San Francisco Opera serves up Triple Delights - La Fille, Abduction, Salome

By Truman C. Wang
Published: 10/25/2009
Photo credit: Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

La fille du régiment

CAST: Diana Damrau (Marie), Juan Diego Florez (Tonio), Bruno Pratico (Sulpice), Meredith Arwady (Marquise of Berkenfield), Sheila Nadler (Duchess of Krakenthorp), Jakes Gardner (Hortensius), Kenneth Kellogg (Corporal), Chester Pidduck (Peasant), Keith Perry (Notary).  Conductor- Andriy Yurkevych.  Director- Laurent Pelly.  Dramaturg- Agathe Melinand.  Set Designer- Chantal Thomas.  Costume Designer- Laureant Pelly. 

What a delightful night at the San Francisco Opera!  Far from being ‘regimental’, this production of  “La Fille du Régiment” achieves wonderful fluidity in both its comedic and vocal executions, thanks in part to Agathe Mélinand’s sparkling new French dialogue (with a hilarious sprinkle of English) as well as Laurent Pelly’s zany stage direction.   Apparently, the overflowing audience and packed standing room agreed.  Each aria, each duet, each ensemble, was enthusiastically received with shouts of bravo and bursts of applause.  The brightly-colored, cleverly-conceived sets by Chantal Thomas and period costumes by Laurent Pelly were beautiful to behold, evoking the early 20th-Century French region of Tyrol.  The winning cast, led by superstar tenor Juan Diego Flórez as the romantic soldier hero Tonio, features Germany’s high-flying coloratura soprano Diana Damrau as the tomboyish military brat Marie, veteran comedian bass-baritone Bruno Pratico’s Sgt Sulpice, and mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady’s hysterically funny Marquise Berkenfeld.   Ms. Damrau, it must be said, is a fine comedienne and a skilled mistress of the belcanto art, despite her annoying tendency to sing certain soft passages in half tone or reduce the volume to an inaudible wimper, in so doing Marie’s Act 2 aria ‘Par le rang et par’ was robbed much of its emotional intensity.   In full voice, however, Damrau sounded radiant in her Act 1 duet with Flórez, their voices blending beautifully and glowingly.  Flórez was a class act all by himself and did not disappoint with his perfectly rousing rendition of Tonio’s aria ‘Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!’ – hitting all nine high C’s with military precision and effectively bringing the house down.

Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych provided a superb and energetic accompaniment to the singers, keeping a forward pulse that was precise yet flexible, and showing a true affinity to Donizetti’s music. 

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

CAST: Mary Dunleavy (Constanze), Anna Christy (Blonde), Matthew Polenzani (Belmonte), Andrew Bidlack (Pedrillo), Peter Rose (Osmin), Charles Shaw Robinson (Pasha Selim).  Conductor- Giuseppe Finzi.  Director- Chas Rader-Shieber.  Set Designer- David Zinn.  Lighting Designer- Christopher Akerlind. 

Mozart’s Singspiel comedy also received a delightful presentation with a youthful cast and a theatrical production by Chas Rader-Shieber and David Zinn.  Starting with the premise that life is theater, we watch the main actions unfold inside the elevated frame of a theater, and the background actions are relegated to the areas outside or below the theatrical frame.  This works especially well in Act Three, when the ‘offstage’ Pedrillo boasts about their successful group escape, but unbeknownst to him, each of his partners is being roped up by Pasha’s guards because they can escape the ‘main stage’.  The period sets and costumes are beautiful to behold.  The dramatic lighting by Christopher Akerlind enhances the theatricalized concept of the production.  Constanze, for example, casts a long shadow on a dimly-lit stage during her anguished showpiece “Martern aller Arten”. 

Soprano Mary Dunleavy gave a passionate and heartfelt portrayal of Constanze, who is torn between her respect for the Pasha and her love for Belmonte.  Mozart wrote this highly difficult role for Catarina Cavalieri, a soprano equally known for her dalliances as well as her highly flexible throat.  Ms. Dunleavy’s gleaming soprano moved effortlessly in the rapid roulades and scales of  Constanze’s arias “Traurigkeit” and “Martern aller Arten”, only to be defeated by the low notes and the trills that these two arias require.  Matthew Polenzani sang the lover role of Belmonte with his customary grace and polish, harking back to the golden lyric tenors of yesteryear (Gedda, Winbergh, Wunderlich, et al.)  Peter Rose’s Osmin commanded a good, strong rolling bass down to the low F’s and E’s but his lowest note (D2) in Act 3 “O, wie will ich triumphieren” was barely audible.  English soprano Anna Christy (the delightful Lisette in “La Rondine” two years ago) returned her many charms again as the coquettish Blonde.  Tenor Andrew Bidlack, a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, sang adequately and acted admirably as Blonde’s beau Pedrillo.  Charles Shaw Robinson is a Bay Area actor and spoke the part of Pasha Selim with firm conviction and quiet authority.  Conductor Giuseppe Finzi gave a generally flowing and unfussy reading of the lighthearted score, apart from the few stiff and unwieldy passages for the winds.  The San Francisco Opera Orchestra has arguably the finest wind players in the business and they do not like to be manhandled or reigned in too much, as they clearly seemed to be here. 

Unlike the previous productions of “Seraglio”, this one is sung in German but spoken in English.  I think it’s a great idea and should be done more often for the benefit of the native audience. 


CAST: Nadja Michael (Salome), Irina Mishura (Herodias), Kim Begley (Herod), Greer Grimsley (Jokanaan), Garret Sorenson (Narraboth), Elizabeth DeShong (A Page), Beau Gibson (First Jew), Robert MacNeil (Second Jew), Matthew O'Neill (Third Jew), Corey Bix (Fourth Jew), Jeremy Milner (Fifth Jew)
Conductor- Nicola Luisotti.  Director- Sean Curran.  Dramaturg- James Robinson.  Set Designer- Bruno Schwengl

German soprano Nadja Michael charmed, terrified and bewitched the San Francisco Opera audience in the enfant terrible role of Salome.  She had previously sung it in Milan and London to considerable acclaim (less so the dark Luc Bondy production).   The San Francisco Opera has long been a fertile ground for established European stars to make their American debuts, and potentially to subsequent fame and fortune (Valery Gergiev, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Anna Netrebko, to name a very few).  Judging from her winning performance last Sunday, one could safely say that another star is born in San Francisco.  In her late thirties, Ms. Michael is nonetheless petite and nimble enough to portray believably a sixteen-year-old spoiled brat obsessed with her desire for Jokanaan.  Her voice, equally nimble and athletic, could plumb the mezzo-soprano depths with sardonic force, or rise up to ecstatic heights (up to a high B-natural) in Salome’s final scene.  Like her many predecessors in this role (Malfitano, Ewing, Mattila), Ms. Michael performed the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” herself and bared all at its conclusion; unlike them, however, she did it with consummate grace and white-heat eroticism – no doubt a result of careful coaching by the ballerina-turned-director Seán Curran.   The clever, strategic use of crimson sheer, voluminous fabric tossed in the air to form long arcs only added to the exoticism and sensuality of Salome’s dance.

Fresh from Seattle’s Ring as Wotan, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sang Jokanaan (John the Baptist) with booming authority and utter conviction.  Eschewing electronic amplification, the production team chose to have Jokanaan sing into the horn of an old gramophone and bounce the sound off the stage sets.  It’s a sound idea on paper but, in actual practice, rendered the voice upfront and center, rather than coming from the deep bowels of a cistern.   

In small but vital roles of Herod and Herodias, tenor Kim Begley and mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura played up the psychotic dysfunction of these two helpless parents of Salome – Herod with his nervous banter and Herodias with her depraved laughter.   Tenor Garrett Sorenson was a youthful and suave-toned Narraboth who kills himself because he cannot bear to hear Salome’s love for another. 

Despite the composer’s own admonition (“Louder, louder! I can still hear the singers!”), maestro Nicola Luisotti gave a extraordinarily lush reading of the score, exploring the music’s dynamic extremes but somehow without overwhelming the singers.  The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, 91-strong, once again excelled and played like the gods, particularly the deliciously slithery, erotically charged winds (solo clarinet and flute) at the start of “Dance of the Seven Veils”.  So superb were the orchestral contributions that one had the grand illusion of hearing the intoxicating sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic emanating from the pit of the War Memorial Opera House. 

The sets by Bruno Schwengl and stage direction by Seán Curran are basically traditional without being literal and serve the drama well.  Jokanaan does not emerge from an underground cistern but from an iron gate in stage center.  Salome is stabbed to death rather than crushed by the guards’ shields.  All carping aside, the production team got so many things just right, including the aforementioned “Dance of the Seven Veils”.