A big Verdi week—San Francisco Opera celebrates the composer’s bicentennial in grand style with the “Requiem,” performed by 312 choristers and musicians from Naples and San Francisco, as the magnificent “Falstaff” continues to mesmerize
San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti is preparing to conduct the performance of a lifetime on Friday— Giuseppe Verdi’s choral masterpiece “Messa de Requiem” which will be jointly performed by both his companies—San Francisco Opera and Italy’s Teatro di San Carlo of Naples. Talk about an of embarrassment riches! In case you haven’t heard yet, this month marks the bicentennial of the composer’s birth— he was born October 9 or 10, 1813 in the Italian village of Roncole—and the entire world is celebrating. And the Bay Area is not to be outdone. Our silver haired maestro will conduct 312 singers and musicians from both companies in the Requiem Mass at War Memorial Opera House on Friday evening—161 choristers (90 SFO and 71 Teatro di San Carlo (TSC)), 146 orchestra members and four soloists. In the interest of true cultural exchange, Luisotti has interspersed the SFO and TSC choruses so that a SFO chorus member sits by a TSC member.
An exacting combo of fury and fear, punctuated with hammering chords and explosive bass drum bangs and soft, chillingly quiet moments, the Requiem Mass is one of Verdi’s most striking choral works. Just as its music is characterized by wild undulations, its message too moves from the otherworldly to the fire and brimstone of inevitable mortality and judgment and back again, making for a deeply penetrating spiritual experience when performed soulfully. Vocal soloists are soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, tenor Michael Fabiano and Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow. It was Crocetto, a former Adler Fellow, who gave an astounding and emotionally riveting performance as Liù in SF Opera’s Turandot in 2011, working in perfect harmony with Luisotti who seemed to pull every tender ounce of lyricism she had to give. She’ll have plenty of solo time on Friday as well.
The highly-anticipated performance of the Requiem has been sold out for months. SF Opera donors and subscribers and those with Italian cultural connections got first dibs on the tickets, leaving slim pickings for regular attendees. ARThound pounced and was able to purchase some real estate in an outer corner of Row X in the Orchestra, normally nothing to brag about because it’s beneath the dreaded overhang, but cause for celebration in these circumstances.
This unique presentation of the Requiem is offered as part of the worldwide Verdi bicentennial celebration and in recognition of 2013 The Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative held under the auspices of the president of the Italian Republic.
Verdi’s Messa da Requiem premiered in May 1874 in Milan and was composed to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, the celebrated Italian writer and one of the leaders of the Italian Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement. Verdi himself conducted the world premiere of one hundred twenty chorus singers and orchestra of one hundred musicians. The work was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and quickly made the rounds to the world’s leading music capitals where it garnered critical and popular acclaim. Verdi’s Requiem is set in seven movements: Requiem and Kyrie; Dies Irae; Offertorio; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Lux aeterna; and Libera me.
SFO also continues its acclaimed run of Verdi’s comedic opera Falstaff. If you haven’t been to the opera this season, Falstaff is the opera to see—it stars the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, today’s definitive Falstaff, in the lead role, supported by an outstanding cast which includes American contralto Meredith Arwady masterfully singing Dame Quickly. This Lyric Opera of Chicago production, directed by Oliver Tambosi, with scenery and costumes by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, premiered in 1999 but still feels fresh. ARThound was lucky enough to catch last Sunday’s (October 20) matinee, the most delightful SFO performance I’ve attended since the inventive Magic Flute in summer 2012, which showcased the fanciful creativity of visual artist Jun Kaneko.
After being wowed by Bryn Terfel’s intimate recital of British sea poems, lieder by Schumann and Schubert, and Celtic songs at Green Music Center on the 13th, experiencing him sing Falstaff at SFO the following weekend was even more special, as I got a taste of the range of his artistry. His fluid transformation into the fat, lecherous scoundrel Falstaff, is mesmerizing. His rich voice is so powerful that he filled the expansive War Memorial Opera House as easily as he did the much smaller Weill Hall.
Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera, written when he was near 80 and still at his creative peak. His only other comedy had been written some 50 years earlier. Ialstaff is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and parts of Henry IV. In a nutshell, Falstaff, the main figure, is running out of money and looking for a quick solution. He sets his sights on two rich women at once— Alice Ford (Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta) and Meg Page (American mezzo soprano and Adler Fellow Renée Napier)— and writes them both love letters. Of course, he doesn’t fool anyone; the crafty women of Windsor collaborate and out-scheme him and ultimately the “fat Knight” learns his lesson. Along the way, while dressed in his best red finery, he is stuffed in a laundry hamper by the women and dumped out a window into the Thames, a scene which Terfel mines for all its worth.
While all the women are in top form, Meredith Arwady, a former Adler and Merola alumna, grabs the spotlight as Dame Quickly, the pivotal emissary between the women and Falstaff. Aside from a rich and glorious voice, she’s got that magic “it” factor that makes her memorable despite the size of her role. She is on par with Terfel in her contribution to the opera’s magic. Her Act III invitation to Falstaff/Terfel to get to Herme’s Oak, leaves us wanting more from the duo who are delightful together.
Nicola Luisotti’s impassioned conducting is one of the production’s main draws. The characters’ words direct the metre and melody of the ensembles in this masterpiece and orchestra helps tell the story with an array of cheers, sighs, grunts and screams. Last Sunday, Luisotti kept it brisk and energetic and the singers, chorus and orchestra were in perfect sync. There are many musical highpoints, but Kevin Rivard’s penetrating horn call from Box Z—a distant sound that wafts over the audience—adds rich atmosphere to the Act III recreation of Herne’s Oak in moonlit Windsor Forest.
The magnificent singing, music, staging, and costumes make this the perfect Verdi experience. Sung in Italian with English subtitles. (4 remaining performances—Thursday, 10.24 at 7:30 PM; Sunday, 10.27 at 2 PM, Wed 10.30 at 7:30 PM and Saturday, 11.2 at 8 PM (all have OperaVision except Sat 11.2)
Details: The Verdi Requiem is completely sold-out. A limited number of $10 Standing Room tickets go on sale at 11 A.M. day of performance. For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, including Falstaff, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
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