By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
The San Francisco Opera has done it again—-opened the season with a powerful, well produced, well sung crowd pleaser. That is the double bill of two one-act operas Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It is a long tradition to pair these two late nineteenth-century verismo pieces and San Francisco has done it fifteen times previously.
For this production, the director, former leading tenor José Cura, has set the two operas in the same Italian barrio of La Boca, in Buenos Aires, in his home country of Argentina. We learn in the program notes that many southern Italian immigrants lived there so it’s not much of a stretch to place the two pieces in the same place with the same set. To add to the knitting together of the pieces, characters from each of the operas play minor parts in the other. The most notable of these was in the final scene of “Pagliacci”, when the last line “La commedia è finita! (The comedy is finished!) is sung, not by Canio (the clown) or even by Tonio (the rejected suitor), as is sometimes done, but by Mamma Lucia, the innkeeper from the first opera! It was a good closing of the circle from beginning to end.
The production design brought up to date by San Francisco Opera’s Jose Maria Condemi (another Argentinian) depicts a bright and colorful village square with tavern, church and houses. There are three-story windows on all three sides so that bits of action can take place on many levels—-a very effective multi-purpose set. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra was ably led by Italian conductor Daniele Callegari, making his local debut. Since San Francisco opera is currently without a musical director, one assumes that each of this year’s conductors could also be auditioning for a permanent role here. The orchestra played brilliantly, as usual, and seemed energized to be back in the pit (the audience was certainly happy to be back for a night at the opera). Ian Robertson’s opera chorus was also at its best in each opera, singing, acting, staying in the background but effectively rounding out the sounds and actions seen and heard on stage.
But on to the main characters. In the Cav opening the evening, Russian soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk was dramatic, passionate and believable as the unfortunate Santuzza, loved and discarded (and excommunicated from the church for her sin of being pregnant). Her lover, Turiddu, who only takes up with her to make his ex-girlfriend Lola jealous, was ably sung by Italian tenor Roberto Aronica (He sang Rodolfo in “La Bohème” here in San Francisco 25 years ago; despite the time lag, he was quite believable as a lover of women.) Lola, who married someone else while Turridu was away in the army, was sung sexily by American mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm. Minor roles were performed by local favorite mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Mamma Lucia and Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias who made his San Francisco debut as Lola’s husband Alfio. His voice is powerful and dramatic and he used it well.
Costumes were designed by Fernand Ruiz and were mostly quite appropriate without drawing attention to themselves. The original lighting by Olivier Wery was effectively updated by Justin A. Partier.
The beautifully played intermezzo, was, to me, slightly spoiled by the distraction of the modern Tango dancing. There are times to sit quietly and listen to music without having to be looking at something, but it seems that opera companies are leery of our dozing off if we don’t have visual images all the time.
After intermission, “Pagliacci” opened with Turridu’s funeral, so the time was meant to be the day after the events of the earlier opera. All that makes sense if we think of the continuity of village life. Still it was a bit awkward to see how much more pregnant Santuzza looked in such a short time. Something was a bit amiss. A small quibble.
Canio, the clown, was brilliantly sung by Italian tenor Marco Berti, who made his San Francisco debut in 2006 and has returned several times since then. He sang his heart out in the famous aria, “Vesti la Giubba”, and left us drained at the tragic ending. His wife and assistant, Nedda, was the charming and sprightly Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, who has sung in San Francisco a few times before, as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly” and as Tosca. She has an infectious lilt to her voice and her acting was engaging. Dimitri Platanias was back as Tonio the ‘bad guy’ who tries, unsuccessfully, to woo her. Rounding out the cast were New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati as Beppe the clown and American baritone David Pershall as Silvio, Nedda’s young lover. They made a beautiful, if ill-fated, pair. Again a tragic ending, in true verismo style, but so romantically written and sung that for all its sadness the audience left feeling satisfied at two good catharses in one evening. What could be better than that?
Four performances remain: September 19, 22, 28 and 30.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.