Geneva Anderson digs into art

A chance to hear the future of opera—delightful, affordable, favorite excerpts from well-known operas—the Merola Grand Finale concert is this Saturday, August 17, 2013

The 2013 Merola Opera Program Fellows on the steps of War Memorial Opera House.  The fellows conclude their intensive summer training program with the Grand Finale Concert on August 17, 2013.  Photo:  Kristen Loken

The 2013 Merola Opera Program Fellows on the steps of War Memorial Opera House. The fellows conclude their intensive summer training program with the Grand Finale Concert on August 17, 2013. Photo: Kristen Loken

Every summer, the Merola Opera Program concludes with its delightful Grand Finale concert, featuring the current year’s Merola fellows singing excerpts from major operas on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, the home of the San Francisco Opera (SFO).   This summer’s concert is Saturday, August 17, at 7:30 PM.   All 23 of the 2013 Merolini will sing and the entire production will be staged by George Cederquist, the 2013 Merola Apprentice Stage Director.  John DeMain, Director of the Madison Symphony and Artistic Director of the Madison Opera, will conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Merolini in a program featuring beloved classics by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Gounod, Handel, Korngold, Massenet, Monteverdi, Offenbach, Purcell, Rossini and Wagner sung in Italian, French, German, and English.  If you, or someone accompanying you, are somewhat new to opera, the 17 selections are a perfect introduction to opera—they are all classics, the excerpts are short and varied and feature gorgeous orchestral music and were chosen by the singers to showcase their unique vocal talents.   And, it goes without saying; the concert is both a launchpad and an opportunity to meet the next generation of opera luminaries, in the formative phases of their careers.  These young Merola singers will go to sing major roles in the world’s leading opera houses.

“The Merola Grand Finale is, for all of us Merolini, one of the highlights of the summer.  It’s our chance to show how much we’ve grown and how much potential we have,” said 2013 Merola Apprentice Stage Director George Cederquist. “My goal is to create a staged concert that is celebratory, beautiful and fluid. This is not the time for highly conceptual work. My aim is to help my singer-colleagues sound great, act great and look great, and I intend to do just that.”  Cederquist, was one of only 10 Americans to receive the 2011-2012 German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the first Stage Director ever to win this prestigious award. Next season, he will be Resident Artist Stage Director at Pittsburgh Opera under the mentorship of General Director Christopher Hahn.

The songs to be performed (but not in the order of performance) and the singers are as follows:

Lohengrin (Wagner)
“Mein lieber Schwann”
Lohengrin: Issachah Savage (tenor)

Lohengrin (Wagner)
“Ortrud! Wo bist du?”
Elsa: Aviva Fortunata (soprano)
Ortrud: Daryl Freedman (mezzo-soprano)

Billy Budd (Britten)
“Claggart, John Claggart, beware!”
Captain Vere: Robert Watson (tenor)
Billy Budd: Alex DeSocio (baritone)
John Claggart: Thomas Richards (bass-baritone)

Manon (Massenet)
“Restons ici … Voyons, Manon … J’ai marqueé l’heure de depart”
Manon: Maria Valdes (soprano)
Des Grieux: Pene Pati (tenor)

Vanessa (Barber)
“Is it still snowing? … Must the winter come so soon? … Do not utter a word”
Erika: Rihab Chaieb (mezzo-soprano)
Vanessa: Linda Barnett (soprano)

Il ritorno d’Ulisse (Monteverdi)
“Dormo ancora?”
Ulisse: Joseph Lattanzi (baritone)

La Cenerentola (Rossini)
“Ma dunque io sono un ex? … Un segreto d’importanza”
Dandini: Efraín Solis (baritone)
Magnifico: John Arnold (bass-baritone)

Ariodante (Handel)
“Vanne pronto, Odoardo … Voli colla sua tromba”
Il Ré: Rhys Lloyd Talbot (bass-baritone)

Luisa Miller (Verdi)
“Il padre tuo … Tu punisicmi, o signore … A brani, a brani, o perfido”
Luisa: Jacqueline Piccolino (soprano)
Wurm: David Weigel (bass-baritone)

Sapho (Gounod)
“Où suis-je? … O ma lyre immortelle”
Sapho: Zanda Švēde (mezzo-soprano)

Die Freischütz (Weber)
“Nein, länger trag’ ich nicht die Qualen … Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen”
Max: Casey Finnigan (tenor)

Ascanio in Alba (Mozart)
“Dal tuo gentil sembiante”
Fauno: Alisa Jordheim (soprano)

La belle Hélène (Offenbach)
“C’est le ciel qui m’envoie”
Hélène: Kate Allen (mezzo-soprano)
Paris: Matthew Newlin (tenor)

Die tote Stadt (Korngold)
“Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”
Fritz: Chris Carr (baritone)

Dido and Aeneas (Purcell)
“Thy hand Belinda … When I am laid in earth”
Dido: Katie Hannigan (mezzo-soprano)

Candide (Bernstein)
“Make our garden grow”
Candide: Pene Pati (tenor)
Cunegonde: Maria Valdes (soprano)
Old Lady: Kate Allen (mezzo-soprano)
Governor: Casey Finnigan (tenor)
Maximillian: Rhys Talbot (bass-baritone)
Pangloss: David Weigel (bass-baritone)
Chorus: tutti Merolini

More about Merola:  Guided by Sheri Greenawald, San Francisco Opera Center Director and internationally acclaimed soprano, the Merola Opera Program is an independent nonprofit organization which operates in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera.  Founded in 1957 and named for San Francisco Opera’s urbane and forward-thinking founder, Gaetano Merola, the Program is recognized as one of the most prestigious operatic training programs in the world. The Merola Opera Program typically receives more than 800 applications for approximately 30 positions. Throughout the summer, the Merola artists participate in master classes and private coachings with opera luminaries and give several public performances.  Participants—who include singers, apprentice coaches and an apprentice stage director—also receive training in operatic repertory, foreign languages, diction, acting and stage movement.  The Merola Opera Program fully underwrites each participant’s travel, housing, coaching and educational expenses, as well as all production costs associated with the summer schedule and a weekly stipend for each participant. Program alumni include Joyce di Donato, Sylvia McNair, Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, Anna Netrebko,Susan Graham, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Jess Thomas, Thomas Hampson, Rolando Villazón, and Patrick Summers.

Details:  The Merola Grand Finale is Saturday, August 17, at 7:30 p.m. at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco (across from City Hall).  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places. Tickets:  $25 to $45. Purchase online here (all Merola events are listed under “Other Productions”) or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Tickets may also be ordered by calling 415-864-3330.   There is a special student ticket rate of $15, but these tickets can only be purchased in person at the Box Office with proper identification. There will also be a reception beginning at 10 p.m. downstairs in the Opera House Café. Each ticket for the reception is an additional $50.

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 20 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Petaluma through Novato due to wine country traffic and road work related to highway expansion. 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)

August 15, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Soprano Renée Fleming is in San Francisco for the next week—there are several chances to hear her at Davies Hall—special recital with Susan Graham next Wednesday, January 16, 2013

America’s regal soprano, Renée Fleming, will perform an all French program, including a new Debussy arrangement, on January 10, 12 and13, and in duo recital with Susan Graham on January 16, 2013, both at Davies Symphony Hall.  Photo: @Decca/Andrew Eccles

America’s regal soprano, Renée Fleming, will perform an all French program, including a new Debussy arrangement, on January 10, 12 and13, and in duo recital with Susan Graham on January 16, 2013, both at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo: @Decca/Andrew Eccles

Lyric soprano Renée Fleming has long captivated audiences with her sumptuous voice, consummate artistry, accessibility, and joie de vivre.  While opera is clearly her sweet spot, you can’t help but admire this Grammy-winning soprano for her sense of experimentation.  She cut her first rock album Dark Hope in 2010 at age 51 and hasn’t slacked off one bit in the classical realm.  In October, she drew tears with her tender “Ave Maria” as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera. She opened her Met career with this challenging role 17 years ago.  In December 2012, she was nominated for a Grammy for “Poèmes,” her visceral album of French works for soprano and orchestra.  Bay Area audiences are in for a special treat this week as Fleming returns to Davies Symphony Hall Thursday, Saturday and Sunday with an all French program of orchestral songs by Debussy and Canteloube, with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS).  And next Wednesday, at Davies, Fleming will perform a duo recital of French works by Debussy, Fauré, and Saint-Saëns with the legendary mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Bradley Moore.  In addition to singing, there’ll be ample opportunity to meet both Fleming and Graham as they sign cd’s following Wednesday’s performance.

MTT & Renée Fleming, January 10, 12, 13, 2013:  Davies Symphony HallMichael Tilson Thomas leads SFS and soprano Renée Fleming in the world premiere of Robin Holloway’s arrangement, commissioned by the SFS, of Debussy’s C’est l’extase. Fleming also performs selections from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne, and the Orchestra performs Debussy’s Jeux and La Mer.  Approximate length: 2 hours

C’est l’extase is Robin Holloway’s  new orchestration of Debussy’s settings of the poems of French 19th century poet Paul Verlaine; the cycle includes the six Debussy titled Ariettes oubliées.  An SFS commission, the work receives its world premiere in these performances. Previously, SFS and MTT have commissioned and premiered three works by composer Robin Holloway, including Clarissa Sequence (1998), the Fourth Concerto for Orchestra (2007), and 2004’s En blanc et noir, an orchestration of a Debussy work for two pianos that the Orchestra performed on tour in the US and Europe.  Holloway taught music at Cambridge University for 32 years, and his students included Judith Weir and Thomas Adès.

Debussy Jeux

Debussy (arr. Robin Holloway) C’est l’extase (Settings of Paul Verlaine) (SFS Commission, world premiere)

Canteloube Selections from Chants d’Auvergne: La Delaïssádo,” Malurous qu’o uno fenno,” “Baïlèro

Debussy La Mer

 Pre-Concert Talk:  Peter Grunberg will give an “Inside Music” talk from the stage one hour prior to each concert. Free to all concert ticket holders; doors open 15 minutes before.

Audio Program Notes: A free audio podcast about Debussy’s La Mer will be downloadable from and from the iTunes store.

Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 2 p.m. 

Mezzo Soprano Susan Graham will perform a selection of French art songs in duo recital with Renée Fleming on January 16, 2013 at Davies symphony Hall.  Part of a month long tour with Fleming, this is Graham’s only Bay Area performance in the 2012-13 season.  Photo: @Dario Acosta

Mezzo Soprano Susan Graham will perform a selection of French art songs in duo recital with Renée Fleming on January 16, 2013 at Davies symphony Hall. Part of a month long tour with Fleming, this is Graham’s only Bay Area performance in the 2012-13 season. Photo: @Dario Acosta

Renée Fleming and Susan Graham, Davies Symphony Hall, Wednesday, January 16, 2012 at 7 p.m  Their pairing in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in 2000 and 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera was kismet.  Since then, whenever Renée Fleming and Susan Graham team up, they create magic.  Davies is the first stop in their new month-long cross country tour and these celebrated all-American divas will perform a light-hearted program of 19th century French song literature.  This is Graham’s only Bay Area performance in the 2012-13 season.   Eight composers, ranging from the romantic Hector Berloiz to the fin-de-siècle Raynaldo Hahn and André Messager, will be featured.  French composers from this period were mesmerized by lure of the exotic as were their audiences and, running through these pieces, you’ll hear references to Spain and even India.  Bradley Moore will accompany on piano.  Approximate length: 2  hours

 Saint-Saëns Pastorale,Viens! Une flute invisible,” and “El desdichado” (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

FauréPiusqu’ici-bas tout âme”, Opus 10, no.1, “Pleurs d’or”, Opus 72, Pavane, Opus 50, and Tarentelle, Opus 10, no.2 (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

Debussy Claire de lune (Mr. Moore)

Debussy Mandoline” “Beau soir” (Ms. Fleming)

O. StrausJe t’aime quand meme” from Trois valses (Ms. Fleming)

Hahn Le Rossignol” “Infidélité” “Fêtes galantes” “Le Printemps” (Ms. Graham)

BerliozLa mort d’Ophélie”, Opus 18, no.2 (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

Messager Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche” from Les p’tites Michu (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

Offenbach Barcarolle from Les contes d’Hoffmann (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

Delibes Duo des fleurs from Lakmé (Ms. Fleming, Ms. Graham)

CD signing:  Meet Renée Fleming and Susan Graham at a CD signing in the Symphony Store following the concert.

More about Susan Graham:  Those who attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD performances—at Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas for Sonoma County—were able to experience Susan Graham in full force last week as Dido in Berlioz’s rarely performed French opera of Trojan War, Les Troyens.  Slam dunk!  Dido calls for every emotion imaginable—from the agonizing disappointment and hurt of Aeneas’ abandonment to palpable moments of shared tenderness, love and respect.  Graham poured forth, taking up the reins held by legendary Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson whose last remarkable performances at the Met in 2003 defined the role. But seeing Graham on screen in a movie theatre is one thing and interacting with her live is another.  This is Graham’s only performance in the Bay Area in 2013 and is not to be missed.  

Susan Graham as Dido in Act V of Berloiz’s Les Toyens, conducted by Fabio Luisi; produced by Francesca Zambello.  2012-13 season.  Video: Metropolitan Opera.  Graham is featured on SFS Media’s 2010 release Mahler Songs with Orchestra, singing selections from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder.  In October 2012, Graham released her first solo album since 2008, a compilation on Onyx titled Virgins, Vixens & Viragos, featuring music by Purcell, Berlioz, and Poulenc, among others.

Getting to Davies : Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall. The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. 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—on weekends, there can be 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 Davies— 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)

Tickets and information: , by phone at (415) 864-6000. Half-price tickets for children 17 and under are available for certain performances.

January 10, 2013 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s our turn: the Bay Area honors “Flicka” with a special retirement tribute December 3, 2011

Opera Superstar Mezzo Soprano and long time Bay Area resident, Frederica von Stade, “Flicka,” is retiring. A special tribute concert celebrating her career will be held Saturday, December 3, 2011. Here, von Stade plays the diva Madeline Mitchell in “Three Decembers,” a chamber opera composed especially for her by Jake Heggie, and performed in 2008 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Photo by Kristen Loken.

For the past year, the beloved opera superstar Frederica von Stade, a long-time Bay Area resident affectionately known as “Flicka,” has been making farewell appearances and the great opera houses and concert halls worldwide, whose stages she has graced for the past 40 years have been paying tribute, one by one.  Now, it’s the Bay Area’s turn.  On Saturday, December 3, 2011, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will join in an unprecedented team effort to celebrate the illustrious life and career of our treasured mezzo, arts advocate, and musical celebrity.  

Eight extraordinary artists and friends of von Stade─and some as of yet unannounced surprise guests─ will lead the special one night only musical tribute, joined by von Stade and accompanied by Jake Heggie, John Churchwell and Bryndon Hassman: Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Susannah Biller, soprano; Zheng Cao, mezzo-soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Samuel Ramey, bass; and Richard Stilwell, baritone.

The concert will feature highlights from von Stade’s expansive performance and recording career, including arias from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; songs by Ravel, Mahler, Poulenc and Berlioz; selections from American musical theater; and contemporary songs by Jake Heggie.  The evening will also feature personal tributes and recollections of working with Ms. von Stade.

An intimate gala reception with the artists in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House will follow the performance, with proceeds supporting University of California Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland.

What’s it like to work with Flicka?  Rauli Garcia, who is the CFO of HGO  (Houston Grand Opera) made his stage debut as a supernumerary in Dead Man Walking earlier this year and his account “What a rush!”was posted on the HGO (Houston Grand Opera) blog on January 31, 2011. 

Frederica von Stade made her debut with San Francisco Opera in 1971 and has sung most of the great roles in opera over her 40 year career. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Opera

Recognized as one of the most beloved musical figures of our time, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade began at the very top, receiving a contract from Sir Rudolf Bing during the Metropolitan Opera auditions and since her debut has enriched classical music for over four decades with appearances in opera, concert and recital.  The first aria in her career was Thomas’s “Connais-tu le pays”.  Von Stade has sung nearly all the great roles with the Met and in 2000, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow.  She made her 1971 San Francisco Opera debut as Sextus (La Clemenza di Tito) with Spring Opera Theater and her main stage debut in 1972 as Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), and has appeared with San Francisco Opera in more than a dozen roles, including Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Countess Geschwitz (Lulu) and the title roles of La Sonnambula, La Cenerentola, and The Merry Widow. She created two roles in world premiere productions by San Francisco Opera: Marquise de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons and Mrs. Patrick de Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; she also created the role of Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers, presented in its West Coast premiere by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances in 2008.

Known as a bel canto specialist, von Stade is also beloved in the French repertoire, including the title role of Offenbach’s La Périchole. She is also a favorite interpreter of the great “trouser” roles, from Strauss’s Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Octavian to Mozart’s Sextus, Idamante (Idomeneo), and Cherubino. Von Stade’s artistry has inspired the revival of neglected works such as Massenet’s Chérubin, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, Rameau’s Dardanus, and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and she has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her vast French orchestral repertoire, including Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Canteloube’s Les Chants d’Auvergne. She is well known to audiences around the world through her numerous featured appearances on television including several PBS specials and “Live from Lincoln Center” telecasts.

Miss von Stade has made over seventy recordings with every major label, including complete operas, aria albums, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and popular crossover albums. Her recordings have garnered six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy’s Premio della Critica Discografica, and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. She has enjoyed the distinction of holding simultaneously the first and second places on national sales charts for Angel/EMI’s Show Boat and Telarc’s The Sound of Music.

Von Stade was appointed as an officer of France’s L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998, France’s highest honor in the Arts, and in 1983 she was honored with an award given at the White House by President Reagan. She holds five honorary doctorates from Yale University, Boston University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which holds a Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice), the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music. 

Details:  Celebrating Frederica von Stade, Saturday, December 3, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA  94102.  Tickets for the concert are $50, $75 and $100.  Tickets for the gala reception, which includes premium seating for the concert, are $500.  Tickets for the concert and gala reception are available at  or the San Francisco Opera Box Office at 301 Van Ness Avenue, or by phone at (415) 864-3330.

November 28, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Handel’s “Xerxes” at San Francisco Opera—a hit!

Susan Graham, left, as Xerxes, and David Daniels, as Arsamenes, in San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's "Xerxes,” through November 19, 2011. Photo: Cory Weaver SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s baroque masterpiece Xerxes is the high point of the company’s fall season to date─one of those rare opera moments where music, singing, acting, and staging all come together to create magic.  Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian), dating to 1738, is an opera bursting with beautiful music and a positively twisted love plot.  The opera is very loosely based on King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is next to nothing in the libretto or music that recalls that setting.  If you haven’t seen a Baroque opera before, this production of Xerxes, which is the most light-hearted of all Handel’s operas, is delightful in all regards.  Nicholas Hytner’s production, directed by Michael Walling, originates from English National Opera 1985 production and was last seen in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.  

On opening day, Principal Guest Conductor/harpsichordist Patrick Summers, who last appeared at SF Opera in September conducting the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, was exceptional as was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.   Summers played his harpsichord for some of the recitatives along with David Kadarauch, principal cellist.  Xerxes is well-known for having been sung originally by a castrato and the role is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor.  Mezzo soprano Susan Graham who specializes in castrati roles was a perfect “Xerxes. ”  She was joined by countertenor David Daniels as “Arsamenes,” soprano Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), soprano Heidi Stober as “Atalanta,” contralto Sonia Prina as “Amastris,” Waynes Tigges as “Ariodates, and Michael Sumuel as “Elviro,” and they all put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives.  Susan Graham, David Daniels, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina sang these roles in Houston and were exceptional together again in San Francisco.

The opera began with a clever and humorous touch:  at the starting overture, the characters ran out on stage, one by one, as a projected placard on the curtain behind them explained to the audience in a single sentence who they are and what their relationship in this love romp is.  King Xerxes is chasing Romidle (his servant Artiodate’s daughter) but she loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who also loves her.  Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also wants Arasmene, in large part to have some of what her sister has.  Amastre, is engaged to Xerxes but he has betrayed her and she returns disguised as man to spy on him.  It’s romantic chaos, not to mention tests of sisterly and brotherly love and rank and loyalty as these characters plot, scheme, align with and betray each other, all hoping to end up with their true love.  In the end, Arsamene and Romilda are wed and Xerxes’ love is unrequited love.  

A scene from Act I of Nicholas Hytner's production of “Xerxes,” directed at SF Opera by Michael Walling. The sets and costumes for this production were designed by David Fielding and the opera is set in London’s elegant Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

The opera’s action has been transported from King Xerxes’ Persia, circa 475 B.C. to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century, which was Handel’s time.  David Fielding’s set is brilliant.  Executed in tones of creme and green, it evokes both the historical period it is referencing and the sophisticated vibe of a Veranda magazine spread.  It includes many artifacts and references to the Middle East─a region considered exotic, fascinating and dangerous in 18th century London.   During this era, England was captivated by the Grand Tour and pleasure gardens like Vauxhall would have displayed all types of artifacts and botanical specimens too.  In this set, you’ll see an enormous winged lion topiary recalling the sculptures of Persepolis and a fascinating model of a famous bridge designed for King Xerxes to span the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) which allowed Xerxes and his Persian army to cross from Asia to Europe and invade Greece in 480 B.C.  What a surprise when the bridge collapses onstage, mirroring an obscure moment in ancient history that aficionados of historian Herodotus have all but memorized.  

Musically, Xerxes is known nowadays mostly for its intoxicating aria “Ombra mai fu,” which is an ode in the form of a song to a tree that Xerxes loved.  Whenever I hear this aria I envision the huge tree from Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2002 video installation “Tooba” (the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur’an) instead of the puny ornamental potted stick tree in this staging.  Despite the tree, the four minute aria was sung vibrantly by Graham but her voice did not project well due to her position on stage.  Throughout the opera, Graham was in top form, particularly when paired in aria with counter-tenor David Daniels. 

Lisette Oropesa (left) and Heidi Stober (right) play sisters Romilda and Atalanta and they both love Arasamenes (Xerxes’ brother). Arasamenes loves Romilda and Xerxes is also infatuated with her but he is engaged to Amastris. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

American sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as “Romilda” were fabulous in both their comedic presence and their hilarious dueling recitative arias expressing their love for Arsamenes were a joy to listen to even in multiple iterations because of the richness of their coloraturas.   Special mention goes to Michael Summel who charmed all in his debut as “Elviro,” Arsamentes’ lumbering servant who dons a dress and bonnet and poses as a flower seller.  

Xerxes runs three hours and forty minutes, with two intermissions, but the time seems to fly. 

Details: Xerxes is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information:  Click to purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm

November 13, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment