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

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel”—happily ever after, with adult moments

San Francisco Opera’s new co-production with London’s Royal Opera of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features Heidi Stober (L) as Gretel and Sasha Cooke (R) as Hansel. Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

San Francisco Opera (SFO) has officially kicked off the holiday season with it’s wonderfully staged new co-production of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.”  This family-friendly English-language adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ classic tale follows an impoverished brother and sister who get lost in dense woods and come upon an enticing edible house owned by a witch who lures children in and then roasts and eats them.

Beautiful singing from beloved mezzo Heidi Stober (Gretel), soprano Sasha Cooke (Hansel) and talented supporting singers, along with plush romantic-era music from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under conductor Christopher Franklin are all pure delight.  With Ian Robertson directing the members of the SF Opera Chorus and a special children’s chorus comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus, the experience is both sophisticated and magical.  Running just two hours and 12 minutes, the shortish opera is perfect for families.

Act I of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features mezzo soprano Michaela Martens as Gertrude, the mother (L), and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father (R). Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

What’s unique about this co-production with London’s Royal Opera House by British director and production designer Antony McDonald, is that the original Brothers Grimm story, published in 1812 in Children’s and Household Tales, has been changed significantly.  Librettist Adelheid Wette, Humperidinck’s sister, wrote her version of Hansel and Gretel in 1983 to appeal to German opera audiences while addressing pressing issues of the day—child labor, callus treatment of children, education and gender roles in the household.  In Act I, Hansel and Gretel work right beside their parents, with little time for childhood frivolity.  In the original Grimms’ tale, the father and stepmother are painted as awful characters who deliberately abandon their children.  Wette turned the stepmother into the actual mother, and she doesn’t die in the end.  Instead of being a woodcutter, the father is a broom-maker, a critique of patriarchal authority.

Antony McDonald has further softened many of harsh aspects of the original tale and added new characters.  The father is not portrayed as a drunk; when the mother sends the children into the forest to forage for strawberries and they do not return home; both parents go to look for them.  Even when they are lost and frightened, the children distract themselves with play.

Act II’s “Dream-Pantomime” scene in SFO’s new co-production of “Hansel and Gretel” includes characters from other Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Photo: Cory Weaver

The addition of new characters may come as a  surprise.  In Act II, a delightful Sandman (mezzo Ashley Dixon, Adler Fellow) appears to lull the lost children to sleep.  As the children say their evening prayers and begin to fall asleep, instead of being attended to by angels, several characters from the other Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales make cameo appearances, including Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Nadreau), the Wolf (Sarah Yune), Prince Charming (Michael Bragg), Snow White (Stacey Chien), Rapunzel (Nina Rocco), Rumpelstiltskin (Kay Thornton), Will-o’-the-wisp (Chiharu Shibata).  As the opera’s final act begins, Hansel and Gretel are awoken at dawn by a Dew Fairy (soprano, Natalie Image, Adler Fellow) who sprinkles them with glistening drops from her water can.

Depending on your preference for adhering to the authentic story, these additions will either delight or annoy you.  Compared to the computer-generated creatures that dominate the screens and kids’ attention nowadays, these furry animals and real human characters add quaint charm.  Antony McDonald is a Royal Designer for Industry, a title he was awarded in the UK honoring his decades of experience designing and directing imaginative productions for opera, theater, and ballet.  Recognizing that “Hansel and Gretel” may be a young child’s first experience of opera, he stated he wanted it to be “visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight.”  He has succeeded.

Robert Brubaker as the witch and Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at SFO. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Still, the opera goes to some very dark places.  With all we know about child molesters who pretend to be something they are not to prey upon innocent children, the gender-changing witch (tenor Robert Brubaker) takes on terrifying connotations.  On the other hand, the addition is relevant and timely.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

This performance reunites powerhouses Cooke and Stober who wowed SFO audiences in June when they co-stared in Handel’s baroque masterpiece, Orlando. ( )

Mezzo Sasha Cooke was fabulous and abuzz with youthful energy in the pants role of Hansel.  She had a huge stage presence and sang a number of duets where her warm voice sparkled.  She harmonized wonderfully with soprano Heidi Stober who delivered an energetic and delightful Gretel and dazzled in her demanding soli and duets.

Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Just before last Sunday’s opera began, SFO General director Matthew Shivlock took the stage to announce that mezzo Michaela Martens, cast as Gertrude, the mother, was ill and that first year Adler Fellow, mezzo Mary Evelyn Hangley, would replace her.  Hangley took the ball and ran with it, singing the role with confidence in her surprise SFO debut.  These unexpected moments make live opera so exciting.

Bass baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father, delivered powerful singing and brought requisite intensity to the role, especially when celebrating the boom in broom sales that put food on his impoverished family’s table.  Tenor Robert Brubaker was wonderful as the frightening witch who ultimately is pushed into the oven and roasted.  More sensitive young viewers may react to seeing the witch corpse in Act III.

The opera’s sets masterfully recreate beloved landscapes from storybooks, from the initial show scrim—a blown-up photo of a romantic valley scene, to the quaint cabin kitchen scene, to the ominous wood forest—to the witch’s creepy chocolate house with a huge knife across the roof and a cherry on top.

In Act I and throughout the opera, a large cuckoo clock atop the proscenium has motorized hands which spin round to mark the passage of time.  The actual sound of the cuckoo comes from behind the orchestra pit and is preformed by percussionist Victor Avdienko, playing his custom-made flute-like instrument,“L”Cuckoo,” made out two PVC pipes.  In Act II, a large automated moth and beetle move slowly around the proscenium seemingly encircling the exquisitely shadowed forest, lit by Lucy Carter.

Act III of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Heidi Stober as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel features a witch’s house inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho.  Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

In Act III, the banister of the witch’s house that Gretel breaks off is made on the morning of each performance from dark chocolate that is cast in a mold and baked.  The finished piece is dry brushed with white chocolate to resemble wood.  The house itself was inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In all, “Hansel and Gretel” is very satisfying due to its high entertainment factor and family friendly vibe.  If you do attend, come early to watch the mayhem.  There is something wonderfully energizing about seeing the opera house full of happy children scurrying around in a scavenger hunt.

Family Activities:

Gingerbread Hunts: Children with performance tickets are invited to participate in a gingerbread scavenger hunt that starts in the Opera House lobby before every performance.

Character Meet and Greets: Following the performances on Saturday, Nov. 30 and Sunday, Dec. 1, audience members can meet fairy tale characters in the Opera House lobby.

Exploration workshops for families: “All About Hansel and Gretel” workshops, perfect for children ages 6 and above, explore the opera’s story, music, production design and characters. Saturday, Nov. 30 at 11 am and 12:30 pm at the Wilsey Center for Opera, Veterans Building, 4th floor, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets: $10 per person. Purchase online here.


There are five remaining performances of Hansel and Gretel—Sat, Nov. 23, 7:30 pm; Sat, Nov 30, 2 pm; Sunday, Dec 1, 2 pm; Tues, Dec 3, 7:30 pm; and Sat, Dec 7, 7:30 pm. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Tickets: $26 to $398. Admission for children under 18 is available at 50% off with the purchase of one or more adult tickets in certain sections. Info: (415) 864-3330 or

November 22, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment