Geneva Anderson digs into art

Last minute shuffle for SF Opera’s new Steven King opera, “Dolores Claiborne”—Dolora Zajick withdraws, Patricia Racette steps up

American mezzo Dolora Zajick was slated to sing the title role in Tobias Picker’s new opera “Dolores Claiborne” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera on September 18, 2013.  Photo: Cory Weaver

American mezzo Dolora Zajick was slated to sing the title role in Tobias Picker’s new opera “Dolores Claiborne” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera on September 18, 2013. Photo: Cory Weaver

Late night Monday, San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced that mezzo Dolora Zajick, cast in the title role of Tobias Picker’s new opera Dolores Claiborne, slated to have its world premiere on September 18, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House, had withdrawn from the production due to her ongoing knee problems and the vocal demands of the role.

“The opera proved to be more challenging physically and vocally than I had anticipated and, exacerbated by my knee problems, I feel it is best to withdraw at this point rather than try to push forward. I sincerely wish the cast, the incredible production team and Tobias good luck with the remaining rehearsals and the opening. I will miss being part of it.

American soprano Patricia Racette, who is currently in San Francisco preparing for her dual roles as Marguerite and Elena in Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles, will now assume the Dolores Claiborne assignment for the first four performances—September 18, 22, 25 and 28. Ms. Racette will continue to sing all eight of the regularly scheduled Mephistopheles performances.  Fresh from those SFO performances, the energetic soprano will then perform “Diva on Detour” a cabaret program of Gershwin, Sondheim and Porter at San Francisco’s JCCSF on October 4.

The final two Claiborne performances, on October 1 and 4, will be sung by Catherine Cook, who is role cover, in rehearsals since Aug. 9, and having sung the role in last year’s workshop performances.

The sixth commissioned work by SFO General Director David Gockley, Dolores Claiborne is the first Stephen King novel adapted for the lyric stage. The libretto is by J.D. McClatchy and the opera tells the story of a feisty Maine housewife who kills her husband after learning that he molested their daughter.  The role was memorably played by Katy Bates in the 1995 movie.

David Gockley commented, “We were aware earlier this summer that there was a problem when Dolora cancelled her engagement at the Orange Festival and had hoped her pain and mobility issues would be less problematic here. We’ve been working on how to adjust the Dolores Claiborne staging and production in order to find a middle ground, but it ultimately proved to be too physically demanding. This decision for Dolora to withdraw from the project was mutually agreed upon and she regrets having to bow out at this late date.”

Patricia Racette has just agreed to take over the title role in “Dolores Claiborne.”  She will now sing three roles in two operas this September at San Francisco Opera.  Photo: Cory Weaver

Patricia Racette has just agreed to take over the title role in “Dolores Claiborne.” She will now sing three roles in two operas this September at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Gockley also expressed his gratitude to Racette for stepping in at this late date in the rehearsal period and agreeing to take on this very demanding role, especially while she is also performing in Mephistopheles.  Racette is familiar with Tobias Picker’s works having performed in two of his earlier operas Emmeline and An American Tragedy.

The Dolores Claiborne cast includes soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan, Susannah Biller as Selena St. George, Wayne Tigges as Joe St. George, Greg Fedderly as Detective Thibodeau and Joel Sorensen as Mr. Pease. In his Company debut, conductor George Manahan leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in this two-act opera sung in English.

Details:  Tickets for Dolores Claiborne range from $23 to $385 and may be purchased at , at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, or by phone at (415) 864-3330. Performances—Sept. 18 (7:30 p.m.), Sept. 22 (2 p.m.), Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m.), Sept. 28 (8 p.m.), Oct. 1 (8 p.m.) and Oct. 4 (8 p.m.). Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance for $10 each, cash only. Casting, programs, schedules and ticket prices are subject to change. For further information about Dolores Claiborne and San Francisco Opera’s 2013-14 Season visit

Free Pre-Opera Talks:  Music Educator John Churchill converses with Dolores Claiborne’s Composer Tobias Picker and Librettist J.D. McClatchy before the Sept. 18 performance, and one-on-one with Picker before the performances Sept. 22 through Oct. 4. These 25-minute overviews of the opera are free to ticketholders and take place in the Orchestra section 55 minutes prior to curtain.

August 27, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ensemble Parallèle Presents “The Great Gatsby,” a chamber opera with the swagger and pizzazz of the roaring ‘20’s─at Yerba Buena Center, February 10-12, 2012

Beautiful, haughty, seductive, manipulative, wearied, and indulged to excess….the iconic Daisy Buchanan is played by Soprano Susannah Biller, a former SF Opera Adler Fellow, in Ensemble Parallèle’s new chamber opera, "The Great Gatsby," at Yerba Buena's Novellus Theatre February 10-12, 2012. Photo: courtesy Rapt

Ensemble Parallèle is bringing what promises to be a very  inventive contemporary opera to Yerba Buena Center’s Novellus Theatre this coming Friday-Sunday (February 10-12, 2012):  the world premiere of Jacques Desjardins’ chamber orchestration of composer John Harbison’sThe Great Gatsby.”   Based on the beloved 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to celebrate James Levine’s 25th anniversary as its musical director.  It premiered in 1999, with just one subsequent performance at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, mainly because it called for an orchestra of 120 musicians.  Aware of the need to make Harbison’s important work accessible to performing groups, Ensemble Parallèle, a professional ensemble-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, embraced the project and commissioned its re-orchestration from 120 to 30 musicians, keeping the rich sound of Harbison’s music─ which includes 17 original vernacular pieces─tangos, Charlestons, jazz songs─not your traditional opera to begin with.   The cast includes 11 singers─some very well known in the Bay Area and some newcomers.  This is the first time in ten years that the piece, which opened to mixed reviews at the Met, will be performed on stage and it is Ensemble Parallèle’s most ambitious project to date.  Recognizing music’s power to transform and raise consciousness, this presentation of a classic, with some story enhancements, with should be an exciting event.   If you haven’t been to an opera before, the best thing to do is literally jump in─get tickets and go!  At 2.25 minutes with one intermission, and all in English, this opera—jazzy and emotionally gripping─should be a great introduction for newcomers.   And, if you haven’t been to Yerba Buena Center’s modern Novellus Theatre for a performance, you’re in for a treat.  Unlike San Francisco Opera, these seats are much more user friendly and the site lines are exceptional. 

The cast looks fabulous.  Lyric tenor Marco Panuccio, a newcomer to the Bay Area, is Jay Gatsby.  Panuccio portrayed Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon for Lyric Opera of Chicago.  Soprano Susannah Biller, a Bay Area favorite and former SF Opera Adler Fellow, with a rich and powerful voice, who portrayed Eurydice in Ensemble Parallèle’s spring 2011 production of Philip Glass’ Orphée, is Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s fixation.  Baritone Jason Detwiler, who played St. Plan in Ensemble Parallèle’s summer 2011 production of Four Saints in Three Acts, is Nick Caraway, the opera’s narrator.  Casting also includes tenor Dan Snyder as Tom Buchanan, Disy’s husband; baritone Bojan Knezevic as the machanic George Wilson; mezzo soprano Erin Neff as his wife Myrtle Wilson and mezzo-soprano Julienne Walker as Jordan Baker.  All come together to present the gripping story—in music─of a very shallow lot of characters who make a tragic mess of their indulgent lives.  The setting is deco and the drama transpires against the colorful backdrop of the roaring ‘20’s, when American society enjoyed great prosperity, endured Prohibition and the dance music of the day was jazz. 

Gatsby marks the fourth major presentation of fully-staged contemporary chamber operas by Ensemble Parallèle’s duo–Artistic Director/Conductor Nicole Paiement and Stage Director and Production Designer Brian Staufenbiel.  Gatsby follows last year’s Orphée by Philip Glass, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 2010 and Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar in 2007–all to acclaim from audiences and critics.  Last August, in conjunction with SFMOMA’s fabulous The Steins Collect, Ensemble Parallèle presented a critically acclaimed production of the rarely performed Four Saints in Three Acts by composer Virgil Thompson and librettist Gertrude Stein. (Read ARThound’s coverage here.)

Paiement founded Ensemble Parallèle in 1994 to perform new music and to collaborate with various artists such as dancers, choreographers, and visual and multimedia artists— as the Ensemble’s name suggests, in parallel.  These collaborations have allowed Ensemble Parallèle to reach a wider-ranging and younger audience.  In 2007 Ensemble Parallèle began to focus exclusively on contemporary chamber opera, producing works with vitality, edge, and appeal, so important in world of opera.

Gatsby Insights at 7:15 PM, prior to each performance

Run-time: 2.25 hours with one intermission

Sung in English/English Supertitles

Details:  All performances are held at Novellus Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, 94103

Friday, February 10, 2012
 – 8:00 PM
Saturday, February 11, 2012 – 8:00 PM
Sunday, February 12, 2012 – 
2:00 PM

Tickets are $35 to $85 and are on sale at the YBCA Box Office.  Call 415-978-2787 or order online at:

A Fitzgerald gem to ponder:  

I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.

It was seven o’clock when we got into the coupe with him and started for Long Island. Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead. Human sympathy has its limits, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.  But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.  As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.

So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight. (Nick,  The Great Gatsby, Chapter 7, pp 307-309)

February 5, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen”─two mezzos, Kendall Gladen and Anita Rachvelishvili, will there be any heat?

Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, a former Adler Fellow, plays Carmen and Thiago Arancam is Don Jose in San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen” which runs through December 4, 2011 at War Memorial Opera House. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera

Last Sunday afternoon’s opening of Bizet’s Carmen at San Francisco Opera brought high hopes with mezzo soprano Kendall Gladen as Carmen, a role the former Adler Fellow has played to great acclaim at leading opera houses.  The blasé performance was buoyed immensely by Nicola Luisotti’s passionate conducting─rousing, brisk, clear, fresh and attenuated with marvelous aplomb─but when the conductor generates more heat than the lead singer, and the two leading men─ Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam (as army corporal Don José) and Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot (as bullfighter Escamillo)─were not hitting their strides, one can only hope that mezzo number two, Anita Rachvelishvili (rotch-vell-esh-VEEL-ee), who steps in this week, will bring some fire to the stage.  

Aside from Luisotti’s marvelous conducting, the vocal highpoints were the children’s chorus and the San Francisco Opera chorus, both singing very well.  Soprano Sara Gartland, a current Adler Fellow, was touching as Micaëla, especially in her moving Act I duet with Don José though her voice at times seemed almost too powerful for the role.  Carmen’s sidekicks Susannah Biller as Frasquita and Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédès also added some pizzazz.  Wayne Tigges as Zuniga, and Timothy Mix as La Dancaïre and Daniel Montenegro as Le Remendado sang their minor roles with aplomb and proficiency.  José Maria Condemi’s restaging of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 production was also effective.  The handsome sets were designed in sumptuous earthen hues evoking 19th century Seville and provided an excellent backdrop for the red-hot passion that should have unfolded onstage.  Next week, another mezzo-soprano, Tbilisi-born Anita Rachvelishvili, also experienced in the role and very much looking the part, steps forward as Carmen.  Let’s hope she brings some fire to our beloved aria, “Habanera,” and makes that flower she tosses at Don José in Act I wilt, as should he.   Carmen is all about seduction–through music, voice, and dance and bodies exuding and responding to passion.  If we aren’t seduced, it’s just not Carmen.  

Details: Carmen is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  There are eight remaining performances:  Tuesday, 11/15/2011, at 8 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Thursday, 11/17/2011, at 7:30 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Sunday, 11/20/2011, at 2 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Wednesday, 11/23/2011, at 7:30 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Saturday, 11/26/2011, at 8 p.m; Tuesday, 11/29/2011, at 7:30 p.m; Friday December 2, 2011.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information:

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SF Opera’s Marin Opera Guild hosts its annual Champagne Gala this Sunday, August 7, 2011, at San Domenico Music Conservatory in San Anselmo

San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows will perform this Sunday at the San Domenico Music Conservatory hosted by the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild. Photo: courtesy SF Opera

The Marin Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild is hosting its 29th Annual Champagne Gala this Sunday, August 7, 2011, at the San Domenico Music Conservatory in San Anselmo.  The fundraiser will feature San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows, resident artists of the San Francisco Opera Company, performing songs from Grand Opera and Broadway Classics.  Special guests Ellen Kerrigan and Baker Peeples will also sing.  The proceeds will benefit the Guild’s Opera a la Carte music education program for Marin County schools and its Opera Previews, featuring renowned musicologists offering an in-depth look into the season’s operas.  After the 2 p.m. performance, guests will be able to mingle with the artists and enjoy champagne and savory hors d’oeuvres in the conservatory’s idyllic setting.  

Current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows: Susannah Biller, soprano; Leah Crocetto, soprano; Sara Gartland, soprano; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano; Ryan Belongie, counter-tenor;  Brian Jagde, tenor; Brian Jagde, tenor; Daniel Montenegro, tenor; Ao Li, baritone; Ryan Kuster, bass-baritone; David Hanlon, coach and accompanist; Tamara Sanikidze, coach and accompanist.

Opera Previews Sponsored by the Marin Chaper of the San Francisco Guild for the 2011-2012 Season:


Mon Aug 29, 2011, 8 p.m. Turandot:      Giacomo Puccini Dr. Timothy Flynn: Olivet College, Assistant Professor of Music, Music Program Director
Thurs Sept 8, 2011, 8 p.m. Heart of a Soldier:      Christopher Theofanidas   Donna DiNovelli Dr.  Mitchell Morris:  Professor of Musicology, UCLA
Mon Sept 19, 2011, 8 p.m. Lucrezia Borgia:   Gaetano Donizetti  Dr. Mary Ann Smart:  Professor of Musicology, U.C. Berkeley 
Mon Oct 10, 2011, 8 p.m. Don Giovanni:   Wolfgang Amadeus  Mozart  Dr. Simon Williams:  Professor & Chair, Theatre & Dance Dept., U.C. Santa Barbara
Mon Oct 24, 2011, 8 p.m. Serse (Xerxes):   George Frideric Handel Dr. Bruce Lamott:  Director, Philharmonia Chorale
Thurs May 31, 2012, 8 p.m. Nixon in China:   John Adams   Dr. Stephen Hinton:  Professor of Music, Stanford University
Mon June 4, 2012 8 p.m. Attila:    Guiseppe Verdi Dr. Alexandra Amati-Camperi Dept Chair, Professor of Music, University of San Francisco

All Opera Previews at held at Villa Marin, 100 Thorndale Drive, San Rafael.  Time: 8 PM lecture; 7:30 PM complimentary tea/coffee and refreshments.  Admission: $10 per lecture or $60 for series.  For information, contact Tenki Davis at 415. 457.1118 or

Details: Champagne Gala begins at 2 p.m. at the San Domenico Music Conservatory, 1500 Butterfield Road, San Anselmo.  Tickets are $50 and can purchased at the event. For further information, contact Anne Zucchi at 415.924.9352, .

August 4, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: San Francisco Opera’s “The Makropulos Case”—long live Karita Mattila! Eternal middle age never looked so good

Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty) and Gerd Grochowski (Jaroslav Prus) in Act 3 of of Janaček’s “The Makropulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera through November 28,2010. Photo: Cory Weaver

Last Wednesday’s opening performance of Janaček’s “The Makropulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera (SFO) was spectacular. With Finnish Soprano Karita Mattila in her debut role as Emilia Marty and Czech BBC Symphony’s chief conductor Jiři Bĕlohlavek also in his debut, leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus; the stage was set for magic—and it was delivered.

What a pleasure to see SFO close an otherwise spotty fall season by nailing it with a highly-creative production of a lesser known Czech opera.   The performance was a co-production with the Finnish National Opera and marked the fourth time “The Makropulos Case” has been performed by the SF Opera, who premiered its first U.S. performance in 1966 with Marie Collier in the title role.  It was last performed here in October 1993, 13 years ago.   Those who follow the San Francisco opera will recall that Janaček is a good omen though.  The November 2001 performance of Janaček’s more popular Jenufa (with soprano Patricia Racette in the title role) also proved to be the stand-out hit in a lackluster fall season.

The evening was all about Karita Mattila—with a voice that seemed more powerful in its higher register than usual and a seductive portrayal of lead character Emilia Marty that was brilliantly comedic, she delivered the goods all night long.  Mattila’s known for her unique mastery of Janaček’s music, having recently sung both Jenufa and Kat’a Kabanova to rave reviews.  She can now add Emilia Marty to her list.   Mattila looks a lot like Cameron Diaz (she’s gorgeous) and has an anti-diva vibe that makes her seem approachable and yet there’s enough allure to keep her elusive.  And then there’s her acting ability—from the very moment she (as Emilia Marty) showed up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague desperate to get the formula and extend her life another 300 years, it was pure and addictive drama.  She toyed with all the men on the stage all night long and with her character as well, evoking a range of alternating emotions that made the 337 year old Emily Marty fascinating, pitiful, despicable and even enviable.   And for a character whose blood is literally going cold as time passes, she made eternal middle age look enviable.  From her first flash of leg in Act 1, to modeling a stunning cream-colored strapless ball gown inspired by Givency in Act 3, to all out posing on the bed in her La Perla undies in the final scene, she showed us her stuff.  Never mind that the entire point of this opera is that eternal life—her character’s version of it— is a boring drag and she wants out, Mattila nailed it, contradictions and all, and drove the audience wild.

While the opera depends most almost exclusively on this lead character, the rest of the cast was also in top form.  Miro Dvorsky as “Berti” (Albert) Gregor delivered a strong tenor and bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski brought a believable fervor to the emotional highs and lows that crafty Baron Jaroslav Prus experiences.  2010 Adler fellow Soprano Susannah Biller was magnificent as the young wide-eyed Krista, an aspiring singer.

Janaček wrote “The Makropulos Case” in 1926, basing it on Karel Čapek’s play.  Its emphasis on lawyers and the drawn-out settlement of an estate makes it an unlikely theme for a riveting opera but there’s a twist: tied in with a missing will, is the formula for eternal life.  Over three hundred years ago, an alchemist, Makropulos, was employed by Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II to concoct a formula for eternal life.  Not trusting Makropulos’ finished product, he forced him to test it on his daughter, Elina, who was 37 was at the time.  When she became seriously ill, Makropulos was imprisoned, but Elina recovered and escaped.   Unbeknownst to all, the formula actually worked.

As the opera opens, Elina has lived 337 years with many identities and names but always with the initials E.M. and has become a legendary opera singer (more than once).  There have been plenty of love affairs too, including one with a wealthy baron, “Pepi,” (Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus) with whom she had an illegitimate son.  When Baron Prus died almost a century earlier, he left his estate in writing to his illegitimate son.  His legal will is missing and along with it the formula because they were stashed in the same envelope.  Elina knows this because she watched Prus seal the envelope. The lost will has sparked a century-long feud between the two branches of the family, Gregor and Prus, over rights to the estate.  When Elina shows up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague, she knows she has to lead the men to the missing will to get her formula.  Like most men she has encountered, they are all too willing to follow her lead.

One of the reasons for this opera’s lasting appeal is the interesting philosophical issue it raises–do we as humans need a limited time horizon to be happy and fulfilled?  As much as she wants the formula, Emilia Marty is disappointed with eternal life.  Were we in her shoes, would we feel the same way?  Marty actually has a form of eternal life that offers a lot of choice—it’s temporary but renewable. Granted, she had no initial choice in the matter—she was forced to drink the formula—but with each dose she gets another 300 years and, at the end of that, she can decide whether to renew or not.  By not taking the formula, she can die a normal death.

In this production, the stage is set with large-back-lit clocks that are running in actual real time, making the audience very aware that time is passing before their eyes and to juxtapose time as mortals spend it against the time experienced by the immortal Marty.

How do living three centuries of life impact one’s character?  Does one essentially keep living the same life over and over or does one learn and grow, transformed by new experiences?  It is obvious that Emilia Marty does have cumulative memory, and yet she is bored and even cruel in the way she toys with people.  She’s living through a very dynamic time in history, in a constantly changing environment, and so the range of human possibilities is always infinite and yet she is disappointed and physical beauty aside, ultimately disappointing.  How can this be?  Does it have anything to do with the age at which she initially drank the formula–age 37, and how that has impacted her further experiences and decisions?  If she could spend eternity at any age, is age 37 ideal?  Perhaps drinking it at a younger age, with more of life ahead of her, would have been better.  When, at the opera’s close, the young Krista, who is just 19 or 20 (and perhaps a much better prospect than an eternal 37) burns up the formula rather take keep it for herself, we have Janaček’s answer  reinforced with striking music.

Performances/tickets:   Sung in Czech with English supertitles. Run-time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.  Three remaining performances of The Makropulos Case, which closes the San Francisco Opera’s fall season, are scheduled for Saturday, November 20 (8 p.m.), Wednesday, November 24 (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, November 28 (2 p.m.), 2010.   Tickets, further information:





November 19, 2010 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment