San Francisco Opera 2009 season


Opera has always been regarded as an elitist “sport” reserved for the affluent with little or nothing to say to ordinary people who live their lives from paycheck to paycheck and worry a lot more about how to afford groceries than whether their mates are so unfaithful they decide to stab them. We all enjoy escapist theater but we are far more absorbed these days in worrying about the air we breathe and if we can get our hospital visits covered by our health care plans than whether a fictional character from another century is all riled up because the girl he loves, loves another.
It is true that Grand Opera is no more than soap opera set to glorious music. The stories are ridiculous, melodramatic and predictable. The costumes and sets are so elaborate that although they titillate our decorative sense, they are never depictions of places or rooms we would dream of entering. Yet, this very fantasy world every opera creates is the reason for opera’s appeal to everyone from the street urchin to the wall street magnate, from the jailbird to the Supreme Court judge. Operas, without many exceptions, deal with universal human emotions that never fail to shatter the hardest of hearts. There is something about watching someone die while singing glorious melodies that makes each death more than tragic…indeed it elevates it to a sublime sacrifice.
Giacomo Puccini is a master at ripping up the human heartstrings and matching his soaring melodies to stories that told in any other medium would make us think or even say, “You cannot expect me to believe THAT?” But trust me: you buy every word, every hysterical incident.
You believe in Puccini’s operas because his music hypnotizes you and because they are sung by supremely talented masters of the operatic voice. To me, the consummate Puccini interpreter is Patricia Racette who has sung Madame Butterfly and convinced thousands in her audience that she is a 14 year old Japanese innocent instead of the very mature, Anglo Saxon beauty that she is. I have seen her die from tuberculosis as Mimi in La Boheme, frail, and fading from this life, when in fact she is a robust healthy young woman with a constitution of steel and the voice of an angel.
This season, she stars in a rarely performed trio of Puccini one-act operas. Not since 1952 have San Francisco audiences had the rare opportunity to enjoy this wonderful combination the way its creator intended—each opera in its entirety and with an ideal cast. Soprano Patricia Racette, "a consummate singing actress" (Chicago Tribune) whose many San Francisco Opera triumphs include her incisive portrait of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly (2007), is featured in all three operas. Also performing are baritone Paolo Gavanelli, who performed the title roles of San Francisco Opera's Rigoletto and Nabucco to great acclaim; tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who co-starred with Racette in Butterfly; and the celebrated contralto Ewa Podleś, making her belated Company debut.
Il Tabarro (The Cloak) tells the story of an unhappy wife (Racette of course) who longs to run away with her husband’s employee, Luigi (tenor Brandon Jovanovick). It is a tale of jealousy, forbidden passion and the tragic error that costs a man his life. The second mini-opera is Suor Angelica, the story of a repentant nun who gave her illegitimate son to her unforgiving family and joined a convent to hide her shame. She discovers that her child has died and her grief overwhelms her. The singing in this story is magnificent and bouquets must be given to Patricia Racette again as Sister Angelica and Ewa Podleś as the nun’s aunt. The third segment in the triumvirate is the comic opera, Gianni Schicchi. A dead man lies on his bed as his family discovers he has not provided for them in his will. Gianni Schicchi (Paolo Gavanelli) convinces them that he can alter the document in their favor. Racette plays Schicchi’s daughter and she is delightfully young and playful with a pink ribbon in her hair and an innocent attitude that charms us all.
It all sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
But once you take your seat at the historic War Memorial Opera House and the curtain rises you are wrapped in an envelope of spectacular scenery, thrilling voices and a plot that is so full of “Oh My God’s” that you weep and tear your hair along with everyone on that stage.
The opera season opened with a production even less believable and even more captivating. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore is one of my favorites even though I defy anyone in their right mind to buy into the plot. Reason seems to vanish when that curtain rises and we hear Verdi’s masterpiece come to life in all its gory glory on the opera stage. Nicola Luisotti makes his debut as San Francisco Opera's music director with this audience favorite, in which fast-paced action is propelled by an irresistible stream of melody. Verdi's favorite themes of destiny and desire are threaded through this suspenseful story of a corrupt count, a dashing warrior and a Gypsy who plots to avenge her mother's wrongful death. David McVicar's visually striking new production is inspired by the haunting imagery of Francisco de Goya. Tenor Marco Berti and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whose beautiful tone and emotional intensity thrilled audiences in last season's Simon Boccanegra, head a charismatic cast featuring mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.
The gypsy mother, Azucena (Stephanie Blythe) tells her “son” that in reality he is Count de Luna’s brother because she accidentally threw her own baby into the fire that was roasting his grandmother. Her excuse was the terrible stress of watching her mother go up in flames. She made the best of a bad situation and reared the Count’s brother as her own. He is Manrico (Marco Berti), the beloved of Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky). Leonora is a woman of taste and has ignored Count de Luna’s tasteless overtures because she prefers his brother. One horrid event leads to another, jealousy, anger, torment and grief abound and at the finale, Leonora saves Manrico by taking poison and killing herself. The Count when he realizes that the object of his affection has literally hit the concrete, executes Manrico only to find out that he has murdered his own brother.
I KNOW you will not believe me, but you have to be made of stone to be impervious to the extreme suffering you see on stage. The voices in this opera are stunning, and mesmerizing. If you can, get yourself down to the opera house for the few remaining performances. The production is choice. I still weep when I see poor distraught Leonora swallowing that poison in her lover’s arms rather than giver herself to a man she does not love.
And there is much more death, destruction, agony and heartbreak to come in this spectacular San Francisco Opera season. The Abduction from the Seraglio is an adventure comedy set in an exotic locale, featuring a daring escape, a comedic clash of cultures and a couple of savvy, strong-willed women. A Spanish nobleman sets out to rescue his beloved from the clutches of a tenacious Turk in this wonderfully witty tale, set to Mozart's sparkling and exuberant score. An enchanting new production that features a world-class cast led by soprano Mary Dunleavy, the remarkable Gilda in San Francisco Opera's Rigoletto (2006), and Metropolitan Opera tenor Matthew Polenzani, who possesses a "dulcet lyric voice ideally suited to Mozart," according to The New York Times.
The Daughter of the Regiment is one of my favorite lyric operas. It is light as a musical comedy on the Broadway stage and twice as enchanting. A rambunctious tomboy raised by a group of soldiers is forced to assume the airs of an aristocrat in this delectable soufflé of an opera. The dazzling Diana Damrau, a coloratura soprano acclaimed by the Associated Press for her "rapid-fire runs and stratospheric high notes," makes her San Francisco Opera debut in the title role. She is joined by renowned Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who made The New York Times front page when he reprised his rendition of the opera's most challenging aria—hitting all nine high Cs not once but twice! Laurent Pelly's production is "by turns elegant, witty and laugh-out-loud funny," according to London's The Independent. You have to be deaf dumb, blind and in a coma not to love this one.
Nothing captures the Halloween spirit like Richard Strauss’s Salome. Considered scandalous when it premiered a century ago with its provocative "Dance of the Seven Veils," Richard Strauss' adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play has not lost its ability to shock. Set in Biblical times, this erotically charged opera centers on a tangled triangle: the persecuted John the Baptist, a lecherous King Herod and the monarch's pathologically seductive stepdaughter, Salome. German soprano Nadja Michael is "indolent, sexy and scary" in the title role, giving a performance that "blazes with dramatic intensity," according to London critics. Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducts in a production co-directed by Sean Curran and James Robinson.
Another Verdi opera, Othello finishes the fall season in November. In Verdi's masterful adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, a great warrior discovers the one weapon against which he has no defense—his own jealousy. Johan Botha, the South African tenor praised by The New York Times for his "effortless power and clarion tone," makes his San Francisco Opera debut in the title role. Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva, recent winner of the Italian Association of Music Critics' prestigious Abbiati Prize, brings tenderness and vocal brilliance to the role of Desdemona, the faithful wife who finds facts are no match for manufactured suspicion. Music Director Nicola Luisotti, praised by London's Financial Times for conveying Verdi's "sweep, lyricism and subtle detail," conducts.
David Gockley is the General Director of the San Francisco Opera and this year in particular he is faced with severe strains on the lavish budget he needs to put these exquisite combinations of music, dance and drama on the stage. He has to plan each season and cast it years in advance and although there have to be cuts in his expenditures, he has managed to make them subtle and unnoticeable to us, the opera audience. “As you know,” he says. “I believe opera is for everyone and the Company will continue to bring opera into the community. A large part of what I hope to accomplish in my time here is to reinvigorate the core Italian repertory that is San Francisco Opera’s birthright. This company was founded by an ardent group of Italian Americans who believed in the power and beauty of this unique art form.“
Go to Look at the calendar and pick the productions you want to see. All can be very affordable. You will be amazed at the wide range of ticket prices. Standing room is a cheap as $10 and rush tickets are $25-$30 on the day of the performance. You can purchase single tickets from $15.00 (top balcony) to $210.00 for choice seats in the orchestra. The operas presented are part of our artistic heritage and no one should deprive himself of the chance to sample the lavish delight of grand opera in the magnificent War Memorial Opera House. Each production is an experience you will never forget.