Tag Archives: San Francisco Opera Orchestra

SF Opera’s FIGARO: Magnificent Music & Funny, Too

This will be a short review article. We have spent too much time searching for superlatives for the superlative cast of The Marriage of Figaro.  Mozart’s opera of 1786 is now being presented by the SF Opera. There is no time to waste: go buy your tickets. This is a spectacular performance of an opera which will delight your intellect, satisfy your brain’s beauty receptors, activate your physical response network. Future dates: October 19, 22, 25, 27, November 1. Curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. except for the 2 p.m. matinee on Oct. 27. Be there.

Michael Sumuel, American bass-baritone is Figaro

Mr. Sumuel is a perfect Figaro. He is handsome, he has great presence, his voice is just wonderful. He communicates wit, grit, and intelligence laced with revolutionary spirit. He is in love with Susanna, but he has not let love mess with his brain. Not too much. Figaro is the character invented by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Despite his aristocratic name, Beaumarchais “got it” about relationships between servants and those they serve. His play, The Marriage of Figaro, was written in 1778. The American Revolution had knocked the British back across the Atlantic. Louis XVI’s censors were not happy about Beaumarchais’ play, so the wily playwright changed the setting to Spain. Louis XVI had reason to be jumpy: the play opened in 1784; the French Revolution opened 5 years after. In the play, the servants are as smart or smarter than the spoiled nobles. They have to be to stay employed and still keep their personal identities.

Michael Sumuel with Jeannine De Bique, Soprano, Ms De Bique sang Susanna making her debut in this role and her first performances with the SF Opera. Ms De Bique is originally from the Barbados.

Among the privileges said to be enjoyed by the aristocrats was the despicable practice of the “right of the first night.” That meant that the lord of the manor could replace the groom for the bride’s wedding night. In the opera, Figaro and Susanna find ways to put off Count Almaviva’s advances toward Susanna and get the Count to allow them to marry. The Count is a philandering cad who has neither work nor hobbies except for trying to assaul every female within range. He does this despite being married to a beautiful woman who, though continually wronged by her husband, is true to him and, mostly, still loves him.

Hungarian baritone Levente Molnar sang the Count

American soprano Nicole Heaston sang the Countess.

Ms De Bique completely embodied Susanna. She is saucy, smart, loving but aware of the snares she must dodge. Her voice is such a delight. This is her first Susanna; it surely is the first of many. She and Mr. Sumuel make a great pair. He is strong and adorable; she is adorable but still strong. Neither one is anyone’s fool. Ms De Bique and Ms Heaston are also a good pair as  ladies who make complicated plots to fool their husbands. The plots are so complicated that they never work in the favor of the plot planners. Ms Heaston’s Countess is a knowing, understanding wife but never taken in by her less than noble Count. Her lovely voice was deeply touching in her aria as she observes herself trapped in her position and yearning for the Count to realize who she is.

Nicole Heaston and Italian mezzo soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino

Cherubino, a teen age Lothario around the palace, longs for the love of the Countess. Ms Malfi in this “trouser role” was superb. From the first note she sang, her liquid, velvety voice captivated everyone. The Count is fed up with Cherubino and sends him to the army which he avoids. Plots have sub-plots and the sub-plots spawn sub-sub-plots. These marvelous singers are also flawless performers with great timing and ensemble interaction. They are funny, laugh out loud funny. Take a look, and listen well, for example, at mezzo soprano Catherine Cook as Marcellina and bass  James Creswell as Doctor Bartolo. Wonderful singers who are excellent in their ridiculous roles.

Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo turn out to have significant roles in Figaro’s life, a special surprise to all three.

Each character was played with conviction. This made them even funnier. The voices were splendid throughout.

Tenor Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio.

If the glory of Mozart’s music and the glorious voices of the stellar cast cannot get you to the box office, the opportunity to see an opera character with Don Basilio’s coiffure should do it. Throughout the performance, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was outstanding. Conductor Henrik Nanasi was a great favorite with the audience. Together the orchestra and maestro captured the delicacy, precision, and tunefulness of the score. The libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte will never go out of style. It is sharp, and its humor reveals serious depths.

Tickets range from $26 to $408, Contact 415/864-3330, visit sfopera.com, or go to the Box Office at 301 Van Ness.

Photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

Merola Grand Finale: LIVELY AT THE OPERA

The Lively Foundation was delighted to invite our music loving friends to attend the GRAND FINALE of the Merola Opera at the SF Opera House. Every voice was extraordinary on August 17 when our Lively group of twelve attended. Through their Merola months, the artists perform full length operas, the Schwabacher Concerts of select opera acts, and recitals. The Grand Finale is their graduation celebration. Their performances are with the full San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In the Grand Finale, the “Merolini” perform a selection of arias, choruses and groups. In some “greatest hits” performances, there will be one or two pieces which are fabulous and maybe one or two which do not please. Each audience member might have his or her favorite or least favorite. In this performance, each presentation truly made the audience open eyes wide, catch the breath, and applaud. The applause only slowed because the next selection would begin a few breaths after the previous one ended. The program presented the song in its setting, so each selection is performed in the dramatic context of the opera from which it came. This allowed the performers to engage in their characters and show the audience their acting ability. It was done so successfully that for the time of that scene the audience experienced the pain or joy in the moment of the story.

Named in honor of the first director of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola, the program brings singers who are already beginning their careers to San Francisco for twelve weeks of intensive training and performing. Merola is widely considered among the finest training programs in the world. International stars launched by Merola include Ruth Ann Swenson, Susan Graham, Deborah Voight, Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Rolando Villazon, Thomas Hampson, Quinn Kelsey, Conductor Patrick Summer and so many more.

Among memorable moments were Alice Chung, Mezzo-Soprano, as Gertrude and Timothy Murray, Baritone, as Hamlet, Stefan Egerstrom, Bass, as the Spectre, in Hamlet by Thomas. (L to R) Timothy Murray and Alice Chung

Ms Chung’s presence was powerful even as Mr Murray castigated her for the death of her husband, Hamlet’s father. Their voices gave the Mother-Son relationship a new dimension beyond the usual lascivious Queen and up-tight Prince. Esther Tonea, Soprano, as Fiordiligi; Michael Day, Tenor, as Ferrando; and Edward Laurenson, Baritone, as Don Alfonso, gave Non son cattivo cornico…L’abito di Ferrando sara buono per me…Fra gli amplessi from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti the lilting, teasing buoyancy of this opera of practical jokes in the war of the sexes.

(L to R) Esther Tonea and Michael Day

A tense scene from Maria Stuarda, by Donizetti, had all 2,000 listeners on the edges of their seats. Chelsea Lehnea, Soprano, sang Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I of England); Salvatore Atti, Tenor; Conte di Leicester; Rafael Porto, Baritone, Lord Cecil. The Queen cannot make up her mind: should she sign the execution order and have Mary, Queen of Scots killed or not? As the threesome debates the political pros and cons of allowing Mary to live or killing her, the voices soared. It was a gut wrenching and magnificent experience demonstrating the expressive and musical gifts of opera.

In a lighter scene, Elisa Sunshine, Soprano, sang Marie, in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment (Daughter of the Regiment) and Andrew Dwan, Bass-Baritone, was Sulpice, who acts as her adoptive father. Both voices were outstanding. Ms Sunshine surely deserves her last name. Her actions as well as her musicality made her performance an absolute delight. What can I do now? Running up against a word limit when the Grand Finale’s incredible artists have not all been given their well deserved salutes? A rush to mention more does not do them justice. Hat’s off to Laureano Quant, Baritone, who sang Sir Riccardo Forth from Bellini’s I Puritani, Kneeling, down stage center, he reached into our hearts. Brandon Scott Russell, Tenor, sang the Prince from Dvorak’s Rusalka with a voice and presence that were surely royal; Jeff Byrnes, Baritone, was Germont, the father trying to spare Alfredo, his son, sung by Salvatore Atti, Tenor, who has lost himself to Violetta, in Verdi’s La Traviata. Mr. Byrnes, with a baritone which gets that musical term “burnished,” makes the father figure sympathetic. His distress is in his voice as the foolish lover, besotted Mr. Atti, his son, runs after that woman.

Keep track of these names! Soon you will see them perform around the US and the world. How exciting to be able to say, I was there when Anne-Marie MacIntosh sang Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, or Brennan Blankenship sang Stephano in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Cara Collins, Anna Dugan, Victor Starsky, Amber R. Monroe, Hyeree Shin, Patricia Westley, Edith Grossman, Nicholas Huff. Each one a star. No kidding, keep this list!

MEROLA GRAND FINALE: A GRAND BEGINNING

Tutti Merolini! All 29 artists at SF Opera House

The excitement of an opera premiere electrified the San Francisco Opera House, August 18, as the Merola Grand Finale was moments away. Merola is the training program for accomplished, adult artists already on their way to grand careers. They audition for a place in this program which will launch them into the best houses around the world. Previous stellar graduates of the Merola program include Brian Asawa, Joyce DiDonato, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson, Patrick Summers (conductor), Rolando Villazon, Deborah Voight, Dolora Zajick. And that is a partial list. Opera aficionados attend the Grand Finale knowing they are hearing the international stars of the day after the show. The singers were accompanied by the full San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Dean Williamson with stage direction by Merola Apprentice stage director, Marcus Shields.

Tenor Brian Michael Moore as Fritz sang “Buon giorno, signor Fritz… O pallida, che un giorno…O amore, o bella luce,” from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz

The Grand Finale is not the performance of a full opera. Instead it offers arias, duets, and other groupings selected from many great operas. It is what Dorismae Hacker Friedman calls “the good parts” version of opera. Each presentation was very fine in its own way: dramatic, tragic, funny, delightful. There were operas by Puccini, Verdi, Mascagni, Smetana, Donizetti, Bernstein, Mozart. Familiar and beloved music and some which would be new discoveries. A favorite of this listener was perhaps the oldest piece on the program:; Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse, beautifully and powerfully sung by Xiaomeng Zhang as Ulisse.

Soprano Patricia Westley as Papagena sang “Papagena! Papagena…Pa-pa-pa” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)

Andrew Moore as Papageno sang “Papagena! Papagena…Pa-pa-pa” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)

The Merola program is named in honor of Gaetano Merola, the founder and first director of the San Francisco Opera, 1923. The “Merolini” receive full sponsorship in San Francisco and aide in travel to audition elsewhere. Maestro Merola would be so proud.

This year’s class of 29 included artists from Canada, China, South Korea, Ukraine as well as from all around the US. In addition to singers, the program can include apprentice coaches, stage directors, conductors, designers.

It is impossible to select the “best” or “favorite” arias or performances. There were too many wonderful moments. Especially memorable were Cheyanne Coss and Jacob Scharfman as Norina and Malatesta in “E il dottor non si vede…Pronta io son” from Don Pasquale, by Donizetti; Andrew Moore and Patricia Westley as Papageno and Papgena in “Papagena! Papagena… Pa-pa-pa” from Die Zauberflote, by Mozart. Oh, and Kendra Berentsen as Thais singing “Ah, se suis seule…Dis-moi que je suis belle; and Marlen Nahhas as Elisabetta and Chistopher Colmenero as Don Carlo singing “Io vengo a domandar grazia” from Don Carlo by Verdi. It was a program of richness as well as variety. I notice that this list includes fewer items from the first than from the second half of the program. This reflects only on the brain being so loaded with great song.

Meigui Zhang as Gilda and Jaeman Yoon as Rigoletto sang “Parla, siam soli…Tutte le feste al tempio… Si, vendetta” from Verdi’s Rigoletto

The finale of the Grand Finale was the grandest sound of all. The full cast was onstage to sing together “Gia che il caso ci unisce… Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” from Puccini’s La Rondine. A glorious sound sent us home wanting more. To keep up with the Merola’s performances visit  merola.org

All photos by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the Merola Opera

 

 

SPECTACULAR: SF OPERA ‘S JENUFA

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.