the recent SF Opera production of the same composer's The Makropoulos Case, so expectations are high. The definitive Czech conductor of our times, Jiří Bělohlávek, who did such a stunning job with The Makropoulos Case, will be returning to lead the orchestra. I cannot recommend this opera highly enough, and if you don't cry at some point during the production, I probably don't want to know you.

Photo credits for the archival productions: Ron Scherl for Teresa Berganza in Carmen, Brendel/Aragall in Don Carlo, and Surinac/Söderström in Jenufa; Marty Sohl for Carol Vaness in Don Carlo; Robert Cahen for Beňačková/Rysanek in Jenufa. And many thanks to Teresa Concepcion at the SF Opera PR Department for rounding up all this archival imagery.

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