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.


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:

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

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

Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.  Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. “Norma” marks Radvanovsky’s second SFO appearance. She debuted as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2009, which was also Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s debut as SFO Music Director. Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky  as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of  Bellini’s “Norma.”   And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first.   I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result.  Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.

SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn.  Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.)  Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul.  With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.

The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.”  Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”

By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma.  She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color.  The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability.  On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes.  On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy.  And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there.  From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances.  Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition.  She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her.  I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range.  The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Image: Cory Weaver

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Image: Cory Weaver

They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa.  Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring.  Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since.  She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was.  We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday.  The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.

Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height.  We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).

David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.

After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma.  There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton.  SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.

Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission

Details:  There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for 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

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment