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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”─ Soprano Albina Shagimuratova subs as Lucia and is spectacular!

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Tuesday, October 28th like she was born to the role. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Wednesday, October 28th. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

The footnotes for Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova’s fall 2015 season at San Francisco Opera (SFO) might read “The Queen rises,” affirming that the last minute drama that occurs behind the scenes in opera can be as exhilarating as what we see on stage.  Before the curtain rose on Wednesday night’s final performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, SFO’s General Director, David Gockley, unexpectedly appeared on stage to deliver “goods news and bad news.”  Soprano Nadine Sierra , who had been getting rave reviews for her Lucia, was suddenly ill.  (Sierra herself was a late replacement for German soprano Diana Damrau who withdrew unexpectedly in September citing personal reasons.)  The good news was that Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, knew the role of Lucia by heart and had agreed to sub, just hours ago, for Sierra.

Shagimuratova had wowed audiences with her dynamic Queen of the Night in the 2012 world premiere of SFO’s The Magic Flute. She, however, had very recently been ill herself and had been too sick to sing Queen of the Night in last Sunday’s matinee performance of the company’s Magic Flute, which was just two and a half days earlier.  Many of us who are devoted Sierra fans were sad that we would miss her but elated that Shagimuratova, the beloved Queen, had risen from her bed to take on one of opera’s most demanding roles.

Shagimuratova, who most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, did more than seize the moment─she was on fire.  She took us all along with her on Lucia’s tumultuous descent from fragility into madness and executed the famous third act Mad Scene with mesmerizing finesse.  Her co-stars, too, delivered the goods, particularly the dazzling Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and baritone Brian Mulligan as Lucia’s brother, Enrico.  And after Sunday’s performance, we’ll all be watching out for the gorgeous Latvian mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, a second year Adler fellow, whose lovely voice and stunning red hair made the most of her small role as Alisa, Lucia’s handmaid.

Presiding at the podium, Nicola Luisotti brought a stirring and lush performance from the SFO orchestra and chorus that incisively captured Lucia’s emotional fragility and supported the characters’ most passionate moments.  Of the dozen or so Donizetti operas that are considered masterpieces, Lucia is the pinnacle─it contains opera’s most gorgeous and powerful music and abounds with opportunities for vocal embellishment, lush harmonizing and drama.  It’s no wonder that this bel-canto (literally “beautiful singing”) masterpiece has been performed in 23 seasons at SFO. This new SFO production, directed by Michael Cavanagh and designed by Erhard Rom, the team behind SFO’s wonderful Susannah in 2014 and Nixon in China in summer 2012, is sure to become a more frequent staple in SFO’s repertoire.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Act 3’s Mad Scene─  The main reason for Lucia’s enduring popularity is the Act 3’s Mad Scene.  Great Lucias become one with the music to embody a young woman ripped apart by inner demons.  Lucia, mourning her mother’s recent death, has been coerced by her brother Enrico, her closest remaining relative, into an arranged marriage and has been crushed by the loss of her true love, Edgardo.  On their wedding night, she stabs her new husband to death and wanders delirious amongst the wedding guests in a bloody nightdress with her hair a tangled mess.  Shagimuratova’s singing had been so captivating for the first two acts, particularly Act 1’s “Quando rapito in estasi,” which brought me to my feet, we knew we were in for a treat.  Indeed, she left nothing in the tank.  Her interpretation of  “Il dolce suono…Spargi d’amaro pianto” was chilling, embellished with amazing trills and cascades that showcased the power and sheer beauty of her voice in its highest register.  The cadeneza passages, played evocatively by Principal Flute Julie McKenzie from the pit, were very well-coordinated, as if it had been practiced several times.  It rightfully earned an ovation with prolonged whistles and whoops and left me with the impression that, for this Lucia, her final exit was a form of victory over the men who had controlled her in one way or another.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, oozed with such virility and tonal mastery that now I feel compelled to follow his career.  His initial physical encounters with Shagimuratova/Lucia, a new partner, seemed somewhat stiff though, particularly the scene in Act 1where he is comforted by Lucia and lays his lead in her lap but their passion grew more believable as the opera progressed.  His grappling with what he perceives as Lucia’s betrayal was enthralling and in the richly textured “Chi me frena in tal momento” sextet that ends Act II, when he bursts in insisting that he still loves Lucia, he was blazing.  In the finale, the punishing, demanding Wolf-Crag” scene, Beczala gifted us with rapid, jarring shifts in emotion, bel canto at its best.

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

And pitted against him, as Enrico, was powerhouse American baritone Brian Mulligan, fresh from his masterful lead in SFO’s Sweeney Todd.  And much like that deranged barber, his Enrico also acted from sheer desperation─he was aware of his sister Lucia’s desires and her fragility but torn by his need to save the Lammermore line as well as to ensure his own future.  In Act 3’s tour de force showdown between Enrico and Edgardo, both Mulligan and Beczala seemed to be feeding off of each other, singing gloriously and ratcheting up the drama.

Turning heads─ It was impossible to miss the sleekly coiffed redhead mezzo Zanda Švēde, Lucia’s handmaid Alisa.  The tall slim beauty was a vision in Mattie Ullrich’s Max-Mara like costuming  From the moment she sang her Act 1warning to Lucia to break up with Edgardo, her impassioned voice had me.  She was particularly impressive in Act 2’s sextet against much more seasoned singers.  Also making the most of his small role and SFO debut was French bass-baritone  Nicolas Testè as Raimundo, the Chaplan.

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

For this new production, rather than the 17th century hills of Scotland, Michael Cavanaugh’s staging sets Sir Walter Scott’s story in “modern-mythic Scotland, a dystopian near future where the lines are blurred between family, country and corporation.” The sets relied on clean-cut marble slabs which opened and closed in various configurations and a huge stone obelisk center stage to impart a stark cool ambiance that was accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of rolling ocean waves, thunderous skies and hilly Scottish landscapes.

Mattie Ullrich’s costumes ranged from sleek unadorned dresses in charcoal hues to the wedding party’s traditional long full-skirted ball-gowns in jewel tones with intriguing flower headdresses.  The flowers were so large they enforced the association of women as walking flowers, mere stylized objects.  Poor Shagimuratova presumably had to make do with what was available at the last minute─unattractive Victorian-style dresses with lots of gathers around the waist and bodice, the very worse costuming for a slightly round figure.  Her sumptuous voice was all the adornment this beauty needed to make her mark.

Details:  There are no remaining performances of Lucia di Lammermoor.   You can catch Albina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute which has 7 remaining performances and runs through November 20, 2015.  For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

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November 1, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suddenly, so gorgeous, so relevant—San Francisco Opera’s new “Madame Butterfly”—not to be missed, through July 9

Giacomo Puccini described his “Madame Butterfly” as “the most felt and most expressive opera” he ever conceived.” Acclaimed soprano and San Francisco Opera celeb, Patricia Racette, is Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde is Pinkerton in a production featuring vivid video projections by Jun Kaneko, who delighted audiences with his "Magic Flute" in 2012. This co-production with Omaha Opera premiered in 2006 and is at SFO through July 9, 2014. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Giacomo Puccini described his “Madame Butterfly” as “the most felt and most expressive opera” he ever conceived.” Acclaimed soprano and San Francisco Opera celeb, Patricia Racette, is Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde is Pinkerton in a production featuring vivid video projections by Jun Kaneko, who delighted audiences with his “Magic Flute” in 2012. This co-production with Omaha Opera premiered in 2006 and is at SFO through July 9, 2014. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For many opera lovers, the soaring music of Puccini is reason enough to go to a live performance.  San Francisco’s Opera’s (SFO’s ) new “Madame Butterfly,” with its abstract video projections by artist Jun Kaneko, outstanding Cio Cio San/Butterfly by soprano Patricia Racette, and passionate directing by Nicola Luisotti, kept me glued to my seat on Thursday evening.  I’d count it among the top live opera experiences I’ve had.  This was the sixth of eight performances, with the run concluding Wednesday, July 9.  This is Florida-based Leslie Swackhamer’s co-production with SFO and Opera Omaha, which required three years of collaboration with Kaneko and Opera Omaha to pull off.   Freed of its traditional staging, this is a Butterfly unlike anything you’ve seen before—it’s fresh and timeless and while it has Japanese sensibilities, it feels more global than Japanese.  Kaneko dresses the cast in spectacularly colorful kimonos and suits a la Mondrian.  His simple set is an angled walkway that extends from the stage right-rear to left-front with a raised central platform with a sliding screen.  A vivid array of constantly shifting projections accompanies the action and punctuates the exquisite music.  The stage is so expressive, so hypnotic, with these color and pattern changes that it too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the singers and audience in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on.

The story is still set in Nagasaki, Japan where a naïve fifteen year-old local geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Racette), falls in love with a handsome and charismatic American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Brian Jagde).  Their marriage is arranged by the broker, Goro (Julius Ahn), and the contract is clear—the “Japanese marriage” is revocable with one month’s notice.  Butterfly understands it differently though—she unconditionally accepts her suitor’s love as real and eternal and goes so far as to forsake her family and her ancestral Buddhist faith to become a devoted wife and Christian.  He leaves to go back to the States with a promise to return to her.  She trusts him implicitly.  She grows impoverished as she waits with her faithful maid Suzuki (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong).  When he does come back, three years later, it’s with his American wife.

I was once told that co-dependency is a vicious addiction to the potential of things. Patricia Racette, who has performed Cio-Cio-San three times at SFO, has an electrifying command of Butterfly’s psyche.  Her instinct for baring this deluded young’s woman’s soul while singing rapturously all evening long, is a feat that won’t be repeated.  She delivers a Butterfly who is so sumptuous in her optimism and so stubborn in her head-in-the sand denial and passivity that we want to slap her back into reality and save her from the intense pain in the pipeline.

By now, Racette should be a household name amongst Bay Area opera lovers—the Merola/Adler alum started her career with SFO 24 years ago and has sung nearly 30 roles with the company.  This past season, she took on the herculean task of singing four roles in various SFO productions and drew praise across the board.  Just last week, she concluded a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit.  There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production.   This Racette’s second SFO pairing with hunky Merola/Adler tenor Brian Jagde as Pinkerton and their natural ease with each other and on stage chemistry made their  Act 1duet, “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep”) intensely passionate.   Racette’s Act II, “Un bel dì” (“One beautiful day”), the opera’s most famous aria was interrupted by clapping and, once she finished, earned her a loving ovation.   The tension ran unbearably high when she sent her son out of the room so she could kill herself and that final gesture of sacrifice and insane fidelity was something to savor—a shame that it was interrupted by a *$#@ cell phone which rang 5 or 6 times before an usher had the good sense to take the offender by the arm and pull him out of the opera house.

Jun Kaneko’s boldly colorful and pattern changing video projections are so expressive that the stage too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the characters in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on with them.  Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki) in a scene from Act II. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Jun Kaneko’s boldly colorful and pattern changing video projections are so expressive that the stage too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the characters in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on with them. Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki) in a scene from Act II. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Butterfly’s inspiring score is imbued with a mix of east and West and the music flowed almost seamlessly from the SFO Orchestra and chorus under Luisotti’s impassioned conducting.  In an interview in the program, Luisotti estimates that he has conducted the opera over seventy times, including two productions in Japan.  The energetic prelude that leads right into the opening scene had his silver locks flying and the volume energetically revved to the point that Jagde’s first aria, “E soffitto e pareti” (“And ceiling and walls”), was momentarily overpowered.  He pulled in it and the rest went magically.

In critical supporting roles, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and baritone Brian Mulligan as the compassionate American consul offier, Sharpless, were excellent.  DeShung, in her third SFO appearance, exhibited a tremendous vocal range and deep compassion in her role as Butterfly’s faithful servant and confidant.  Her flower duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio…” was bittersweet in its foreshadowing the death about to occur. First year Adler, baritone Efraín Solís, who made his SFO debut as Prince Yamadori, a prospective proper husband for Butterfly, demonstrated he is headed for glory

The projections are game-changers—modernizing everything and encouraging very contemporary and personal associations.  Once Butterfly is abstracted from its own history and the Orientalist tableau from which we traditionally evaluate it, we’re much freer to look at its broad political issue—the plight of women today who are disowned in many cultures because they don’t play by the games established by the patriarchy.

Kaneko’s sets and costumes are influenced by the conventions of classical Japanese theater, such as the use of black-dressed Kuroko which function as running crew to assist with scene changes.  In this vividly colored “Butterfly,” they also played other minor roles not covered by fully costumed singers.  Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Kaneko’s sets and costumes are influenced by the conventions of classical Japanese theater, such as the use of black-dressed Kuroko which function as running crew to assist with scene changes. In this vividly colored “Butterfly,” they also played other minor roles not covered by fully costumed singers. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum:

Before the opera, I took in Gorgeous, the provocative and inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM)—72 artworks in conversation (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide for themselves what ‘gorgeous” means.  It primed me for the visual feast that awaiting me at SFO.  Gorgeous explores attraction, repulsion and desire and certainly engages us in thinking about the Orientalist tableau which is strong part of Butterfly.  One of the ideas behind Gorgeous is to use what we’ve learned from 20th century art about awareness of color and form and apply it to the historical objects from the Asian’s collection.  In the Asian’s Oscher Galley, quietly hanging across from Sally Mann’s provocatively posed portrait of her topless five-year-old daughter, are three silk scrolls by renowned Japanese artist Chobunsai Eishi, “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dated 1798-1829.  These scrolls represent three types of women: a geisha, an elite courtesan and a maiden of a wealthy family.  The courtesan wears a magnificent costume that includes a brightly colored and patterned outer-kimono tied with a heavy ornate sash and has an elaborate hairdo.  In another, a demure geisha (erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised.  In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties but the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye.  Over at SFO, Kaneko’s bold, colorful projections and costuming indicates once again that he’s digested and revisioned and moved on to his own gorgeous.  For me, gorgeous is an unexpected surprise that draws you in and keeps you rapt.  This is “Butterfly” to a T.   (The AAM is open Sunday, July 6, and admission is free.  Gorgeous closes September 14, 2014)

Details: There are two remaining performances of “Madame Butterfly”—Sunday, July 6 at 2 PM and Wednesday, July 9 at 7:30 PM.  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for either performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

 Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there are frequent delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work and wine country tourism.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (Both have a flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights.)

July 5, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment