Archive for the ‘san francisco opera’ Tag
Being a part of Francesca Zambello’s production of Die Walküre has raised the bar for me yet again on my operatic excursions as a “Super” at the San Francisco Opera. CHECK!…another dream fulfilled. This time Wagner! When I pass over the scratched and worn stage floor, I still pinch myself and marvel at all the legends who have left their mark in this hallowed place. Here’s a photo-narrative glimpse into this exciting production, and my wonderful world of Wagner.
Yes, True Wagnerians Still Walk the Earth
When’s the last time you saw a Wagner opera and weren’t wishing singers of the past were instead onstage? Well, it would be hard to best this nearly peerless cast, particularly in today’s international crop. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde is utter perfection, with a refulgent, voluminous voice, and yet, there’s such a naturalness to her delivery, it’s as if she’s speaking. She exudes considerable warmth in her very convincing acting expressions, and as one reviewer said, she couldn’t play the victim better. She also couldn’t look the part more (as evidenced by this glowing photo). She, and all the principals are a joy backstage too. Given the pressure they’re under to perform a VERY difficult piece, that’s quite a testimony.
In her debut as the Walküre Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme delivers the much expected stamina and bravado, but never betrays her beauty of tone, or pushes outside her “column of sound.” She uses her slighter stature and strong connection to her body to paint an authentically youthful and feisty characterization. No, she doesn’t erase memories of Nilsson’s vocal sword throwing in the highest reaches of “Ho-jo-to-ho!,” but she has a far darker, warmer, and more alluring tone, and greater physicality than Nilsson.
Mark Delavan is tireless, and the model of godly alpha-male strength as Wotan. At times he sings with a legato line, but other times chews up and spits out the german consonants to portray anger, or when commanding others. Backstage, he’s the funniest opera personality I’ve ever been around…cracking up the Supers without fail, with his disarming humor. Enjoy his perspective on Wotan, and at times refreshingly irreverent sense of humor in this interview.
Christopher Ventris as Siegmund is in the Heppner/Windgassen vein, having a brighter, not baritonal Heldentenor tone. However, he is easily heard, and has plenty of thrust to cut through the orchestra. He and Eva-Marie make an appealing and very engaged duo. Ray Aceto as Hunding is genuinely scary and imposing, and wields a very satisfying black basso. Janina Baechle as Fricka doesn’t erase vocal memories of Marjana Lipovšek (‘95), but she is quite perfect in this production’s conception of this role, and is fully and excitingly committed.
In this Act I play one of Hunding’s thuggish *insert grunt here* kinsmen, returning from a day of hunting. I carry in a giant plastic-wrapped meat pack, which I immediately throw to Hunding. (Yes, me, the one who couldn’t throw a ball to save his life as a kid…WHY?!) We all threaten Siegmund with our rifles when he hesitates Hunding’s commands. (I’m at bottom left.) Later Sieglinde ladles us up some slop (aka bloodied plastic cubes) from a giant pot, presumably whipped up from the meat I tossed. Mmm-mmm good! Another Super carries a rope with two rather sad, dangling fowl. Not surprisingly, the kinsmen have been likened to the “Michigan Militia,” present-day paramilitary thugs.
The Melding of Classical Voice & Dance
Thanks to my friend Sara, last night I attended one of the freshest, most daring shows I’ve seen in a very long-time. Somehow, it hadn’t even entered my radar before her mention of it. The first half was the World Premiere of “Wheel in the Middle of the Field,” presented by Alonzo King Lines Ballet, and featuring a quartet of the current Adler Fellows, two of whom I touted in their Merola debut last year. The second half was “Rasa,” a piece performed by the dancers alone.
Other than brief insets within an opera, I’ve only seen the melding of dance with live classical voice a handful of times. The most effective have been Iphigénie en Tauride at the SF Opera (’07), with choreography by Phillipe Giraudeau, Purcell’s King Arthur by the Mark Morris Dance Company (Zellerbach, ’96), and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Sea Pictures” at the SF Ballet, set to Elgar’s song cycle, and sung by mezzo and Adler Fellow Katia Escalera (’01). This happy meeting of two of my favorite disciplines always leaves me wanting more. When I saw the listing of this program, I felt it was kismet, and clearly the product of someone thinking outside the box. Ultimately, this is the sort of risk that is a requirement if these art forms are to survive, having the power to woo the younger audiences we all pray for.
Alonzo King said about the project: “The challenge is to integrate body, mind and intention, within the individuals themselves and between the two different disciplines. I encourage them to explore and expand into their physical bodies, using the entire body as a vocal cord. I initiate exercises in being, not doing. Being without armor—which is difficult to do—is believing that what you are is enough.” That intent proved to be very successful.
The performance began with the Adler quartet taking the stage: Ryan Belongie, Sara Gartland, Maya Lahyani, and Austin Kness, (with accompanist Allen Perriello in the pit). The women wore beautiful, shimmering slate blue dresses, just below the knees in length. Gartland’s was spare with spaghetti straps, and Lahyani’s with an additional expressive band of fabric hanging down on her left shoulder. The men were in black, both with a subtle nod to a masculine, japanese Samurai silhouette. Surprisingly, they began not to sing, but to dance! The results were mixed, but it was quite unexpected and engaging. I respected the total emotional commitment from them, especially to something they aren’t presumably well-trained in.
In the past I’ve shared bit here about my experiences of being a “Super” or “Supernumerary” (in more mundane and familiar terms: an “Extra”) at the San Francisco Opera.
Well, fellow Super and examiner.com writer Cindy Warner has just done a post featuring some of the new opportunities in the upcoming season, as well as linking back to two of my previous Super posts on jcm.
Enjoy her post here:
My fingers are crossed that I’ll have the good fortune of fulfilling my dream of performing in a Wagner opera, as a Super in Die Walküre!
Fanantics at Opera in the Park
I was just reminiscing with a friend about one my most fond demented personal operatic moments. In anticipation of SF Opera in the Park (1999), I wanted to come up with something to match the spirit of the lifesized cardboard Callas figure an opera queen had used to stake out his picnic site in a previous year (at right, from the EMI Unknown Recordings ad campaign). I thought…what might create some buzz, embody my fanaticism for my diva(s), and yet be practical enough to be carried down to Golden Gate Park?
My creation: the DIVA Totem Pole, which I fashioned from portraits of my top seven favorites. A friend or two were initially embarrased (especially during the morning walk into the park: a parade of shame?), but by the end of the day, I think they too fell under its irresitable spell. Once we reached Sharon Meadows, we marked our territory by posting it in the ground. We had a ball in the shadow of the totem: drinkin’, noshin’, ‘n hangin’.
Thankfully, SF Chronicle Senior Writer Bob Graham was in attendance that day, and was also wooed by the totem’s magic. He did a casual on-site interview with me. The next morning, I rushed down to retrieve the newspaper from my mailbox, quickly opened the Datebook section, and was thrilled to see my local color included in his review of the day: Fresh Air and Free Arias in the Park. Best of all, it included the listing of the divaaaaahhhs, as well as my own hilarious self-billing: a “part-time professional countertenor now on sabbatical.”
The totem features, from the bottom 7. Renée Fleming (with David Daniels inset), 6. Elisabeth Rethberg, 5. Christa Ludwig, 4. Montserrat Caballé, 3. Eleanor Steber, 2. Lisa Della Casa, 1. LEONTYNE PRICE. You can see, although I am also devoted to Kunst Divas, I do favor Stimm Divas, when push comes to shove. That’s right, no Callas, although I admire her art greatly!
Numbers 7 through 6 would be different now, BUT 5 though 1 would remain quite intact, and La Price would still reign supreme. I felt compelled to include a living/performing diva (and countertenor!), and was very into Renée (ie: her Eschenbach Four Last Songs recording) and Daniels at the time. Next to their portraits, it read “BONUS DIVAS: STILL ON STAGE”. Stemme, Melton, Borodina, or Baltsa would likely topple both of them now as the active divas, were I to revisit this adoration. And, Eileen Farrell would HAVE to make a climb up the totem too.
Next up…Diva Masks at SF Opera in the Park (2002)!
Since I first sang the praises of my friend, soprano Heidi Melton on jcm, she has moved several steps closer to the exposure that her prodigious gifts hinted at. I’m very excited to share with you (Melton fans and newbies alike) my new e-interview with her: she, in Berlin, sidled up to her laptop with frosty brew-in-hand, and me, in San Francisco, eagerly awaiting her return to SFO, in 2011. Ah, it’s the next best thing to sitting down in-person at a pub!
It’s not surprising that, despite the 5,657 miles between us, her appeal, warmth, irrepressible sense of humor, and passion for her art still shine through. Enjoy this glimpse into her life, career and heart…
jcm: What is your very first memory of singing or performing?
HM: I suppose that my first memory of music would be of my grandma sitting next to me on the piano bench, teaching me how to play. It is how I spent the majority of my formative years, and was very gratifying.
jcm: Are you from a musical family? Or, were your gifts helped along in any way in your childhood home?
HM: My family has always loved music, although not necessarily opera. But, they have really started finding an appreciation for it — except for my sister, who still feels that opera sounds like someone is stepping on nails! My grandma went to college for piano performance, so that was always a part of my home, but I will admit to not really discovering opera until I was about 14 or 15.
jcm: Have you always been on track to be a performer, and when did your trajectory shift towards opera?
HM: When I first started applying to undergraduate schools, I did so under music performance and music education. I applied mostly to state schools in Washington, but I had my one “pie in the sky” school, which was the Eastman School of Music. I was accepted into Eastman, but only as a music education major. I wasn’t good enough to get into their performance program. Anyhow, I’ve never been good at accepting a “no,” so I worked hard and juried into performance, and haven’t looked back.
jcm: When did it become clear that your voice was that very special and true dramatic soprano, like one of your favorites, Régine Crespin, or perhaps even a Hochdramatische (“heroic”), like another favorite, Astrid Varnay? Is it a pressure, or instead empowering to know you hold this rare gift?
HM: It does seem to be heading in that direction, doesn’t it? I do consider it a gift, and with any gift comes responsibility, so I am just trying to do all that I can to ensure that I give “the beast” everything that it needs to be the best it can be. But to answer your question, it is both a pressure and empowering.
Telemarketing Sales Calls…Oh My!
As I continue to field a slew of these sorts of calls from all the big gun Bay Area performing arts companies (ie: San Francisco Opera, SF Ballet, and more), I am reminded how much my own entertainment purchasing habits have changed (not to mention that of the entire market), and how little interest I have in committing to a subscription for any of their seasons. No kidding (I swear on my own grave), I just got a call from the SFO about a subscription for the upcoming season, as I edited this post. Could I be any more topical!?
Being a graphic designer, and even myself having worked and working on some past and future SFO campaigns, I feel for the telemarketers…but in the heat of the moment it doesn’t make the disruption much easier to swallow.
I still laugh when I remember the technique my feisty grandmother touted for dealing with such calls. She said she would ask them to hold while she got the person they asked for (sometimes herself)…then she would set down the phone for a good long while, until they gave up.
Thanks for the Memories
Back in the mid-90s I enjoyed my one-and-only complete 12-part subscription to the SFO. This was back in the hey-day, when their seasons were really jam packed (unlike the current 9-part season). I also purchased a 6-part series one season shortly after. The year of my 12-part series, I enjoyed sharing in theme nights with operagoing friends, attending a french restaurant before Massenet, German before Strauss, and so on. But, that was sort of a one-season thrill, and lost momentum after 4 or 5 operas…perhaps a bit too tedious after a while.
I do remember feeling rather enslaved by the demands of the subscription schedule, having to go nearly every weekend in Nov./Dec., and wishing I also had time for other pleasures on-the-town (movies, dance, clubbin’). I’m an opera fanatic, but even in my experiencing of opera I like variety…sometimes cheaply from standing room or even a lucky student rush ticket, sometimes (rather expensively) from my favored Dress Circle section, sometimes from the stage (as a “Super”), and so on. I even enjoy attending the opera with different friends, to experiencing their varying perspectives and knowledge bases…some offering me new insight, some enjoying mine.
I am certain that subscriptions are the life-blood of performing arts orgs, and so part of me has felt guilty for not being a more faithful patron, as I’ve begun reveling in single ticket livin’. But, now that I freelance from home, and have my own design business, that guilt is washing away…clearly a sign ‘o the times.
I realize that companies are having to reinvent the way they engage their audiences too (ie: with complete design your own series, etc., which didn’t exist on this scale 5+ years ago). Extensive marketing surveys have become so common, it seems one hits about every six months. It is clear that these companies are trying to get a pulse on their changing audiences in a fast evolving and tight time. I actually enjoy giving my two-cents, and always hope it makes some sort of ripple, however small.
One of these surveys was conducted shortly before David Gockley signed on as General Director of SFO. One of the questions was, which operas would you most like to see. Thankfully, two of the operas on that list have been presented since: Porgy & Bess, and Die Todt Stadt (at the end of Pamela Rosenberg’s tenure).
What motivates my interests? I most want to see the oft ignored chestnuts that haven’t been mounted here in eons (or ever), and that I have yet to see LIVE in any venue. I also, of course, will try not to miss a production if the singers are first-rate (and deserved) “stars”, or if the production has been critically acclaimed or promises to be provoking and well suited to the work itself.
My Updated Wish-Lists
My submitted wish-list remains largely intact. Unless noted, I have not seen these works, and eagerly await my first encounter with them.:
Die Frau ohne Schatten (seen twice)
Così fan tutte (seen once)
Maria Stuarda / Lucrezia Borgia / Roberto Devereux
Dialogues des Carmélites
I Capuleti e I Montechi
Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride)
Die Schweigsame Frau
Another question in the Gockley survey was which singers we’d most like to see. (Sadly, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson was on that list.) Here is my newly crafted list.:
• Heidi Melton
• Anne Schwanewilms
• Mlada Khudoley
• Alexandrina Pendatchanska
• Andreas Scholl
• Bernarda Fink
• Waltraud Meier
• Olga Borodina
• Jonas Kaufmann (Gockley has publicly stated his admiration of this singer, so hopefully it won’t be long!)
• Peter Seiffert
• Lawrence Brownlee (fortunately I’m seeing him in Semiramide at Caramoor)
• Réne Pape
• Vitaly Kowaljow
• Bryn Terfel
Thankfully, other likely wish-listees Nina Stemme, Ewa Podles, Stephanie Blythe, Juan Diego Florez, and Paolo Gavanelli are all appearing next season.
Netrebko, Pérez & Futral: A Study in Contrasts
Part of the fun of experiencing multiple divas in a single role, particularly in the same production run, is drawing up comparisons. Sometimes the differing quality of an “A” and “B” cast can be seen from a mile away, but in the case of the recent run of La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera, all three Violettas offered equally worthy performances. Anna Netrebko can sell tickets like no other, but the goods delivered by the other divas were not disproportionate. And, can you imagine a more beautiful trio of divas? I can’t.
I enjoyed portions of performances and dress rehearsals (sometimes vocally “marked”), from on-stage, backstage, as well as over the dressing room speakers! Perhaps this is not the most complete, or un-biased manner in which to judge a performance, but is a very broad and diverse one. I had some fun comparing and contrasting this wealth of riches, especially as I don’t imagine this opportunity will come again soon.:
Voce: Dark and throaty
Presence: Brooding and tempestuous
Diva comparison: Moffo and Vischnevskaya
“Libiamo”: White Russian (pardon the pun…rich and creamy, but with a kick)
Violetta traits: Embodied true glamour, and launched vocal climaxes with a surprisingly spinto-scaled soprano.
Best Act: Act III, delivered a deeply felt sense of tragedy
Voce: Round and buoyant
Presence: Vulnerable and feminine
Diva comparison: De los Angeles and Scotto
“Libiamo”: Cosmo (contemporary and chic)
Violetta traits: Created a sympathetic, verismatic characterization, and elicited real pathos. Brought refulgent, unforced tone in the middle voice. Wooed with her bright, expressive eyes.
Best Act: Act II, rendered heart-breaking tenderness
Voce: Bright and flexible
Presence: Gamine and lithe
Diva comparison: Albanese and Sills
“Libiamo”: Champagne (sparkling and light)
Violetta traits: Offered free and flirtatious movement, and really worked the entire stage. Hit pin-point accuracy in coloratura, as if played on a keyboard.
Best Act: Act I, reigned in “Sempre Libera”, with the lone high E flats in the run (much appreciated, despite being interpolated). Her use of mezza voce were also masterful and well modulated.
Addio, Addio Violetta!
Here’s one of my favorite photo moments from the run. Sadly, my service to Violetta comes to an end with today’s matinee (tear). Signing-off Violetta…
Auditions for the General Director
I sat in on this private San Francisco Opera, Merola Program event last night. It is billed as David Gockley’s first opportunity to hear the new batch of ’09 Merolini. I was lucky to be able to enjoy the acoustic and easy view from the boxes. The singers each walk out on the stage individually and sing a single aria of their choice. For 23 singers that was about a 2 hour parade of arias. However, given the level of talent Merola presents, it was highly enjoyable, and flew by.
Then, after a 15 minute or so intermission, once Gockley, Sheri Greenawald (Director), and the other musical staff have deliberated, they request back a handful of artists (8 this time) to sing an additional aria which the staff specifies. I imagine it’s to hear that singer in a different genre (ie: they first heard a soprano perform Wagner, and then requested Mozart for her second aria), as they will be casting them as comprimari and understudies in upcoming seasons.
As is always the case, this batch showed a great deal of promise, and also presented a few singers that seemed quite seasoned. (See the complete roster of singers and apprentice coaches below.) There are several singers in particular that are still lingering in my memory this morning, and for very good reason. They either have exceptional technique, or that X-Factor that may project them into a big career. All of the singers were enjoyable, and I hope all find some degree of fulfillment in a successful career.
The Big Picture
I hope the men are offered “Buying a Suit That Fits: 101”, as there were quite a few that didn’t present themselves in the best light. I understand that young artists normally don’t have expendable cash, but fashion is an important part of their image that can be a distraction if overlooked (3 snaps!). The women, not surprisingly held this bar higher. However, vocally, the scale tipped in the men’s favor, which is welcome, as male vocal talent of the highest level seems to generally be more scarce of late. Overall, the lyric sopranos and mezzos offered a greater dose of brightness than I like. This left me craving Merola ’08′s Joelle Harvey, who had perfectly controlled technique, never sang beyond her “column of sound” (as L. Price used to refer to it), and was an actress equal to her vocal abilities. Many of the singers rushed their phrasing, which was likely the result of the adrenaline that must be rushing in this rather unnerving setting, and singers are works-in-progress at this phase of their development, so for this they are forgiven!!! There must be something in the water in Iowa, as 3+ of the singers were from towns there (none I’d heard of): Agency, Royal, and Charles City.
The great surprise is that we were treated to five Wagner selections, all well performed, and most on a par with the pros. This is quite unusual at an event like this, which is more typically inhabited by a greater majority of lyric voices and rep. I applaud Merola for investing in these singers, and applaud these singers for harnessing such dramatic and rare instruments.
For me the most complete package of the night was Michael Sumuel, who sang “O! Du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhauser. He was one of two performers that touched me on a deeper level (tears), the next singer noted being the second. He has a real generosity of spirit in his performing, welcoming the “audience” in with his open arms and heart. His breath support was astounding, and his tone dark and beautiful, like a young Willard White, with a touch of Simon Estes’ edge.
I was so pleased to discover a countertenor on the roster, and Ryan Belongie was not just a novelty item in this company. This is a major talent. He has the plumminess and musicality of David Daniels, but with the restraint and minimalism of Andreas Scholl. He sang “I know a bank” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Handel’s “Cara Sposa”. He was transfixing, and really knew how to create a sense of theatrical space around him (I could almost “see” the sets). He is a bit of a young Peter Sellars (the opera director) look-alike. One small gripe is that the fast “B” section of “Cara…” was not as masterful as the rest, but it is amazing to consider he moved on from the tenor fach not too long ago, as I understand.
Tenor Nathaniel Peake was one of three singers returning from the Merola ’08 roster. He matched last year’s “Salut demeure chaste et pure” with “Ah! lève-toi soleil!” from R&J. He is reminiscent of the great french tenor of past Georges Thill, and has phenomenal idiomatic french diction and technique, balancing the nasality with an open-throated tone. He offered the most perfect, finely spun, on-the-breath, diminuendo high A I may have ever heard, to top it off. We were rapt.
We had a true heldentenor in our presence, in the form of Gregory Carroll. Seeing Jane Eaglen noted as one of his teachers was heartening too. He sang “Meine liebe Schwan!” from Lohengrin, as well as “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. He left me wanting nothing more vocally. He could hit the stage tomorrow in a Wagner opera and deliver the vocal goods. But, he will need to learn to engage his body more in portraying his characterizations.
The first of the two strongest offerings from the women came in the form of Israeli mezzo Maya Lahyani’s Werther aria. She is reminiscent of Tatiana Troyanos, in her passionate commitment as a tragedienne, and plummy tone. She had the X-Factor and offered the most unique and stylish look as well. Her list of teachers was very impressive, and have clearly rubbed off some of their greatness: Regine Crespin, Regina Resnik and Ruth Falcon. She did proove that she does not yet have bel canto chops in “Di tanti palpiti”, but I don’t feel that’s the rep where she will make her imprint.
And, Lori Guilbeau offered a glorious “Einsam in trüben tagen”, as well as a vocally large-scaled “Ah! Fuggi il traditor!”. She offered some parallels to Carroll (above), in that she has true Wagnerian chops, and a refulgent tone, but needs to hone her physicality to match her vocal goods…which will surely come with time. She possesses a head of gleaming white blonde hair that would make any Sieglinde jealous.
Other Excellent Offerings
Susannah Biller bested her first offering with a plangent “Ach, Ich Fühl’s”. Aleksey Bogdanov offered a very seasoned Iago aria, from Othello, with a James Morris-like villainous snarl and bite. It was nice to get some dramatic mezzo action in the form of Margaret Gawrysiak’s “Stride la Vampa”. Brian Jagde, a recent convert from baritone had a big, ringing voice, and equal swagger in “Recondita Armonia”. And, bass baritone Yohan Yi offered a very resonant technique, and confident delivery in Mephistopheles’ aria (“Tra la la la”).
I eagerly await the debuts of all the Merolini in the summer operas, and into the future! I will most certainly not miss their L’Amico Fritz, as it’s so rarely done, and features Mr. Peake, among others.
The Complete Roster: ’09 Merolini
Susannah Biller, Georgetown, Tennessee; Lara Ciekiewicz, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Kate Crist, Agency, Iowa; Sara Gartland, St. Paul, Minnesota; Lori Guilbeau, Golden Meadow, Louisiana
Margaret Gawrysiak, Geneseo, Illinois; Caitlin Mathes, Dayville, Connecticut; Ellie Jarrett, Dallas, Texas; Maya Lahyani, Hod-HaSharon, Israel
Suzanne Hendrix, Charles City, Iowa
Ryan Belongie, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin
Eleazar Rodríguez, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico; Gregory Carroll, Des Moines, Washington; Brian Jadge, Piermont, New York; Alex Mansoori, Seattle, Washington; Nathaniel Peake, Humble, Texas
Aleksey Bogdanov, Odessa, Ukraine; John Chest, Greenville, South Carolina; Paul Scholten, Muskegon, Michigan; Michael Sumuel, Odessa, Texas
Yohan Yi, Pohang, The Republic of Korea
Evan Boyer, Louisville, Kentucky; Benjamin LeClair, Royal, Iowa
Keun-a Lee, Seoul, The Republic of Korea; Stephanie Rhodes, Alpine, Utah; Tamara Sanikidze, Tbilisi, The Republic of Georgia; Suzy Smith, Medicine Hat, Alberta; Miaomiao Wang, Lanzhou, Gansu, China
Apprentice Stage Director
Fernando Parra Bortí, Chihuahua, Mexico
Here’s a neat little side dish to my (jcm’s alter ego Paul’s) current experience as a “Super” in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s verismo masterpiece La Traviata. Cindy Warner, a SF Examiner writer included my story of working with/around Anna Netrebko as a part of her review article about opening night. My contribution starts about midway through.:
What is a Super, you ask? As the official Supernumerary Handbook states, it “is a nonsinging actor (extra)…As a supernumerary volunteer you are a valued member of the Opera Company…”
8 performances, and 2 more Violettas to go…
Surely the ghosts of Verdi and Britten (not to mention St. Patty, aka Patricia Racette) conjured up this gift! After the very disappointing cancellation of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the San Francisco Opera, robbing diva Heidi Melton (and us) of her formal debut in a leading role (Ellen Orford) on its stage, what glorious news the title of this May 28th SFO “Media Advisory” bore:
SOPRANO HEIDI MELTON TO REPLACE PATRICIA RACETTE
IN MAY 29 VERDI REQUIEM CONCERT CONDUCTED BY
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA MUSIC DIRECTOR DONALD RUNNICLES
This was especially welcome, after Heidi had a cancellation of her own mid-week, from Berkeley Opera’s Annual Gala, celebrating their 30th anniversary. At the time, I didn’t care if she was only to sing a single aria, I had to be there. Little did anyone know that a few days later she’d be delivering up one of the most demanding and exciting parts in the entire Italian (opera) rep.
This performance was crafted in honor of Donald Runnicles, and his 17 years as Music Director of the SFO. Although I hadn’t originally intended to go, with Heidi on board, it was NOT be missed.
It was a sold-out house, packed to the gills. It was heartening to see this, as Runnicle’s commitment to the company, and investment in the evolution of the orchestra, choir, and artists has been invaluable. He has set the bar very high for Luisotti, and the orchestra on a trajectory for the finest quality. In particular, his musical tastes seem to be very in line with mine…built on a foundation of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner (a not so subtly german trio!).
After my friend scored a single last-minute seat in the Orchestra, I scaled the heights to find the last standing room spot in the Balcony (aka “nose-bleeds”). When the first notes of the Requiem started and I looked around me, I felt as if we were in our spiritual home, here to worship Verdi, Runnicles (and Heidi…NOT in that order!) at the altar of music. It sent a chill up my back. It’s so rare to experience rep like this in the opera house, so it was truly special.
I was reminded that where I stood was the real acoustic sweet spot of the house, and nowhere else can one hear such fine textures in the soundscape, far better than in the rear Orchestra, where I first scavenged for a spot. It does seem to favor voices over instruments, as the chorus actually seemed to overpower the orchestra a bit…but I’m certain that’s just a slight acoustic imbalance, and was hardly a problem.
When basso Andrea Silvestrelli sang his first “Kyrie”, out of him spilled a generous, throaty, almost “black” Russian-like tone. However, he was capable of reigning it in to render more tender expressions as well. It was hard to believe he could extend such a dark sound up to the upper reaches of his range. There is something wild and untamed about his instrument, which is also supported by hints of the Italianate lisp I most associate with the operatic lion himself, Corelli.
Mezzo Stephanie Blythe offered her signature smooth tone and sensitivity to the score, but knew when to draw some thrilling edge forth from her voice. Her recent Amnerises have likely helped take her even further to these Simionato extremes. She is a model for what it means to be a truly collaborative artist. When singing with Heidi, she would lean into her, look at her, and exchange in a real give-and-take, as the phrases allowed it. And, when not singing, she was rapt and intent on those who were…really listening. Beautiful!
Tenor Stefano Secco was a shade lyric in this company, and relative to the great recordings I’ve grown accustomed to, but he sang with beauty of tone, blended well in the ensemble, and nailed every challenge in the score. He had the required squillo one is wanting from this piece.
It was overwhelming to see Heidi Melton perform this piece, on the stage of her beloved SFO, in her final year as an Adler Fellow. She has truly “arrived”, and it was clear she was meant to be, and deserved to be up there in that company. I’m so pleased that with the memory of this grand experience, she is supportively launched into her international career. I think her voice was born for Wagner and Strauss (german rep.), but she proved she is a worthy Verdian too. In particular, she shaped beautiful phrases in the “Salve me”, from voluminous fortes to caressed pianissimi. She also exhibited a lovely trill. She sustained a perfectly supported mezza voce in the Agnus Dei, and sang as one voice with Blythe. Perhaps because of the Caballe/Cossotto recording, I never feel this movement is conducted slowly enough, but imagine the breath support required to do so would be cruel. She commanded the stage in the scena Libera Me, and effectively rode the orchestra through its swells and crests.
Maestro Runnicles led his forces with vigor, and let the score guide him, rather than imposing an “interpretation”. In my 15 years in the Bay Area, he is the only SFO Music Director I have “known”, so this is truly the end of an era, and a book-end on a glorious run. His presence and manner alone have always lent a gravitas and reverence to our Company, and this art form we cherish.
Having just attended the Requiem at the SF Symphony last season it was interesting to draw some comparisons. This piece is more standard rep for a Symphony Orch and Choruses’, and they had the benefit of an actual run, so this may have contributed to it being the cleaner and more nuanced performance. Christine Brewer and Stephanie Blythe (again) put their own magic imprint on the material (shades of Sutherland/Horne as Norma/Adalgisa). BUT, the Verdi Requiem is really more operatic in character than “oratorio” or “symphonic”, and was rightfully performed in the opera house this time around. And, the Opera Orchestra and Chorus delivered a take-no-prisoners drama, with red-blooded fervor…a bit rougher around the edges, but fully committed.
Afterwards, SFO General Director David Gockley, Chairman of the Board of Directors John Gunn, and President of the San Francisco Opera Association George Hume presented Maestro Runnicles with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Company to an artistic professional (created by Kurt Herbert Adler in 1970). This was a very moving tribute, especially since it’s not frequently given (and rarely to conductors). Other recipient highlights include: Dorothy Kirsten (1970), Leontyne Price (1977), Joan Sutherland (1984), Marilyn Horne (1990), Plácido Domingo (1994), Frederica von Stade (1997), Samuel Ramey (2003), Pamela Rosenberg (2005), and Ruth Ann Swenson (2008).
Runnicles offered a very heart-felt and sincere acceptance and acknowledgement of the SFO and SF as his home, and expressed his great love for all his fellow artists, and us, the SF audience. He offered a special mention of Heidi, who he shared could have had no idea two days before when she woke up what opportunity would come her way. AND, he made the official public announcement that she will be joining him at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, as a member of its famed ensemble. I felt so proud for Heidi…she must have just been beside herself. Having been so scarce on the mainstage of late, this was a true triumph of performance and recognition!
And, there’s more good news to report on the horizon…her bio insert announced that she is scheduled to perform the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and Ada in Wagner’s rarely heard Die Feen with Frankfurt Opera, both in 2011. That she would make her home in Germany, at least in the short term comes as no surprise, and I hope is a very nurturing setting for her rare gifts!