Wednesday, June 23, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Wagner's "Die Walkure," June 19, 2010

One of the payoffs to a well-executed shift of setting and locale is a higher level of humanity from your characters, as if the big medieval costumes have been keeping you from seeing the person - or god - inside. This is certainly true of SFO's "American" Ring cycle, which lends tremendous insights to the game of familial power inside Die Walkure.

Escaping a tribal battlefield, Siegmund finds his long-lost twin sister Sieglinde trapped in a loveless marriage to one of them. Director Francesca Zambello turns her first trick of the evening by consulting her ancient Norse-to-modern American translator and making of the brutally possessive husband, Hunding, a groping, sword-loving militia man. Bass Raymond Aceto fills the role with a hateful flair.

Zambello's next stroke is to take Valhalla to a boardroom atop a New York skyscraper, and where better to find overpowerful figures who mess with the lives of mortals to settle petty squabbles? Later, the Valkyries drift onstage as WWII paratroopers, carrying oversize photos of the heroes they have recruited for the defense of Valhalla.

Set designer Michael Yeargan absolutely dazzles, especially in his Act II setting beneath an eroded freeway overpass; the structure's columns evoke Greek ruins, while the little touches (the standard torn-out car seat serving as a couch) bring a divine seediness. Jan Hartley, meanwhile, gives life to all of the settings with constantly shifting cloudscapes (and the lightning strikes are pretty impressive).

For pure vocal virtuosity, you can't beat the golden heldentenor of British singer Christopher Ventris as Siegmund, particularly in Act I's Sword soliloquy. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek delivers in kind, at her best in Act III, as Brunnhilde works to talk her out of her depression over her twin's death and into the work of saving their chosen child, Siegfried.

The principal conflict, however, is father and daughter, and here the acting is superb. Baritone Mark Delevan plays Wotan as a god trapped by his own power. His burly voice plays well in the quiet, somber moments of Act III, as Wotan faces a common father's common dilemma: how to overcome tender paternal feelings in punishing a daughter. His farewell, "Leb wohl," is heartbreaking.

General Director David Gockley appeared onstage beforehand to ask the audience's "indulgence" for soprano Nina Stemme, who performed despite a viral infection, but it was hardly necessary. After some cautious singing in the early going, the handicap was not noticeable. Stemme brought to the oft-lampooned Brunnhilde a wild, tomboyish quality, entirely appropriate to a girl who spends her free time scouring battlefields for heroes. During the tension-filled father-daughter debate of Act III, Stemme and Delevan performed the great trick of extracting intimate, everyday familial interactions from epic mythology.

Former SFO music director Donald Runnicles returned to warm ovations, and justified them by leading the orchestra in a strenuous attack on Wagner's score, especially in the lush low-string tones of the opening scene. Costume designer Catherine Zuber excelled in the subtleties of her modern outfits, giving her gods and heroes flowing overcoats to evoke the robes of an earlier day. The company continues to have fun playing with fire, in this case a ring of flames that sprouts directly from the set to protect the sleep-cursed Brunnhilde.

Image: Mark Delevan as Wotan, Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through June 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330,

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

San Francisco Opera, "La Fanciulla del West," June 12, 2010

I once asked Salvatore d'Aura - a former assistant to Puccini - why La Fanciulla del West isn't performed more often. He replied that it demands a soprano of near-superhuman abilities. Watching my first-ever Fanciulla - and a near-superhuman performance by Deborah Voigt - I was reminded of last summer's SFO production of Porgy and Bess. Both works represented unprecedented fusions of ethnic forms - and both were far too ahead of their time to be truly appreciated.

Fanciulla incorporates American folk forms like ragtime (even a quote from "Camptown Races") but is clearly composed from Puccini's ever-evolving Italian palette, including oriental touches influenced by Madama Butterfly. But perhaps the more fascinating experience is witnessing Puccini's steady advance into through-composing, and his ability to turn his music on a dime to reflect temporal conditions in the drama (e.g., the snowstorm in Act II). This "crop-shot" effect would greatly influence the development of the Hollywood soundtrack. Considering his life-long obsession with theatrical realism (and a long line of exhausted librettists to prove it), it's easy to see Puccini developing into the ideal 20th-century composer, were it not for the throat cancer that cut short his life.

This realism is also reflected in Fanciulla's characters - a love triangle reminiscent of Tosca, but each of its members much more nuanced. In a gold rush mining town deprived of female company, Minnie reigns over the Polka saloon much as Tosca reigned over the concert hall. Her primary admirer, Sheriff Jack Rance, is given to Scarpia-like abuses of power, but is often held back by a tender side. And Minnie's mysterious lover, Dick Johnson - far from the idealistic artist of Cavaradossi - turns out to be a Mexican bandit trying to kick the family business.

The secret of SFO's success is a beautifully cast central trio. As Rance, Italian baritone Roberto Frontali is solid from moment one, creating an alpha-male presence in the saloon without ever seeming tyrannical. His singing is resounding and lovely, beginning with his backstory aria, "Minnie, dalla mia casa." As Dick, tenor Salvatore Licitra takes a while to warm up, not really finding his energy till the second act, but taking flight from there. His performance of the opera's only self-contained piece, "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano," as Dick faces the hangman's noose, is passionate and powerful, marked by gorgeous top-notes.

As for our Ms. Voigt, I literally cannot say enough. In her first-ever Minnie, she demonstrates an amazing timbral range, singing arias like the Act I "Laggiu nel Soledad, ero piccina" with a bright Italian lyricism, but pulling out her customary Lady Macbeth flamethrower for moments like the climax of Act II. Winning Dick's freedom in a card game with Rance, she throws down her cards with a delicious vengefulness. Her performance in Act 3, as she trades on her years of devoted service to save Dick from the noose, is intensely moving.

Stage director Lorenzo Mariani marshals his troops with style, creating one of the most action-packed productions I've ever seen, complete with a good old-fashioned barrom brawl choreographed by Jonathan Rider. Chorus director Ian Robertson and his men create a group of rowdy-but-sensitive '49ers, while Nicola Luisotti and orchestra bring out the exceptional power of Puccini's score.

The hometown crowd was well aware of the opera's unique California setting, particularly when someone announced that Dick "must be from San Francisco - he wants his whiskey with water." A poignant supporting turn is delivered by tenor Steven Coles as bartender Nick. Gotta love the product-placement supertitle, "It's a great day for Wells Fargo," especially with a full-page Wells Fargo ad in the program. Puccini's particular approach to through-composing often means turning a single line into a mini-aria, illustrated by Minnie's line to Dick: "How often I hoped to see you again." This seemingly simple phrase takes a dramatic upward flight before settling back down to a sudden shyness.

And then there's the Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing. The Puccini estate sued the composer for purloining the climactic phrase of Dick's opening aria, "Quello che tacete" for Phantom of the Opera's "The Music of the Night." Hearing the phrase in its original context, there's no doubt it's an exact copy. What's worse, Puccini uses it as a recurring motif for the Dick-Minnie romance, and every time it comes back my brain drags it into that insipid song like a Pavlovian dog. (The suit was settled out of court, and I think I'd like a cut.)

Voigt made her Act 3 entrance on Whiz Kid, an 11-year-old carriage horse from Martinez, then repeated the trick for her curtain call. Amazingly calm animal, and accompanied by two of its owners just in case. Voigt and Luisotti will both appear in the Metropolitan's 100th anniversary of Fanciulla's premiere (first performed at the Met December 10, 1910, with Puccini overseeing the production).

Through July 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the award-winning opera novel Gabriella's Voice, available at

Image: Salvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson, Deborah Voigt as Minnie. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Faust, June 8, 2010

Having managed to avoid "Faust" for 25 years, I look forward to never seeing it again. A glacially paced setting of Goethe's story, Gounod's opera simply fails theatrically, and its church-endorsed propaganda has not weathered the past 150 years well.
This is no fault of the forces at SFO, who gave a flawed but ambitious performance. The production's primary delight is right where it should be: bass-baritone John Relyea's Mephistopheles. Relyea delivers a prototypical black-licorice thundervoice (particularly in the second-act golden calf song, "Le veau d'or"), and he and stage director Jose Maria Condemi leave no comic stone unturned: covering the eyes of a Madonna statue during the seduction scene, coughing and waving away the special-effects smoke, dragging a harlot by the ankles. The techie tricks are nice, too, including a shattering sword, a well with an elevator and a statue that bleeds wine.

Another large presence is Brian Mulligan as Margeurite's brother Valentin. Mulligan's baritone has tremendous size and power, and he plays the role with passionate intensity, particularly in his fatal duel with Faust.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco played the milquetoast title character a little too wimpy. Vocally, he delivers tremendous top-notes, but fails to maintain his energy at the less-spectacular moments. This was true especially of the famed cavatine "Salut! demeure chaste et pure."

The most distressing disappointment came from soprano Patricia Racette as Margeurite. Racette displays a few elements of her estimable palette - her care for crafting the quiet passages, her abiity to imbue a doormat character with personality and pathos (the spinning air, "Il ne reveient pas") but her top notes were unstable, weighted down by an oversize vibrato and unclear pitch. Racette is a personal favorite, so I'm hoping she was just having a bad night.

Mezzo Daniela Mack was a complete delight as Margeurite's young admirer, Siebel (the flower song, "Faites-lui mes aveux"). Condemi and the chorus created a lively crowd for the fairgrounds scene. The nighttime garden is a marvel of blue lights (lighting designer Duane Schuler) and the final-scene stairway to heaven from the Chicago Lyric production (designer Robert Perdziola) is dazzling. Maurizio Benini and orchestra handled Gounod's elegant score with aplomb (with help from Ernest Knell's backstage organ work). Mephistopheles' gypsy-fiddler outfit is wild and fun (costume supervisor Kristi Johnson)

Through July 1 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$360. 415/864-3330.

Image: soprano Patricia Racette (Margeurite) and tenor Stefano Secco (Faust). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the opera novel "Gabriella's Voice," available at The sequel, "Operaville," will be released this fall, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.