Friday, September 25, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Il Trovatore

Sept. 22, 2009

This is not something a critic says lightly, but I think I have just seen the best soprano I have ever seen (and heard). Her name is Sondra Radvanovsky (an American, lest that last name mislead you), and she's currently taking over the city of San Francisco as Leonora in "Il Trovatore."

Let's get extremely specific about this. Let's talk about a device that Radvanovsky uses, first in her opening Andante, "Tacea la notte placida," and most remarkably in Leonora's centerpiece Adagio, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," sung outside the palace as her lover Manrico awaits execution within. The device is a sudden diminuendo - although it doesn't feel sudden, due to the incredibly smooth quality of Radvanovsky's singing. She then takes the note to the barest of pianissimos - a single silk thread of tone, just that close to actual silence - and grows it back. But she's not done. Seeming to possess the lung capacity of pearl diver, the soprano carries the line far past the spot where an average singer might take a catch-breath, spelling out the phrase as a literally breathless audience listens. Although I have always had a problem "buying into" the implausibilities of "Trovatore," Radvanovsky had me weeping for Leonora regardless, if only for the emotional thrill ride that accompanies such gorgeous singing. It's also remarkable that she achieves these iridescent pianissimos from a position of strength - her fortes and top notes are powerful and ringing. Her instrument is a pit bull that also performs pirouettes.

New musical director Nicola Luisotti has made a special project of this "Trovatore," and it certainly shows. The cast is powerful in matters both vocal and dramatic, especially mezzo Stephanie Blythe in the "co-star" role of Azucena. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky brings his trademark dash and power to the villain role of Count di Luna, particularly in the graceful Largo, "Il balen del suo sorriso." Tenor Marco Berti lends his warrior spinto to Manrico - although his cabaletta "Di quella pira," cut by a verse, lacks the anticipated energy. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, meanwhile, starts things right with a muscular, compelling delivery of the story of Azucena's slain mother (I always feel like this story should come with a warning - "Pay careful attention or you will be lost for the rest of the opera").

The chorus presence - notably the legions of soldiers on both sides - is impressively active, thanks to stage director David McVicar and fight director Jonathan Rider. The vision of Manrico's men climbing the fences, guns at the ready, was an especially striking image.

Charles Edwards' sets - inspired by the works of Goya and used previously in productions at the Met and Chicago Lyric - are set upon a three-sided rotating monolith, and it's much fun to watch the next scene cruising in even as the last one is spinning away (especially Manrico and di Luna, dueling all the way offstage at the finish of Act I). The lighting by Jennifer Tipton added greatly to these artful tableaux, notably the hellish orange-yellows of the Anvil scene. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are intriguing, notably the top hats worn by the Count's forces and di Luna's Act I outfit, a dazzling black uniform with white button squares - going nicely with Hvorostovsky's blazing white hair.

Luisotti is well at home with Verdi, and it came through with his orchestra, which gave a lively, robust performance. Watch closely during the Anvil Chorus, by the way, and you'll note that only one "anvilist" is actually producing the famed metallic peals - a shrewd maneuver.

Through Oct. 6 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330.

Image: Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

San Francisco Opera's Il Trittico

September 18, 2009

It’s impressive enough that Patricia Racette is delivering all three soprano roles in Puccini’s trio of one-acts; what’s even more impressive is the style in which she and her cohorts are doing it. Aided by sets and costumes from the 2002 New York City Opera production, SFO’s performance is a thoroughly satiating evening of opera, capped by a dazzling, Fellini-esque “Gianni Schicchi.”

The three-role trick demands a singer with versatility both vocal and theatrical, and Racette, a graduate of SFO’s Merola Program, certainly qualifies.Tackling the verismo potboiler of Il Tabarro, Racette performs the lusty, frustrated wife Giorgetta with a forceful, dramatic, tone, invested with a bit of a jagged edge.With Suor Angelica, she shifts to a classic Puccinian lyric, shaping her phrases with a light touch befitting the religious setting. Dramatically, her handling of the pivotal scene, in which she learns of the death of her illegitimate son, rang resoundingly true, and led the way into a mesmerizing performance of the beautiful “Senza mamma.”

Finally, she shifts to the Rossinian, opera buffa sensibilities of “Gianni Schicchi.” Racette sacrifices all for the laughter, trotting around in a pink Sandra Dee dress and heels and even marking up the revered “O mio babbino caro” with comic pouts and sobs. It’s a miracle that any one singer could make it through this panoply of styles (the last I knew of was Barbara Divis’s 2007 performance at Hawaiian Opera Theater), but then Racette is a pretty miraculous performer.

Not that she achieves all of this by herself. Il Tabarro offers tenor Brandon Jovanovich’s wrenching performance of “Hai ben ragione,” a tirade against the harshness of a stevedore’s life. Baritone Paolo Gavanelli achieves a fine balance with Michele, the sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-scary husband, notably in his final, fatal litany of suspicions.

Angelica is rare for its all-female adult cast; this serves to accentuate the strength of SFO’s chorus singers, who are asked to sing together almost as a single entity, the sisterhood offering a running commentary on their eccentric peer. The stark contrast comes from contralto Ewa Podles, who applies her quirky stage presence to Angelica’s heartless aunt, The Princess.

For “Gianni Schicchi,” director James Robinson has assembled the most divine team of oddballs this side of “The Office.” The standouts include contralto Meredith Arwady as Zita, the enormous (both physically and vocally) bass Andrea Silvestrelli, and David Lomeli, who lends a brilliant tenor to the ingenue Rinuccio. The center, of course, is the title character, and Paolo Gavanelli, like Racette, displays an astounding ability to play both sides of the coin, recovering from the tormented Michele to play the crafty, cantankerous lawyer. His impression of the dead uncle, Buoso – upon which the family’s will-changing scam depends – is hilarious, with a few bits of Adam Sandler thrown in for good measure.

Allen Moyer’s “Schicchi” set – an astounding kaleidoscope of black-and-white checks – earned its own applause. Bruno Schwengl took his black-and-white costumes straight from a Fellini movie. The cast also made much use of the new electronic cigarettes, chain-smoking inside a dying man’s room as only a dysfunctional ‘50s clan could. Moyer’s “Angelica” set is a ‘50s model as well, a children’s hospital whose green-tiled walls, painted cabinets and miniature desks should evoke memories both good and bad for Catholic spectators.

It’s a joy to see Il Trittico in its original form (for the first time at SFO since 1952), especially for the testament it provides to Puccini’s virtuosity. It was almost as if the aging composer wanted to play a game of Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better, simultaneously paying tribute to verismo, the sacred music of his childhood and the great school of opera buffa. His very popularity has inspired a trendy new wave of Puccini-haters, but what’s irrefutable is that the man was an amazing musician.

Through October 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the opera novel “Gabriella’s Voice.” Look for his author page at

Image: Allen Moyer's Fellini-esque set for "Gianni Schicchi." Photo by Cory Weaver.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manon, Opera San Jose, 9/12/09

It's a true delight when Opera San Jose ventures beyond the standard regional-company fare, especially when it pays off as well as it does with its recent opening of Massenet's "Manon. The reason lies squarely with its lead couple, soprano Khori Dastoor and tenor Alexander Boyer. Both singers display a deep knowledge and skill with both their characters and Massenet's music.

I could go on and on about Dastoor, who has developed into a masterful bel canto singer. The singer brings lyricism and sensitivity to Manon's opening aria, "Je suis encore tout etourdie," reaches an emotional peak with with the second-act "Adieu, notre petite table" (notably a thrilling double-forte cresendo suddenly cut off to the nearly whispered confession, "I am nothing but weakness and fragility"), then ventures into the prytechnical with the coloratura cadenzas of Manon's "brag-piece," "Je marche sur tous les chemins." Throughout, Dastoor brings out the light and dark sides that make Manon one of opera's most complex and compelling characters. It was a thrill to follow the artistry with which Dastoor shaped her lines, especially a couple of gorgeous 2nd-act diminuendos, and to enjoy the space afforded to her by Joseph Marcheso and his orchestra.

Boyer continues to make a mark with his powerful, lyric voice (and after Don Jose, finds himself in yet another sucker-for-the-ladies role). Tenors with Boyer's kind of tone can get away with murder (sorry, sopranos), but Boyer chooses not to, continually refining his approach. A good example is the third-act prayer, "Ah! fuyez, douce image" and the following duet with the repentant Manon, "N'est-ce plus ma main," in which he employs a lighter tone to bring out Des Grieux's emotional vulnerability.

The supporting roles are another strength: tenor Bill Welch, who makes the most of the comically hateful nobleman Guillot de Morfontaine; baritone Adam Meza, who enjoys himself a little too much as the caddish soldier De Bretigny; and bass Silas Elash, who lends the proper degree of gravitas to Des Grieux's father (who has that irritating quality of being insufferably right all the time). The only complaint is for baritone Krassen Karagiozov as Manon's cousin, Lescaut; he's fine vocally, but distractingly stiff in his movements.

I save a separate paragraph for "the actresses" - Pousette, Rosette and Javotte, played by soprano Jillian Boye and mezzos Cathleen Candia and Bettany Coffland. Massenet laces his party scenes with these three in the same way that Mozart decorates "The Magic Flute" with his Three Ladies, like a host serving up regular portions of creme brulee. Those three-part female harmonies are just sonically delicious.

The biggest surprise in the program was seeing the name of OSJ's General Manager, Larry Hancock, as set designer. No typo there. Already serving as supertitles translator, apparently Hancock's going to address these recessionary budgets by doing everything himself. The results for "Manon" were pretty impressive, a series of scenes designed not so much to be showy as to best augment the action. (Given Hancock's encyclopedic knowledge of opera, this is no surprise.) A couple of standout touches were the royal red bed canopy in Act 2 that rose all the way into the flies, and the creepy hand-like tree in the final scene on the road to Le Havre.

OSJ's new principal conductor, Joseph Marcheso, in addition to "playing nice" with his singers, is a hell of a lot of fun to watch; he's quite theatrical in his movements. He and the orchestra brought out all the subtleties in Massenet's work that are, perhaps the culprit in making him one of history's most underrated composers.

Through Sept. 27, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. Alternate casts. $51-$91, 408/437-4450, the serial version of Michael's novel "Outro" at
Image: Alexander Boyer and Khori Dastoor. Photo by Chris Ayers.