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Canadian conductor Yves Abel brought fine energy and ensemble spirit to San Francisco Opera's season-opening production of Charles Gounod's melodic, yet intermittently dull, Romeo et Juliette (seen Sept. 29th). Shakespeare's great story, though mangled, does much of the heavy lifting for Gounod. Under Abel, and with strong vocal performances, the richly textured orchestral sound propulsively advanced the drama with a vigour too often lacking in the production as a whole.

Exciting news was Pene Pati's emergence as a remarkable tenor with a gentle and beautiful bel canto voice. He took over six performances of Romeo originally scheduled for Bryan Hymel, who cancelled a few days before opening. On the whole, Pati sings with integrated tone across a demandingly extended range. I did note that his soft and loud high notes seemed to come from two different instruments. He is young and relatively inexperienced, so further coaching will hopefully resolve this and a few other issues, including his sincere but awkward acting. Yet he alone in the cast met the crucial challenge of singing in a true French style. The French language and its unique operatic aura were among the hit-and-run casualties of this production. The audience received Pari as the star he may well become.

Nadine Sierra certainly made a beautiful Juliette--a very young and naive girl in the original--and managed the extreme ardour demanded by the director. She is a fine dramatic actress. She dispatches the written notes with accuracy, skill, and uniformity, as she has in other leading roles with this company and elsewhere. But she does not introduce the variations in tonality, rhythm, attack, and variability of volume with which more memorable singers are able to project details of feeling and character. Then there are the absent trills (a few half-hearted). Perhaps it is unfair to single her out when the 'case of the disappearing trill' is one of the mysteries of today's operatic stage. Certainly, Joyce DiDonato and a few others can trill to a fare-thee-well. But is there somehow a general approach to voice training today that renders trills unmanageable? For centuries, trills have been markers of operatic singing--often extremely extended ones. Without doubt Gounod assumed that they would be in the technical repertory of any soprano who attempted Juliette.

Stephanie Lauricella sang the page Stephanos one very showy aria with tremendous panache. Real star quality here. Lucas Meachem's voice is on the rough side for this kind of music, but he brought energy and presence to Mercutio. Philip Skinner's Duke of Verona filled the stage with old-school operatic presence, while the rather younger James Creswell brought similar authority and sympathy to Friar Lawrence.

Jean-Louis Grinda's direction treated us to a Capulet ball where the guests, entertained by professional dancers, hardly moved at all ... but then for the love scenes switched to steamy embraces and deep kisses verging on soft porn. Laughter sprinkled the audience at two different serious moments. The most famous balcony scene in all of theatre was somehow balanced on top of a garden wall with no balcony, while the marriage night hovered about a huge round bed with white curtains soaring upwards into the fly floor. The bland unit set surrounded by pale, painted walls and arches of official buildings signaled the Verona location, and occasionally gained a little more depth by virtue of advancing and retreating double arcades, the bed, and a few tombs (set design by Eric Chevalier). The costumes managed to appear dull and garish all at once (designer, Carola Voiles). It hardly seems artistically worthwhile to have hauled all of this to San Francisco in the name of a co-production, dating from 2012, with the Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa) and Opera de Monte-Carlo.

San Francisco Opera's new production of Le nozze di Figaro (seen Oct. 13th) radiates charm and easy elegance. Such is the perfection of Mozart's intricate domestic comedy that--though jammed with showpiece numbers unfurled by great stars for generations--it can equally shine with finely trained, rising singers of real conviction. The key for this production included their detailed collaboration with Hungarian conductor Henrik Nanasi and Canadian director Michael Cavanagh.

Nanasi brought every right quality to Mozart's complex score. Lightness, buoyance, transparency, lucidity of detail, and a strong sense of the architecture of the whole work. The inventive continuo, played on fortepiano by Bryndon Hassman, nudged these qualities to the fore during the countless recitatives, and cued the singers as they moved through the exceptional intricacies of the brilliant staging.

Cavanagh floats coundess delightful fine points into the basic flow of the action: inventive but not openly contrived, and always within the confines of Lorenzo Da Pontes dazzling libretto. Even the last act set in a twilight garden--filled with disguises that can be hard for an audience to track--seemed lucid in its exposition.

The basic conceit of this production is to move the action from Seville to a manor house just rounding out construction near Philadelphia--yes, Philadelphia--in 1786. I will admit this change flashed plenty of yellow warning flags in advance, as well as one big red one: droit du seigneur, or a masters right to deflower a bride from his household on her wedding night is maybe believable in 18th-century Spain, but not in fledgling Philadelphia. In fact, apart from subtle details in both costuming (Constance Hoffman) and the dances (Lawrence Pech), as well as an American flag briefly flashing with characters posed as in Archibald Willard's 19th-century painting "The Spirit of '76"--as well as a bison head on the wall of the Count's study--the action could well have been in Seville.

The inventive sets (Erhard Rom) reveal the Count's new villa as it is still being created. At times, we see solid pilasters, windows, and architraves while at others, construction drawings are merged with solid forms. These segments are easily moved to create the variety of spaces appropriate for each scene. The costumes, stitched together with historical details such as the merging dress of masters and servants and the influx of French fabrics into America during the later 18th century, largely remain understated and subtle. To this viewer, so subtle they might as well have been European clothes of the period. Exceptions to the generally refined floral and striped patterns were Figaro's bright silk waistcoat (trumping the more proletarian fabric one would expect), and Cherubino's magenta velvet outfit.

In the tide role, Michael Sumuel led the proceedings with suitable bounding vigour and the supple baritone needed for this long and complex role. Jeanine De Bique's agile Susanna matched her partner, moving through the intricate action with a precision paralleled in her vocal technique, though not always in sweetness of tone. The reigning Countess of Nicole Heaston brought easy authority and vocal beauty to this most stately of roles, while delivering a show-stopping rendition of "Dove sono," one of the summits of the soprano repertoire. Her Count, Levente Molnar, took bluster to a high art while singing this underrated part with real warmth and a certain sex appeal. Serena Malfi's enthusiasm as Cherubino matched her vocal charm and dynamism, while Canadian Natalie Image as Barbarina brought plenty of emotion to the brilliant musical moment Mozart bestowed on this servant girl as she searches for a lost pin. James Creswell (Bartolo), Catherine Cook (Marcellina), and Greg Fedderly (Basilio) all created their characters with vivid presence.

Some elements of this Figaro will apparently turn up again in the future, with a Cost fan tutte to be set during the 1930s in a decaying and altered version of the manor house, and again in a dystopian Don Giovanni of about 2080--all part of an American Mozart and Da Ponte series originating in San Francisco.

San Francisco Opera's co-production of Hansel and Gretel, shared with Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, thoroughly entertained the many families present at Nov. 17th's Sunday matinee. And yes, I did poll some of the children. But I speak for the adults in noting much enjoyment and seasonal good cheer--extending even to the handsomely decorated classical lobby of War Memorial Opera House.

The familiar story, derived by Humperdinck's sister Adelheid Wette from a much darker tale by the brothers Grimm, remained intact. We were treated to no large overhaul in locales or concepts by dramaturgs. Atmospheric scenery and bright, precisely specific props and costumes supported the fine singers and their vividly detailed action. The cutlery looked historic, along with the German period packaging of foodstuffs. An English singing translation by David Pountney opened the work to American ears (Covent Garden performed it in German). What more could one ask for in an opera that has pleased both adults and children ever since its first Christmas time performance in Weimar in 1893?

The answer, for me, is atmosphere and mood. Conductor Christopher Franklin led the excellent orchestra in an efficient, lucidly textured rendition of the score. But this very efficiency ran against the spirit of Humperdinck's lush, late Romantic music--itself echoing (not quoting) Wagner's manner in every bar. Perhaps modern orchestras cannot deliver the enveloping sonic haze that the composer surely imagined at a time when orchestra] phrases were linked with the slight slides of portamento and with the liberal mbato that stretched or compressed marked tempi. They can imitate such effects, however, and I have heard this accomplished with Humperdinck's score as well as, of course, with Wagner. So, I consider the stylistic choice to have been the conductor's.

All in all, the direction, settings, and costumes by Antony McDonald were truer to Humperdinck than the orchestral approach, despite the introduction of fairy tale characters from the Grimms in place of the 14 angels who watch over Hansel and Gretel after their evening prayer, and the death of the witch in a giant cauldron of chocolate rather than in the classic oversized gingerbread oven. The beautiful shifting forest projected a fine silvery mood, though a bit brightly lit for real fright (Lucy Carter and Neill Brinkworth). The forest was alive with figures sporting splendidly detailed animal heads, and the proscenium suddenly decorated by giant iridescent moths and a huge hanging bat. The enormous chocolate witch house was straight out of Hitchcock's Psycho, if in distorted perspective, and without any clue how to decipher the meaning of this strong reference.

The witch house was more than creepy enough, but the Witch of Robert Brubaker (in drag) seemed at first more like an authoritative grandmother. When finally stripped of his grandma dress, he assumed a more appropriate madness before landing in the cauldron. Our final view of the cauldron splitting open to reveal a blackened corpse came more from the world of horror films than from the benign threats that accompany this production.

Among the other singers, Canadian Natalie Image's shimmering sound matched her silver dress and umbrella sparkling with crystal dew drops, as the Dew Fairy charmingly awakened Hansel and Gretel from slumber with sprays of silver confetti dispensed by a tiny watering can. The Sandman who put them to sleep, wearing a Dickensian curved top hat and tails, was the equally delightful Ashley Dixon. Hansel and Gretel's parents completely fit their roles, both in appearance and voice, with Alfred Walker as Peter and Mary Evelyn Hangley filling in for Michaela Martens as Gertrude.

Heidi Stober remained perfectly in character as Gretel, while showing off the beauty of her leading lady soprano, especially during the solo music near the beginning of Act III. Sasha Cooke moved boyishly as Hansel, a notoriously difficult role, and her ever-lovely mezzo blended perfectly with Stober's tones. The children's many passages together seemed almost like one voice. And the evening prayer could not have been sweeter or more moving.

Caption: Serena Malfi (Cherubino), Michael Sumuel (Figaro) & Jeanine De Bique (Susanna) in SFO's Le nozze di Figaro

Caption: Natalie Image (Dew Fairy) in SFO's Hansel and Gretel
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Author:Bender, John
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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