ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SF Opera’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”— Jakub Józef Orlinski, fabulous staging, and the rarely-performed Viennese version…all in 80 minutes


Breakdancing Polish countertenor sensation, Jakub Józef Orliński, is Orpheus in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Orpheus and Eurydice” is a story plucked from antiquity, recounting the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician so grief-stricken at his wife’s passing that he braves the underworld to rescue her from death itself.  At SF Opera (San Francisco Opera), Christoph Willibald’s Gluck’s beloved opera, in a new dazzling production directed by Matthew Ozawa, is a not-to-be-missed experience of music, singing, dance, and inventive staging.  

Gluck’s three act opera, last performed at SF Opera 63 years ago, takes place in both the world of the living (Earth) and the world of the dead (Hades), as well as in the space between (Elysium).  It is not set in any specific time period. SF Opera’s new production is Gluck’s rarely-performed original Viennese score, first unveiled in 1762 at Vienna’s Burgtheatre, with libretto by the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, sung in Italian. With Calizabigi’s collaboration, the plot had been reduced to its essentials, with the chorus taking on a larger role, and the solo and choral parts were connected closely with dance. Beforehand, I’d heard a lot about the breakdancing Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, the brain scans in Alexander V. Nichols’ rotating set, and the fluid dancing, but nothing prepared me for how seamlessly these elements all came together to create an experience of pure art.  My review pertains to the performance Friday, November 18, where I sat in the dress circle, looking down on the action.

The opera’s lively overture and curtain opened dramatically on a lone red-robed figure doing spellbinding handstands and leaps— it was Jakub Józef Orliński, the renowned Polish breakdancer and countertenor, as Orpheus, grieving his beloved wife Eurydice and experiencing flashbacks of their life together.  His mesmerizing dancing and pure athleticism immediately set him apart from all other countertenors who have sung this role. As Act I began, he cried out to the Gods to bring Eurydice back. His unexpectedly high, commanding voice took some adjusting to but I soon found his sound intoxicating. His “Che farò senza Euridice?” (“What will I do without Eurydice”) worked its heart-wrenching magic on the entire audience.  As the drama continued to unfold, Orliński became even more captivating, a star whose role seemed much larger than this singular character, someone uniquely charged to invigorate opera.  

Set & Projection designer Alexander V. Nichols’ creative staging added immensely to the production. Colorful floor projections on a rotating circular stage were reminiscent of a pinwheel but these were images of actual neurons and neural pathways from brain scans of trauma patients at USCF Medical Center, an amazing collaborative feat for SF Opera. Ozawa’s thinking was that Orpheus is traversing various phases of grief toward acceptance and his journey through his pain entails navigating memory and his own psyche. This is a rich visual tapestry of that neuro-biologic process. Since no two brains scans are alike, a myriad of beautiful patterns and colors moved before our eyes, at times resembling oceans, fauna, atmospheric turbulence adding greatly to the drama and our enjoyment, especially when viewed from the grand terrace where they could be appreciated in their entirety. One of the most effective visuals was simple and elegant—the thick black jagged line that appeared on the floor and grew like a fissure, at the moment of Eurydice’s death separating the two lovers with Orpheus singing “What will I do without my beloved.”

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus and, in the background, enshrouded in her casket is his dead wife Eurydice.  The casket is evocative of Damien Hirst’s famous 1991 glass-panel display case for his tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński in the title roles of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Zhang and Orlinski’s flowing classically-inspired costumes were designed by Jessica Jahn, a former dancer who is interested in how garments facilitate movement. Photo: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński with dancers in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Choreographer Rena Butler employed six dancers―three doubles each of Orpheus and Eurydice, who were distinguished by costumes in lighter hues of red for
Orpheus and blue for Eurydice. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Soprano Meigui Zhang, as Eurydice, who sang with such power and touching vulnerability in her SFO debut in last season’s “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” again sang her principal role with remarkable passion, at times sounding utterly ethereal and at times on the verge of unraveling. This former Merola program graduate held her own in the dancing scenes with Orliński too, moving fluidly and expressively. In Act III, as Orpheus leads Eurydice through the underworld, she became more and more unhinged with his refusal to look at her and was convincing in her second death. But the most beautiful choreography was in the melding of their voices, creating a memorable layered beauty.

As Amore (Cupid, God of Love), radiant soprano Nicole Heaston, also a Merola program graduate, delighted the audience each time she descended from her ceiling perch in her sunny yellow gown and yards of golden fabric flowing.  Her natural comedic bend was evident when she sang Despina, the maid in SFO’s “Cosi fan tutte” last fall and had everyone in stitches.  Her Act I “Gli sguardi trattieni” was a joy both for her singing and her effervescent sparkle. This is where she tells Orfeo that his suffering will be short-lived because Jove (Jupiter) will allow him to descend into the land of the dead to retrieve Eurydice. Making this a real test, Orfeo must neither look at her, nor explain why looking is forbidden, otherwise he will lose her forever.

Nicole Heaston as Amore (Cupid) in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Music symbolizes represents Orpheus’ emotional journey. Olivier award winning conductor Peter Whelan, music director of Scottish Chamber Orchestra, also a bassoonist, singer, and champion of Baroque historic performance, led the 46 piece reduced SF Opera orchestra in a remarkably vibrant performance of Gluck’s original 1762 Vienna version of the opera.

The SF Opera Chorus sang beautifully, taking on the roles of mourners in Act I, Furies and shrouded lost souls in Act II and joyful onlookers in Act III.  Act II’s harrowing “Chi mai dell’Erebo,” sung by the furies and ghosts who are trying to deny Orpheus’ passage to the underworld, was particularly moving.  The song was ushered in by César Cañón’s harpsichord playing and punctuated by energetic dramatic orchestral runs emulating the dark sounds of the Elysian fields.

Dance also plays a vital role, depicting the memory landscape Orpheus is navigating. Orlinksi and Zhang do all of their own dancing and six dancers dressed in slightly different shades of red or blue are on stage with them acting as doubles, symbolizing Orpheus and Eurydice at different phases of their relationship. Choreographed by Rena Butler, the overall impact seemed to be to highlight Orlinski’s immense talent and the rest followed a course of natural simplicity.  


Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński in the Elysian Fields scene in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The sheer shroud fabric worn by the lost souls in the background (members of the SF Opera chorus) features portraits and writing samples from deceased family members of the opera’s creative team. Photo: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus confronts the Furies (members of SFO’s Chorus) in Act II of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Colorful floor projections on a rotating circular stage by Alexander V. Nichols are of actual neurons and neural pathways from brain scans of patients at USCF Medical Center. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I left the opera house enriched by this burst of creativity and then spent the drive home trying to dredge up what I remembered of the myth of Orpheus and how it was that, in the end of this opera, Orpheus survives and seemingly is reunited with Eurydice. I recalled that Orpheus couldn’t resist Eurydice’s pleas and gave in to the temptation to see his beloved wife again. He looked at her and, in fulfillment of prophecy, Euridyce disappeared forever and Orpheus killed himself.  After researching Gluck, I learned that he adapted the legend, rejecting the harsh ending in his classical sources and instead conformed with the happy ending expected of the modern stage in his day. As Orpheus is about to kill himself, Amore intervenes, disarms him and rewards him for his love and devotion and Eurydice comes to life again, like she’s just woken up from a deep sleep.

Details: 

There are two remaining performances: Saturday, Nov 25, 7:30 pm and Thurs, Dec 1, 7:30 pm.  Run-time = 81 min, with no intermission.  Tickets: Purchase online: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/orpheus-and-eurydice/

Traffic alert: If you are driving in from the North Bay, allow at least 45 min travel/parking time from the Golden Gate Bridge to War Memorial Opera House. For a list of parking garages closest to the opera house, visit https://sfopera.com/plan-your-visit/directions-and-parking/

November 23, 2022 Posted by | Art, Dance, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: A Thrilling New Production of “La Traviata” at SF Opera

Soprano Pretty Yende in her Company debut as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It’s a story as old as time: man falls for beautiful woman with an unsuitable background; his family disapproves and intervenes; and the aftermath is tragic, especially when the woman dies before wrongs can be righted and a beautiful love is thwarted.  Meddling, lies and bad timing; where would opera be without them?  SFO’s (San Francisco Opera’s) new production of Verdi’s beloved “La Traviata,” has all of that and looks at the woman as a model of feminine strength.  The beloved opera, the most performed in the world, opened Friday night to a full house, delighting the audience with its fresh new staging by director Shawna Lucey, production design by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Michael Clark. It introduced a stellar international cast headed by three stars in their Company debuts in the principal roles of Violetta, Alfredo and Germont. The music under new Music Director Eun Sun Kim was enthralling as was the singing from SFO’s opera chorus. This is a brand new production, the first in 35 years, and it was built by the Company entirely in the Bay Area. It was high time that this beloved classic be given a fresh face, especially in SFO’s centennial year.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1853 play La Dame aux Camélias (Lady of the Camelias), a fictionalized account of Dumas’ affair with famed Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis who died of tuberculosis at age 23, Verdi’s “La Traviata” (“The Fallen Woman,”) has long been viewed as a cautionary morality tale about the dangers of living outside society’s norms. This Traviata, set in the late 19th century, as envisioned by Shawna Lucey, is a story of self-invention that looks at the courtesan Violetta Valéry, as an empowered feminist, ahead of her time. With steely resolve, Violetta has achieved wealth, fame, social standing.  She leads an independent and sophisticated life on the borders of a high society that denounces and embraces prostitution.  She accepts the price: the long leash that connects her to her rich much older patron, Baron Douphol. As for the emotional toll, she’s long abandoned any hope of true love and has a transactional approach to intimacy.  When young Alfredo Germont professes his total devotion, she is thrown. She allows herself to love and moves to a plush country house with Alfredo for a fresh start, never telling him that she is dying of tuberculosis.  Enter Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, very much the opposite of Violetta, who represents the old-fashioned constricting social norms of the time.  He implores Violetta to break it off with Alfredo, telling her that she will ruin the family’s social standing and deny Alfredo’s sister any chance of a respectable marriage.  Violetta makes the ultimate sacrifice and ends it, becoming a victim of the societal rules she thought she had conquered.  Alfredo is crushed and enraged; he insults Violetta at a party in Paris and then goes away.  When he learns later that it was his own father who masterminded their breakup, he rushes back to find Violetta on her death bed where she dies in his arms.  

Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo and Pretty Yende as Violetta offer a festive champagne toast as they sing their brindisi in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont and Pretty Yende as Violetta in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The pergola of roses surrounding the garden suggests an idyllic Eden, where Violetta and Alfredo lived freely and happily for several months until Germont showed up to demand she break it off with his son. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

From the moment the curtain opened on Act I, a lively party in Violetta’s Parisian apartment, soprano Pretty Yende, the renowned South African bel canto interpreter, was dazzling. Dressed to the nines in her blue satin party dress, she sashayed across the floor, commanding attention and a sound that demanded to be heard.  Her famous duet with Alfredo, the drinking song “Brindisi, Libiamo ne’ lieti caliche che la bellezza infiora,” was full of fun and energy and had the audience swaying and humming.  Their beautiful duet, “Un di, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante…” “One happy day you flashed before me…” was full of vocal gymnastics, which Yende seemed to blossom into as the performance went on. Their voices complimented each other’s exquisitely but they failed to demonstrate there was any real sizzle between them. Yende mesmerized the audience with her rapid-fire emotive “Sempre Libera,” (“Forever free”) a long, grueling test of a soprano’s mettle that she finished off with the customary, albeit briefly-held, E flat. 

Yende’s Act II encounter with Germont, Alfredo’s father, a key moment in the opera, was a high point.  Here, she is pressured into breaking up with Alfredo to save the family’s reputation and to allow Germont’s daughter to marry an appropriate suitor. Yende went from projecting strength, confidence and defiance and then dissolved into a shattered and dis-empowered wreck after agreeing to leave Alfredo.  Her brief aria “Amani Alfredo,” “Love me Alfredo, as much as I love you…” where she emotively poured out her soul was astounding.  Her big Act III goodbye to life aria, “Addio, del passato…” “Farewell to the past, beautiful, happy dreams…” was her most convincing singing of the evening. Coming after she receives a letter from Germont telling her that Alfredo knows about her sacrifice and is returning, she sings this tormented aria as a resigned farewell to a future with Alfredo and as an expression of her belief in the eternal power of love.

Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” set in courtesan Flora’s Parisian salon. Violetta has just lied to him, telling him that she loves Baron Duphol. He snaps and sings out his agony surrounded by the crowd. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

When tenor Jonathan Tetelman took the stage as Alfredo, “total package” was my hit—both him and his beautiful voice. I had a similar reaction years ago to Jonas Kaufmann after hearing him sing at the Met. Tetelman, a tall, dashing Chilean-American, conveyed Alfredo’s tender passion, intense rages and crippling remorse with such authenticity that he threatened to steal some of Pretty Yende’s thunder. He sang beautifully in his Act I duet with Violetta, “Un di, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante,” (“One happy, ethereal day, you flashed before me,”) and was particularly compelling at the beginning of Act II in his “Lunge da lei” and “De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ (‘My passionate spirit’) singing with emotional directness and evoking a warm audience response.  In Act II, when he learns that Violetta has been selling off things to pay for their luxurious lifestyle at the country villa, his “O Mio Remorso! Oh infamia” was painful, heartfelt.  In Act III, when he returns to find Violetta dying, their duets were heart-wrenching.

Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont and Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Italian baritone Simone Piazzola brought lyricism, intensity and tenderness to his SFO debut as Giorgio Germont.  In the ten years since he was on SFO’s stage as a Merola Fellow, he has become known for his moving portrayals in many of Verdi’s works.  He has a strong stage presence, having sung Germont with high praise over 200 times in some 30 productions around the world.  The role comes with its own set of dramatic challenges which are entwined with the music and convey his evolving perspective on Violetta and Alfredo’s relationship.  He struck a quite believable balance between wanting to preserve his family’s honor at all costs and finding that he really cares for Violetta and has misjudged her. His Act II aria “Pura siccome un angelo”(“Pure as an angel…”) sung to Violetta was heartfelt and passionate, reflecting his love of family and his “Di Provenza il mar il suol” (“The sea and soil of Provence”), sung to remind Alfredo of their home in Provence, was aching.  

In the smaller roles, bass Adam Lau was impressive as Dr. Grenvil and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven sang beautifully as Flora.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim guided the SF Opera Orchestra masterfully.  The prelude opened on a somber theme foreshadowing Violetta’s illness and tragic death with very delicate, high strings in a sad melody.  The mood changed as the orchestra bounced energetically through Act I’s pleasure-filled Parisian party atmosphere. The rousing drinking song had the people around me humming and swaying in their seats and the intense outpouring of melody supporting Violetta’s “È strano / Ah, fors’è lui / Sempre libera” paralleled the new intense stirrings of love within her heart.  The violins played exquisitely again in the Prelude to Act III expressing tender hope which is overshadowed by despair.  Kim kept the orchestra moving along at a good clip, slowing things later in the opera as the mood shifts and Violetta’s illness and parental interference cast a dark spell. It will be a pleasure to hear her conduct Verdi in coming seasons.

One of the exciting things about a new production is seeing the creative transformation of a familiar scene—Act II’s party scene at Flora’s apartment was hit and miss.  The set was gorgeous, painted in shades of red and intricately designed with stained glass windows and faux tiles evoking Alhambra and a wall of erotic paintings on display in the background. The evening’s entertainment arrives and a raucous party ensues. The female chorus sings “We are Gypsies” and the male chorus “We are the Matadors from Madrid.”  Double-sided costumes—male on one side and female on the other were a hit with the audience. Less convincing was the a nod to the Marquis’ wild sexual proclivities—a male clad in a pink lace tutu who crawled on the floor imitating a dog.  

Pretty Yende as Violetta in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Flora’s apartment, executed in shades of red with a gallery of erotic art would have been all the rage in certain circles in late 19th century Paris. Throughout the performance, Yende appears in stunning gowns. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Pretty Yende as Violetta and Taylor Raven as Flora with members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus gathering around Violetta in a touching protective gesture to shield, end of Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In the end, it was Violetta’s descent into the throws of death, matched by the pathos of her singing that captivated us to her last breath. A complete surprise came when Violetta read Germont’s letter to her aloud in her spoken voice; hearing Yende’s South African accent felt quite intimate.

Details:

Six remaining performances of “La Traviata” are scheduled: Wednesday/16 (7:30 p.m.), Tuesday/22 (7:30 p.m.), Friday/25 (7:30 p.m.), Sunday/27 (2 p.m.), Wednesday/30 (7:30 p.m.); Saturday/December 3 (7:30 p.m.), 2022.  Sung in Italian with English supertitles.  Run-time: 2 hours, 58 minutes with 2 intermissions.  Tickets and information: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/la-traviata/

Saturday, November 7- 10pm: La Traviata Encounter:   Experience the romance, drama and passion of “La Traviata” in a new and unforgettable way. See Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata (approx. 30 minutes) with South African Soprano Pretty Yende as Violetta and Chilean-American tenor Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo Germont.  Afterwards, enjoy an immersive evening of food, drinks and dancing in the transformed Opera House whose different lobbies will be inspired by scenes in the opera. Food and specially themed specialty cocktails will be available for purchase.  Read ARThound’s coverage here

November 16, 2022 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Violetta’s world: SF Opera’s La Traviata Encounter—an evening of opera, drinks & sinful soirees, Saturday, November 19

South African Soprano Pretty Yende as Violetta in SFO’s dazzling new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For one night only, experience the romance, drama and passion of Verdi’s beloved opera, “La Traviata,” in a new and unforgettable way. First, listen to the music as the curtain at War memorial Opera House rises on the lavish salon of Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry andAct I of Shawna Lucey’s new SFO production is performed in its entirety (approx. 30 minutes) with full orchestra, chorus and principal cast. South African Soprano Pretty Yende is Violetta and dashing Chilean-American tenor, Jonathan Tetelman, is Alfredo Germont singing the famous drinking song, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” as well as their beautiful duet: “Un dì, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante” (One happy, ethereal day you flashed before me). The SFO chorus will sing “Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora” (The dawn is awakening…). The Act closes with an impassioned display of Violetta’s vocal agility in her impassioned aria, “Sempre libera degg’io trasvolar di gioia in gioia” (It’s strange I shall always be free to fly from adventure to adventure).

Afterwards, the action moves into War Memorial Opera House’s gorgeous lobbies which have hosted opera audiences for decades, that have been transformed for one night only into exclusive party zones offering an immersive evening of food, drinks and dancing. The upper lobbies, recalling Act II, transport you to Violetta’s country Garden of Eden, capturing the feeling of passionate lovers secluded in nature. Interactive activities will round out the essence of heavenly love. The lower levels will tempt you to indulge in the sinful decadence of fellow courtesan Flora’s gambling party, with liquor and treats. It all culminates in a collective tribute to Violetta’s remarkable life with more drinking, dancing, love and lust in a Parisian Day of the Dead celebration for the ages.

Food and Traviata-themed specialty cocktails will be available for purchase, and all lobby experiences run concurrently after Act I until 10 p.m.  Some lobby areas will feature adult content; suggested for guests 21 and older, discretion is advised. Costumes are welcome, but ensure your fabulous look will not impact other guests’ enjoyment of the Act I performance in the theater! 

Details:

Tickets: $39 to $100 except VIP Box-level tickets ($189) which includes an exclusive, complimentary champagne pre-show reception beginning at 6pm, with lobbies opening to all ticket holders at 6:30 pm. Themed drinks and bites will be available for purchase throughout lobbies. The 30 minute performance begins at 7:30 p.m., and lobby experiences will continue until 10 p.m. Tickets and more information can be found at sfopera.com/encounter.

November 15, 2022 Posted by | Dance, Food, Opera | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment