Vigorous Start for San Francisco Oera

VOLUME 3, ISSUE 342 | October 14 -20, 2004

OPERA/REVIEW

Vigorous Start for San Francisco Opera

Finances constrain innovation, but Bay Area treated to three fine shows

Among the reasons given by Pamela Rosenberg, general director of the San Francisco Opera, for not extending her contract beyond 2006 is the severe budget constraints the company has faced since the bust of the 1990s “dot-com boom.”

This season, all of its productions are revivals or borrowings, which is not a state of affairs beneficial to the morale or creative regimen of a major opera house. However, a visitor recently encountered three fine performances, even if the opera’s future remains uncertain.

SFO is a central, beloved institution in the City by the Bay. It was also salutary to realize, in the program essays for “Billy Budd” and “Così fan tutte”––both set in wartime–– that at least one American opera company is willing to reflect on the course of current international events.

John Copley’s sumptuous, but not stifling, “Traviata” production originated in 1987 for the brilliant Violetta of Nelly Miricioiu. Ruth Ann Swenson, a house favorite for two decades, is not a singing actress of that caliber (verbal nuance has never been her strong suit) but on September 30 she gave a sincere, well-planned performance, quite touching in the final two scenes. High notes (like the repeated stabs at “Gioir”) are now approached with caution and when sustained, sometimes waver in a glassy, like late-career Sutherland. Otherwise, Swenson still shows excellent technique.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave his usual sonorous if heavily breathed, somewhat anonymous Papa Germont. The brilliantly sung, ardently acted Alfredo of Rolando Villazon supplied the moment-to-moment conviction that the others lacked––a complete triumph for the affable, highly musical Mexican tenor. Patrick Summers conducted considerately, though sometimes the Siberian baritone and he didn’t see eye-to-eye on tempi.

Using the original 1951 score, the music director, Donald Runnicles, obtained more telling results in Britten’s “Budd” (October 1), helped by the fine chorus of Ian Roberston. Only the brass sometimes let Runnicles down. The stark, symbolic 2001 mise-en-scène of Willy Decker from the Vienna Staatsoper was restaged capably enough by Sabine Hartmannshenn. From the start, this staging focuses on the violence inherent in the autocratic shipboard society. Billy’s cry “Farewell, Rights o’ Man!” resonates powerfully in the era of Ashcroft and Guantánamo detentions. Some details of naval etiquette seemed questionably observed.

San Franciscans have fond memories of Dale Duesing in the title role (in 1978 and 1985), but Nathan Gunn—as eager to please as a new puppy, physically ideal, with beautiful diction and excellent dynamic control—was very warmly welcomed. When does New York get to witness this fine assumption? (The Met’s “Billy Budd” is among the company’s most spectacular stagings.)

If commanding less sheer power than James King and fewer nuances than Phillip Langridge in the role, Kim Begley, in his local debut, made an incisive Captain Vere, credible both as seaman and scholar. Phillip Ens lowered impressively as an even more vicious than usual Claggart, moving wonderfully. Perhaps the Canadian bass is too handsome for librettists Crozier and Forster’s conception of Melville’s Master-at-Arms, whose evil is triggered by envy of Billy’s beauty. Though the voice is a fine, dark one (Ens has served the Met very well as Wagner’s Hunding and Verdi’s Wurm), its sheer resonance sometimes swallowed up his words. Still, this could grow into a powerful performance.

“Così fan tutte,” seen October 2 in a production owned by the opera company of Monte Carlo, boasted a lovely pastel setting seemingly set there by Robert Perdziola, violated by the modern rotating siren on the electromagnetic device Despina produces. The septuagenarian Michael Gielen, in a much-belated American operatic debut, led a winningly transparent reading. There weren’t many vocal decorations by current standards, and (as almost always) Ferrando’s second-act rondo “Ah, lo veggio” was cut, though Paul Groves could certainly have managed it. Why don’t conductors and directors care enough about the development of Ferrando’s character to perform it?

John Cox’s production aimed for laughs rather than insight; though at the end the soldiers really do march off to the First World War. There were far too many costume extras milling about and stealing focus for my tastes.

Alexandra Deshorties (Fiordiligi), in generally excellent form, alone gave the evening depth. Groves did well in Ferrando’s lyrical music, in which he deployed his fine head voice, but at forte his tenor turned less ingratiating. Thick-timbered Hanno Müller-Brachmann proved yet another unnecessary Mitteleuropean import (a repeated failing of Rosenberg’s regime); handsome enough, and seemingly a serious musician, the baritone just didn’t provide a compelling enough lyric flow for this music. He’s doubtlessly a good Wozzeck or Beckmesser, but one couldn’t help wishing that Troy Cook (a fine Redburn in the “Budd” cast) or some other of the myriad American Guglielmi out there had been given this assignment. Dorabella should also not be hard to cast locally, but at least Claudia Mahnke sang and acted charmingly, with a nice mezzo timbre.

The Dorabella and Guglielmo of the San Francisco Opera’s 1973 cast, Frederica von Stade and Richard Stilwell, evoked audience nostalgia as Despina and Alfonso. Many operagoers the world over remember these two veterans as knockout youngsters playing Pelléas and Mélisande, Ulysses and Penelope, and Count Almaviva and Cherubino. Stilwell, looking rather like the elderly Mark Twain, started the opera as a croupier and morphed into the casino owner before Cox dropped the concept. He sang with some style; also some dryness. Von Stade has given much to the company and its audience was audibly glad to see her having fun as Despina, though character comedy is not really quite naturally in her line. In her middle range, she still retains the beautiful personal timbre that makes her recorded Dorabella such a treat; the bottom has grown thicker and the top sounded a little chancy in this soprano role.

Those planning to travel to the Bay Area should check out the San Francisco Opera’s Web site. The season continues through June and promises the American premiere of Ligeti’s “Le Grand macabre” with Willard White and Graham Clark, Nina Stemme and Christopher Ventris in a Runnicles-led “Flying Dutchman,” Katerina Dalayman and Hanna Schwarz in Richard Jones’ Welsh National Opera production of “Queen of Spades” and Charles Castronovo and Norah Amsellem in “Pearl Fishers,” among other events. And don’t overlook Opera San José in its sparkling new home, the beautifully renovated and acoustically pleasing 1927 California Theatre. A pleasing “Marriage of Figaro” just kicked off their season; to judge from resident soprano Deborah Berioli’s impressive Countess, her upcoming Tosca, Micaëla and Senta should be well worth catching too.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about the arts for “Playbill,” “Opera News” and other venues.

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