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Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]
13 Oct 2013

Intriguing Duo in San Francisco

Venerable San Francisco Opera kicked off its fall season with a wholly pleasing revival of a landmark production, complemented by an engrossing world premiere.

Intriguing Duo in San Francisco

A review by James Sohre

Above: Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]


Director Robert Carsen’s take on Boito’s Mefistofele not only riveted critics in 1989 and beyond, but has also proved to be a durable success with the paying public. The quirkily intriguing concept brought Mr. Carsen to international attention and launched him on a career that remains to this day decidedly in the fast lane. In a nutshell, ‘heaven’ is located on the stage of an ornate theatre where trumpeting (plaster) angels populate the false proscenium arch and the chorus of citizens jam the stage and cram balcony boxes in sumptuously majestic robes, gowns, crowns and masks of blue, white and gold.

Michael Levine’s extravagant sets and costumes were a perfect companion to Mr. Carsen’s fertile imagination. The ‘heavenly’ opening setting was contrasted with, and bisected by a deep red act curtain painted with violent flames, flown in to represent hell. The serene audience boxes were periaktois that revolved to reveal a structure filled with street revelers deployed in a frenzied, wildly colorful scenario worthy of a fine retabla. The procession of religious floats and the frenetic dancers (well-choreographed by Alphonse Poulin) might have upstaged Faust and the devil had Mr. Carsen not placed them in an elevated focal point in a balcony dead center.

In fact, the director was not only a master of clean and meaningful crowd movement, but also proved equally adept at devising telling interaction between the principals. The highly detailed business that occurred when Faust and Marguerite flirted while Mefistofele and Marta dallied was richly illuminating. Mr. Levine created a skewed music box, with a stylized grove of apple trees, for this lovers (and lusters) encounter in the form of a tilted circle that the heroine’s mother (a mute watchdog) cranked into action when matters got more sexually charged, the floor spinning madly and the apples rolling akimbo.

This garden scene was repeated in a state of ruin and destruction to brilliantly suggest Margherita’s prison. Perhaps the biggest directorial coup was the first Walpurgisnacht which was a cross between Project Runway and a children’s birthday party. When the devil regales the party-hatted, streamer-throwing, party horn-blowing, bratty (adult chorus) kiddies with Ecco il mondo, he refers to a blue balloon that then gets tossed and batted around.

Soon, and subtly, the proceedings get very corrupt, very quickly. In a stunning “the-devil-made-them-do-it” transformation, the innocent children morph into depraved adult sexual beings, their movements encompassing every sexual proclivity, featuring more bouncing bare breasts and bobbling penises on display than in an Amsterdam sex show. The SFO chorus was not only awesomely committed to this uninhibited display, but also sang thrillingly under chorus master Ian Robertson’s tutelage. This was the sort of perfect marriage of material and stagecraft that makes for a career-making signature moment in a production that has justifiably become a classic of its kind. Robert Carsen and Michael Levine have often equaled this definitive work but have yet to surpass it.

We were also fortunate to have a cast of some of today’s top interpreters to serve the work. In the title part, dashing Ildar Abdrazakov was handsome as the devil, and his shirtless appearance prompted much laying on of opera glasses. His mellifluous, full-throated bass-baritone was more the latter than the former and the lower reaches thinned a bit while the very top lost some measure of roundness. But Mr. A knows how to maximize the tireless security of the impressive middle core of his imposing sound and he zinged phrases off the back wall to fine effect. He has an easy stage presence, and he effects a relaxed and suave delivery. Old-timers may miss the electric, wiry physical delivery that Sam Ramey brought to the role, but Ildar makes a substantial claim to be a worthy successor.

Ramon Vargas boasts one of the most beautiful tenor voices currently gracing world stages. His technique is sublime and he is a consummate stylist. Although the role of Faust stretches his lyric voice to the limit (or perhaps because of it), Mr. Vargas contributed some vibrant singing. Much as Carreras was able to achieve a visceral impact with his Cavaradossi sung at ‘the edge,’ Vargas rose thrillingly to the challenge and the effort required was part of that thrill. The outpouring of gleaming tone on the upper phrases was alone worth the price of admission.

Patricia Racette is a treasurable artist and a local favorite, having grown up in the Merola program. SFO’s investment has paid off handsomely, of course, and their confidence is well-founded. Ms. Racette has had considerable success on the international scene in the intervening years. As Margherita, her generous, soft-grained soprano first ably suggested girlish infatuation, then darkened admirably as the girl descended into sin and despair. When she pushes the very top for weighty volume the tone can momentarily lose its core of pitch, but her dramatic intensity, superb artistry and personal investment carry the evening. As Elena, she brought a conscientious sultriness to the part, although a more plush Italianate sound was just beyond her gifts.

Erin Johnson’s blowzy looking Marta (a rare costume design malfunction) found her promisingly plummy voice and sassy personality upstaged by heaving hooters that threatened to spill out of their encasements with every step and every breath.
Ms. Johnson gamely did what was asked of her, but the effect seemed more suited to a Rebel Wilson sitcom episode. Young Chuanyue Wang displayed a warm baritone as Wagner, although a bit light-voiced for the assignment.

In the pit, music director Nicola Luisotti led an enthusiastic and sure-handed reading. Maestro Luisotti elicited a well-shaped, arching performance and generated frequent nuance from the pit, especially in the magnificent crescendo of the entire opening scene (although the opening choral statements were too soft to really make an impression). At times, such as the second scene, the Maestro’s dramatic involvement led to some raucous playing, some scrappy tempi, and some minor balance problems between pit and stage. Like the staging, the finest musical achievement of the night was the perfectly judged Walpurgisnacht that swept all before it.

It is not often that a new opera finds legs as successfully as SFO’s world premiere of Dolores Claiborne (music by Tobias Picker, libretto by J.D. McClatchy). For starters, the production could not have been bettered. While it may have lacked the provocative elements of the Boito, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and projection designer Greg Emetaz worked as one in realizing a breath-taking, almost cinematic evocation of the story’s diverse Maine locales.

Anyone who attends Opera Theatre of St. Louis regularly will recognize this talented team as frequent collaborators, and would expect in advance just such
a thoughtful and well-integrated presentation. The story in brief tells the tale of an unglamorous anti-heroine who has not only been physically abused by her brutish husband, but suffers for her daughter who becomes the incestuous object of hubby’s interest. Dolores is further tormented by a disdainful wealthy widowed employer, Mrs. Vera Donovan. Dolores not only plots the demise of her spouse, but stands accused of killing the old woman who she serves. There is no doubt that there is operatic potential in the themes, the dramatic action, and the tragic being that is the title character.

Tobias Picker has crafted quite a winning and varied score that incorporates his highly personal style with tried and true operatic tradition. It carries off the considerable feat of being accessible yet contemporary, jagged without being jarring, tuneful without being hackneyed. The angular, leaping lines that sometimes inform his characters’ agitation or confrontation is wonderfully counter-balanced by the serenity and purity of more measured statements. There any number of set pieces that have a well-defined definite dramatic shape and offer an emotion-laden musical journey. The arias are well “buttoned” and generate appreciative applause.

The instrumental colors were vibrant when commenting on the situation or underlining the emotional subtext, and muted when evoking the sea. The murmuring strings that supported the dialogue when the characters rode on a ferry boat were hauntingly beautiful and atmospheric. Mr. Picker also knows how to use musical stings to heighten and punctuate the action. He proves very adept at setting J.D. McClatchy’s gritty, concise libretto, making it plausibly conversational, yet soaringly lyric as the moment warrants. The precise interweaving of disturbing intentions in the final quartet of Act I, which finds Dolores and her employer bolstering each other to justify acts of murder while the husband rapes his daughter, was a consummately effective juxtaposition of musical themes.

Mr. Robinson wrung every bit of drama from the confrontations between these troubled yet simple folks. His character work was ripe with subliminal motives and he drew forth performances of great depth and background. Mr. Moyer’s spectacular settings were gorgeously detailed, starting with a realistic depiction of a jail interrogation room on the stage apron. This was backed by a stage-wide elevated platform that changed out frequently to reveal the mansion, the deserted beach, the deck of a ferry, the dowager’s upstairs bedroom, the Claiborne frame house, and the staircase unit that is key to the plot. Mr. Akerlind’s moody lighting, so critical to the eclipse scene, is wedded beautifully to Mr. Emetaz’s well-calculated projections, especially the first video of Mrs. Donovan falling down the stairs to her death. That visual image presaged the unsettled musical and dramatic roller coaster ride that the characters took all night long. Mr. Schuette’s costumes were spot on, and helped the actors instantly communicate their station in life.

When Dolora Zajick, for whom the title role was written, had to withdraw from the show, she was first replaced by the industrious Patricia Racette. When Patricia had to move on to her already scheduled turn as Margherita, the demanding role was assumed by an artist from the house roster, Catherine Cook. To say that Ms. Cook was a revelation is an understatement, since she stamped the part as her own, and experienced a triumph for her sensational performance. The creators give Dolores a great curtain aria replete with universal sentiments, sweeping melodic invention, and scorching high notes. When her last piercing held note was finally cut off with percussive orchestra stings that recall the end of Salome, the audience leapt to their feet lustily cheering Catherine’s total success.

Ms. Cook is possessed of a round mezzo tone of great beauty, admirable control and potent power in all ranges and at any volume. Best of all, she is also able to float a pianissimo with the best of them. There is so much exposed lyrical high singing required at key musical moments, that is it did not seem ideally tailored to Ms. Zajick’s particular strengths. But the writing fit Ms. Cook like a glove and there was nothing she seemed not able to do to perfection. Happily, she also received outstanding support from her fellow cast members.

Elizabeth Futral has been so successful in so many different genres and at so many companies for so long that it might be easy to take her unaffected excellence for granted. Her silvery tone has darkened a bit with age, and the added weight in the voice imbuing her vocal assumptions with new, deeper colors. Her secure, imperious vocalization of the spoiled rich bitch was a force of nature. Later Ms. Futral was able to meld a haunting world-weariness into her delivery that made her more sympathetic than the material required. The glam Elizabeth offered a star turn that was an excellent contrast with the homey, homely Dolores.

As the villain-you-loved-to-hate, Wayne Tigges had the uncompromising acting chops and the menace in his blistering baritonal delivery to make the evil husband/father a force of nature. His is a sizable, steady, even instrument that would be an asset in many a dramatic opera that require stentorian heroic singing. The lovely young Susannah Biller was hugely impressive as the abused daughter. Her crystalline soprano and limpid tonal production perfectly suggested the young woman, but then assumed a hint of steel when she matures into the bitter twenty-something who hates her mother. It was luxury casting to have an artist the caliber of Greg Fedderly in the smaller but critical role of the police detective. It is not often you get to enjoy such pure, clear vocalization in such a minor part. In the other smaller assignments, the Merola artists acquitted themselves admirably. Mr. Robertson’s chorus enlivened the party scene, but the choral writing was perhaps my least favorite part of the production. On one hearing, the ensembles seemed too dense to be intelligible.

In the pit, George Manahan held everything together with a sure hand, and pulled every bit of virtuosity out of the admirable SFO orchestra who played with passion and purity. The many memorable musical effects were by turns pleasurable, disturbing, dynamic, and serene, and Mr. Manahan was Maestro of them all. The audience seemed to take in Dolores Claiborne with rapt attention, riveted by the story, engaged by the stage craft, and beguiled by the fresh score.

James Sohre

Dolores Claiborne (Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy)

Dolores Claiborne: Catherine Cook; Selena St. George: Susannah Biller; Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly; Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futral; Maids: Nikki Einfeld, Jacqueline Piccolino, Marina Harris, Laura Krumm, Renee Rapier; Joe St. George: Wayne Tigges; Teenage Boy: Hadleigh Adams; Teenage Girl: Nikki Einfeld; Mr. Pease, a Bank Manager: Joel Sorenson; Mr. Cox: Robert Watson; Mr. Knox: A.J. Glueckert; Mr. Fox: Hadleigh Adams; Conductor: George Manahan; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Projection Design: Greg Emetaz; Chorus Master: Ian Robertson

Mefistofele (Arrigo Boito)

Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov; Faust: Ramon Vargas; Wagner: Chuanyue Wang; Adam: Luke Lazzaro; Eve: Brook Broughton; Margherita/Elena: Patricia Racette; Marta: Erin Johnson; Pantalis: Renee Rapier; Nereo: Chanyue Wang; Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Director: Robert Carsen; Revival Director: Laurie Feldman; Set and Costume Design: Michael Levine; Lighting Design: Gary Marder (based on the design by Duane Schuler); Chorus Master: Ian Robertson; Choreographer: Alphonse Poulin; Wig and Make-up Design: Gerd Mairandres

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