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Italian Maestro, Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, will step down in 2018

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Nicola Luisotti will end his term as music director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season. He delivered the news Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House before the full company of staff, musicians, chorus, dancers and crew.

Announced by SFO General Director David Gockley as the Company’s third music director in 2007, Mr. Luisotti took the position in September 2009, replacing Donald Runnicles 17 year run. Since his Company debut in 2005 leading Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the Tuscan-born maestro has led over 30 SFO productions and concerts to date.  He is beloved by audiences world wide.

“I believe that close to a decade is about the right time to be leading a company,” said Luisotti in a press statement. “I want the company’s general director designate, Matthew Shilvock, to be able to move freely into the future with his ideas, his artistic interests and to take San Francisco Opera into a new direction”

In an interview that appeared on the popular opera blog, Operachic, on January 14, 2010, Luisotti, who had just taken the SFO position, explained his feelings at the time

I’ve nurtured a great love for San Francisco, an almost visceral appreciation.  The first time I arrived here in San Francisco, I had come from Los Angeles where I had just conducted a production of Pagliacci.  After staying a month in Los Angeles, I needed to spend two months in San Francisco for (Verdi’s) la Forza del Destino.  I was tired, and really, I just wanted to go home to my house in Tuscany.  But I think it was totally love at first sight when I saw the city of San Francisco. I was living in an apartment in Pacific Heights, practically with a bay view and one also of the Golden Gate Bridge, and thankfully because of the perfect weather, I was able to enjoy a gorgeous view from one of my very first days there. San Francisco’s Opera House revealed itself as a pure environment for music. The enthusiasm, the unity of the professionals in the house, and the love of the art form can generate extraordinary things. Therefore, I fell in love with the city, with the opera house, with the people, and everything that this place – for me, quite magical – offered.  I asked myself if one day I’d ever be lucky enough to become the Musical Director of an opera house that was so special like this one.  So when David Gockley [SFO’s General Director] proposed the position to me, I didn’t hesitate for a single second. My response was immediate without a doubt whatsoever.  That was the place where with Rita, my wife, I was to spend the next part of my life.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Luisotti will lead this summer’s “Don Carlo” followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with “Andrea Chènier,” a new co-production of Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Shilvock, who succeeds David Gockley as general director on Aug. 1, says he was “deeply saddened” by Luisotti’s decision.

David Gockley said: “I can think of no other person who embodies the love and passion of opera as much as Nicola Luisotti. I’m particularly heartened to know that Nicola will be returning to guest conduct and will continue to maintain his association with the Company. I wish him great success in his future endeavors and know that he will continue to affirm his status as one of the great conductors of his generation.”

Acknowledging the unique artistry of the SFO Orchestra and Chorus, Maestro Luisotti thanked them for their role in the realizing memorable productions of Luisa Miller, the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women), Mefistofele, Lohengrin, Salome, Norma, the trio of Mozart-DaPonte operas, and the Verdi Requiem in a historic combined performance with the Teatro San Carlo of Naples.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening San Francisco Opera’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier and the annual Opera in the Park concert at Golden Gate Park.  Later in the season, Luisotti will lead a new production of Aida and a revival of Rigoletto.  Throughout his tenure at SFO, the maestro has always had a full plate of international appearances too.  This past season, he scored great acclaim for his conducting engagements at Madrid’s Teatro Real, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, London’s Royal Opera House and most recently in Paris for a new production of Rigoletto.

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May 18, 2016 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller” closes with a stand-out performance from tenor Michael Fabiano

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

At San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) Sunday matinee performance of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, all eyes and ears were on tenor Michael Fabiano and rightly so─his Rodolfo was inspired, powerful.  The tall, dashing 30 year-old embodied the aristocrat loved by two women, the son who defies his father and the unwitting pawn in a political intrigue that leads to murder.  How trilling to behold a young singer nail a performance and to find yourself rising to your feet, whopping and whistling for him out of pure joy, knowing in your bones that you have just witnessed one of the great tenors in opera. Fabiano, 30, is the recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Award, the first person in history to win both awards in one year.

Sharing the glory was young soprano Leah Crocetto, in the title role, alum of the Adler and Merola programs, who sang beautifully as well.  Actually it’s a match that’s been in the works for some time─ Crocetto and Fabiano sang Mimi and Rodolfo in SFO’s La Bohème in 2014 but never sang together as they were in separate casts.  Each garnered great reviews.  Fabiano went on to sing Rodolfo at the Metropolitan Opera House in December, garnering global attention there as well as at La Scala and the Glyndebourne Festival.  It was thus no surprise to see a few people in the audience on Sunday who had attended the gala season-opening performance and were back for a final dose of this rare, luscious singing.

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

The 1849 opera, Verdi’s 15th, is based on Schiller’s play “Kabale and Liebe.”  The plot is insanely unrealistic─Luisa Miller, a commoner, is in love with Carlo, who is really Rodolfo, the son of the local Count, Walter.  Luisa’s protective father distrusts Carlo and schemes behind her back to have her marry Wurm, who works for the Count.  When Wurm (whose name translates appropriately as “Worm”) tells the count that his son is in love with a commoner, the Count orders Rodolfo to marry the recently widowed duchess, Federica who is in the good graces of the Imperial Court.  The rest of the opera revolves around political intrigue, deception and heartbreak and culminates in multiple deaths─Wurm by gunshot and Rodolfo and Luisa by poisoning, just after the truth of their abiding love is revealed, but too late as the poison has been drunk.

Soprano Leah Crocetto sang beautifully, consistently hitting the notes this demanding role calls for while evoking the emotional roller coaster that innocent young Luisa is subject to.  She soared in her Act II, aria “Te puniscimi, O Signore” which was pulsing with feeling as she expressed being torn between her love for Rodolfo and her father.  And right after Fabiano brought down the house with his exquisite Act II aria, “Quando le Sere al Placido,” it was as if she too got a boost from the fumes and came out singing with renewed fire.

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa's birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa’s birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk has an intrinsically lush, full voice and her SF Opera debut as the widowed duchess, Federica, was enchanting.  It was particularly amusing when she made her entrance drawn in on an enormous horse statue replete with its clunky pedestal, as if it had been dragged there from a European park.  To dismount she had to be lifted down by another cast member. Her singing was nimble and spot-on, from her Act I aria, “Duchessa Duchessa tu m’appelli,” and duet, “Dall aule raggianti di vano,” with Rodolfo to her Act II recitatives.

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi's

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller, who has also sung the role at Milan’s La Scala, made his SFO debut and was impressive.  Bass baritone Daniel Sumegi sang Count Walter and imbued him with an appropriately dark character.  The great irony of the opera is that the Count, who conspires to entrap Luisa and her father, ultimately ensnares his own beloved son.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sang wonderfully but could have imbued his bland Wurm with even more despicability.  Second year Adler Fellow, soprano Jacqueline Piccolino was impressive as the village girl Laura, whose Act I “Tidesta, Luisa” (sung with the chorus) immediately caught our attention. Her Act III “O Dolce Amica, E Ristorar Non Vuoi,” sung with Lusia and the chorus, again made an impression.

When SFO Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, comes to the podium, and it’s Verdi, one always has the sense that great things are in the pipeline.  It’s amazing how time flies too.  He made his SFO debut in 2005, conducting “La Forza del Destino,” and has been director since 2009.

He started the overture at a healthy clip, as he is prone to do, but, throughout the afternoon, brought the delicacy out in the scoring as well the drama, passion, and color that Verdi infused this score with. The clarinet solo in the overture and horns calls further enlivened the music.  The SFO chorus sang masterfully throughout, starting out as a chorus of simple country folk singing repeating melodies that were expressive and catchy.

The production, a 2000 revival by Francesca Zambello, which I had not seen before, intrigued me, particularly Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous sets.  They included a painted surround backdrop of a dense forest which changed colors, and several very large paintings─ a rustic farmhouse for Miller’s house, an elegant tapestry featuring a hunting scene with leaping hounds for Walter’s castle and, for Act II, a gray honeycomb pattern evoking metal mesh─all suspended from a distracting metal arm that hung over the stage for the duration of the opera.

Dunya Ramicova’s costumes were predictable─the villagers wore peasant costumes; the nobles were elegant in fitted red velvet coats and dresses for the hunt; Rodolfo and Wurm were fitted in green and the count wore an elegant black coat with a white ruffled shirt.  The fitted waists and abundance of fabric in the skirts of Crocetto’s and Semenchuk’s period gowns did nothing to flatter their rounder figures.

Details:  There are no remaining performances of Luisa Miller. For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all but Luisa Miller, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

September 29, 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

Summer at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall—this evening, violinist Sarah Chang and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform with Moscow’s Best, the Russian National Orchestra

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with the Grammy award-winning Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Montanaro at Weill Hall on Tuesday, July16, 2013. Violinist Sarah Cheng also guest solos.

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with the Grammy award-winning Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Montanaro at Weill Hall on Tuesday, July16, 2013. Violinist Sarah Cheng also guest solos.

There’s a special performance at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this evening.  As part of their summer programming, which has a particularly festive bend, GMC is partnering with Napa Valley’s Festival Del Sole in presenting the Russian National Orchestra (RNO), conducted by Carlo Montanaro, with renowned violinist Sarah Chang performing Samuel Barber’s popular Violin Concerto, and sensational pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto No. 5, a rarely-performed gem.  The concerts starts early, at 6:30 p.m., and ample tickets are still available in most areas except the front orchestra, so tickets can be purchased right before the performance at the GMC box office which closes at 4 p.m. and then re-opens at 5:30 p.m.

The Program—

Dmitri Shostakovich / Festive Overture, Op. 96:  Shostakovich wrote this short lively piece in 1954 for a concert held at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.  A victim of Stalin’s suppression, he worked heroically under stifling conditions but was unable to share his music.  Many music historians have posited that piece’s ebullience reflects his relief over Stalin’s departure and his ability to practice his art freely.  It is based it on Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture from 1842, and it features the same lively tempo and style of melody.  The overture was played at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and at the 2009 Nobel Prize concert.

Founded in 1990 by pianist and conductor Mikhail Pietnev, the Russian National Orchestra is described as “a living symbol of the best in Russian art” (Miami Herald) and “as close to perfect as one could hope for” (Classics Today).  The orchestra is unique among leading Russian ensembles in that it is a private institution funded with the support of individuals, corporations and foundations in Russia and worldwide.  The RNO maintains an active international tour schedule, appearing in Europe, Asia and the Americas and its guest artists include Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s beloved Music Director and Renée Fleming, who opens GMC 2nd season on September 15, 2013.  The RNO is the resident orchestra of the Festival de Sole.

Camille Saint-Saëns / Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103:  This concerto is nicknamed “The Egyptian” for two reasons. Saint-Saëns composed it in the temple town of Luxor while on one of his frequent winter vacations to Egypt, and secondly, the music is a synthesis of his far-flung eastern wanderings displaying influences from Javanese and Spanish as well as Middle-eastern music.  While it’s hard to imagine now, in 1872, Saint-Saëns received a large bequest from the estate of the director of the French Post Office, who expressed that a gifted composer should not have to work (as organist of La Madeleine in Paris) to supplement his income.  This bequest, together with income from royalties and performance fees, freed Saint-Saëns indulge his passion for travel.  He conducted in Moscow, London, and the United States and travelled to Egypt, Brazil, Ceylon, and Algiers.  He premiered the piece in 1896 with himself as soloist at a Jubilee Concert commemorating his debut 50 years earlier.

Thibaudet is known for coaxing the most amazing nuances from each work he performs and has recorded over 40 albums.  He has also collaborated on the soundtracks of Oscar-wining and nominated films Atonement and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.   He was just 20 when he was invited to be a guest soloist with the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra and performed the Saint-Saëns concerto that he will be playing this evening.  For a delightful rendition of that performance and Thibaudet’s long-abiding passion for Napa Valley, click here to read L. Pierce Carson’s article in the Napa Valley Register.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 – The Egyptian 

Samuel Barber / Violin Concerto, Op. 14:  Commissioned by Philadelphia soap magnate, Samuel Fels for Russian violinist Iso Briselli, this controversial concerto, completed in 1939, was subsequently rejected by the Russian virtuoso.  Its tragic lyricism is in large part due to its dramatic violin parts which should find their true intense expression under Sarah Chang. Since her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 8, Chang has performed with the greatest orchestras, conductors and accompanists internationally in a career spanning more than two decades.  Her latest recording of the Brahms and Bruch violin concertos (EMI, Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 / Brahms: Violin Concerto, 2009) has been voted one of the top 250 best recordings of all time in Gramophone magazine.  If you’ve never seen Chang perform live before, you’re in for a remarkable experience.  Her intense bow strikes often seem like attacks. Her restless stage presence includes bending backwards, flipping her hair and making anguished facial gestures all while donning a body-hugging evening gown.

Sarah Chang performs Bruch Violin Concerto 3rd Movement

Sarah Chang age 12 masters Paganini’s Violin Concerto

Details:  Ticket purchases can be made online at www.gmc.edu, or over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866.955.6040 or in person at the Box Office which is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and one hour before all performances.

For more information about the Green Music Center, visit www.gmc.edu .

For more information about Festival del Sole, which runs through July 21, 2013 and presents over 60 events featuring the stars of music, dance and theatre, visit www.festivaldelsole.org .

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lovely for the ears and the eyes—Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” is charming in all regards, at San Francisco Opera through July 1, 2013

Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco, left) conspires with the maid Despina (former Adler Fellow, soprano Susannah Biller) to prove to Ferrando and Guglielmo that their two young fiancées are completely fickle and incapable of fidelity, as all women are.  Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco, left) conspires with the maid Despina (former Adler Fellow, soprano Susannah Biller) to prove to Ferrando and Guglielmo that their two young fiancées are completely fickle and incapable of fidelity, as all women are. Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

It’s often said that Così fan tutte is Mozart’s opera score that comes closest to perfection and is Da Ponte’s most challenging libretto.  In José Maria Condemi’s production, directed by John Cox and beautifully-designed by Robert Perdziola, San Francisco Opera has found a delightful winner in its summer line-up.  The music and singing at last Tuesday’s performance were  glorious and the entire cast is youthful and composed of singers just forging their careers….how exciting to experience this opera acted out by young people, as they and their fickle follies were the focus of Mozart’s story.  Set in Belle Époque Monte Carlo in a luxury seaside hotel, with gorgeous sets, this co-production with Opéra Monte-Carlo premiered at SF Opera in 2005 and runs at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2013.  This is the final opera in the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy led by Nicola Luisotti following Le Nozzze di Figaro in 2010 and Don Giovanni in 2011.

This 1790 comedy of innocence and deception is a classic.  Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco), the cynical and worldly friend of two strapping young military officers, Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro) and Guglielmo (bass-baritone Philippe Sly), talks them into betting on the virtue of their sweethearts.  He contends that no woman is capable of fidelity and that if the two young men will do all he asks of them in 24 hours, he will prove it.  The men agree and a fantastic chain of deceit, disguise and desire is set in motion.  Their girlfriends, Fiordiligi (soprano  Ellie Dehn ) and Dorabella (mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch), two sisters, are loyal beyond reproach…until their men leave.   With Despina, the meddling chambermaid, stirring the pot, the women succumb to seduction..but… in the end, it all works itself out.

At last Tuesday’s performance, the clear stand-outs were Merola and Adler alumna, soprano Susannah Biller, as the maid Despina; Italian  bass Marco Vinco as Don Alfonso and Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly as the idealistic Guglielmo.  Not only was their singing exceptional, they had the necessary verve and charisma to carry off their satirical roles.

Susannah Biller’s bright-eyed Despina, the chambermaid who sees life and love for what they really are, was particularly comical as she consoled her mistresses and then coaxed them into betraying their fiancées.  Her Act I aria, “In uomini, in soldati,” was pointed and humorous and followed by a dazzling “Una donna a quindici anni,” in Act II.  Biller literally glows on stage and managed to grab the limelight through the entire performance.  In fall 2013, Biller will create the role of Selena St. George in the Company’s world-premiere presentation of Tobias Picker’s Delores Clairborne.

Cosi 4

After heroic suffering, the two sisters, Dorabella (Mezzo soprano Christel Lötzsch) and Fiordiligi (Soprano Ellie Dehn), share a laugh over the notion of cheating on their two fiancées. Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

Marco Vinco, as Don Alfonso, the driving character in the opera, was most delightful when singing with Biller (Despina), especially when he initially enlisted her in his scheme and slipped her a bribe and explained that his two rich friends needed consoling.  The two were in perfect sync, and while he doesn’t have any major arias, Vinco’s natural charisma and gestures made his every move noteworthy.  Vinco made his SF Opera and U.S. debut as the wild;y entertaining Leoporello in 2011’s Don Giovanni.

First year Adler Fellow, the French-Canadian lyric baritone, Philippe Sly, proved on Tuesday that he has it all—he’s a tall hunk with curly blond hair who happens to be a natural at acting.  His voice is as sweet and distinct as it is powerful.  I was sitting in Orchestra Row H and even at this close distance, I noticed that as soon as he sang, the ladies round me raised their opera glasses to inspect the goods.

Soprano Ellie Dehn, as Fiordiligi, and German mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch, in her U.S. operatic debut as Dorabella, were a bit stiff in their acting but warmed as the evening progressed.  Since a lot of the joy in this opera involves watching the transformations the various characters undergo, the ability to act is as essential as the singing. Ellie Dehn’s lyrical Act II “Per Pietá” (“Have Pity”) had a wonderful resonance in the low notes.  Lötzsch’s Act II aria, “È amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”) was her best of the evening.  Tenor Francesco Demuro was delightful as Ferrando but couldn’t hold a candle next to the more polished Philippe Sly.

As the two men left, and the ladies and Don Alfonso bid them farewell (Act I); their trio, “Soave sia il vento,” one of most moving songs in all of music, did not disappoint.  Suffused with the beauty of the orchestra, their voices melded in rapture. “On your voyage, may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires…”  If he’d done little else in his career than write this three-minute song, Mozart would have been famous…but, for him, it represented just one song in his 600+ works that are accounted for.

From L to R—Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando)and Susannah Biller (Despina) in a scene where Despina disguised as a doctor uses an invention to draw out poison and urges the sisters to nurse their two patients (their fiancées who are disguised as Albanian sailors) back to health.  Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

From L to R—Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando)and Susannah Biller (Despina) in a scene where Despina disguised as a doctor uses an invention to draw out poison and urges the sisters to nurse their two patients (their fiancées who are disguised as Albanian sailors) back to health. Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

The special recitative accompaniment— Luisotti on fortepiano, Giuseppe Finzi on harpsichord, Thalia Moore on cello, and baroque specialist Michael Leopold on theorbo—with a custom sound for each set of characters, courtesy of Luisotti, was quite creative and energetic.  From Row H, I was actually able to see a lot of the finger work entailed in playing these instruments which made it all the more exciting.

Perdziola’s costumes for Fiordiligi and Dorabella were inspired by the costumes of the Ballets Russes as well as by designer Paul Poiret and other WWI-era illustrators.  Executed in pastel shades, some with loads of non-flattering pleats and bold vertical stripes, we can be thankful that era is over.

The gorgeous sets, superbly lit by Christopher Maravich, were more effective.  From the opening scene in the casino of the luxury hotel, to the panoramic seaside with its candy-cane colored striped umbrellas and coastal town in the background,  to the sister’s lavish hotel suite with its lovely Klimt-like paintings adorning the walls, the colors and details (a vase of giant red oriental poppies in the girl’s suite) were magical.  In one scene, when the two men, disguised as Albanians, rowed up the center of the stage on a boat and right into the hotel, the crowd gasped with delight.

Act II: in one of “Cosi’s” most beautiful scenes, Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro) and Guglielmo (bass-baritone Philippe Sly), disguised as two Albanian soldiers, arrive by boat on a moonlit night, to be married to the two sisters.  Cropped image.  Original Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

Act II: in one of “Cosi’s” most beautiful scenes, Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro) and Guglielmo (bass-baritone Philippe Sly), disguised as two Albanian soldiers, arrive by boat on a moonlit night, to be married to the two sisters. Cropped image. Original Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy San Francisco Opera.

Details:  Così Fan Tutte  runs through July 1, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

Remaining Performances: The 4 remaining performances of Così Fan Tutte are June 21 (8 p.m.); June 26 (7:30 p.m.); July 1 (7:30 p.m.) Nicola Luisotti conducts all performances.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. 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 Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

June 21, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Two Italian Dynamos—Nicola Luisotti and pianist Giuseppe Albanese—and the SF Opera Orchestra, kick off SF Opera’s Summer Season at Zellerbach Hall

Nicola Luisott conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

Nicola Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3 in F major”. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro!  Last Friday’s symphonic concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall, a San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances co-production, was everything we’ve come to expect when Luisotti is at the helm of this very talented orchestra—heart-felt passion and mesmerizing music.  It was wonderful to be able to actually see this talented orchestra, which normally resides in the pit during operas, and to place some faces with soloists we’ve come to respect and love.  Last Friday’s program included Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s early piece, “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.

The surprise treat was Giuseppe Albanese, in his West Coast premiere, who not only proved to be un talento enormo on the piano but a curly-haired young Italian heartthrob to boot.  He appeared in bright red shoes, a feat not many guys (apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet!) can successfully pull off ..…he owned it.  It was his smile, sensual verve and engagement with the music and orchestra that melted the audience and led to several standing ovations and a sensational triple encore.   His encore included an uncannily virtuosic rendition of Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2), which he knocked out with playful swagger. I would have sworn there were at least two hands on that keyboard if I hadn’t seen Albanese’s right hand alternately hanging by his side or pressed up expressively against his heart.

The evening opened with Puccini’s “Capriccio sinfonico,” a rarely performed work the composer wrote as a 25-year-old at the conservatory in Milan. The Capriccio was Puccini’s final student work, written to satisfy the requirements for his graduation in July 1883. He hadn’t yet written his first opera (although the work is full of operatic grandeur—and even contains passages that the maestro later used in “La Bohême”).  One of Puccini’s biographers, Julian Budden, has this to say about the Capriccio: “Performed at the annual students’ concert on July 14, it at once alerted the critics to a new voice in Italian music.  Filippi of La perseveranza shed all his reservations of the previous year.  ‘In Puccini,’ he wrote, ‘we have a decisive and rare musical temperament and one which is especially symphonic. There is unity of style, personality, character.  In his Capriccio sinfonico there is a good deal that more experienced composers . . . have not succeeded in doing. . . There are no uncertainties or gropings in the young author. . . The ideas are clear, strong, effective and sustained with much truth.’  (PUCCINI: HIS LIFE AND WORKS by Julian Budden, 2002)

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013.  Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013. Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

The opera orchestra’s performance of this precious archive from Puccini’s repertoire was indeed inspired and so was Luisotti’s conducting, a feat of passion and pure embrace of sound. Luisotti, who at times appeared to be writing in the air with his sweeping gestures of the baton, guided the orchestra into a lush performance, reminding me that it’s hard to beat an Italian conducting an Italian.

Up next was pianist Giuseppe Albanese in Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” a piece that had his curly hair flouncing and his fingers flying as he executed complex crossovers matching blow for blow Luisotti’s passionate baton waving and flying locks.  As both men became one with the music and the orchestra, it was a pleasure to sit back, watch and listen.  Rota has composed four piano concertos but is best known for his film scores, which date back to the early 1940s.  He’s collaborated with Federico Fellini, Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (he received the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather II), King Vidor, René Clément, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo.  Additionally, he composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo.  It’s natural to wonder whether his film and concert music are similar.  The Piano Concerto in C has a strong melody but didn’t evoke any filmic moments for me.   The drama and passion was injected by Albanese who had the audience’s rapt attention throughout.   So much so that, afterwards, he received a long standing ovation and came out for an encore— Denis Zardi Prelude, Op. 6, No. 24—followed by another ovation.  It was his second piece— Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2)—where he delivered the goods, a technically challenging one-handed performance of great beauty and emotional richness. After that, as if egged on by Luisotti behind the curtain to “go for it,” he came out again with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” arranged by Earl Wilde, a familiar piece he played to the hilt while taking every opportunity to lap up the much-deserved limelight.

The evening concluded with Brahams “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90,” which I had never before heard.  All  four of it movements end quietly and its most powerful moments are quite restrained.  Coming on the heels of the robust first half of the concert, this subdued but highly complex piece was a soothing end to the evening.  The third movement started with a wonderfully low and flowing cello passage that was followed later by Kevin Rivard’s tender horn solo.   What a treat to hear this masterpiece for the first time performed with such passion by Luisotti’s orchestra.

Author Barbara Quick, well-known for her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins, has just finished a new historically-accurate novel called “Saving Puccini” and gave ARThound a good deal of insight and perspective on the Puccini performance.

For more information about San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 season, which includes Tales of Hoffman (6/5-7/6/2013), Cosi fan tutte (6/9-7/1/2013), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (6/19-7/7/2013),  click here.

For more information about upcoming performances at Cal Performances, whose next performance is Ojai North! by Mark Morris (6/12-6/15/2013),  click here.

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Chamber Music, Classical Music, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SF Opera starts off the summer with Nicola Luisotti conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a rare symphonic performance, Friday May 16, 2013

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro!  Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro! Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

Exceptional in the pit, the renowned San Francisco Opera Orchestra will get a chance to shine on stage this Friday night at Zellerbach Hall in a rare performance of touchstones of the symphonic repertoire—Puccini, Rota and Brahms.  Whenever Nicola Luisotti, Music Director, San Francisco Opera, conducts, there’s magic.  Bring it on! Tickets just $20

Program:

Puccini     Capriccio Sinfonico

Rota          Piano Concerto in C (with pianist Giuseppe Albanese)

Brahms     Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90

Program Notes click here.

DETAILS: Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall.  Tickets: $20.00.  To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.  As of Thursday, ample tickets in all sections.

Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.

Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.

Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays

May 16, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Puccini’s “Tosca” with Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing Tosca and Massimo Giordano as Cavaradossi at San Francisco Opera—3 remaining performances for Gheorghiu, 4 for Patricia Racette

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An intoxicating beauty, a lecherous villain, boldfaced treachery and murder, topped off by a spectacular suicide: Puccini’s Tosca delivers high drama with a supremely lyrical score that never fails to mesmerize.   San Francisco Opera (SFO) closes its fall season with a marvelous Tosca, conducted by SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti and featuring two renowned casts of principal singers, rotating between 12 performances.  The role of Tosca is split between Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American soprano and former Adler Fellow, Patricia Racette —two very strong but different voices.

When Gheorghiu fell ill last Thursday (opening night) with an intestinal disorder, stand-in soprano Melody Moore—who opened SFO’s 2011 fall season as Susan Rescorla in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Solider—took over after the first intermission and reportedly did a splendid job.  Gheorghiu was back for the Sunday matinee performance and sang magnificently through Act I bringing a sense of playfulness and flirtation to Floria Tosca as well as vulnerability and bravado.  She had a natural chemistry with Italian tenor Massimo Giordano in his SFO debut as Mario Cavaradossi. (He splits the role with third-year Adler Fellow, American tenor Brian Jagde, paired with Racette.)  Her Vissi d’arte, normally a moment for showing off, which requires her to use the range of her voice in full voice, was strained.  She seemed tired, which is understandable after illness.  She still managed to pull off some particularly fine lines and, after the intermission, was back in the driver’s seat for the less demanding Act III.  She sang a particularly passionate duet with Giordano foretelling their future life far away from Rome.  Her death leap from the parapet was rushed with far too little dramatic build-up.  It seemed to parody what I imagined she must have been feeling: “I’m exhausted, let me get this over with.”   She has sung this role splendidly many times and there is no reason to assume that she won’t rise to the occasion in full vocal luster when fully recovered.

In all, the star on Sunday was Italian tenor Giordano and the performance soared from the moment he climbed the scaffold in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and sang “Recondita armonia” while working on his portrait of Mary Magdalene.  As he compares the fair beauty of Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, upon whom the portrait is based, to that of his darker lover, Floria Tosca, he captured the audience.  Giordano was well-matched with Gheorghiu as both are natural actors as well as consummate musicians and from their very first love duet, it was clear they had the chemistry that can ignite a performance.  His voice!  It’s powerful dramatic, impassioned and capable of great tenderness and he delivered them all in spades on Sunday.  His solemn Act III aria “E lucevan le stille” (“And the stars shown”) sung while Cavaradossi waits on the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo for his execution, was fraught with apprehension. The aria was ushered in by a lovely clarinet solo by José González Granero, principal clarinet for the SFO Orchestra who also distinguished himself with a lush solo in last month’s The Capulets and the Montagues.

Italian baritone Roberto Frontali as Baron Scarpia, the evil police chief who is hell bent on using Cavaradossi’s republican sympathies and Tosca’s jealous nature to snare her for himself, sang with a rich voice that was so full of color, that it was hard to see him die. At the end of Act I, he passionately sang of his love for Tosca and his intentions of possessing her while the chorus sang a moving Te Deum while Luisotti expertly guided his orchestra—it was a grand musical moment.  By the end of Act II, Scarpia fell dead, murdered by Tosca in one of the opera’s great dramatic moments. The success of Scarpia rests on being able to transform from being very genial one moment into an instrument of pure evil and depravity the next and Frontali’s singing, much stronger than his acting, certainly conveyed the requisite quixotic charm and hatred. (Frontali splits the role with Mark Delavan, who is paired with Racette).

Directed by former Adler fellow, Jose Maria Condemi, the production features a gorgeous series of tromp-l’oeil sets designed by Thierry Bosquet and inspired by a 1932 SFO production.   The lush period costumes are also by Bosquet.  His gorgeous gowns for Tosca feature exquisite embroidery and sensual bodices which fit the svelt Gheorghiu like a glove.  In her crimson dress for Act II, she is gorgeously aflame…of course, it takes a certain attitude to really wear a dress like that and Gheorghiu’s just the diva to pull it off.

Sunday’s singing was backed up by Luisotti’s passionate conducting of the SFO orchestra and chorus and he drew the mood, musical intensity and emotion requisite for a compelling Tosca from them, clearly delighting the audience every step of the way.  The final two performances will be conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi.

In 2009, Gheorghiu was invited to honor Grace Bumbry during the 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors, in Washington, DC. She performed “Vissi d’arte” in the presence of Barack and Michelle Obama and clearly had a great day—

Details:  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

Remaining Performances: The seven remaining performances of Tosca are November 24 (8 p.m.), November 25 (2 p.m.), November 27 (8 p.m.), November 28 (7:30 p.m.), November 29 (7:30 p.m.), December 1 (8 p.m.) and December 2, 2012 (2 p.m.).  Click here to see cast scheduling information.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online here.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

November 23, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Puccini’s “Tosca” opens Thursday, November, 15, 2012 at San Francisco Opera with two different casts—Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American Patricia Racette will split the lead role of Tosca

Romanian soprano, Angela Gheorghiu (left) and American soprano, Patricia Racette (right) will split the lead role of Tosca, the hot-blooded beauty, who commits murder for the man she loves, and then plunges to her death in SF Opera’s “Tosca,” which runs November 15-December 2, 2012 at SF Opera. Photo: Ken Howard (Gheorghiu) and Scott Suchman (Racette)

An intoxicating beauty, a lecherous villain, boldfaced treachery and murder, topped off by a spectacular suicide: Puccini’s Tosca delivers high drama with a supremely lyrical score that never fails to entertain.   San Francisco Opera (SFO) closes its fall season with what looks to be a marvelous Tosca, conducted by SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti and featuring two renowned casts of principal singers, rotating between 12 performances, as was the case with Rigoletto, which opened SFO’s fall season.  Splitting the role of Tosca, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American soprano and former Adler Fellow, Patricia Racette—two very strong but different voices—promise to enliven the production.   Directed by former Adler fellow, Jose Maria Condemi, the production features a gorgeous series of tromp-l’oeil sets designed by Thierry Bosquet and inspired by a 1932 SFO production.  Also starring are Italian tenor Massimo Giordano, in his SFO debut, and third-year Adler Fellow, American tenor Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi, and Italian baritone Roberto Frontali and Mark Delavan (former Merolini Woton in recent SFO’s 2011 Ring Cycle, as Baron Scarpia. The final two performances will be conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi.

Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu opens the opera on Thursday, singing beside Massimo Giordano as Mario Cavaradossi and Roberto Frontali as baron Scarpia.  Gheorghiu returns to SFO following her highly praised 2008 appearance as Mimi in La Bohème.  Gheorghiu, known for her theatricality and fiery temperament is well suited for Tosca, one of the great diva soprano roles that not only requires powerful singing but convincing acting as well.   For the opera to really succeed, Tosca needs to seduce not only those men on stage but the entire house too.  Gheorghiu has previously sung Tosca at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Deustche Oper Berlin.  She made her SFO debut in 2007 as Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine, a role she reprises this season at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

American dramatic soprano Patricia Racette is up on Friday, singing beside Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi and Mark Delavan as Baron Scarpia.  She is known for her spectacular suicide leap, which Tosca takes from a castle parapet at the end of the opera.  Racette garnered accolades and headlines for the role of Tosca in 2010 when she in stepped in on late notice to make her Met role debut and has since reprised the role at Washington National Opera, the Ravinia Festival and again at the Metropolitan Opera.

Racette also continues her more than 20-year relationship with SFO which she began as a college senior when she won first prize in the Merola Opera Program auditions.  She made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1989 as the voice of the priestess in Aida.  She sang several more roles with SFO while in the Merola program, including Alice Ford in Falstaff, Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Sister Osmina in Suor Angelica, and Freia and Helmwige in The Ring Cycle.  In 1991, she was made an Adler Fellow which led to several more performances at the SFO over the next two years, including Micaëla in Carmen, Dunyasha in War and Peace, the First Lady in The Magic Flute, and Mimì in La bohème.  She most recently appeared at SFO in 2010, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and in 2009 as each of the three heroines in Puccini’s triptych Il Trittico.  She has performed in 29 mainstage productions with the Company.

In SFCV interview with Jason Serinus on 11/6/2012, Racette said “My teacher calls it my ‘glove opera.’  My voice is so very, very happy doing this part. It really likes to function just the way this role does….I love that he (Puccini) gives her (Tosca) these magnificent, soaring passages. I don’t feel like I’m singing when I’m doing it. It feels like completely raw emotion riding on music, as though I’m saying things or screaming things. And that’s what’s so masterfully presented in the score. When she drops into the lower part of her voice, there’s more of a maturity to her. It’s unlike any of Puccini’s other roles.”

This production, which was first conceived by opera impresario and stage director Lotfi Mansouri in 1997, is a re-creation of Armando Agnini’s Tosca production that opened the War Memorial Opera House on October 15, 1932 and featured the acclaimed Italian soprano, Claudia Muzio.  The national anthem and first act of the opera were broadcast nationally and the opera and the house were given accolades.  What better way to kick-off the holiday season than in this historic building with this dramatic and endearing opera.

Jose Maria Condemi’s staging is always interesting and innovative but true to Puccini’s very detailed staging instructions.  For SFO’s June 2009 Tosca production, he was praised for cleverly moving the chorus members/extras on the stage so that they had real presence despite their non-speaking roles.

Masestro Luisotti always delights in his passionate conduciting of the SF Opera Orchestra and promises to be one of the highlights of the this production.

Run time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.

Details:  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

Performances: The twelve performances of Tosca are November 15 (7:30 p.m.), November 16 (8 p.m.), November 18 (2 p.m.), November 20 (8p.m.), November 21 (7:30 p.m.), November 24 (8 p.m.), November 25 (2 p.m.), November 27 (8 p.m.), November 28 (7:30 p.m.), November 29 (7:30 p.m.), December 1 (8 p.m.) and December 2, 2012 (2 p.m.).  Click here to see cast scheduling information.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online here.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

November 14, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment