I sadly missed most of San Francisco Opera’s very rich fall season, but I did catch two very interesting nights: I Capuletti ed i Montecchi on October 16, and the Adler Fellows Gala Concert on November 30.
For me, a trip to Capuletti is both a chance to hear wonderful singing and one more attempt to embrace this, for me elusive, opera. San Francisco’s co-production with the Bayerische Staatsoper, conducted suavely by Riccardo Frizza, boasted some fine singing and a staging that blended provocative choices with a measure of flat-out Eurotrash silliness. Nonetheless, I remain unseduced by the piece as a whole and have probably seen my last performance of it.
The title of Felice Romani’s libretto can lead modern audiences to expect a rendering of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead, Romani drew on the same original sources that led to Shakespeare’s tragedy of doomed youth and rendered a script focused on the warring clans in Renaissance Italian city-states. The libretto lacks forward momentum and Bellini’s gorgeous score doesn’t mitigate the textual inertia. No question, this is music by one of bel canto‘s three great masters. It has moments of celestial beauty. The characters are built flat, though, and in some instances (the heroine, for example) hard to like. Capuletti’s music is easy to appreciate, but it remains a hard show to care about.
The essential structural flaw is Juliet’s pathological fear and chronic depression. She loves Romeo but is afraid to leave her father’s house. Director Broussard staged the character exactly as she appears on the page: in desperate need of some Prozac and a therapy group. Nicole Cabell in both her SFO and role debut executed the concept with remarkable bravery. Opera-goers who had never before witnessed a soprano climb a vertical wall and sing while perched on a sink can now say we have. Cabell sang with beautiful and rich tone throughout and good legato. She probably won’t base her career on music this florid, but she handled the vocal challenges well. I wish she had bucked the directorial trend more and walked towards the light. The word “Sospiro” in the opening of the second act marked the first time she smiled all evening. Her diction was a little foggy here, but she clearly meant every word. With consistent vocal beauty, intense emotionality, hers was a very successful performance.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato fulfilled everyone’s high expectations as Romeo: she is an artist blessed with musicianship and panache. Her tone was concentrated, carried some vibrato but remained firm in all registers. With her expert coloratura technique and sure intonation, Romeo’s florid music was in excellent hands.
If one purpose of drama is to stimulate the imagination, the presence of Eric Owens as Capellio raised a fascinating question: What was he doing there? It was an mystifying luxury to have his voice and presence on the stage in a role that offers him little to do. Nonetheless, the gift was gratefully received.
Adler fellow Ao Li’s laudable Laurentio constituted another genuine asset. As the romantic and adversarial foil to Romeo, Saimir Pirgu survived Tebaldo’s high tessitura but the voice was tight at the beginning and only intermittently displayed beauty of tone. He did some pretty singing, though, at the conclusion of “E serbato a questo acciaro.”
I’m of two minds about the production: it was never pretty and never echoed the delights of the score. However, both the best elements of the staging and the very questionable ones lent the work more palpable surface texture than I’ve found in previous encounters. Odd stylized choices – no real hand-off of the potion from Lorenzo to Giulietta – went side by side with vintage stand-and-sing blocking for soloists and chorus in their scenes together. There was what to appreciate in the staging, and a great deal to kvetch about, but there was always something to watch.
More unadulterated fun was to be had at the November 30 Gala Concert of the Adler Fellows. From the wider net of SFO’s Merola Opera program for young singers, a handful of artists each year are invited to continue their studies for up to three years as Adler Fellows. The concert of musically and dramatically ambitious arias and small ensembles was a pleasure throughout and a breath-taking ( Nadine Sierra) revelation (Nadine Sierra ) on a few (Nadine Sierra) occasions.
Supporting the singers on the stage of the Herbst Theatre were the SFO Orchestra and Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi, who began the night with a first-rate performance of the overture to La Forza del Destino and accompanied expertly throughout, never swamping the vocal talent downstage.
First-years first. The requisite “Ah guarda sorella” from Così came first and was most memorable for the sisters’ mooning over their lovers pix on their iPhones. In later offerings, Marina Harris had the vocal goods for all her assignments, carrying off Tatiana’s Letter Scene with strong dramatic commitment. Her Marschallin was secure vocally, but it may be a year or two before she can embody the necessary aristocratic presence. Mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm sang engagingly as Mignon and even more so as Cendrillon. Korean Baritone Joo Won Kang wooed elegantly in Don Giovanni’s serenade, charmingly accompanied by lutist Craig Reiss, one of SFO Orchestra’s second violinists. Kang’s seamless legato and long phrasing were most gratifying to hear. In Seid’s scene from Verdi’s Il Corsaro (there joined by Jose Gonzalez Granero, SFO’s principal clarinetist) one could appreciate the Bastianini burr to his voice even more. Vocally and physically he proved himself capable of Verdian fierceness as well as Mozartian poise.
Among second year fellows, Reneé Rapier distinguished herself in two pants-role outings, a passionate Sesto from Clemenza di Tito and an earnest Octavian in the Rosenkavalier Trio. Baritone Ao Li shone adorably (yes, adorably) in Guglielmo’s “Rivolgete.” He displayed genuine humor, solidity of voice, and (remarkable in a young singer) the ability to use all the music he was given, including the orchestral passages, without a moment’s awkwardness. Really fun to watch. Ryan Kuster carried himself well in both Leporello’s “Catalog Aria” from Don Giovanni and Alidoro’s aria from Cenerentola, during which his voice rang out more freely, but in honesty he didn’t clearly distinguish one character from the other.
Third-year fellow Brian Jagde, who was two days from a performance as Cavaradossi on the War Memorial Opera House stage next door, has an distinctive and appealing tenor voice that blooms grandly in the upper register. In “Ma se m’è forza perderti” from Ballo, one could not help admiring the handsome and generous vocal resources, but there was room for more elegance and restraint in his phrasing. It is a splendid voice, one he should guide consciously as he moves among Puccini, Verdi, and Massenet. In the second half of the evening he sang a full-voiced Des Grieux opposite the extraordinary Manon of the extraordinary Nadine Sierra.
Here goes. Miss Sierra stood out not only as the finest vocal phenomenon of the evening, but as a mature and gifted artist I would travel far to see and hear. She carried her willowy frame gracefully, she was fully at home in French and German, she characterized fully and naturally, she was intelligent but unaffected. May I say more? After a beautifully rendered potion scene from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in the first half of the concert, she embodied and sang the finest Massenet Manon I’ve ever witnessed. Partnering Mr. Jagde, she voluptuously and vulnerably, with voice to spare, in the Saint Sulpice scene. Her Sophie in the Rosenkavalier trio was of similar sterling quality. She is the real thing (the real thing!!) and I cannot wait to hear her again.