Geneva Anderson digs into art

Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Italian director Gabriele Lavia talk about Verdi’s opera “Attila,” at San Francisco Opera through July 1, 2012

It isn’t often that I get the chance to chat with Maestro Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, whose passionate conducting and dynamic presence have transformed our opera experience in San Francisco.  I caught up with Maestro Luisotti and Italian theatre and film director, Gabriele Lavia, last Sunday in San Francisco at the opening of Tuscan painter Domenico Monteforte’s exhibition, “Toscana,” at Italian Cultural Institute. Surrounded by Monteforte’s vividly expressive landscapes, some of which were painted on Verdi’s musical scores, Luisotti improvised on the piano while Lavia recited poems from memory by Giacomo Leopardi, Italy’s revered 19th century lyric poet, who wrote almost exclusively about the pain of life.  After the performance, Luisotti and Lavia, longtime friends, agreed to chat informally with me about their collaboration on San Francisco Opera’s Attila, which opened to rave reviews last Tuesday (June 12, 2012).

Co-produced with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and directed by Gabriele Lavia, this new performance of Verdi’s rarely performed opera is set in three different periods of Italy’s history: ancient Rome circa 450 AD; the Viennese occupation of the early 1800’s; and the present day.  Luisotti conducted the production in Milan and conducts it again in San Francisco.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Italian theater and film director Gabriele Lavia discuss their friendship and collaboration on Verdi’s “Attila,” which opened at San Francisco Opera on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. 

Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Italian theater and film director Gabriele Lavia discuss rehearsing Verdi’s “Attila,” which opened at San Francisco Opera on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. 

Gabriele Lavia talks about directing “Attila” in San Francisco and at Italy’s Teatro alla Scala (La Scala)

Details:  San Francisco Opera’s Attila runs for six performances: June 12, June 15, June 20, June 23, June 28, and July 1, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets and information: or call (415) 864-3330.

Casting:  Legendary Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto heads the cast as Attila; Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia is Odabella; baritone and former Adler Fellow Quinn Kelsey sings as Ezio; renowned bass Samuel Ramey is Pope Leo I.

June 17, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Toscana”: Painter Domenico Monteforte’s lyrical homage to his native Tuscany opens Sunday at the Italian Cultural Institute —Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Italian director Gabriele Lavia will speak at Sunday’s reception

Domenico Monteforte paints landscapes on musical scores of Tuscan-born composer Giacomo Puccini. His solo exhibition, “Toscana,” is June 10-August 20, 2012, at the Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco. “In Pine,” mixed media, 40 x 60 cm. Photo: courtesy Domenico Monteforte

One of the best experiences you can have is seeing something familiar in something new.  The magnificent pine and cypress trees that figure prominently in Tuscan painter Domenico Monteforte’s landscapes echo the sculptural oaks that grace the golden rolling hills of our Sonoma.  Monteforte’s solo painting exhibition, Toscana, opens this Sunday, June 10, 2012 and runs through August 20, 2012, at the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.  Toscana features thirty of his recent paintings, including landscapes that lyrically capture the region’s unique and remarkable light and nature, as well as landscapes painted on musical scores of Tuscan-born composer Giacomo Puccini.

“Everything in my work hearkens back from there – from Tuscany,” says Monteforte, whose deep connection to his native countryside makes for profoundly personal works that capture Tuscany’ sublime beauty.  Italian art critic Gianmarco Puntelli has written about Monteforte’s work in a beautiful Italian-English catalogue documenting the exhibition.

Monteforte, a celebrated artist in his native Italy, studied closely with Italian artist Umberto Buscioni at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara, where he was profoundly influenced by artists such as Pontormo, Ennio Morlotti, Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carrà.  Three of Monteforte’s works were purchased by the President of the Italian Senate for the Palazzo Madama Art Gallery and his painting, L’albero della vita (The Tree of Life) was presented to the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, Rome.

Monteforte lives in Forte dei Marmi, a quaint coastal village in the province of Lucca on the Tuscan Riviera.  He cherishes his home base for its tranquility and calm, simultaneously accessible to the cultural landmarks of bigger Italian cities such as Florence and Milan. He maintains two studios.  A smaller space is located inside his gallery, Galleria d’Arte Arena, in the center of Forte dei Marmi, where he exhibits his work along with other artists such as Mark Kostabi, Antonio Possenti, and Walter Lazzaro.   To accommodate large-scale works and cumulative projects, he has a spacious studio in Camaiore, a small town in the province of Lucca.  “It’s ancient place that’s rich in history with a beautiful, eighth century Benedictine Abby.  Life seems to go at an even slower pace than in Forte dei Marmi and I’m able to express myself with total freedom.”

The Italian connection–good friends Gabriele Lavia (Left), Nicola Luisotti, and Domenico Monteforte will all be at the Italian Cultural Institute this Sunday to celebrate the opening of Monteforte’s painting exhibition, “Toscana.” photo: courtesy Domenico Monteforte

Sunday’s Opening Reception: Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Italian theater and film director Gabriele Lavia, both longstanding friends of the artist, will be making an appearance on Sunday night to introduce Monteforte’s exhibition.  Lavia is in San Francisco directing SF Opera’s highly-anticipated Attila, which opens Tuesday, June 12, 2012.  Monteforte’s friendship with San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti is the impetus behind this exhibition in San Francisco.  “Luisotti opened up a marvelous world to me of opera – Puccini, Verdi, Bizet – and now I listen to this great music when I work on large canvases.”

Maestro Luisotti relates, “When I study a score, I try to discern the colors within the music.  When Domenico paints, he strives to interpret the music of life into colors on a canvas. We always say that our work is not so different after all. Domenico is a true magician of color – his Tuscany is like a dream.”  Guests at Sunday’s opening reception will receive a sample of olive oil featuring a label that Monteforte has designed and will be invited to try “pappa al pomodoro”, a hearty tomato-bread soup which Monteforte will have prepared himself for the event.

Details:  Toscana’s opening reception is Sunday, June 10, 2012, 6:30-8 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute, 814 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94133.  Phone 415.788.7142

Admission is free, but space is limited. RSVP required.  To RSVP, click here you will be directed to a registration webpage which will send you a confirmation email.

The Toscana exhibition runs June 10-August 10, 2012, at the Italian Cultural Institute.   For further information on Domenico Monteforte, visit the artist’s website at

June 8, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: San Francisco Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” lacks that vital spark, runs through November 10, 2011

Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, plays Don Giovanni in San Francisco Opera’s new production of the Mozart classic. Photo by Cory Weaver.

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

Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design for SF Opera’s new production of “Don Giovanni” features 22 large 300 pound mirrors in ornate gilded frames that descend dramatically onto a stage that is virtually empty. Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira) in Act I. Photo by Cory Weaver.

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

In “Don Giovanni,” Lucas Meachem plays the lecherous Don Giovanni who tries to woo Zerlina, (Kate Lindsey) who is celebrating her wedding with Masetto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

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. 

Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni), Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Morris Robinson (The Commendatore) at an uncomfortable pre-dawn dinner just before Don Giovanni’s descent to Hell, Act II of “Don Giovanni” at SF Opera through November 10, 2011. Photo by Cory Weaver.

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 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:

October 21, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment