SF Opera: “Made in Sweden” honors Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on the centennial of his birth, November 7, 2011
Swedish tenor Jussi Björling’s flawless vocal technique, silvery beauty of tone, gleaming upper register, and superb interpretive skills made him one of the greatest and most beloved tenors of the twentieth century. The Consulate General of Sweden, in cooperation with San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, will present “Made in Sweden” a special concert to commemorate the extraordinary musical legacy of late Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling (1911-1960), and to mark the centennial of his birth, on Monday, November 7 at 7 p.m., in the Conservatory’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street.
The multi-media program features live vocal performances by Mats Carlsson, a leading tenor of the Swedish Royal Opera and the first recipient of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society Award, established in 2008. Björling expert Bertil Bengtsson will also offer historic recordings and a slide show presentation highlighting some of the greatest performers of the classical Swedish singing tradition, including Björling, Birgit Nilsson and others. Audiences will embark on a fascinating and moving journey through the life of this incomparable artist and Swedish music and cultural history. Special guest Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, will introduce the program. One of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th century, Jussi Björling, who was acclaimed at the world’s major opera houses during his historic career, gave nearly two decades of memorable performances at San Francisco Opera.
Lyric tenor Mats Carlsson will perform folk songs and opera arias accompanied by leading Swedish pianist Love Dervinger. In recent years, Carlsson has established himself as one of the most sought after tenors in Sweden in both opera and concert. He is praised for his shimmering Nordic timbre coupled with an Italianate style. After a recent performance Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, noted that “Carlsson’s crystal clear diction and perfect blend of light and dark timbre of his voice can compare to Set Svanholm and Fritz Wunderlich.”
Bertil Bengtsson is a co-founder of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society, and is a longstanding consultant with the Jussi Björling Museum in the singer’s hometown of Borlange, Sweden. For twenty-five years he has researched the life and career of Jussi Björling as well as other great singers of the past. His international lecture venues include the Smithsonian Institution, Friends of English National Opera, London, and The St. Olav and Kirsten Flagstad Festivals in Norway. He has also produced radio programs and articles about Jussi Björling and other singers.
Tenor Jussi Björling was born in Sweden in 1911. He became a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1930, and two years later began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), Chicago (1937), and London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden (1939). He made his New York Metropolitan Opera debut in 1938 and sang as the leading tenor for the company for the next two decades. Björling made his San Francisco Opera debut in 1940 as Rodolfo in La Bohème. His career with San Francisco Opera spanned from 1940 through 1958, with repertory at the War Memorial Opera House and Company tours to Los Angeles and Sacramento including La Bohème, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Roméo et Juliette, Faust, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Don Carlo, and Rigoletto. Björling’s flawless vocal technique, silvery beauty of tone, gleaming upper register, and superb interpretive skills have made him one of the greatest and most beloved tenors of the twentieth century. He was regarded as the foremost Italian-sounding tenor of his day in the spinto rôles of Puccini and Verdi, and he also excelled in French opera. His tragic, early death in 1960 at age 49 ended a brilliant career that began during the acoustic era of recording and extended to the advent of stereophonic sound.
Jussi Björling (1911-1960) possessed one of the greatest tenor voices of the 20th century. His musical legacy, along with other great performers of the classical Swedish singing tradition, will be celebrated in his centennial year with a combination of vocal performances by Mats Carlsson, leading tenor of the Swedish Royal Opera, and a multi-media presentation by Björling expert Bertil Bengtsson. Audiences will be taken on a fascinating and moving journey through the life of this incomparable artist and Swedish music and cultural history. Special guest Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, will introduce the program.
MUSICAL SELECTIONS: (Mats Carlsson & pianist Love Dervinger)
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) / Saa tag mit hjerte (So take my heart)
W. Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) / När jag för mig själv i mörka skogen går (When I walk by myself in the dark forest)
August Körling (1842-1919) / Aftonstämning (Evening mood)
Ragnar Althén (1883-1961) / Land du välsignade (Thou blessed country)
F. Liszt (1811-1886) / Piano solo: Petrarch Sonnet 104
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) / Jag längtar dig (I long for you)
C.L Sjöberg (1861-1900) / Tonerna (Harmony)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) / “Recondita armonia” from Tosca
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) / “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir d’Amore
F. Chopin (1810-1849) / Piano solo: Ballade No. 4 in F-minor
Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) / “Cielo e mar” from La Gioconda
Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) / ”La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto
TICKETS: $20, available through the San Francisco Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com.
The concert will be November 7, 2011 at 7 p.m. at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street, San Francisco.
Review: San Francisco Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” lacks that vital spark, runs through November 10, 2011
Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni, holds a special place. A fusion of tragic and comic impulses based on the legendary scoundrel Don Juan and set to breathtakingly gorgeous music, it never fails to entertain. A new production of this masterpiece opened at San Francisco Opera last Saturday (October 15, 2011) and while enjoyable enough, it failed to ignite the passions. Inconsistent singing and unconvincing acting were the main culprits. The production is hinged on the all important title role filled by baritone Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, with a rich and glorious voice who has delivered several stunning performances at SF Opera. He was vocally adequate but lacked the commanding presence─charisma, swagger and roguishness ─ to be utterly beguiling and magnetizing, which is essential to the rake’s part. His chemistry with the ladies─Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna, Serena Farnocchia as Donna Elvira and Kate Lindsey as Zerlina─was plain flat, both when he was required to be sexy or violent. He played Don straight, as a cold-hearted jerk, and wore aviator-style sunglasses throughout the performance and a stylish dark leather coat which gave the impression that, while he had wealth and power, he was basically a rich coward in hiding.
Music director Nicola Luisotti, by contrast, was the life of the party, bursting with energy and passion and thoroughly engaged with his orchestra at all times. As magnetizing as he was to watch though, he was not able to elicit the nuanced performance he pulled from his orchestra in Turandot, which opened SF Opera’s fall season. At times on Saturday, the orchestra outpaced the singers. For those who have been watching Maestro Nicola Luisottiwork his magic since he joined SF Opera as its music director in 2009, the choice of three Italians, who all have their U.S. debuts─director Gabriele Lavia, set designer Alessandro Camera, and costume designer Andrea Viotti─ seems evidence of his broadening influence at San Francisco Opera. Despite his reputation in Italy as an acclaimed film
director, Mr. Lavia’s production was not a particularly imaginative or fluid take on this musical masterpiece. He placed the story in traditional period setting and there it decidedly sat with Don Giovanni as a brute. Andrea Viotti’s lush period costumes were executed in restrained hues with the exception of Don Giovanni, who wore a long leather coat and sunglasses.
Most striking was Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design. As the opera opened, 22 large (6’ wide x 16’ tall) dark mirrors in ornate gilded frames descended dramatically onto a stage that was virtually empty stage, save for a few scattered Louis XV style chairs. Coming fresh from Richard Serra’s drawing retrospectiveat SFMOMA, I was struck by how powerfully and elegantly geometric forms can define space. As these mirrors descended, shifted, and settled in at different heights, they impacted the viewer’s sense of
mass and gravity, ushering in a dark and ominous presence, and making for an experience that was as visceral as it was visual. (Click here to read about how these special polycarbonate mirrors were constructed backstage at SF Opera). The program notes indicate that Lavia’s symbolic take on the mirrors–reflecting on the essence of man and witnessing his many sides. That said, the initial brilliance of this grand entrance of the mirrors wore thin when it was repeated in the same fashion a few more times in subsequent acts. Aside from the mirrors, the stage remained quite empty, save for tombstones and mist in the cemetery scene and an elegantly set dinner table in the final scene where Don Giovanni’s feast is interrupted by the Commendatore who ushers his descent to Hell.
Stand-outs: Italian bass Marco Vinco, making his United States debut as Leporello, Don Gioivanni’s discontented servant, who is actually on stage more than any other singer, delivered a thoroughly convincing, endearing and humorous performance. Bass Morris Robinson, also making his SF Opera debut was exceptional in the role of the Commendatore. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay, also debuting at SF Opera, as Zerlina, the young girl who catches Don Giovanni’s eye at her wedding party to Masetto, sang lyrically in her duet “Là ci darem la mano” “There we will be hand in hand “) but will be remembered for the way she suggestively spread her legs on stage.
The epilogue was cut in this Luisotti-selected mix of Vienna and Prague versions of the opera. All told, it is Mozart’s music that shines most in this production.
Performance Dates: Sung in Italian with English supertitles, there are seven remaining performances scheduled for October 21 (8 p.m.), October 23 (2 p.m.), October 26 (7:30 p.m.), October 29 (8 p.m.), November 2 (7:30 p.m.), November 5 (2 p.m.) and November 10 (7:30 p.m.), 2011.
Bruce Lamont Lectures: All performances will feature an informative Opera Talk by educator and chorus director, Bruce Lamott. Talks begin 55 minutes before each performance in the orchestra section of the War Memorial Opera House and are free of charge to patrons with tickets for the corresponding performance.
Details: Tickets are priced from $21 to $330 and may be purchased at www.sfopera.com or through the San Francisco Opera Box Office [301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove Street), or by phone at (415) 864-3330]. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; tickets are $10 each, cash only.
The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, San Francisco. Casting, programs, schedules, and ticket prices are subject to change. For further information: www.sfopera.com.