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Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

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September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 www.sfopera.com , 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 www.sfopera.com.

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

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: www.sfopera.com.

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