Monday, October 5, 2009

New Sets, New Singers

It's hard to believe that 2010 will mark OPERA America's 40th anniversary. Since being founded in 1970 under the leadership of Glynn Ross, its membership has grown to nearly 150 professional opera companies. More than 16,000 people now subscribe to its electronic news service.

The Internet has has had a profound impact on the opera world.
  • Gone are the days when when important pieces of operatic trivia could only be accessed through the good graces of a moody dramaturg.
  • Gone are the days when singers who could not afford a publicist's services were forced to languish in obscurity.
  • Gone are the days when opera companies refused to share information about artists and technology.
  • Relational databases now provide full specifications and pictures of costumes and productions available for rental.
  • YouTube now hosts an astounding (and continually growing) archive of video clips of opera singers. Some of these clips come from live performances that were telecast, others include appearances on variety shows like the old Ed Sullivan Show.
  • Wikipedia has become a treasure trove of operatic trivia.
  • Most opera companies now use their websites as marketing and educational tools, posting background information on artists and operas, as well as audio clips and video of their productions.
  • Many artists now have their own websites; some even write blogs.
  • Just like earlier generations of listservs, social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter allow fans to be kept up to date on the latest news about their favorite artists.
In addition to renting productions, the methodology for sharing costs on a new production (or splitting the expenses of bringing a new opera to fruition) between international opera companies is now standard fare. In a global economy, everyone benefits from having so much information readily available.

Back when he was the General Director of the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley was one of the lead figures in co-producing new works and important revivals. As a result, it's no surprise that the first three productions of San Francisco Opera's 2009-2010 season all come from other opera companies. Il Trovatore is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Puccini's Il Trittico is borrowed from The New York City Opera and Abduction from the Seraglio is a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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The three one-act operas which comprise Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico are occasionally performed as a showcase for a key soprano. Not only does this give an artist a remarkable chance to display her artistic strengths in three different characters over the course of an evening, hiring one soprano for the job offers entrepreneurs a strong marketing hook with which to sell tickets and pleases board members with its supposed frugality. Among the sopranos to have sung all three roles are Diana Soviero, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas and Beverly Sills.

San Francisco's production starred Patricia Racette in her first attempt to sing all three roles. A former participant in the Merola Opera Program and an Adler Fellow, the acclaimed soprano is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of her mainstage debut with the company. Directed by James Robinson and conducted by Patrick Summers, this staging made handsome use of Allen Moyer's impressive sets and Bruno Schwengl's costumes.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Il Tabarro, with its torrid passions and Puccini's rolling waves of discontent, paranoia, and betrayal rising from the orchestra pit. A short, taut melodrama in which an older man's younger wife considers running away with a handsome stevedore, much of Il Tabarro takes place in the dark shadows where Michele's barge is anchored on the Seine.

Small comic cameos from minor characters like Georgetta's friend La Frugola (Catherine Cook), Il Talpa (Andrea Silvestrelli) and the song vendor (beautifully sung by Thomas Glenn) add a sense of mischief and merriment to an otherwise somber score. Workmen come and go, and Giorgetta tries to keep her wits about her as she awaits another rendezvous with her secret lover, Luigi (Brandon Jovanovich).

Despite all the repressed lust onstage, the real star of any Tabarro is usually the conductor, whose pacing and coloring of the score creates the dramatic surges that push the action forward. Racette delivered a lusty, frustrated Giorgetta who obviously felt trapped in her relationship with Michele (Paolo Gavanelli). As the object of her lust, Brandon Jovanovich both looked and sang the role of Luigi with great masculine appeal.

Brandon Jovanovich (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

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There were several surprises in Moyer's set for Suor Angelica, however the biggest may have been the use of fluorescent lighting. Unlike many other productions (which place the action in a courtyard) Moyer brought the opera inside a church's lunchroom. The protagonist's herb garden was readily visible, complete with grow lights. This was also the only production of the opera I've ever seen with a nun wearing rubber gloves!

Sopranos who sing the role of Suor Angelica (created by Geraldine Farrar) relish the emotional catharsis it offers an artist -- as well as the chance to shine in Angelica's confrontation with her aunt and her brilliant final aria, "Senza mamma." Not every soprano, however, has a happy experience with the role. For Beverly Sills, Suor Angelica offered a distinct and deeply personal challenge. The mother of an autistic child, she wrote in her autobiography that:
“When he was six years old, we sent Bucky to the Dr. Franklin Perkins School in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Peter and I both knew that our son was leaving home forever. A few weeks after Bucky left, I sang the three soprano leads in Il Trittico, which is made up of three one-act operas by Puccini. In Suor Angelica, I played an unwed mother who’s become a nun and who learns that her son died two years earlier. My mother was in the audience and tells me she never saw me give a more moving performance. That was probably the most personally painful opera I ever sang. I performed Il Trittico on March 8, 1967. I never sang it again.”
Luckily for San Francisco audiences, Patricia Racette was not spooked by the role. Facing off against Polish contralto Ewa Podles (whose vocal timbre can easily send shivers up one's spine), she gave a poignant performance that was vocally as well as dramatically quite moving.

Patricia Racette and Ewa Podles (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

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Most productions of Gianni Schicchi dutifully set the opera in the medieval costume styles associated with the Florence of 1299. I was absolutely delighted to see what the design team for this production accomplished by dressing up Gianni Schicchi in modern costumes on an op art, mostly black and white set. It seemed as if someone had suddenly aired out Puccini's cynically comedic one-act opera, sent its cast to the cleaners, and given the entire experience a wildly exciting and dramatically satisfying makeover.

Schicchi, more than most operas, benefits from the use of Supertitles which help the audience follow all of the petty bickering, conniving and resentments among the potential heirs to Buoso Donati's estate. Even if it's hard to keep track of which character is whining, negotiating, or complaining at any given moment, the opera moves much faster (and the stage action becomes infinitely more enjoyable) when Supertitles are in use and the audience can easily follow the comedy onstage.

Meredith Arwady, Catherine Cook, Paolo Gavanelli
and Rebekah Camm (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While Paolo Gavanelli gave an appropriately crafty performance in the title role, I was particularly impressed by Meredith Arwady's booming, belligerent Zita and David Lomeli's ardent, sweet-voiced Rinuccio. Patricia Racette's Lauretta seemed far more human than most traditional characterizations. A rollicking good time was had by all.

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One might think that Mozart's operatic singspiel, Abduction from the Seraglio, would be a guaranteed audience pleaser, but that's rarely the case. I've probably seen half a dozen productions of this opera by now which ranged from thrilling to boring, from innovative and freely-flowing to lumbering and overly mannered. At some performances the singing is thrilling despite a dismal production. On other nights an impressive display of sets and costumes cannot salvage an evening of mediocre musicianship.

The most enjoyable production I've ever seen of Abduction from the Seraglio was a multimedia romp through Mozart's score commissioned by David Gockley for the Houston Grand Opera when it moved into the Wortham Theatre Center in 1987. Conceived and directed by the late Peter Mark Schifter, the action was transported to a Hollywood sound stage in the 1930s where all kinds of shenanigans were taking place. Starring Evelyn de la Rosa as Constanze and Mark Thompson as Belmonte, that production (which made extensive use of film) was only staged during HGO's inaugural season at the Wortham. Through 40 years of operagoing, it remains one of my most cherished memories.

Although I was smitten by David Zinn's unit set for the current San Francisco staging of Abduction from the Seraglio (with its use of baroque stagecraft from Mozart's time), the performance left me a bit shaken. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine why director Chas Rader-Shieber had such a fetish for making opera singers climb up and stand on chairs to sing, but the gimmick quickly wore thin. There was also a great deal of unnecessary stage business that could easily have been eliminated.

Photo by: Cory Weaver

This was the first time I can recall in which the most satisfying performance came from the actor portraying Pasha Selim (Charles Shaw Robinson). Although physically attractive and dramatically credible, Mary Dunleavy's Constanze had some squally moments and obvious missed notes during her big aria ("Martern aller arten"). A last minute substitution had Andrea Silvestrelli appearing as Osmin.

While there was much to enjoy in Anna Christy's feisty Blonde, the vocal honors on this occasion went to the men. As Belmonte, Matthew Polenzani did some truly beautiful singing with impressive shading and a genuine sense of Mozartean style. Andrew Bidlack's solidly sung and acted Pedrillo was a joy from start to finish.

Although maestro Cornelius Meister worked hard to keep a steady balance between the pit and the stage, the grace of his musicianship was constantly sabotaged by something over which he had absolutely no control. The version of Mozart's opera being performed here featured arias sung in German (with Supertitles in English) and spoken conversation in a truly wretched "updated" English translation that was probably intended to sound "accessible." Line readings came off sounding like a tacky attempt at writing for a television sitcom, a choice which severely compromised the evening's otherwise high artistic standards.

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When I first started attending the opera, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore was a staple of the repertoire. Guaranteed to sell tickets, the San Francisco Opera performed Verdi's classic in 1964, 1968, 1971, 1975, 1981, 1986, 1994, and 2003.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was easy to catch performances in New York and San Francisco featuring sopranos like Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Gabriella Tucci, and Joan Sutherland as Leonora; tenors like Richard Tucker, James King, James McCracken, Bruno Prevedi, Placido Domingo. and Luciano Pavarotti as Manrico; bass-baritones like Cornell MacNeil, Louis Quilico, Ingvar Wixell, Mario Sereni. and Robert Merrill as the Count di Luna; and powerful mezzos like Regina Resnik, Rita Gorr, Shirley Verrett, Fiorenza Cossotto and Irene Dalis as Azucena. In recent years, Il Trovatore has become an increasingly difficult opera to cast.

Physically, the current staging is the most beautiful I think I've ever seen. Using a massive unit set designed by Charles Edwards that rests on an off-center turntable (magnificently enhanced by Jennifer Tipton's superb lighting), Walter Sutcliffe has staged the opera with a clarity rarely seen in the old days. None of the artists break for bows following their arias. Nor do the sets consist solely of painted flats.

Marco Berti as Manrico (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

While it has become increasingly more difficult to secure four major artists in the principal roles, at the performance I attended I was thrilled with the work of the Manrico (Marco Berti ) and Leonora (Sondra Radvanovsky), who delivered one of the most sublime renditions of "D'amor sull'ali rosee" I have ever heard (and believe me, I've heard more than a few).

Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

I was less impressed with the light-voiced Azucena of Malgorzata Walewska. Once again, Dmitri Hvorostovsky's performance as the Count di Luna, although competently sung, proved to be surprisingly wooden and devoid of any electricity. Burak Bilgili appeared as Ferrando and the performance was anchored by some rock solid work from the company's new music director, Nicola Luisotti.

While a good performance of Il Trovatore can provide a grand night of singing, Verdi's opera has occasionally provided some great belly laughs. Few San Francisco Opera fans can forget Franco Bonisolli's athletic attempts to leap around in thigh-high boots. Writing about the tenor's antics in a 1986 San Francisco production of Il Trovatore, critic Arthur Bloomfield referred to the tenor as "that endearing peacock of the operatic stage."

Never known for his subtlety, Bonisolli was extremely proud of his money notes and his ability to hold them for extended counts. You can see him showing lots of chest in this clip from a film version of Il Trovatore that was made in 1985 for Italian television.

Last, but certainly not least, is a fond look back at the classic sequence from The Marx Brothers' farce, A Night At The Opera -- featuring some inspired lunacy from Harpo and Chico during a stage performance of Il Trovatore in which Olga Dane appears as Azucena.

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