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Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson and Dolora Zajick in Concert: San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Donald Runnicles conducting, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 22.06.2006 (HS)


David Gockley, the new general director of San Francisco Opera, is working hard to make an impression. At the very least, his re-postitioning of the company's three June productions as "The Return of the Divas" has a distinctly different flavor from the intellectual, production-centric approach of his predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg.


The divas in question are soprano Patricia Racette, starring in Puccini's Madama Butterfly; soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, heading up a strong cast as the Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, the only bright spot as Joan of Arc in a turgid production of Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans. (San Francisco's season format does six to eight operas in the fall, turns over the opera house to the ballet for the spring, and resumes with three more operas in June.)


This concert was a late addition to the schedule, a generous gesture offered only to regular patrons, who filled the War Memorial Opera House by invitation only. A version of it will be repeated in a free outdoor concert on July 1.


It could have been a snarky paint-by-numbers sort of evening with nothing but greatest hits sung by showoffs, but not with these three artists. While the menu hewed to the familiar, the performances revealed an enviable level of sensitivity, intelligence and vocal mastery. More to the point, each singer displayed the vocal elements that makes her special.


Swenson has by far the most gorgeous voice of the three, and she used it in service of the music, not just to put it on display. Zajick brought down the house with the power and richness of her voice, especially in its stunning low range. And if Racette's less-distinctive sound suffers in comparison with the others, her ability to suffuse every moment with drama and harness the musical line is nothing short of jaw-dropping.


Interestingly, though all of the singers have sung in San Francisco regularly and came through the house's Merola and Adler training programs, none of them had ever sung the operas here that they excerpted on the program. But they are all well known for the roles elsewhere. Was this a hint, hint for Mr. Gockley?


Swenson displayed her effortless coloratura and charm in the Jewel Song from Gounod's Faust, melted hearts with her final "addio, senza rancor" in "Donde lieta usci" from Puccini's La Bohème, and dazzled with the effervescence of triumph and joy in "Mio caro bene" from Handel's Rodelinda.


Zajick displayed a playful side in her witty approach to the "Veil Song" from Verdi's Don Carlo, all but ripped the scenery (without hardly moving left or right) in the jealousy scene "Voi lo sapete" from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, and displayed remarkably agile coloratura to go with the dramatic force in "O mon Fernand" from Donizetti's La Favorite.


Racette started slowly, with a sweetly distant rendition of "Ebben! Ne andró lontana" from Catalani's La Wally (I prefer a richer voice for that), but whipped up tremendous involvement in two letter scenes, the first from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, the other from Tobias Picker's new opera, An American Tragedy, where Racette starred in the Metropolitan Opera's debut earlier this year. In both, she deployed an unerring sense of line, spinning the music to an irresistible climax. As a lagniappe, she added a wrenching account of "L'altra notte" from Boito's Mefistofile. It was an example of total musical and dramatic involvement.


"Quando m'en vo," Musetta's aria from Puccini's La Bohème, was the first encore. Swenson and Racette strode on stage from opposite wings, stopped dead in their tracks when they spied the other, shrugged and delicately upstaged each other as each took the next phrase. Zajick entered in time to blow them both off the stage, stealing the final arpeggio. They all chimed in on the final fermata.


For the final encore, Zajick came out with a microphone in her hand (to what end, no one could figure out) to belt out the first verse of "San Francisco." The other two joined her for the final run-through, and a good time was had by all. It almost seems like a bonus that, along the way, some real artistry was on display.


Harvey Steiman


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)