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Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera honors its top scenic artist, Jay Kotcher, with the San Francisco Opera Medal, SFO’s highest award

Jay Kotcher (Left) gets an ovation along with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for his work as a scenic designer at SFO for that past 35 years.  SFO’s David Gockley (Right) presented the award Sunday, at “Tosca’s” final performance.  Photo: SFO

Jay Kotcher (Left) gets an ovation along with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for his work as a scenic designer at SFO for that past 35 years. SFO’s David Gockley (Right) presented the award Sunday, at “Tosca’s” final performance. Photo: Scott Wall

Those of us who attended the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s Tosca yesterday were in for a treat.  Right after extended rounds of applause for Patricia Racette, who delivered a scintillating Tosca, and for Brian Jagde, who played her lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, SFO’s fall season closed with a special ceremony awarding Jay Kotcher, SFO’s top scenic designer, the San Francisco Opera Medal.  The award was established in 1970 by former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and is the highest honor the Company bestows in recognition of outstanding achievement by an artistic professional.  Kotcher is the first scenic designer to receive the prestigious award.

Kotcher was offered a position with SFO as a scenic artist in December 1977 and began work in early 1978.  He has since worked on nearly every SFO production in the past 35 years and has a hand in all the styles that have evolved in the past 4 decades.  Kotcher’s all-time favorite production to work on was SFO’s 1985 Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen).  This was SFO’s third Ring Cycle, and it was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, designed by John Conklin and conducted by Edo de Waart.  This was the first time Bay area audiences experienced the Ring with Supertitles, then a new technology, and the experience of following the text in a language they understood was revolutionary.)

Kotcher was given the award by SFO’s General Director David Gockley and present on stage were members of the cast of Tosca.  Fittingly, the award was given against the dazzling backdrop of a set Kotcher had worked on—Thierry Bosquet’s recreation of the towering Castel Sant’Angelo in Pacrco Adriano, Rome, where Tosca takes her fatal leap in Act III.

In accepting the award Kotcher said that he was “here to serve the music, to enhance the music and never to overwhelm it.” The visual aspects of opera design have become increasingly important— and celebrated—and can make or break an opera.  I would like to hear more from Kotcher about his creative process.

The first SFO Medal laureate was soprano Dorothy Kirsten. While many vocalists (such as Leontyne Price in 1977, Joan Sutherland in 1984, Plácido Domingo in 1994, and Samuel Ramey (2003) have been so honored, other laureates have included stage director John Copley (2010), conductor Donald Runnicles (2009), chorus director Ian Robertson 2012.

San Francisco Opera Medal Recipients
1970 – Dorothy Kirsten
1972 – Jess Thomas
1973 – Paul Hager (house stage director)
1974 – Colin Harvey (chorister and chorus librarian)
1975 – Otto Guth
Alexander Fried (San Francisco Examiner music critic)
1976 – Leonie Rysanek
1977 – Leontyne Price
1978 – Kurt Herbert Adler
1980 – Geraint Evans
1981 – Matthew Farruggio (production supervisor and house stage director)
Birgit Nilsson
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
Bidú Sayao
1990 – Janis Martin
Marilyn Horne
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
Plácido Domingo
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
James Morris
2003 – Samuel Ramey
2004 – Joe Harris (dresser)
2005 – Pamela Rosenberg
2008 – Clifford (Kip) Cranna (director of music administration)
Ruth Ann Swenson
2009 – Donald Runnicles
2010 – John Copley (stage director)
2012 – Ian Robertson (chorus director),  Jay  Kotcher (scenic artist)

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December 4, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Review: ACT’s “The Tosca Project” – a dance journey through time toasting the beloved Café Tosca

The three original owners (from left: Nol Simonse, Kyle Schaefer, Peter Anderson) celebrate the opening of Tosca Cafe in 1919. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Saturday night’s world premiere production of “The Tosca Project” at ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) (through July 3, 2010) marked the first time I had been to the historic Geary Street theatre since I stopped my season subscription two years ago.  I love good theatre and had subscribed to ACT for several years.  Increasingly though, I found myself struggling to connect emotionally with the stories and characters.  Lacking the private Ah-ha moments that actively engage the senses and intellect, the experience too often seemed flat.  At nearly $75 a pop for Orchestra seats (plus parking and incidentals like gas and bridge faire), I began to begrudge the expenditure and the considerable chunk of time invested in a drive into the City for a less-than spectacular evening.   

Having given it a rest, I was eager to see “The Tosca Project” and to revisit ACT.  ACT’s artistic director Carey Perloff and SF Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together on this piece for four years which Caniparoli calls “a character study through movement.”   San Francisco’s Café Tosca ranks as one of my favorite old-European style bars in America–a place that time forgot.  The collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet held the promise of new energy.

 The experience was pleasant but not memorable—the dancing carries the show but the storyline is so underdeveloped that it doesn’t do jthis famous watering hole justice.  Nor is there enough sustained dance in the 10 rapid-fire vignettes– lasting 90 minutes in all– to feel satisfied with it as a complete dance piece. 

The Bartender (Jack Willis, right) remembers his younger self (Kyle Schaefer, center) and the his long-lost love that he left behind in Italy (Sabina Allemann). Photo by Kevin Berne.

The idea itself is brilliant—a homage to San Francisco’s iconic Café Tosca, now 91, grounded in the history of San Francisco and set to an enthralling score of music ranging from Puccini’s Tosca to Rosemary Clooney singing “What’ll I Do?”  to Jimmy Hendrix.  Anyone who has ever been to the Café Tosca is keenly aware of the bar’s old world atmosphere and mystery–the play of light and shadow against that long solid mahogany bar, the burnished glint of copper from the espresso machine and the lingering melancholy permeating the booths.  Current owner Jeanette Etheredge plays hostess to a glamorous celebrity crowd along with eccentrics, tourists and locals.  While the world outside changes, Cafe Tosca doesn’t:  the secrets, demons, and dreams of generations are well-tended ghosts.  All this makes for great theatrical content– the characters hold their emotional histories in the space of the bar and the journey of the piece is the excavation of those histories.  Instead of mining these connections, the production offers a furry of brief—albeit lovely—sequential dance encounters that speed by without enough grounding for viewers to really invest themselves in any of the characters or the bar itself.  

The Immigrant (Rachel Ticotin) brings a piece of her Russian homeland into the bar with her. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The production opens as the founding bartender (Jack Willis) and his two business partners first arrive in San Francisco from Italy near the end of WWI.  The bartender is haunted by a ghost–a woman from his past, reminiscent of the melodramatic heroine from Puccini’s Tosca.  One of the bar’s first customers is an immigrant (Rachael Ticotin).  A regular at the bar, she becomes its soul, anchoring it through time as a home for those without a homeland.  

Prohibition comes just months after the bar opens and forces a clever change of menu.  Café Tosca begins to booze up its coffee—the “coffee royale” is the genesis of Tosca’s now signature “house cappuccino”— Ghiradelli chocolate, steamed milk and shot of brandy.  

A ballet diva (Sabina Allemann) enchants a businessman (Peter Anderson) in Tosca Cafe. Photo by Kevin Berne.

During the Great Depression, a musician on the run from the law finds a haven in the bar and ends up with a job there.  The action is then anchored around the trio of bartender, musician and Russian immigrant who reveal their tragic stories to each other and in the sharing find solace and healing.  What is revealed directly to the audience though is precious little.  Unless you read the program notes or the Words on Plays you are likely to be grappling as to who’s who and what’s transpiring in this nearly wordless production.  The immigrant, for example, clutches a set of matryoshka (nested dolls).  Those who can see them might deduce she is Russian but nothing about her tragic past–that she left her husband and baby behind– or that her great love of Russian dance and poetry connects her symbolically to current owner Jeanette Etheredge’s mother Arman Baliantz.  Baliantz

The members of the ensemble of The Tosca Project (from left: Sara Hogrefe, Kyle Schaefer, Lorena Feijoo, Pascal Molat, Peter Anderson, Nol Simonse). Photo by Kevin Berne.

established her own North Beach restaurant (Bali’s) and befriended a diverse array of artists, including the great Rudolf Nureyev, who is represented in one of the later vignettes.   The lack of detail transforms the unique history of these patrons and of Cafe Tosca into universal patrons at a universal bar.  With relationships between the characters as hazy as cigarette smoke lingering in the bar, there is little to hook the audience in emotionally. 

The dancers clearly steal the show, beginning with a classical ballerina who gracefully pirouettes across the bar in a dream conjured up by the old bartender.    Hopping along from Prohibition to the Great Depression to the flappers to WWII to the Beats to the hippies and digitalis, each new era is ushered in by a change in the music on the jukebox, a new dance fad and new fashion.   The transitions are seamless but the performance begins to feel more like a generic dance sampler than the advertised “valentine to San Francisco.”  

A humorous duo between the businessman (Canadian actor Peter Anderson) and classical ballerina (Sabina Alleman) is captivating and had the audience clapping wildly at the performance I attended.   Anderson, who starred in ACT’s 2005  riveting wordless adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat”  also shines as a Beat poet reciting  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” to a bar full of Beats and tourists.   The trio of characters around which the performance is built remain emotionally distant throughout.   The experience definitely calls for a drink afterwards and ticket holders are entitled to a buck off their tab at Cafe Tosca.   

June 3- July 3, 2010, American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA  94108, tickets: $17 to $89.  Tickets and info (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

June 17, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment