Thursday, November 22, 2007

Class Reunion

I don't know how many people have been paying close attention to this season's casting at the San Francisco Opera, but a curious and quite remarkable phenomenon has kept repeating itself. Singers who, not so very long ago, were novice talents in the Merola Summer Opera Program, have been performing principal roles in the San Francisco Opera's main stage productions this fall. Not only have these singers been performing well from an artistic standpoint, in many instances the strength and professionalism of their craft has let them wipe up the floor with some of the more established European artists appearing opposite them.

The fact that these American artists -- and other Merolini -- are carving out fruitful careers for themselves should be a source of great pride for the San Francisco Opera and its supporters whose care, money and nurturing has helped to guarantee a professional future for many fine American talents. It's not so long ago that these artists were appearing as Naiads, Dryads, and a rather anonymous assortment of maids, peasants and soldiers.

If you think I'm going overboard on the "local talent makes good" angle, I'd prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. Simply and with astonishing dignity.

Among the former Merolini who have graced the stage of the War Memorial this season are Ruth Ann Swenson, John David De Haan, Kevin Langan, Cheryl Parrish, Kurt Streit, Tracy Dahl, Susan Patterson and Dolora Zajick. Next fall, Carol Vaness -- now a major international opera star -- returns to town as Donna Elvira.


It would be nice to rest my case by merely dropping names on the stage floor with a loud and authoritative thud. But I found it fascinating to watch a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto and see a home-grown Gilda not only walk off with the show, but have the audience stomping and cheering for her performance. Ruth Ann Swenson has always been a severely intelligent musician. In recent years, however, her craft has grown stronger, her vocal technique solidified and her dramatic skills ripened. Whether taking the Kennedy Center by storm as Donizetti's ill-fated Lucia di Lammermoor, or knocking San Francisco audiences off their feet with one of the most beautifully sung Gildas to be heard in years, Swenson offers audiences a very complete and satisfying artistic package.

Many in the audience may have been so bowled over by her performance that they failed to notice the solemn sonority of Kevin Langan's Sparafucile. Langan (who, together with his wife Sally Wolf, has shed a tremendous amount of weight) looks and sounds much healthier than in recent years. We are seeing the ripening of two "Golden Age of Singing" talents.

I wish I could be as generous about the rest of the Rigoletto production, which suffered from the routine touches of Grischa Asagaroff's stage direction (recreated from the original by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle). Richard Leech's Duke of Mantua was handsomely sung but seemed a bit too impressed with himself (as a tenor, not as the Duke). Bass Alain Fondary -- one of the most subdued, distant and remote hunchbacks in my operagoing experience -- spent most of the evening singing to the prompter. Fondary looked quite uncomfortable with conductor John Fiore's tempos and, only in the final act, seemed to gain any sense of urgency.


After several bad experiences with productions that have been conceived and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, I have to admit that I was most pleasantly surprised by his staging of Mozart's Abduction From The Seraglio for the San Francisco Opera this fall. Granted, this opera should be mounted in a smaller theater (many people hated the production) but, having seen other productions of Mozart's opera which are much, much worse, I'll go to bat to defend San Francisco Opera's most recent Mozartean effort against those who would trash it. While far from perfect, this Abduction had a great sense of child-like wonderment, comic-book wit and Arabian make-believe to it. These elements, combined with the visual richness of William Ivey Long's costumes and Joan Arhelger's lighting, turned the performance into a surprisingly refreshing evening.

What set the San Francisco Opera's production apart from many other stagings of Abduction was its sense of mobility and playfulness. Thomas Lynch's deliciously angular unit set (a merry Pasha's palace which literally spun and danced its way around the stage) helped to lighten the usual dreariness of Constanze and The Turks. Christopher Bergen's Supertitles (along with some veddy English asides from Blondchen) served the audience extremely well.

Above all, San Francisco Opera's cast was quite charming and intensely committed to Mozart's opera. Several years ago, sopranos Susan Patterson and Cheryl Parrish appeared together as Constanze and Blondchen in a San Francisco Opera Center staging of Abduction at the Herbst Theater. Since then, both artists have matured a great deal -- although I'd say that Parrish has it way over Patterson when it comes to vocal technique. Patterson's voice has grown tremendously in size and color but, at the top of its range, the bark is still much more pronounced than her bite. Coloratura passages occasionally seemed tentative; her dramatic work consisted mostly of feigned anguish.

Lars Magnusson's crafty and stagewise Pedrillo offered a handsome foil to Kurt Moll's darkly primitive and blustering Osmin. Together, these two performers provided a great deal of the evening's comic relief. I was particularly impressed with Frank Hoffmann's dignified performance as the Pasha Selim who can never win Constanze's heart. Where others were outraged, I had no problems with tenor Kurt Streit changing into his architect's disguise in front of the drop curtain toward the end of the overture and found it perfectly justified from a dramatic standpoint. Streit's singing was, for the most part, quite dignified although his is more a tenorino than a lyric tenor voice.

The rest of the evening's success is mostly a question of how one reacts to Wadsworth's staging. Having seen much of his other work, I can tell readers that this Abduction was a definite step up. If Wadsworth could only find a way to stop himself from making his singers parade in circles (he does this in most of his productions) he could rid himself of one bad habit which consistently undermines the more commendable parts of his work.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 29, 1990.

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