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S & H Opera Review

 Opera in San Francisco: a mixed 2003 season so far is reviewed by Harvey Steiman.


San Francisco Opera really has three seasons. The main portion occurs in the fall, pauses while San Francisco Ballet takes over the hall in December for a run of "The Nutcracker," and resumes briefly in January before the ballet occupies War Memorial Opera House through the spring. There's a final run of opera in June. The company has staged as many as 13 productions, but recent economic setbacks and shortfalls have pared the season down to nine operas. As this stop-and-start season reaches its first resting point following the autumn's six productions, this is a natural point to reflect on what the San Francisco’s opera-going public has seen and heard.

So far, it's been mixed. Only one of the six productions -- the wonderfully lurid Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk -- can qualify as an unalloyed success. Among the others, nothing ranked as a disaster, but neither will anything burn itself into the memory. Don't blame the orchestra, which played magnificently under music director Donald Runnicles, or the chorus, which remains one of the company's strengths. The problem, more than anything else, was low wattage casting.

This is the company that nurtured such big-time current stars as Renée Fleming, Ruth Ann Swenson and Dolora Zajick. They and others like them returned here often under previous general directors Terry McEwen and Lotfi Mansouri. Rolando Villazon, who has just made a huge impression in La Traviata at the Met, and John Relyea, this year's Richard Tucker Award winner, to name just a few, first tasted success as members of the company's Merola program for young artists. None of the aforementioned is on this year's roster. The biggest star this season is Thomas Hampson, scheduled for five performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in January. They're all singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This season Lyric Opera of Chicago has the likes of Olga Borodina, who made her U.S. debut in San Francisco, and James Morris, who sang his first Wotans here. Los Angeles Opera goers get Placido Domingo, Denyce Graves and Anna Netrebko, another singer who made her U.S. debut at SF Opera.

It's not that the singing has been bad this season. Supporting casts have generally been strong. But the leads have been adequate when they could have been exciting, a state of affairs that seems to reflect general director Pamela Rosenberg's penchant for casting singers she knows well from her previous job running the opera company in Stuttgart, in preference to singers San Francisco audiences know from their work here. Occasionally, she delivers a real gem, such as this season's Papageno, Johannes Martin Kränzle. More often, audiences are left underwhelmed by singers who look great in the roles, and though they may sound great in small European houses their vocal charms are lost in a 3,000-seat hall.

In Il Barbiere di Siviglia, for example, heard October 16, Helene Schneiderman looked lovely as Rosina but sang Rossini with smudgy coloratura and undifferentiated sound. Strapping Nathan Gunn looked fabulous as Figaro, but he's not a true Rossini singer, either. The other roles fared much better both dramatically and musically, especially Paul Plishka (as Bartolo) and Philip Ens as Basilio, whose "La calunnia" rocked the house. The production was long on style and wit and Stefan Soltesz conducted with much Rossinian charm.

Unevenness of casting cut the legs from under Don Carlos (heard November 4). Violeta Urmana sang Eboli's arias with sensational abandon and Bo Skovhus invested Posa with more than the usual emotional conflict, but Mark Duffin was a weak Carlos and Marina Mescheriakova as Elisabeth, Stephen Milling as Philippe II and Attila Jun as the Grand Inquisitor will not live long in my memory. Runnicles conducted brilliantly, however.

Similar unevenness plagued the Pagliacci half of a Cav/Pag double bill (heard October 8). Andrea Gruber's powerful Santuzza made Cavalleria Rusticana exciting, and Antonio Nagore's Turiddu wasn't too far behind. Anthony Michaels-Moore was an inoffensive Alfio and fared similarly as Tonio in Pag, but Jon Frederic West was unidiomatic as Canio and Catherine Naglestad surprisingly bland as Nedda.

The earnest season opener was a gutsy decision. Instead of something by Puccini or Verdi Rosenberg gave us the seldom-performed American curio The Mother of Us All (heard September 10). A large, uniformly good cast, led by veteran soprano Luana De Vol in the title role of the American suffragette Susan B. Anthony, lavished great care on Gertrude Stein's quirky libretto and Virgil Thompson's easy-listening music, a pastiche of American folk and popular forms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the end, though, it's a lightweight work. I'm glad I saw it; now I need not do so again.

Budget cuts ditched a planned new production of Rimsky's Le Coq d'Or, replaced by the umpteenth airing of the David Hockney Zauberflöte. That would have been OK, but they should have renamed it "Papageno," because in the entire cast (heard September 18) only Kränzle rose above mediocrity. Charles Castronovo sang stylishly but acted woodenly, while Anna Maria Martinez missed all the beauty in Pamina's music, Suzanne Ramo was defeated by some of the Queen of the Night's formidable challenges, Paata Burchuladze just sounded woolly as Sarastro and Philip Skinner lacked the low notes for the Speaker.

The entire cast of Lady Macbeth lit up the stage with their vocal presence in a performance heard November 20. Staged by Johannes Schaaf (who also staged Barbiere) with simple, suggestive, geometric sets by Nina Ritter, the production proved a great vehicle for a muscular group of singing actors. Solveig Kringelborn, seen here previously as the Countess in Nozze di Figaro, showed an almost verismo-like fire, interrupted by gorgeously sung quiet passages. She was totally believable as a beleaguered wife turned adulteress, then murderess, by the unthinking and bullying men around her.

Vladimir Veneev wielded an intoxicatingly rich and secure bass, and his big stage presence made Boris into a complex and menacing figure. Tenor Vsevelod Grivnov, like Veneev making a company debut, sang Zinovy's music with remarkable assurance and flexibility, but the surprise star turn among the men turned out to be Christopher Ventris as Sergei, the womanizing hired hand. Known for his Wagnerian tenor roles, Ventris handled this Russian bad guy with idiomatic flair.

If only the other casts were so deep and so thoroughly committed to the music and their roles.

The season resumes in January with a new cast of Barbiere (including Hampson as Figaro) and a run of La Bohèmes with Vinson Cole as Rodolfo and Olga Guryakova as Mimi making her company debut. In June, there will be more Bohèmes, but the tastiest treat should be Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen with Dawn Upshaw in the title role. It's anyone's guess whether the company will be able to make much of Busoni's Doktor Faust, starring Rodney Gilfrey. Runnicles will conduct both.

Harvey Steiman

 


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