Tag Archives: San Francisco Opera

SF Opera’s Comic Triumph: Don Pasquale

DonPasquale  San Francisco Opera presented Gaetano Donizeti’s delightful opera buffa, Don Pasquale, September 28–October 15 at The War Memorial Opera House. It was tremendous fun. The music is beautiful and funny. The four leads were splendid. It was a night to cheer Donizetti’s brilliance and the accomplishments of singers, conductor, orchestra, chorus, directors and designers whose work combined to create complete theater.

DonizettiPremiered in 1843, the libretto, also written by Donzetti, puts stock figures in predictable actions with and against each other, but the plot twists in ingenious ways. Opera buffa is the opposite of opera seria, the serious dramas.There is a wealthy man in his 70s. His nephew, Ernesto, refuses to marry the wealthy woman his uncle selected for him; Ernesto loves a poor girl, Norina. The uncle is tired of supporting him, disowns him, and decides to marry a young woman. His doctor and alleged friend, Malatesta, takes Ernesto’s side and plots with Ernesto’s true love. She will present herself as sweet, innocent Sofronia, marry Don Pasquale, then make him demand a divorce to escape her domineering behavior and immense expenses.  Norina will be able to marry Ernesto with Don Pasquale’s blessing and his money.

ErnestoBrownleeIn this production created by Director Laurent Pelly, the nephew is a spoiled, lazy boy sponging off his rich uncle, not the pure rebel against authority he could have been. Norina also is something more and less than her character might have been in the commedia dell’arte from which opera buffa developed. She is a schemer who might be motivated primarily by love but might not. Even Malatesta, presented as the friend of both Don Pasquale and Ernesto seems to be motivated not only by friendship but also a pleasure in playing cruel games.

TransformFor this viewer, it was easy to feel sorry for Don Pasquale who put on a new suit and a toupee to meet his bride. He looked ridiculous but was so happy. The lesson, the closing song says, is that old men should not try to marry. And yet, though the others  made him a fool and he sees that he acted the fool on his own, there was a charming liveliness in his hopes.

NorinaDon   Bass Baritone Maurizio Muraro as Don Pasquale was amazing. His singing was great, and his physical comedy timing perfect. His expressions and actions were very, very funny. His ability to sing the rapid fire patter songs of Don Pasquale was astonishing; every note and syllable was clear and understandable, if one’s brain could keep up. His actions when he transformed himself into what he thought would attract the young woman were funny, his anger at Sofronia’s expenditures was funny, but over all, it was touching to see him try to cope with the abuse dished out by this angel turned devil.

LBrownlee   Lawrence Brownlee, internationally acclaimed tenor, made his SF Opera debut as Ernesto. He was a lout, a lover, a disappointed suitor, and a house guest tossed out of the house. He played it all with fantastic aplomb always buoyed by his lovely lyric tenor voice. He was so romantic perched on the roof of his uncle’s house, longing for Norina, and so funny packing a closetful of shirts and then trying to figure out how to carry all his suitcases.

STOBER_Heidi-SDirector Pelly’s idea for the production was inspired by Italian movies from the 1950s.  When the audience first sees Heidi Stober as Norina, she is in a black slip, leaning against the wall of her squalid room, and admiring a center-fold. Her clothes are piled on the floor. She has a cigarette. This image of the character does not appear again, but reveals some tawdry tendencies behind  Sofronia. Ms Stober’s strong, dramatic voice made her dominance of the Don and plotting with Malatesta believable. Think ahead to a sequel in which Ernesto, not used to fending for himself, finds he’s married someone better at bossing him around than his uncle had been.

CastDonPBaritone Lucas Meachem has a long relationship with the SF Opera. He was a Merola and an Adler Fellow and has sung numerous roles. It was exciting to see him in a different setting fulfilling the demands of comedy with distinction.

MeachemMuraroHis energetic patter duets with Muraro were a pleasure.  Malatesta’s double crossing drove the story ahead effortlessly. On October 4 and 7 the role was played by Edward Nelson, an Adler Fellow. Bojan Knezevic added comic confusion in a cameo role as the Notary who pretended to marry the Don and Norina. The SF Opera Chorus marched onstage as an army of gossipy servants hired by Sofronia. The SF Opera Orchestra was conducted by Giuseppe Finzi. From the beginning of the Overture, it was clear we were in for something extraordinary. Donizetti’s music represented all of the actions and characters. There was a theme which danced and limped that sounded like Don Pasquale’s happiness and hesitations. Theater wisdom says, “Tragedy is easy; comedy is hard.” Impossible to imagine if Donizetti found writing Lucia di Lammermoor easy, but the all star cast of this Don Pasquale acted and sang a comic triumph.

Pictures from top: Maurizio Muraro as Don Pasquale; Donizetti; Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto; M. Muraro, Don Pasquale transformed; Heidi Stober as Norina/Sofronia intimidates Don Pasquale; H. Stober; Lucas Meachem, far left; L. Meachem & M. Muraro; all photos except picture of Donizetti ©CoreyWeaver/San Francisco Opera

















Lively Friends Meet the Merolinis

janeLeslieFrancoMerolaGrpSharonAnnA Lively group of Friends of The Lively Foundation enjoyed an evening of gorgeous singing at the San Francisco Opera House, Aug. 20.  The eleven Lively individuals came from Marin, San Francisco, Pacifica, Mountain View, and San Jose. The Merola Opera program has given Lively tickets for its friends to attend Merola performances each of the last 7 summers. Merola is a training program for singers on their way to international fame. The program gives them many opportunities and by doing so gives the rest of us the opportunity to hear great music sung by stars. Previous “Merolini”  have included Ruth Ann Swenson, Thomas Hampson, Carol Van Ness, Patrick Summers, Brian Asawa, and many others beginning brilliant careers. This summer rather than a full length opera, eleven Lively friends were treated to the Merola Grand Finale, a gala performance of arias and ensembles accompanied by full orchestra. The voices were splendid. We shall all keep our programs in order to follow the careers of our favorites. Keep in touch with Lively for future great events.



Karita MattilaSan Francisco Opera’s performance of Jenufa by Leos Janacek was spectacular, June 28, at the SF Opera House. There will be one more performance of this powerful, emotion grabbing, musically fascinating work. It’s Friday, July 1; don’t miss it. The SF Opera Orchestra, conducted by Jiri Belohavek, has never played better. The voices of the singers  were stunning. Not content with making beautiful sound, the singers made their sound perfectly fit the characters they presented. Karita Mattila, pictured above, performed the role of Kostelnicka Buryjovka. From the first moment she is seen onstage, her presence becomes the tragic center of action. Her voice, suffused with knowledge and emotion, reaches into every listener. A brilliant opera star, this is her onstage debut in this role (she performed it in concert with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohavek, in April). She has made it her own.

JanacekCzech composer Janacek began work on Jenufa, in 1895. It was premiered in 1904, in Brno, and in Prague in 1916. Janecek came from a village much like the one in his opera. He collected and studied music and songs from Moravia, his home region, as well as its speech patterns and expressions. In Jenufa, the characters live in a tightly knit community, isolated from outside culture. Jenufa is a young woman who loves Steva, a handsome man who owns the mill and is also a drunk and a flirt. At the beginning of the opera, she reveals that she is pregnant and prays that Steva will not be drafted but will marry her, saving her reputation and her life. Laca, another villager, has loved her all his life, but she is blind to him, especially now. The village does not offer a lot of options for an intelligent young woman. She teaches others how to read, but she cannot read the facts that Steva will only bring her trouble.

_B5A6096-SSteva brags to his friends that all the girls want him. Tenor Scott Quinn as Steva was both completely self-centered and too frightened of responsibility to have anything to do with Jenufa and her problem. In excellent voice, he  performed splendidly enough to earn boos at the curtain call. He was also frightened of the Kostelnicka, village sacristan, who demanded he spend one year sober before she could let him marry Jenufa, her stepdaughter.  At a loss for what to do, Jenufa hides in her stepmother’s home to have her child. Only 8 days after the birth, her stepmother has invited Steva to visit in order to convince him to marry. He refuses. In a fit of jealousy, Laca cut Jenufa’s face. She is less beautiful now and has a baby. He will marry the Mayor’s daughter instead. Laca visits and declares his love again. Desperate, the Stepmother finds a way to make this match work.

_B5A6412-MLovely Soprano Malin Bystrom, making her debut in the role as Jenufa, experiences changes through the events of the opera. An international star, she certainly must keep Jenufa in her repertory; she was exquisite. When she enters in Act I, she is a vision of happy youth. Her movements suggest a sought after young woman whose love is fulfilled. She enters through the bright sunlight of the upstage image of ripe grain. However, the set is built so that two high walls nearly connect to each other at the point where the outside world is seen. Production Designer Frank Phillipp Schlossmann did a wonderful job of creating the enclosed, separate world of the villagers. He also uses the visual theme of stones to match the frequent mention of stones in the text. There is a possible millstone, mysterious and extra large, on stage in Act I. In Act II a stone takes up the entire interior of the Stepmother’s home. When we see Jenufa after the birth, she is weak, frightened of what will become of her, and yet loves her baby.  The world of the opera might seem as distant and peculiar to 21st century San Franciscans as life on Mars. Public shame and hopelessness, real and powerfully portrayed, are the future for Kostelnicka, Jenufa and the baby.

LacaLaca agrees to marry Jenufa. Sung with great success by tenor William Burden, Laca also goes through changes from angry, violent outcast, to pacified, hopeful helpmate. This is where the internet tradition of “spoiler alert” should appear in this Hedgehog Highlight. Terrifying events will occur: the Kostelnicka confesses to her crime, the crowd tries to stone Jenufa using Designer Schlossmann’s very believable, rugged decor. Out of this terror, there is something nearly like a happy ending. In classical theater, it’s a comedy if it ends with a marriage. Order and harmony return that way. While commentators have noted that the Kostelnicka confesses in order to spare her beloved stepdaughter and because she recognizes that she acted as much for herself as for Jenufa, for this observer it is necessary to note that none of the tranquility that is achieved for Laca and Jenufa could have happened without the actions of the suffering Kostelnicka. The cast was wonderful. It was a great night for music, a triumph for theater. Do not wait; buy your tickets now.

BlessingJenLacThe loving sinner Stepmother, blesses the nearly happy couple before the truths are found out. For another Hedgehog observation of Karita Matilla, please go to  http://www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=758  Ms Matilla made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in the Beethoven Festival, June 17, 2015, singing Ah! Perfido Scene and Aria, Op. 65. In this Jenufa post, photos except the unattributed ones of Ms. Matilla and Janacek, are ©Cory Weaver/SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera: PARTENOPE


The opera Partenope: 6 characters, 3 hours and 20 minutes, Baroque opera by Handel. Turns out it is a laugh riot. What 21st century music lover who is not totally up on Baroque could guess that? San Francisco Opera’s production of Partenope, performed Oct.15-Nov. 2, 2014, was originally created by the English National Opera and Opera Australia. It traveled well. An attempt at a summary of the plot: Partenope loves Arsace, the cad who abandoned Rosmira. Rosmira, convincingly dressed as a man, shows up at the house party. She/he claims to be in love with P., too. Shy Armindo is madly in love with P., but she can barely see him. Emilio arrives and offers to marry P. She refuses. E. threatens war. P. asks A(Arsace). to lead her forces. The other men and “man” have their feelings hurt. Ormonte observes. That’s just the first 20 minutes or so. The voices of all the performers were outstanding. Two of the men sang countertenor roles; David Daniels as Arsace and Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo. Those voices are higher than the voices of the two females; it’s just one layer of Handel’s satire of operatic conventions of his time. Daniels and Roth Costanzo were wonderful performers. Arsace’s emotions ranged from ardent suitor to dejected reject. Armindo, amazed by Partenope’s sudden declaration of love, breaks into a tap dance with top hat and cane on top of his nightie. Daniela Mack as Rosmira/Eurimene is conniving, passionate, heartbroken while in excellent voice. Danielle de Niese as Partenope, the Queen Bee to whom all the energy of the others is devoted, is more than an opera singer. She moves with the grace and assurance of a dancer thoroughly at home moving on stage. Her statuesque form plus her engaging presence showed that Handel was correct to make an opera all about her. It is a funny opera.Would we have missed the satire without the toilet paper? Director Christopher Alden packed the 200 minutes with sight gags including potty jokes. Emilio is interrupted by a sound; is it water? oh, no, it is a toilet flushing. Partenope walks out a door revealing a toilet. Emilio, sung by Alek Shrader with authority and a self-satirizing awareness, sings while hanging from the bathroom’s transom, makes hand shadows as though at camp, and executes a hilarious yoga routine. The set designed by Andrew Lieberman adds another star to the cast. The winding staircase in Act I is not only gorgeous but also gives Armindo an opportunity to show that he can fall down all the stairs–face down–and hang from the edge while still singing. A great addition to SFO’s repertory, it suggests one get out there to see more of Handel’s operas, maybe even this one in another production to see if Handel’s own humor is still there. Pictures: (L to Rt, top row)Danielle de Niese, David Daniels, Alek Shrader, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Daniela Mack(bottom row) Philippe Sly, staircase, Danielle de Niese.