Review: Two Italian Dynamos—Nicola Luisotti and pianist Giuseppe Albanese—and the SF Opera Orchestra, kick off SF Opera’s Summer Season at Zellerbach Hall
There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro! Last Friday’s symphonic concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall, a San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances co-production, was everything we’ve come to expect when Luisotti is at the helm of this very talented orchestra—heart-felt passion and mesmerizing music. It was wonderful to be able to actually see this talented orchestra, which normally resides in the pit during operas, and to place some faces with soloists we’ve come to respect and love. Last Friday’s program included Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s early piece, “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.
The surprise treat was Giuseppe Albanese, in his West Coast premiere, who not only proved to be un talento enormo on the piano but a curly-haired young Italian heartthrob to boot. He appeared in bright red shoes, a feat not many guys (apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet!) can successfully pull off ..…he owned it. It was his smile, sensual verve and engagement with the music and orchestra that melted the audience and led to several standing ovations and a sensational triple encore. His encore included an uncannily virtuosic rendition of Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2), which he knocked out with playful swagger. I would have sworn there were at least two hands on that keyboard if I hadn’t seen Albanese’s right hand alternately hanging by his side or pressed up expressively against his heart.
The evening opened with Puccini’s “Capriccio sinfonico,” a rarely performed work the composer wrote as a 25-year-old at the conservatory in Milan. The Capriccio was Puccini’s final student work, written to satisfy the requirements for his graduation in July 1883. He hadn’t yet written his first opera (although the work is full of operatic grandeur—and even contains passages that the maestro later used in “La Bohême”). One of Puccini’s biographers, Julian Budden, has this to say about the Capriccio: “Performed at the annual students’ concert on July 14, it at once alerted the critics to a new voice in Italian music. Filippi of La perseveranza shed all his reservations of the previous year. ‘In Puccini,’ he wrote, ‘we have a decisive and rare musical temperament and one which is especially symphonic. There is unity of style, personality, character. In his Capriccio sinfonico there is a good deal that more experienced composers . . . have not succeeded in doing. . . There are no uncertainties or gropings in the young author. . . The ideas are clear, strong, effective and sustained with much truth.’ (PUCCINI: HIS LIFE AND WORKS by Julian Budden, 2002)
The opera orchestra’s performance of this precious archive from Puccini’s repertoire was indeed inspired and so was Luisotti’s conducting, a feat of passion and pure embrace of sound. Luisotti, who at times appeared to be writing in the air with his sweeping gestures of the baton, guided the orchestra into a lush performance, reminding me that it’s hard to beat an Italian conducting an Italian.
Up next was pianist Giuseppe Albanese in Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” a piece that had his curly hair flouncing and his fingers flying as he executed complex crossovers matching blow for blow Luisotti’s passionate baton waving and flying locks. As both men became one with the music and the orchestra, it was a pleasure to sit back, watch and listen. Rota has composed four piano concertos but is best known for his film scores, which date back to the early 1940s. He’s collaborated with Federico Fellini, Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (he received the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather II), King Vidor, René Clément, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo. Additionally, he composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo. It’s natural to wonder whether his film and concert music are similar. The Piano Concerto in C has a strong melody but didn’t evoke any filmic moments for me. The drama and passion was injected by Albanese who had the audience’s rapt attention throughout. So much so that, afterwards, he received a long standing ovation and came out for an encore— Denis Zardi Prelude, Op. 6, No. 24—followed by another ovation. It was his second piece— Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2)—where he delivered the goods, a technically challenging one-handed performance of great beauty and emotional richness. After that, as if egged on by Luisotti behind the curtain to “go for it,” he came out again with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” arranged by Earl Wilde, a familiar piece he played to the hilt while taking every opportunity to lap up the much-deserved limelight.
The evening concluded with Brahams “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90,” which I had never before heard. All four of it movements end quietly and its most powerful moments are quite restrained. Coming on the heels of the robust first half of the concert, this subdued but highly complex piece was a soothing end to the evening. The third movement started with a wonderfully low and flowing cello passage that was followed later by Kevin Rivard’s tender horn solo. What a treat to hear this masterpiece for the first time performed with such passion by Luisotti’s orchestra.
Author Barbara Quick, well-known for her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins, has just finished a new historically-accurate novel called “Saving Puccini” and gave ARThound a good deal of insight and perspective on the Puccini performance.
For more information about San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 season, which includes Tales of Hoffman (6/5-7/6/2013), Cosi fan tutte (6/9-7/1/2013), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (6/19-7/7/2013), click here.
SF Opera starts off the summer with Nicola Luisotti conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a rare symphonic performance, Friday May 16, 2013
Exceptional in the pit, the renowned San Francisco Opera Orchestra will get a chance to shine on stage this Friday night at Zellerbach Hall in a rare performance of touchstones of the symphonic repertoire—Puccini, Rota and Brahms. Whenever Nicola Luisotti, Music Director, San Francisco Opera, conducts, there’s magic. Bring it on! Tickets just $20
Puccini Capriccio Sinfonico
Rota Piano Concerto in C (with pianist Giuseppe Albanese)
Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Program Notes click here.
DETAILS: Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets: $20.00. To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here. As of Thursday, ample tickets in all sections.
Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.
Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.
Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays
“The Future is Now,” San Francisco Opera’s 2012 Adler Fellows present a gala concert of opera’s greatest hits— Friday, November 30, 2012, at Herbst Theatre
In their final concert of 2012, the critically acclaimed Adler Fellows of 2012 will team up with San Francisco Opera Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra to perform “The Future is Now,” a gala concert of well-known opera scenes and arias on Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Herbst Theatre in the War Memorial Opera Building, San Francisco. This night of unforgettable music will include well-known works by opera’s great composers, including Massenet, Mozart, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Gounod, and Verdi. For those who have followed the young performers in the Adler program, it is celebration of their talent and accomplishment as many prepare to move on to professional roles the world’s leading opera houses. “It is the greatest opera fellowship program in the country,” said former Adler Patricia Racette, currently singing Floria Tosca to rave reviews in SFO’s Tosca.
“The Future is Now” features 8 singing Adlers and 2 coaching Adlers.
Sopranos include Marina Harris (Los Angeles, California) and Nadine Sierra (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) who most recently appeared in SFO’s Summer 2012 production of The Magic Flute as Papagena. In 2009, Sierra was the youngest performer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and this May, at age 23, she had her debut at Carnegie Hall’s intimate Weill Recital Hall. a
Mezzo-sopranos include Laura Krumm (Iowa City, Iowa) who had her SFO debut and most recent appearance in this fall’s production of Rigoletto as Countess Ceprano and a Page, and Renée Rapier (Marion, Iowa) who had her SFO debut and most recent appearance in this fall’s production of Rigoletto as Giovanna.
The sole tenor is Brian Jagde (Piermont, New York), who is currently getting rave reviews as the painter Mario Cavaradossi in SFO’s Tosca and is also singing the role of Don Jose in SFO’s Carmen for Families, a two-hour version of the opera suitable for children 10 and above. Jagde was a baritone for ten years and then, 4 years ago, made the switch to tenor.
Baritones include Ao Li (Shandong, China), who is currently singing in Tosca as Sciarrone, and Joo Won Kang (Seoul, South Korea) who has been very this fall at SFO, performing in Rigoletto as Marullo, in Moby Dick as Captain Gardiner, in Lohengrin as Noble, and in Tosca as the Jailer.
The sole bass-baritone is Ryan Kuster (Jacksonville, Illinois), who is currently singing in Tosca as Angelotti.
Apprentice coaches Sun Ha Yoon (Seoul, South Korea) and Robert Mollicone (East Greenwich, Rhode Island) will also participate.
Manon – Massenet / “Je suis seul…Ah! fuyez, douce image…Toi! Vous!…N’est-ce plus ma main”
Manon – Nadine Sierra
Des Grieux – Brian Jagde
Un Ballo in Maschera – Verdi / “Forse la soglia attinse…Ma se m’è forza perderti”
Riccardo – Brian Jagde
Roméo et Juliette – Gounod / “Dieu! Quel frisson…Amour ranime mon courage”
Juliette – Nadine Sierra
Il Corsaro – Verdi / “Alfin questo Corsaro è mio prigione…Cento leggiadre vergini”
Seid – Joo Won Kang
Selimo – Ryan Kuster
Don Giovanni – Mozart / “Deh vieni alla finestra”
Don Giovanni – Joo Won Wang
La Cenerentola – Rossini / “Sì, tutto cangerà…Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo”
Alidoro – Ryan Kuster
Angelina – Laura Krumm
The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart / “Hai già vinta la causa…Vedrò mentr’io sospiro”
Count Almaviva – Ryan Kuster
Cendrillon – Massenet / “Enfin, je suis ici”
Cendrillon – Laura Krumm
La Clemenza di Tito – Mozart / “Parto, ma tu ben mio”
Sesto – Renée Rapier
Così fan tutte – Mozart / “Ah guarda sorella”
Fiordiligi – Marina Harris
Dorabella – Laura Krumm
Eugene Onegin – Tchaikovsky / “Puskai pagibnuya”
Tatiana – Marina Harris
Mignon – Thomas / “Légères hirondelles”
Mignon – Laura Krumm
Lothario – Ao Li
Il Signor Bruschino – Rossini / “Nel teatro del gran mondo”
Gaudenzio – Ao Li
More About the Adler Fellow Program: Named for the late great San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the Adler Fellowship Program is the Princeton of performance-oriented residencies, offering exceptional young artists intensive individual training, coaching, professional seminars and a wide range of performance opportunities throughout their fellowship. The Adler Fellows have all been selected from the Merola Opera Program, a prestigious resident artist training program sponsored by San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Opera Center that has nurtured the development of more than 150 young artists since its inception.
There are currently ten 2012 Adler Fellows and thirteen new 2013 Adler Fellows were announced on September 26, 2012. That list includes continuing Adlers from 2012: Marina Harris, soprano; Joo Won Kang, baritone; Laura Krumm, mezzo soprano; Ao Li, baritone; Robert Mollicone, coach and accompanist; and Renée Rapier, mezzo soprano. New 2013 participants include: Hadleigh Adams, bass-baritone, from New Zealand; Jennifer Cherest, soprano, from Maryland; AJ Glueckert, tenor, from Portland, OR; Chuanyue Wang, tenor, from China; Erin Johnson, mezzo-soprano, from New Jersey; and Sun Ha Yoon, apprentice coach, from South Korea. Phillipe Sly, bass-baritone, from the Merola class of 2011 is also included. Unusually, he skipped a year, during which he became a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and appeared in several Canadian Opera Company productions.
Details: “The Future is Now” is Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets: $60 front orchestra; $50 box seats; $40 rear orchestra and dress circle. $15 student rush tickets will be available from 11 a.m. on November 30, subject to availability, upon presentation of valid identification, in person only at the San Francisco Opera Box Office (301 Van Ness Avenue at the northwest corner of Grove Street, San Francisco). All other tickets may be purchased in advance online (click here) or at the SFO Box Office which is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
San Francisco Opera’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s baroque masterpiece Xerxes is the high point of the company’s fall season to date─one of those rare opera moments where music, singing, acting, and staging all come together to create magic. Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian), dating to 1738, is an opera bursting with beautiful music and a positively twisted love plot. The opera is very loosely based on King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is next to nothing in the libretto or music that recalls that setting. If you haven’t seen a Baroque opera before, this production of Xerxes, which is the most light-hearted of all Handel’s operas, is delightful in all regards. Nicholas Hytner’s production, directed by Michael Walling, originates from English National Opera 1985 production and was last seen in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.
On opening day, Principal Guest Conductor/harpsichordist Patrick Summers, who last appeared at SF Opera in September conducting the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, was exceptional as was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Summers played his harpsichord for some of the recitatives along with David Kadarauch, principal cellist. Xerxes is well-known for having been sung originally by a castrato and the role is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor. Mezzo soprano Susan Graham who specializes in castrati roles was a perfect “Xerxes. ” She was joined by countertenor David Daniels as “Arsamenes,” soprano Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), soprano Heidi Stober as “Atalanta,” contralto Sonia Prina as “Amastris,” Waynes Tigges as “Ariodates, and Michael Sumuel as “Elviro,” and they all put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives. Susan Graham, David Daniels, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina sang these roles in Houston and were exceptional together again in San Francisco.
The opera began with a clever and humorous touch: at the starting overture, the characters ran out on stage, one by one, as a projected placard on the curtain behind them explained to the audience in a single sentence who they are and what their relationship in this love romp is. King Xerxes is chasing Romidle (his servant Artiodate’s daughter) but she loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who also loves her. Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also wants Arasmene, in large part to have some of what her sister has. Amastre, is engaged to Xerxes but he has betrayed her and she returns disguised as man to spy on him. It’s romantic chaos, not to mention tests of sisterly and brotherly love and rank and loyalty as these characters plot, scheme, align with and betray each other, all hoping to end up with their true love. In the end, Arsamene and Romilda are wed and Xerxes’ love is unrequited love.
The opera’s action has been transported from King Xerxes’ Persia, circa 475 B.C. to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century, which was Handel’s time. David Fielding’s set is brilliant. Executed in tones of creme and green, it evokes both the historical period it is referencing and the sophisticated vibe of a Veranda magazine spread. It includes many artifacts and references to the Middle East─a region considered exotic, fascinating and dangerous in 18th century London. During this era, England was captivated by the Grand Tour and pleasure gardens like Vauxhall would have displayed all types of artifacts and botanical specimens too. In this set, you’ll see an enormous winged lion topiary recalling the sculptures of Persepolis and a fascinating model of a famous bridge designed for King Xerxes to span the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) which allowed Xerxes and his Persian army to cross from Asia to Europe and invade Greece in 480 B.C. What a surprise when the bridge collapses onstage, mirroring an obscure moment in ancient history that aficionados of historian Herodotus have all but memorized.
Musically, Xerxes is known nowadays mostly for its intoxicating aria “Ombra mai fu,” which is an ode in the form of a song to a tree that Xerxes loved. Whenever I hear this aria I envision the huge tree from Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2002 video installation “Tooba” (the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur’an) instead of the puny ornamental potted stick tree in this staging. Despite the tree, the four minute aria was sung vibrantly by Graham but her voice did not project well due to her position on stage. Throughout the opera, Graham was in top form, particularly when paired in aria with counter-tenor David Daniels.
American sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as “Romilda” were fabulous in both their comedic presence and their hilarious dueling recitative arias expressing their love for Arsamenes were a joy to listen to even in multiple iterations because of the richness of their coloraturas. Special mention goes to Michael Summel who charmed all in his debut as “Elviro,” Arsamentes’ lumbering servant who dons a dress and bonnet and poses as a flower seller.
Xerxes runs three hours and forty minutes, with two intermissions, but the time seems to fly.
Details: Xerxes is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $29 to $330. Information: www.sfopera.com. Click to purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm
Meet Kevin Rivard, the horn behind Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 3, 2011
When it’s time for the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon in Richard Wagner’s third Ring of the Nibelung opera, Siegfried, it is Kevin Rivard’s hypnotic long horn call in Act II that draws Fafner out of his cave and ushers in the action. That two-minute French horn solo, echoed in shorter motifs throughout the Ring, is one of the cycle’s musical highpoints. It’s also the longest instrumental solo in the Ring. At 28, Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, is the youngest member of both brass sections. This is Rivard’s first Ring and he was eager to talk about this demanding solo which he plays backstage, in order to create the illusion that Siegfried himself is playing the horn. Wagner was one of first composers to write extensively for the valved horn and the Siegfried long call, his most famous horn composition, set the bar for all future horn solos in terms of its difficulty and haunting beauty. Rivard plays this horn call for the 4th and last time, next Friday, July 1 in San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 of the Ring.
Would you describe your instrument and tell us if you use only one horn throughout the Ring?
Kevin Rivard: There’s only one horn that I play—it’s a factory Conn 8D horn. It’s the instrument that is known for the American horn sound—that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies. It’s the horn most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound. It fits perfectly with the type of writing that Wagner did for the horn in the Ring Cycle, which is very heroic most of the time… This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me.
Which leitmotifs in The Ring are played by the French horn?
Kevin Rivard: When I think about all 17 hours of this, I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs. The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in the first Ring opera Das Rheingold, at beginning of Scene 2, is handled by the Wagner tuba section, part of the horn section. The spear motive, also originating in Das Rheingold, is handled by the horn section. Siegfried’s long and short calls are played a cappella [without accompaniment] by a solo French horn in Act II, Scene 2, of Siegfried.
The big thing about the motifs we play in this Ring cycle is the variation in their complexity. There’s such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it’s completely different music and you can see and hear it. The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could listen to this entire opera and have no clue about any of the text and know exactly what’s going on. It’s so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what’s going on even before the characters themselves know.
The horn is almost always used by classical composers to signify hunting or at least a kind of hearty, masculine, rural sensibility. What does the horn signify in the Ring?
Kevin Rivard: In addition to its use historically for hunting calls, the horn is also the voice of the hero, Siegfried, which is what we most notice. Siegfried lives and hunts in the woods. Also, because of the way the instrument is made and shaped, and its sound, it works very well with other instruments in blending and creating great sonorities throughout the orchestra. Composers will write for the horn in a partnering role, using it to join the sound of different instruments together. If they are writing for the strings and woodwinds, they will stick the horn in there to kind of blend the sounds together. With woodwinds and brass, the horns will be the middle ground to help blend the two together. I’ll play some concerts where we’ll be playing almost the entire concert in these supporting roles and when I finish, people will tell me that I was hardly playing at all. I’m thinking no, I was playing the entire time but in a supporting role.
Aside from its length, what makes the long call in Siegfried special?
Kevin Rivard: This is the biggest, hardest, longest horn solo in any rep–orchestral or opera–that there is, period, because of the way it’s structured. It’s the way Wagner wrote it–the entire orchestra cuts out and it’s just one solo for over two minutes and it keeps building and goes on and on and on and then ends on that spectacular high C. With the French horn, there are a couple of things at issue. The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips. You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that’s coming through the instrument and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.
In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other.. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it’s not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed. When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat. Everyone knows and no one forgets.
How did you approach and prepare for this great solo?
Kevin Rivard: Since endurance and stamina are such an issue, I looked at my schedule a year ago and I found all of the holes where I would have time to practice and I started preparing, a little here and a little there. A lot of this was mental, knowing in my head exactly what I wanted it to sound like. As an artist, if I have the technique down and I know how I want it to sound, then I can put those two things together. Wagner wrote that the call was to start with moderate tempo and then accelerando [become faster] throughout. Out of respect to that comment and to add to the drama of the scene, I begin very slowly and let the accelerando build and roll it forward and I really try to give it plenty of room. The speed of the accelerando and that crescendo [increase in volume] is based solely on one thing –how much air I can take in and how much music I can make in one breath. I set my tempo and I take the biggest breath that I can and based on that, I start to build. That’s a lot of notes to get into one breath.
Were there any particular horn players’ renditions you listened to? YouTube has lots of fabulous examples for us to hear and compare as does Wagneropera.net.
Kevin Rivard: Julie Landsman has a recording of this in which she plays principal throughout the Ring and she does the long call. This is the best I’ve ever heard, period. I feel pretty strongly that as an artist and individual I want to make every effort not to just try to sound like everyone else. I want to go out there and sound the way I want to sound. Throughout my entire preparation period, I tried not to listen to any recordings, but rather to just study the score and decide what this character means to me and what this horn solo means and how I want to present it. I think this approach has led to something that is similar to what my teacher did but that my call does sound considerably different than any of the recordings out there as a result. I appreciate that because I wanted to step away and see what it meant to me to be Siegfried.
What’s going on physically for you during this solo? Does it help that you are back stage and not actually seen, just heard?
Kevin Rivard: I might not be seen but I have to return to the pit afterward and see all my colleagues so being out of sight doesn’t have much benefit for me. What I think it is, and I read this from other principal horn players too, is that a lot of horn players are adrenaline junkies. The nature of the instrument, the harmonic series, and the extreme accuracy that is required to do our job on a daily basis requires this. Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) once said ‘You never want to look a horn player in the eye before he plays a solo– it’s like looking a tightrope walker in the eye before he grapples with death.’ There’s this huge adrenaline rush you get when you do these big solos—the Siegfried long call and the solo in Handel’s Julius Caesar. You walk back there and you are nervous and your heart is racing and the next thing you know…you’ve jumped and landed. I think ‘wow!’ that was the best thing in the world and I have to do it again.
When you leave the pit, where exactly are you playing and how do you get your cues?
Kevin Rivard: The idea is to position the horn very close to Siegfried so that it sounds like he is playing. My chair is onstage, just behind the curtain, on the rake [upward slope] of the stage. I am sitting tilted back at an angle with my horn in hand and I am facing off to the side of the stage, looking in the opposite direction of Siegfried. Initially, I had to turn around and look at him for my cue which is when he takes this big breath. When I did this, there was this huge spotlight on him from the opposite side of the stage that nearly blinded me. I could barely see him and the light was so strong that I couldn’t see anything on my music stand either. He also took his breath very quickly and I whipped my head around and tried to play very quickly. When I finished the first phrase, I turned back around and was blinded again and then whipped my head back around again and it was an incredible experience. I was like ‘this is just too crazy,’ so I went and found an extra conductor that they have and it’s now his job to stare into that light and catch the cues from Siegfried’s breath and then cue me.
The pace of the four long performances comprising each Ring Cycle, essentially back to back, must be grueling. How do you handle that?
Kevin Rivard: It’s an incredibly difficult work load, without question. The way we have it structured in the horn section is that we have two co-principal horns and this is to purposefully lighten the work load on these long things. Before we started the Ring, I got in touch with principal horn players at all the major opera companies—the Met, Munich, Berlin, and so forth– and starting asking them how they handle the Ring Cycle. Do the same people play or what? Unanimously, all of them have relief players. They would have different horn sections come in half way through an opera to play the last two acts of Götterdämmerung or the last two acts of Siegfried. The horn section that did Die Walküre would not have to play Das Rheingold the night before. They all had some relief. But the way we’re doing it is that we have the same horn section and the same Wagner tuba section and everyone is playing everything for all three cycles.
The standard approach for the Siegfried long call is that whoever plays that solo, that’s all they have to do. If they don’t do it that way, in consideration of the huge work load, you might play Act I and then the horn solo and that’s it. I play Act I, the horn solo and the rest of the opera.
After working on this for a solid year, how do you get this out of your head? What do you do?
Kevin Rivard: Funny you would ask because the other day Bill Klingelhoffer, the other co-principal horn, and I were sitting in the locker room before our final orchestra rehearsal of the season discussing what music we were going to present at an upcoming horn seminar. On stage, they were doing the final piano dress rehearsal for Siegfried and it was coming through on the monitors. The piano was playing literally at about a minute right before the big horn solo. I said to Bill, ‘Hey, they’re playing Siegfried,’ and my heart was pounding like crazy. It stays with you and rings through your head along with the energy and emotion that you feel playing it. It just doesn’t leave.
What is it like working with conductor Runnicles (longtime San Francisco Opera music director)?
Kevin Rivard: It’s going very well. The first time I played the long call was when we were out rehearsing at the Presidio. I half jokingly asked him if he wanted to hear it, thinking he’d tell me to wait until we were at the opera house to hear the whole solo. He, of course, said “Why don’t you play it here and show off for your colleagues.” I thought, ‘Great!’
This is my first Ring Cycle but in talking with Julie Landsman I became aware of the physical, emotional and mental toll this takes. With Runnicles, it’s like this music is in his blood and it’s so natural for him and so in his bones that when he conducts it, he makes it seem easy. The way he prepares and will give a cue for something makes it as easy as it can possibly be and that has a remarkable effect on us. It’s also the energy he breathes into a particular piece of music that makes it come to life.
During this long rehearsal period you must have thought a lot about Wagner. What intrigues you most?
Kevin Rivard: I often consider the great challenges of Wagner’s horn writing and wonder what the premiere performances sounded like. It’s interesting to note that the Principal Horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, the orchestra that premiered the Ring Operas and most of Wagner’s other works, was none other than Franz Strauss. He was the father of the famous composer Richard Strauss, and was known as one of the finest hornists of his day. It’s also interesting to note that Franz Strauss and Wagner did not care for each other. Wagner is quoted as saying: ‘Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.’
ARThound would like to thank opera dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with Francesa Zambello on the conception for this Ring cycle, for assistance in editing this interview. David Marsten, of Calistoga, too provided valuable background information on Wagner and Siegfried.
Details: Single tickets for next Friday’s (July 1, 2011) final performance of Siegfried are still available. Tickets for San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3) are individually priced from $95 to $360. All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.
review: San Francisco Opera’s The Makropulos Case—long live Karita Mattila! Eternal middle age never looked so good
Last Wednesday’s opening performance of Janaček’s “The Makropulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera, was spectacular. With Finnish Soprano Karita Mattila in her debut role as Emilia Marty and Czech BBC Symphony’s chief conductor Jiři Bĕlohlavek also in his debut leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, the stage was set for magic—and it was delivered.
What a pleasure to see SF Opera close an otherwise spotty fall season by nailing it with a highly-creative production of a lesser known Czech opera. The performance was a co-production with the Finnish National Opera and marked the fourth time The Makropulos Case has been performed by the SF Opera, who premiered its first U.S. performance in 1966 with Marie Collier in the title role. It was last performed here in October 1993, 13 years ago. Those who follow the San Francisco opera will recall that Janaček is a good omen though. The November 2001 performance of Janaček’s more popular Jenufa (with soprano Patricia Racette in the title role) also proved to be the stand-out hit a lackluster fall season.
The evening was all about Karita Mattila— with a voice that seemed more powerful in its higher register than usual and a seductive portrayal of lead character Emilia Marty that was brilliantly comedic, she delivered the goods all night long. Mattila’s known for her unique mastery of Janaček’s music, having recently played both Jenufa and Kat’a Kabanova to rave reviews. She can now add Emilia Marty to her list. Mattila looks a lot like Cameron Diaz–gorgeous- and has that anti-diva vibe that makes her seem approachable and yet there’s enough allure to keep her elusive. And then there’s her acting ability—from the very moment she (as Emilia Marty) showed up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague desperate to get the formula and extend her life another 300 years, it was pure and addictive drama. She toyed with all the men on the stage all night long and with her character as well, evoking a range of alternating emotions that made the 337 year old Emily Marty fascinating, pitiful, despicable and even enviable. And for a character whose blood is literally going cold as time passes, she made eternal middle age look damn good. From her first flash of leg in Act 1, to modeling a stunning cream-colored strapless ball gown inspired by Givency in Act 3, to all out posing on the bed in her La Perla undies in the final scene, she showed us her stuff. Never mind that the entire point of this opera is that eternal life—her character’s version of it— is a boring drag and she wants out, Mattila nailed it, contradictions and all, and drove the audience wild.
While the opera depends most almost exclusively on this lead character, the rest of the cast was also in top form. Miro Dvorsky as “Berti” (Albert) Gregor delivered a strong tenor and bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski brought a believable fervor to the emotional highs and lows that crafty Baron Jaroslav Prus experiences. 2010 Adler fellow Soprano Susannah Biller was magnificent as the young wide-eyed Krista, an aspiring singer.
Janaček wrote “The Makropulos Case” in 1926, basing it on Karel Čapek’s play. Its emphasis on lawyers and the drawn-out settlement of an estate makes it an unlikely theme for a riveting opera but there’s a twist: tied in with a missing will, is the formula for eternal life. Over three hundred years ago, an alchemist, Makropulos, was employed by Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II to concoct a formula for eternal life. Not trusting Makropulos’ finished product, he forced him to test it on his daughter, Elina, who was 37 was at the time. When she became seriously ill, Makropulos was imprisoned, but Elina recovered and escaped. Unbeknownst to all, the formula actually worked.
As the opera opens, Elina has lived 337 years with many identities and names but always with the initials E.M. and has become a legendary opera singer (more than once). There have been plenty of love affairs too, including one with a wealthy baron, “Pepi,” (Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus) with whom she had an illegitimate son. When Baron Prus died almost a century earlier, he left his estate in writing to his illegitimate son. His legal will is missing and along with it the formula because they were stashed in the same envelope. Elina knows this because she watched Prus seal the envelope. The lost will has sparked a century-long feud between the two branches of the family, Gregor and Prus, over rights to the estate. When Elina shows up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague, she knows she has to lead the men to the missing will to get her formula. Like most men she has encountered, they are all too willing to follow her lead.
One of the reasons for this opera’s lasting appeal is the interesting philosophical issue it raises–do we as humans need a limited time horizon to be happy and fulfilled? As much as she wants the formula, Emilia Marty is disappointed with eternal life. Were we in her shoes, would we feel the same way? Marty actually has a form of eternal life that offers a lot of choice—it’s temporary but renewable. Granted, she had no initial choice in the matter—she was forced to drink the formula—but with each dose she gets another 300 years and, at the end of that, she can decide whether to renew or not. By not taking the formula, she can die a normal death.
In this production, the stage is set with large-back-lit clocks that are running in actual real time, making the audience very aware that time is passing before their eyes and to juxtapose time as mortals spend it against the time experienced by the immortal Marty.
How do living three centuries of life impact one’s character? Does one essentially keep living the same life over and over or does one learn and grow, transformed by new experiences? It is obvious that Emilia Marty does have cumulative memory, and yet she is bored and even cruel in the way she toys with people. She’s living through a very dynamic time in history, in a constantly changing environment, and so the range of human possibilities is always infinite and yet she is disappointed and physical beauty aside, ultimately disappointing. How can this be? Does it have anything to do with the age at which she initially drank the formula–age 37, and how that has impacted her further experiences and decisions? If she could spend eternity at any age, is age 37 ideal? Perhaps drinking it at a younger age, with more of life ahead of her, would have been better. When, at the opera’s close, the young Krista, who is just 19 or 20 (and perhaps a much better prospect than an eternal 37) burns up the formula rather take keep it for herself, we have Janaček’s answer reinforced with striking music.
Performances/tickets: Sung in Czech with English supertitles. Run-time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. Three remaining performances of The Makropulos Case, which closes the San Francisco Opera’s fall season, are scheduled for Saturday, November 20 (8 p.m.), Wednesday, November 24 (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, November 28 (2 p.m.), 2010. Tickets, further information: http://sfopera.com/tickets.asp