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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Billy Budd, La traviata, Cosi fan tutte: A San Francisco Opera progress report, September 26, 2004 (HS)



The buzz started when Pamela Rosenberg announced earlier this year that she would step down as managing director of San Francisco Opera after her current contract runs out after the 2005-2006 season. Those who relished her emphasis on staging elements lamented the loss of the thought-provoking European productions she favored. Those who missed the all-star casts the company used to present cheered at the possibility the pendulum might swing back to glorious voices.


As usual, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. Rosenberg has brought some stunning productions, including an opulent, deliciously over-the-top American premiere staging of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise in 2002, and a lot of stuff that can charitably be consigned to the Euro-trash bin. She has favored voices she knows from her previous tenure as intendant of the Stuttgart Opera, many of them unfamiliar to local audiences and woefully underpowered for the more than 3,000-seat War Memorial Opera House but some of them welcome discoveries.


So one-third of the way through this 2004-2005 season, one can imagine the mix of emotions around the opera house with a season opener gala centered around Renée Fleming and strong vocal casts in stagings of the first three operas that qualify as conservative. The most prominent local critic grumbled that it seems like Rosenberg has already left. (Never mind that the U.S. premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre and a Niklaus Lenhoff production of Flying Dutchman are yet to come.)


Vocal splendor is most evident when Ruth Ann Swenson, Rolando Villazón and Dmitri Hvorostovsky thrill the ear in Verdi's La traviata, but Nathan Gunn, Philip Ens and Kim Begley aren't far behind in Britten's Billy Budd, musically taut and dramatically powerful. Frederica von Stade heads a solid sextet of otherwise less familiar singers in Mozart's Cosí fan tutte, colorfully updated to the early days of World War I in a staging that mostly works.


All is not perfect, of course. It seldom is in opera, where so many elements must conspire to reach a nirvana. But this is shaping up as a much better season than the last two, which proffered only sporadic successes.


In Traviata, heard Sept 24, it is clear Swenson has grown in the role since I last saw her in Chicago and heard her on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast last season. She sounds less tentative, but still careful as she cleanly and idiomatically negotiates the coloratura of Sempre libera in Act I, and her acting relies more on a sense of desperation and pathos than nobility in the face of tough decisions. But she is simply glorious to listen to. The sound is preternaturally creamy and enveloping, even -- no, especially -- in the quieter moments. It also soars over the Act III ensembles. Her Act IV letter scene is heartbreaking and superbly sung. (Licia Albanese was in attendance and told Swenson backstage, "This was my role, now it is yours.")



An exuberant and vocally limber Alfredo, Villazón made a triumphant return to the opera company where he started as a student only a few years ago. The Mexican tenor has such control over his dynamics and technique that he can sometimes overdo the shadings, and he has so much physical energy, it's almost like watching a puppy dog bound around the stage. He is therefore a youthful, almost adolescentAlfredo, which puts a different spin on the character's cluelessness. Hvorostovsky looks and acts a bit young for Germont, and his glued on mustache looks stupid, but you can believe this baritone is that tenor's father. What he lacks in gravitas he more than makes up in suavity and gorgeous singing.


Conductor Patrick Summers drew playing with a throbbing pulse from the responsive orchestra, making for a musically sumptuous evening. John Conklin's sets aresimilarly luxurious if a bit overstuffed, and if John Copley's direction plumbed no new depths in the drama, the tugs and pulls of the relationships were clear. In short, they did nothing to get in the way of the music, and when it sounds that good, that's just fine.


Cosí fan tutte, seen Sept. 15, was the closest thing to a concept production so far this year. By moving things to the first years of World War I, a real sense of forboding surrounds the trick being played by the men, who impersonate Albanian sailors, much more convincing than the usual soldiers in this seaside setting. In the end, instead of pairing off with the girls, they go off to war amid clouds of mustard gas and extras dressed as doughboys. Does it bother anyone that this runs counter to Mozart's exuberant music? It's gratuitous.



Two sets of three rolling pillars, connected at the top with plinths, dominate production designer Robert Perdziola's stunning sets, imported from Opera Monte Carlo. The triangular shape of the column groups echo the threesomes of men and women set against each other in the opera. Colorful period costumes, especially the beach duds worn by the chorus, add to the fun parts.


Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade was a bit older than your usual Despina, but that only enhanced her wiliness. The 59-year-old still looks great in a maid's costume, and sings the arias and ensembles with as much Mozartean flair as ever. Baritone Richard Stilwell, her counterpart as Don Alfonso, sang idiomatically but lacked the bass heft to give the music its due. Soprano Alexandra DeShorties as Fiordiligi made her company debut a memorable one, and mezzo soprano Christine Mahnke, one of Rosenberg's better European imports (she sang the Composer in a memorable Ariadne auf Naxos a couple of years ago), complemented her perfectly as Dorabella. Tenor Paul Groves spun out Ferrando's arias with panache and impressive breath control. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was loud enough but came up short on subtlety as Guglielmo.


The same cast returns in June and July for a reprise. Maybe by then they will be accustomed to conductor Michael Gielen, whose vague hand-wavings from the harpsichord bewildered the ensembles and chorus. Entrances and tempos were a mere guess. In number after number, they had to feel their way through the first several measures until they all got on the same track. It was maddening, because the rest was so good.


There were no such problems with the conducting in Billy Budd, seen and heard Sept. 26, the premiere. Donald Runnicles led a robust, red-blooded, surging, powerful account of Britten's score. The men's chorus delivered top class singing and all the secondary roles were handled with appropriate virility. As Billy, American baritone Nathan Gunn looked and sounded every bit the beautiful lad to get Claggart, sung sonorously and impressively by Canadian bass Philip Ens, all hot and bothered. The production did not shy away from the homoerotic subtext that leads the evil villain to scheme to eliminate the good Billy. English tenor Kim Begley had the noble bearing and sound to make Captain Vere a true leader of men, and the ability to convey the man's anguish at not finding a way to thwart Claggart.



Willy Decker's production, imported from Vienna State Opera, sketches out the prow of a ship at the top of steeply raked stage, the simplicity of the sets allowing a seamless, almost cinematic flow of action. But they don't allow the action to look very real. Not only does the backdrop of of a calm sunny sea cover only a small square past the prow, it never changes, even when the captain and crew are worrying whether the vexing mist will ever lift in the opening scene of Act II. The white, single-source lighting continues to cast sharp shadows.


Director Sabene Hartmannshenn had some good ideas; having Claggart stand feet apart as his seaman spy, the Novice, slithers out from under a curtain to respond to his call was appropriately creepy.  But as the chorus gang-hauls ropes across the stage in the opening scene, they don't really put their backs into it; so, when a seaman is dragged away to a flogging for not pulling his weight, one wonders why he was singled out. Other pieces of verisimiitude miss, too. After the drumhead trial that finds Billy guilty of killing Claggart, the three officers and Vere ceremoniously sign a large parchment. Presumably, it's a death warrant, but when did they have time to draw one up? These may seem like niggling points, but if it distracts from the drama, it's not good.


Despite these annoyances, the opera's psychological and sociological dilemmas come through with immense consequence in this Billy Budd. The sweep of the music and the sincerity of the acting carry the day, proving that committed performances of the music and drama will always trump clever trappings and outré designs.


Harvey Steiman


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