Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

Stealthy Soprano Nicole Cabell climbs a sink and balances on a wall in her debut at SF Opera’s “Capulets and Montagues,” through October 19, 2012

Singing on top of a sink means ditching your Christian Lacroix platforms and using those toes to grip. Nicole Cabell is the stealthy Giulietta in Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, “The Capulets and the Montagues,” which opens SF Opera’s fall season. Photo by Cory Weaver.

SF Opera’s fall season opener is Bellini’s 1830 bel canto masterpiece, The Capulets and the Montagues (I Capuleti e i Montecchi)—the doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet, but not Shakespeare’s version.  And in this production, it is Giulietta, the stunning Nicole Cabell, who does all of the work literally.  The poised soprano, in her SF Opera debut, first climbs atop a sink mounted high on a wall and delivers a lush aria and later teeters on a narrow wall and delivers another…all in the name of love.  The object of her affection is opera’s white hot mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, her Romeo.  As this 1830 opera begins, Romeo and Juliet have already met and fallen in love and there isn’t a single uplifting moment for the two young lovers.  Romeo, a Monatgue, is a real rebel and he has killed Giulietta’s brother and is on the verge of war with the Capulets, while his Giulietta (a Capulet) is engaged to her cousin Tebaldo, who is based on the character Tybalt.  Tormented Giulietta, holed up in the Verona palace, refuses Romeo’s numerous longing pleas to run away with him, offering the excuse that she cannot desert her father.  It’s only in death that the lovers are joined.  In fact this isn’t much of a love story at all—it’s more a sad commentary on being caught up in the fervor of war and the vulnerability of first love.  Bellini’s beautiful music, composed when he was just 29, and played with affecting beauty by the SF Opera Orchestra, expresses deep tenderness and pathos in the two lovers’ passionate solos and contains bloodthirsty choral parts, meant to drive home the unstoppable momentum of the war machine itself.

SF Opera opens its fall season with Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, “The Capulets and the Montagues” (“I Capuleti e i Montecchi”), the story of Romeo and Juliet sans Shakespeare. Joyce DiDonato (left) is Romeo and Nicole Cabell is Giulietta. Photo by Cory Weaver.

This Bavarian State Opera and San Francisco Opera co-production, directed by Vincent Boussard, had its world premiere at the Nationaltheatre in Munich in March 2011.  It features a sparse but confounding set design by Vincent Lemaire.  Minimalistic palace walls are illuminated with lovely Lascaux-like primitive drawings of running horses, the beauty of which is illuminated by Guido Levi’s skillful lighting but confounded by two dozen saddles awkwardly hanging down like pendant lamps over the Capulets.  These saddles, meant to remind us that battle is eminent, are much like the huge descending mirrors in Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design for SF Opera’s 2011 Don Giovanni—they get very old very fast. The set also has an elegant shiny black floor which occasionally squeaked.  And then there’s the sink mounted high on one of the walls, a fixture that plays a heightened role as a platform for one of Cabell’s arias and seemed to work beautifully with minimalistic aspects of the set design.  Most confounding, to the point of annoying, was the interruption of the music and flow twice, both Act I and Act II, for changes in scenery.

The stylish costumes by Christian Lacroix, known for his use of vibant shades and textures, infused a palpabale visual energy into the angst-ridden vibe of the opera.  While it isn’t widely known outside the fashion world, Lacroix’s fashion house went into bankuptcy in 2009 and he subsequently lost the rights to design under his own name, so these gorgeous gowns, which look exceptional on the lythe bodied Cabell and supernunneries, are part of an bygone era of decadent couture that carries the name Chrstian Lacroix. (Now Lacroix, designing under the name “Monsieur C. Lacroix”, collaborates with the hihg-end Spanish chain, Desigual, known for using a kaleidoscope of colours.) The humorous Act II opening of the opera includes a scene that many men may find baffling but most women instinctively relate to—supernumeraries in confection-colored elegant Lacroix gowns slowly and somewhat noisily parade up steep metal bleachers in outrageously high Lacroix stilettos.  Just as the young lovers are hostage to doomed love, women are bewitched by stylish but impossibly cruel shoes.

What works magically is the singing and Cabell and DiDonato are very heart and soul of it.  Each is in top form, but the meshing of their voices, its exquisite tenderness, is what defines this production.   Cabell’s SF Opera debut will be long remembered. Her singing grew more sublime as the evening progressed, exemplifying what makes the bel canto repertory work: beautiful sound creatively embellished, driving home the emotion.  Her Act I aria, “Oh quante volte,” in which she longs for Romeo to return to her, was deeply melancholic.  And her acting—soulful, demented—delivered pathos in doses befitting a torn young woman.

From the minute she walked on stage, Joyce DiDonato, a former Merola participant, owned this trousers role.  She delivered an impassioned, idealistic, and highly impulsive young Romeo with an intoxicating sensuality and her expressive mezzo voice seemed capable of winning over every heart but hesitant Giulietta’s.

Here, Joyce DiDonato sings Romeo’s Act 1 aria from The Capulets and the Montagues (Paris, 2008).  Romeo has entered the palace in the guise of a Montague envoy and offers the guarantee of peace through the marriage of Romeo to Guilietta. He will leave distraught, knowing that he is an unwitting, inexorable part of the machinery of war that cannot be stopped.:

A strong supporting cast backed up the two soloists.  Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu seemed to struggle to find his sweet spot in his SF Opera debut as Tebaldo, Guilietta’s fiancé, but his singing improved as the evening progressed.  Chinese baritone and second-year Adler Fellow, Ao Li, made the most of his small role as Lorenzo, the doctor (not friar) of the Capuleti. American bass-baritone, Eric Owens was Capellio, leader of Capuleti and Guilietta’s father who, in an intense stand-off with Romeo, brashly refuses the young man’s offer to marry his daughter, setting the whole tragedy in motion.

In Vincent Lemaire’s sets for Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” at SF Opera through October 19, 2012, dozens of saddles hang over the Capulets who are waiting at the palace to avenge the death of their leader Capellio’s son, who was killed by Romeo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Riccardo Frizza, who made his SF Opera debut conducting Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia last season, again led the SF Opera orchestra in an exciting performance that was greatly enhanced by the enchanting solos of Kevin Rivard (French horn), and José González Granero(clarinet).

Details:  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Remaining Performances:  Oct.11 (7:30 p.m.), Oct. 14 (2 p.m.), October 16 (8 p.m.), October 19 (8 p.m.) Tickets: : $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or online at 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 near the opera house are the Performing Arts Garage and Civic Center Garage (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

October 11, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment