Monday, October 5, 2009

San Francisco's Abduction from the Seraglio

September 29, 2009

The third performance of this production created one of those backstage dramas that fans sometimes enjoy more than the opera itself - though for a sad reason. Bass Peter Rose, set to play the Turkish villain Osmin, had to return home upon the death of his father. Andrea Silvestrelli, in town to perform in Puccini's "Il Trittico," performed the role earlier in Chicago (in fact, upon the same sets), and so was able to step in on a moment's notice.

Silvestrelli performed Osmin with robust enthusiasm, and his usual resounding vocal presence, although he fumbled a bit over the English dialogue. He gave notice of his presence early on in the fuming "Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen," a curse upon all wandering European fops, and spent the rest of the evening amusingly storming about.

Another early delight came in our wandering rescuer, Belmonte. Matthew Polenzani played the role with a divinely Mozartean lyric tenor, caressing his phrases and bits of coloratura with a sensitivity often missing in tenors of the Verdi/Puccini stripe. This comes in his opening aria, "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen," in which Belmonte laments the shipwreck and subsequent imprisonment of his beloved Constanze.

Playing that very heroine, soprano Mary Dunleavy excels in a similar lament, the second-act Adagio "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose," but otherwise suffers from a difficult-to-define lack of focus. A handy contrast appears in the form of her servant, Blonde, soprano Anna Christy, who is spot-on in all categories: her singing is brilliantly centered, her physical comedy hilarious (especially the nipple-twisting torments she inflicts upon her pursuer, Osmin), and her Bernadette Peters cuteness should be insured by Lloyd's of London. One particularly effective bit of phrasing is an overlong sustenato she uses to toy with Osmin's guards in "Durch Zartlichkeit und Schmeicheln." The guards hang upon the note even as they are hanging upon the blonde.

Blonde's beau, Pedrillo, is played by tenor Andrew Bidlack with an earnest enthusiasm, seeming almost like one of those heros from 1920s movie serials. Osmin's guards lend a creepy presence with their male-geisha appearances, and the identical mustaches and outfits of the Janissaries give a cult-like quality to the scene. Charles Shaw endows the speaking role of the Pasha with an air of wisdom that succeeds in not being overbearing. (An interesting historical note: the Pasha's role was limited to speaking primarily because Mozart and his librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, were afraid another singing role would make the Singspiel too long.)

Production designer David Zinn sets the opera in a theater-within-a-theater; having the characters romp about in the balconies and front-row seats gives a nice Brechtian alienation and forgives some of the silliness of the plot (part of the Enlightenment trend of doing just about anything to take an audience to exotic locales). There are some nicely goofy bits, too, such as Pedrillo borrowing a mandolin for his serenade from the prompter's box. Director Chas Rader-Shieber has instilled a fine sense of comic energy in his troupe, and Cornelius Meister does the same for his orchestra, illustrating all the radiant nooks and crannies of a thoroughly elegant score.

Through Oct. 17, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Anna Christy as Blonde. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

See Michael's opera novel, "Gabriella's Voice," at

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