November 26th, 2014
In the late summer of 1964, I had my Saturday night subscription seats to the San Francisco Opera’s season, but as late as 15 days before the season’s opening night, the contract with the musician’s union was in doubt, and the season seemed like it would be canceled, until the Mayor of San Francisco himself proposed the compromises that saved the opera season.
The first performance on my Fall Season 1964 Saturday night series at the San Francisco Opera was a new production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” starring Hungarian heldentenor Sandor Konya as Parsifal, American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Kundry and American basso Giorgio Tozzi as Gurnemanz.
[Below: Sandor Konya as Parsifal in the 1959 La Scala production hat was his role debut; edited image, based on an historical La Scala production photograph.]
It was the first night of a new production by Paul Hager, with sets and costumes by Wolfram Skalicki.
It was the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debut of Austrian baritone Eberhard Waechter, who sang four different roles – two German, two Italian – in the 1964 season, never again to return to the San Francisco Opera.
The Hager-Skalicki Production
Nearly two decades after the end of World War II, productions of the mystical “Parsifal” remained the least performed of Wagner’s ten major works either in Nazi Germany, which had glorified Wagnerian opera, or in postwar Europe. Except for two performances in 1950 and a single one in 1951 (the only three previous performances in San Francisco Opera history), “Parsifal” had been absent from the San Francisco stage.
San Francisco Opera’s general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, an Austrian emigre with impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, had proved to be a major figure in the postwar rehabilitation of artists who found themselves on the losing side in the Second World war.
A new production of “Parsifal”, staged by German director Paul Hager (the pre-eminent director at San Francisco Opera during the first decades of the Adler era) and the Austrian set and costume designer Wolfram Skalicki, was an affair of more than local significance. In what was then still an innovative device, scrims and projections were extensively used.
“Parsifal’s” music is intoxicating. Konya, Dalis, Tozzi and Waechter sang superbly. The projected colors and medieval images were absorbing. If there was any political (or religious) message intended, it eluded me completely.
Sandor Konya’s Parsifal
Konya was arguably the leading tenor of the San Francisco Opera for six seasons from 1960 through 1965, singing 13 different roles. (Parsifal was the seventh of nine roles that I saw him perform in San Francisco.) After the 1965 season, he appeared at the San Francisco Opera only for a single performance of Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, substituting for another tenor in a performance that I was fortunate to attend.
[Below: Parsifal (Sandor Konya, left) is unresponsive to the seductive songs of the Flower Maidens in the 1964 San Francisco Opera production of “Parsifal”; edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
He had performed Parsifal at La Scala in 1959 and brought the role to San Francisco a half-decade later.
Very much in demand for the title roles of “Parsifal” and “Lohengrin” [see 50 Year Anniversaries: Sandor Konya, Irene Dalis in “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 27, 1960], Konya demonstrated the smooth legato and expressive tone that I refer to as bel canto Wagnerian singing.
Other Principal Cast Members
This was the third occasion in which Konya was teamed with the distinguished California mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis. (She was Ortrud to his Lohengrin, and Princess Eboli when he sang the title role in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”.
Dalis was one of the few artists from the decade of the 1960s or before to receive the San Francisco Opera medal, created in 1970 with Dorothy Kirsten as its first honoree. Others whom I had seen in the 1960s in San Francisco – Thomas Stewart, Sir Geraint Evans, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek -= were to join her, The decisions to honor certain artists with the San Francisco Opera medal is a subject I will return to at a later time.
[Below: Irene Dalis as Kundry in the 1964 San Francisco Opera production of “Parsifal”; edited image, based on a photograph by Peters, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Amfortas was sung by Austrian baritone Eberhard Waechter, who was one of the most important of the European artists of the immediate postwar era.
He had a impressive list of assignments in San Francisco Opera’s 1964 season (also appearing as Barak in Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, Almaviva in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” and the Elder Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata”). Although I saw Waechter perform each of his four roles, I never saw him again after 1964.
[Below: Amfortas (Eberhard Waechter, center lying on the bench) is observed by Gurnemanz (Giorgio Tozzi, standing left); edited image, based on a photograph by Peters, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Also never returning to San Francisco Opera after the run of “Parsifals” was French conductor Georges Prêtre.
Some operas work out to be once in a decade experiences. I was present at the San Francisco Opera a decade later for the revival (with modifications) of the Hager-Skalicki production in 1974 (Jess Thomas, Eva Randova, Thomas Stewart, Kurt Moll), for a new Nicolas Joel production in 1988 (Rene Kollo, Waltraud Meier, Jorma Hyninnen, Kurt Moll, with Walter Berry as Klingsor), for a Nicholas Lehnhoff production in 2000 (Christopher Ventris, Catherine Malfitano, Franz Grundheber and Kurt Moll). I also traveled to the Los Angeles Opera, for the Robert Wilson production with Placido Domingo, Linda Watson, Albert Dohmen and Matti Salminen).
“Parsifal”, to which a series of conventions and legends had become attached, has attracted a series of unconventional productions. Even though the Hager/Skalicki production was considered a substantive departure from the “Parsifal” traditions of old, it would seem conservative when compared to the productions of Joel, Lehnhoff and Wilson.
[For my extended remarks on the Wilson production (my first Wagner review on this website), see Domingo is the Redeemer of L.A.’s spellbound “Parsifal”: December 8, 2005 and “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway?
Tags: 50 Year Anniversaries
November 23rd, 2014
The late composer Daniel Catán’s 1996 Spanish-language opera “Florencia en El Amazonas”, has been revived in a new co-production between the Washington National Opera (where the production debuted in September 2014), the Los Angeles Opera and the San Francisco Opera.
The lushly-scored, romantically melodic work is a Latin American fantasy about three couples, two present on stage, and one that exists only in the memory of the lead character, an opera singer, Florencia Grimaldi.
[I have commented extensively on the opera in a review of a different production of it at A Florid, Flowing “Florencia” in Salt Lake City – Utah Opera, January 19, 2013, that I recommend to anyone wishing to supplement their information on the opera.]
Verónica Villarroel’s Florencia
The title character, Florencia Grimaldi, is a Brazilian opera singer, who is returning to the Amazonian town of Manaus to sing in its opera house, where her international career began.
Self-absorbed in her long career, she regrets having lost contact with the one man – a collector of rare Amazonian butterflies – with whom she had a youthful passionate affair.
[Below: Verónica Villarroel as Francesca Grimaldi; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]
For a role that will remind many opera-goers of the great dramatic soprano roles of Puccini, his Italian verismo contemporaries, and such French composers as Poulenc (e.g. “La Voix Humaine”), the Los Angeles Opera cast Chilean spinto soprano Verónica Villarroel.
One of the five (of seven) principals who are native Spanish speakers, Villarroel made a strong impression as the diva Florencia, displaying the power and expressiveness we associate with this gifted soprano [see my review of her as a Puccini heroine at Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007.]
The Story of the El Dorado’s Passengers
The entire opera is centered around the cruise of a steam-powered riverboat, the El Dorado, down the Amazon from its embarkation port of Leticia, Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, where a small, but extravagant, regional opera house was built. (A picture of the opera house appears in my previous review, referenced above.)
[Below: Florencia (Verónica Villarroel, left) learns from the Captain (David Pittsinger, right) what he believes to be the ultimate fate of her lover from long ago; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Florencia has had a successful career, but she has come to regret her isolation from the only person with whom she was ever intimate.
Through her monologues and some exposition by the steamship’s Captain (nicely sung by bass-baritone David Pittsinger) and the Captain’s mysterious crewman Riolobo (Jose Calbo), we learn that Florencia believes her vocal abilities were the result of her love for Cristobol (who does not appear in the opera and whose fate we never definitively learn).
[Below: The river steamship El Dorado begins its voyage with, on the upper deck Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz, left), Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins, right) and Paula (Nancy Fabiola-Herrera, second from right), and, on the lower deck Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, left) and Florencia (Verónica Villarroel, right);; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Florencia is contrasted with a long married couple, Paula (stunningly played by Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (sung with the authority American Wagnerian baritone Gordon Hawkins).
A storm results in the Alvaro falling overboard into the Amazon and Paula’s hysteria and regret that their recent encounters had been so adversarial. Fortunately, the next morning he is found alive and their frayed relationship repairs itself.
[Below: The married couple Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera, left) and Alvaro (Gordon Hawkins, right) find themselves disaffected from one another; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In addition there are two single persons on board – the writer Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, an American soprano, who is a native speaker of Spanish) and the Captain’s disaffected nephew (Mexican lyric tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz).
Rosalba and Arcadio, neither of whom intended to seek a mate at that time, find themselves attracted to each other. Encouraged by Florencia and the other passengers, they find themselves falling in love. The fresh, lyrical voices of Oropesa and Chacón-Cruz blended beautifully in Catán’s lushly romantic duets.
[Below: Rosalba (Lisette Oropesa, left) and Arcadio (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) unexpectedly find themselves attracted to one another; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Were the opera’s libretto focused only on the Captain, his nephew and the four passengers, it would be a domestic drama advocating for young love and a continued renewal of its powers.
However, attempting to experience the opera by concentrating on the stories of the El Dorado’s passengers is arguably a sub-optimal way to experience the opera, because “Florencia” also interacts with a surreal world of beings that inhabit the Amazon.
The Story of the Amazon’s Magic Elements
One might think of it as two operas that have been merged into one – the story of the passengers, and the magical story that takes place simultaneously.
One of its characters, Riolobo, has a supernatural relationship with the river and shifts between the two. As the ship’s crew, in his white uniform, he serves dinner, takes the wheel from the Captain, and is an able mate for myriad tasks.
But he also flies through the air, descending from on high with wings. and communes with five beings (played by dancers) who obviously represent the mysterious forces that abound in the Amazon jungle. Calbo’s pleasing lyric baritone defined the humanity of the character, even as the brilliant staging of his flight from above defined its magic.
[Below: Jose Carbo as Riolobo; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The five dancers personify the river’s magic. They seize things that fall overboard (Rosalba’s notebook and a champagne bottle containing wedding rings). They conjure the storm that swamps the ship. They pull Alvaro overboard, then help protect so that he can emerge alive from the water the next day.
Two Stories: How “Florencia” Evolved
Critics differ on the exact musical influences contained in Catán’s orchestral sound and vocal writing, even though agreeing that Catán’s music is a departure from the musical styles of most of the mid-20th century opera. (Whatever its musical derivation, one cannot imagine a more beautiful realization of Catán’s intent than that of the Los Angeles Opera under the affectionate conducting of Grant Gershon.)
Evidence for the case that Catán echoes the late Romantic styles of Italian and French opera, while forging new musical directions, may be found in his essay entitled “On How I Found Florencia and Got to the Amazon” (contained in the Los Angeles Opera program notes and on the website www.laopera.org).
Catán’s essay also confirms that the magical elements were developed first, and that the stories of Florencia and the passengers evolved later.
“In 1994 [Catán writes] I had just had a successful performance in San Diego of “Rappacini’s Daughter”, my second opera . . . In order to capture the essential magic of the garden in which that opera [Rappacini’s Daughter] is set, . . I needed to write music that was seductive, glittering, mesmerizing. So I developed a way of writing for the orchestra, the woodwinds in particular, that seemed to capture the feel of that magical garden [so] I started to look for a subject that would allow me to pursue these magical sounds.”
[Below: three of the dancers who represent the magic of the Amazon River; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
As Catán pursued his idea of the tinta of an opera for which he had not yet found a story, Catán was strongly influenced by the stories of the Amazon by his friend, Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, then living, as was Catán, in Mexico.
Once Catán began to imagine setting his new opera in the Amazon “the music [he] had imagined for Rappaccini’s garden now started to grow and develop into the most varied orchestral colors”.
He then began to add the exotic sounds of African, Caribbean and Brazilian instruments, and brought all these influences together by conceptualizing the magical journey of the steamship El Dorado down the Amazon.
When Catán received the commission from the Houston Grand Opera to create a Spanish language opera, the team associated with the original Houston Grand Opera production [as well as the new production seen in Los Angeles] was assembled. The team included stage director Francesca Zambello, set designer Robert Israel and Costume Designer Catherine Zuber.
[Below: Stage Director Francesca Zambello; edited image of a Martin Voss photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Unlike many operatic commissions, the production team was involved at a very early stage, even before the libretto (by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, a student of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work influenced the story) was written. The team visited the parts of Colombian Amazon in which the opera was to be based (the very first scene taking place at the Leticia, Colombia wharf, was directly influenced by their visit.)
The Continued Success of “Florencia”
The opera is now 18 years old and has been presented and received well by audiences in the major opera companies of Houston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington. It will travel soon to the San Francisco Opera.
The new production continues to refine the opera’s staging.
Since the focus of the audience’s attention for most of the opera is the El Dorado its slow movement through the Amazon waters is effectively shown by changes in our point of view – sometimes the ship’s bow, then its port and starboard, or stern – always with appropriate changes in the projections so that what we are seeing corresponds with whether we are viewing upriver or downriver.
The integration of the dancing of the river spirits with the action on deck is superbly choreographed.
I recommend the opera as an accessible contemporary work, which is mounted with an excellent cast.
Those new to the opera should prepare oneself for accepting the integration of the human stories with the fantastic elements. By accepting both the opera’s human and magical stories, one’s experience will be enhanced.
Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews
November 16th, 2014
The night after the first San Francisco Opera performance of its co-production of “La Boheme” with Houston Grand Opera and Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company [see Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014], the opera was presented again with a cast in which the four principal roles – Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello – were changed.
The alternate cast includes three artists familiar to San Francisco Opera audiences, Leah Crocetto as Mimi, Ellie Dehn as Musetta and Brian Mulligan as Marcello. Making his San Francisco Opera debut was lyric tenor Giorgio Berrugi. Over the next three weeks, the two sets of principal artists will alternate for the opera’s 13-performance run.
[Below: Mimi (Leah Crocetto, center, in bed) is dying, comforted by Musetta (Ellie Dehn, left), Rodolfo (Giorgio Berrugi, center, above) and Marcello (Brian Mulligan); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Leah Crocetto’s Mimi
Leah Crocetto, a former Adler fellow, possesses a voice with the beauty to caress Puccini’s timeless melodies and the requisite power needed to hold one’s own with the big Puccini orchestral sound.
This is Crocetto’s second principal Puccini role assayed at the Puccini-friendly War Memorial Opera House [see Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011],
Crocetto also is an accomplished Verdian [San Francisco, Naples Jointly Celebrate Verdi Bicentennial With “Manzoni Requiem” – San Francisco Opera, October 25, 2013] and has met the challenge of the intricate florid vocal composition of a Rossini opera seria [Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012.]
[Below: Leah Crocetto as Mimi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Giorgio Beruggi’s Rodolfo
Italian tenor Giorgio Beruggi was a compassionate Rodolfo, making a fine impression with an expressive lyric tenor voice and sensitive, empathetic acting.
His personal backstory is noteworthy. He was an award winning clarinetist in a Rome-based orchestra, when seven years ago, he committed to studying voice.
Within a few years, he became a regular lead tenor at the Dresden Semperoper, where, in 2011 he performed the role of Tamino in Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete” in a performance conducted by Nicola Luisotti, who is music director of both the San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples.
In early October 2014, Giuseppe Finzi, prior to his return to San Francisco to conduct Rossini’s “Cenerentola” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”, conducted Beruggi in Naples as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”. In May 2015, Beruggi is scheduled to return to Naples as the “other Rodolfo”, the lead tenor in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”.
The confidence of the Luisotti-Finzi team in this rising star appears fully justified.
[Below: Giorgio Beruggi as Rodolfo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Ellie Dehn’s Musetta
As Musetta, soprano Ellie Dehn at San Francisco Opera, has with distinction performed a trio of prestigious lead soprano roles in the three Mozart operas with Da Ponte libretti [see A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013 and Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011 and Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010.]
Dehn, who has been lauded for her portrayals of Mimi, was all one hopes for as Musetta, singing her great Cafe Momus aria brilliantly, alternating fun and fury in the opera’s second and third scenes (acts in Puccini’s score) and sympathetic in the somber scene of Mimi’s death.
[Below Musetta (Ellie Dehn, right), in a time of grief, talks seriously with her sometimes lover, Marcello (Brian Mulligan, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Brian Mulligan’s Marcello
In yet another strong performance, the always-dependable baritone Brian Mulligan was a convincing Marcello, bringing the warm sound needed for the impoverished painter, whose moods alternate between the carefree and the conflicted. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Mulligan.]
The great third scene duet with Crocetto’s Mimi was memorable, as were the comic patter with his Bohemian roomies and the battles with his beloved Musetta.
[Below: the four Bohemian roommates try out their repertory of dance steps, from left to right Schaunard (Hadleigh Adams), Rodolfo (Giorgio Berrugi), Colline (Christian Van Horn) and Marcello (Brian Mulligan); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Hadleigh Adams’ Schaunard
Each of the 13 regular San Francisco Opera performances of “Boheme” (there are two budget-priced performances for families) share the same cast for the comprimario roles, each of which was superbly played.
New Zealand baritone and current Adler Fellow Hadleigh Adams is Schaunard. Beyond a secure vocal technique is evidence of a clear sense of the spirit and humor of the part, and the physicality to create a portrait of an intensely likable sidekick.
[Below: the neighborhood surrounding the Cafe Momus where the Bohemians share a table at the left; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Christian Van Horn’s Colline
Christian Van Horn has emerged as the go-to basso for the San Francisco Opera in the last year or so, creating the roles of the Four Villains in San Francisco Opera’s mounting of their co-production of Offenbach’s masterpiece [see Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013.]
Earlier this season he has sung the roles of Oroveso [Review: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Stunning Season Opening “Norma” – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2014], Count Ribbing [Review: A Stylishly Sung and Intelligently Staged “Masked Ball” at San Francisco Opera – October 4, 2014] and Alidoro [“Cenerentola” Review: San Francisco Opera’s Splendidly Sung, Sumptuously Staged Cinderella Story – November 9, 2014].
[Below: Musetta IEllie Dehn, left) and Marcello (center, second from left) continue their arguments as Mimi (Leah Crocetto, right) and Rodolfo (Giorgio Berrugi, second from right) are reconciled; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
John Caird’s Production and David Farley’s Production and Costume Designs
The John Caird staging is a loving reading of the opera, faithful in its details to the spirit of the piece, but capable of continuous surprise.
I have previously praised John Caird’s inventive productions [see Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012 and A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010.]
[Below: the garret apartment of the Bohemians; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In this production, Caird teamed with Broadway set and costume designer David Farley. One of the many felicitous results of this collaboration is the spectacular scene changes, first from the Bohemians garret to the Cafe Momus. In this change, as Mimi and Rodolfo leave the stage singing a love duet in unison, all of Marcello’s paintings that adorn the wall ascend as the set breaks away and all the set’s elements turn.
Magically, and without a pause, the Cafe Momus neighborhood is before us. Puccini’s entire first and second acts are completed in 55 minutes.
After the Cafe Momus scene, there is an intermission, and then Puccini’s third act begins in a Parisian neighborhood adjacent to an official custom house.
This provides an opportunity for Mimi and Rodolfo to reconcile temporarily their differences and to leave the stage singing a love duet in unison, when all the features of the custom house neighborhood break apart and either ascend or turn, the result being the recreation of the Bohemians’ garret. The entire third and acts, balancing the first two acts, are also completed in 55 minutes.
But the technical brilliance of the scene changes is only one of many charming features of the production.
Puccini’s stage directions are faithfully observed, but enhancements of Puccini’s inventions are always evident.
One example may inspire close attention to everything that’s happening. When Marcello arrives at the Cafe, he brings a small stand for displaying a painting. That provides an opportunity for a conniving Musetta to annoy Marcello. Sbe crosses the stage, picks the painting up to embellish a point.
Then Musetta’s exasperated consort Alcindoro (amusingly played by Dale Travis) storms over and takes hold of the painting. That enrages Marcello who blows off any germs that Alcindoro left on it, and packs it away.
Other Cast and Crew
Also in the hustle and bustle of the Cafe Momus scene, the children’s chorus was charmingly sung and acted, Ethan Chen a soloist as A Boy. Chester Pidduck was Parpignol, Colby Roberts a Prune Vendor. Bojan Knezevic was a Custom-House sergeant and Torlef Borsting his officer.
Giuseppe Finzi conducted with obvious affection for Puccini’s great work. Ian Robertson is Chorus Master.
I recommend the production enthusiastically, noting that both of the alternating casts have abundant strengths.
Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews