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William Burden (Tom Rakewell) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy]
28 Nov 2007

Thanksgiving in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera makes it possible for opera-lovers who have stuffed themselves with turkey on the fourth Thursday of November to indulge in a feast of opera on the following three days.

William Burden as Tom Rakewell in The Rake's Progress, San Francisco Opera
Photo by Terrence McCarthy


This year, the three productions from Friday through the Sunday matinee featured productions new to San Francisco. The Rake’s Progress premiered on Friday the 23rd, while the Saturday the 24th Macbeth came in the middle of its run. The weekend ended with a sold-out Sunday matinee of La Rondine, in its penultimate performance.

David Gockley seems intent to marry at least some of the envelope-pushing excitement Pamela Rosenberg tried to bring to SFO to a more star-centered, audience-pleasing approach. What he may find is that even the world’s best marriage counselor can’t help this coupling.

The War Memorial clearly did not sell out for the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s score to W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto of The Rake’s Progress. An opera arguably more respected than loved, even the presence of audience favorite James Morris as Nick Shadow couldn’t fill every seat. Director Robert Lepage apparently flipped through a volume on the history of cinema, found a photo of James Dean in costume for Giant on the wide plains of Texas, and decided, “There’s my concept”! At any rate, such a picture found its way to the cover of the San Francisco program. The spare production has some showy, humorous effects, such as a heart-shaped bed into which the errant Tom Rakewell (William Burden) and Mother Goose (Catherine Cook) fall, which then swallows them and sinks into the stage as they canoodle. Later a silver balloon pops up from a similar crack in the stage, inflating until it becomes a tacky mobile home. In Lepage’s vision, once Tom has left Texas, he is seduced by Hollywood glamour, with Nick Shadow at one point in the role of film director. Following that schema, the last scene perhaps should have taken place in a ritzy Malibu rehab clinic, but Lepage simply has it in an all-white hospital ward. After the color and drive of the earlier scenes, the evening slowly deflates, but getting some emotional impact out of the brilliant but cold creation of Stravinsky, Auden, and Kallman would be a challenge for any director.

Morris sang with professional authority, but never for one moment suggested evil. Laura Aiken caught the essence of Anne Truelove’s naive innocence, even though it’s possible to imagine a sweeter tone. As Baba the Turk, Denyce Graves nearly stole the show, dipping easily into the vocal pool of dark colors while also slipping into an on-stage pool at one point, looking quite glamorous in a ‘50s-style one-piece bathing suit (with beard accessory).

But ultimately the evening belonged to William Burden, an American lyric whose name doesn’t seem to come up often when discussing star tenors of the day. He can be counted on for solid projection of a pleasing, though slightly anonymous, tone, and he is that creature both applauded and derided on today’s opera stage: an attractive, fit performer who can really act. Why some would prefer an out-of-shape singer who stands and barks is beyond your reviewer.

Donald Runnicles led the SFO orchestra in the performance one would expect: detailed, dynamic, and urgent. It’s good to know that even when he has relinquished his title as music director, he will return to the War Memorial.

From various reports, the premiere of David Poutney’s production of Verdi's Macbeth met with strong disapproval, except for its star lead, Thomas Hampson. Hampson appears in a DVD of this production of Verdi’s opera, from Zurich some five years ago. Apparently the opening night audience thought Pamela Rosenberg had gained possession of Gockley. By the fourth performance on November 24th, things seemed to have jelled. Pountney wants the audience to feel truly weirded out by the Scottish tragedy, and probably correctly feels that a traditional approach can no longer achieve the appropriate spooky effect. Here the castle takes the form of a rotating cube with a mirrored interior, emphasizing the cramped psyches of the Lord and Lady Macbeth as they murderously pursue their expansive ambitions. The weird sisters are truly weird, a spectrum of feminine archetypes from grande dames and grandmothers to hula-hooping teenyboppers and stern matrons, all dressed in various shades of red. At the banquet that Banquo’s ghost crashes, for once we do not have to deal with a crudely made-up Banquo wandering around the stage to little effect. Hampson is more than actor enough to make us believe he sees the ghost, while Pountney has him pawing through dirt-strewn dining tables (the dirt of the grave?).

Understandably, for some in the audience, this constant flow of ideas becomes sensory over-kill, especially if one is hesitant to engage with the director, perhaps feeling it is more the director’s duty to engage the audience. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that many who see this production will be forgetting it very soon.

Georgina Lukács, by many reports, had a difficult time at the premiere. On Saturday her Lady Macbeth did seem tentative in her opening aria, perhaps understandably since she sang it from the top of the cube/castle, with a safety rope around her waist clearly in evidence. The voice is wild and unruly, but by the middle of the performance her fiery temperament and commanding high notes, especially in ensembles, had most of the audience on her side. Raymond Aceto’s Banquo and Alfred Portilla’s Macduff paled, in contrast to Lukács’s exciting risk-taking, but in the small role of Malcolm, Noah Stewart made a strong impression.

Hampson showed what star power - and fine artistry - is all about. His voice rang out with authority, and though he tended to tower over the other performers, he still manged to create a portrayal of a big man trapped in a small, frightened psyche. Conductor Massimo Zanetti, in a house debut, provided strong support for the singers, with the ballet music energetic.

But the SFO audiences were ready for dessert after the Stravinsky and Pountney’s Verdi, and they applauded the lush sets of Puccini’s La Rondine almost as happily as they did Angela Gheorghiu’s star turn. Director Nicolas Joël and set designer Ezio Frigerio had the budget for a towering set of marble colonnades; almost every scene resembled the lobby of a four-star hotel with a tacky Egyptian theme. This had little to do with Puccini’s lightweight faux-operetta, but it looked great.

Is there any other Puccini opera where the lead soprano makes a less imposing entrance? Magda is simply hanging around the parlor as the curtain rises, and in Franca Squarciapino’s costumes, which looked both expensive and unappealing, Angela Gheorghiu couldn’t make her star presence felt until she opened her mouth. But that did the trick. No matter what publicity she generates, Miss Gheorghiu has built her career on very fine singing. She doesn’t have the largest voice, but she could be heard well enough in the cavernous space of the War Memorial, and she even rang out with nice power in the wonderful ensembles of act two. Ultimately, La Rondine is a dissatisfying opera, and Puccini’s music for the third act is probably the weakest of his career, as he can no longer sustain the illusion that the story or characters inspire him. Such is Miss Gheorghiu’s artistry, she makes the opera seem worth staging, if just as a showcase for her talent.

As Ruggero, Misha Didyk came across as more at ease than he had as Puccini’s Des Grieux opposite Karita Mattila last season. He really has neither beauty of tone nor raw power, but with Puccini tenors in short supply, he can at least get through the music in representable fashion. Anna Christy and Gerard Powers both delighted as Rondine’s equivalent to Musetta and Marcello, a second couple to contrast with the love story of the opera’s main pair. Ion Marin, apparently a favorite of Miss Gheorghiu, scaled the orchestral performance beautifully to her needs.

As Gockley’s reign proceeds, it will be interesting to see if he continues to risk the audience’s disapproval with productions such as Pountney’s Macbeth. His challenge is finding enough stars in today’s current opera scene of the stature of Miss Gheorghiu (or Hampson). Rosenberg never seemed interested in walking the fine line between tradition and innovation. Mr. Gockley may have to be forgiven a stumble or two, but the three productions reviewed here, from the edgy to the elegant, actually are to Gockley’s credit.

Chris Mullins

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