United States Various composers: Soloists; Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera; Nicola Luisotti, Patrick Summers, Jiří Bělohlávek, John DeMain (conductors), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 16.6.2016. (HS)
Sopranos: Renée Fleming, Karita Mattila, Patricia Racette, Ana María Martínez, Nadine Sierra, Heidi Stober, Julie Adams
Mezzo Sopranos: Dolora Zajick, Sasha Cooke, Daniela Mack, Catherine Cook
Tenors: Michael Fabiano, Brian Jagde, Simon O’Neill, Pene Pati
Baritones: Edward Nelson
Basses: René Pape, Eric Owens, Anthony Reed
Nicola Luisotti, Patrick Summers, Jiří Bělohlávek, John DeMain
Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson
Opera galas aim to please with arias and ensembles from the most alluring stars they can muster, usually making for a pleasant evening of the expected, oft-heard highlights. But seldom do they deliver the emotional resonance that vibrated from within San Francisco Opera’s farewell to outgoing general director, David Gockley.
Last Thursday night, not only did the mostly impressive performances entertain the glittery, War Memorial Opera House audience, but every star and note of music connected with Gockley’s career or those of the performers—either in San Francisco, where he spent ten years, or in his prior spot in Houston, where over 35 years he practically created the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) from scratch. Along the way he introduced 25 new American operas to the repertory, and a long list of then-unknown singers, whom we now know as stars.
The canny three-hour tribute managed to touch on many of these highlights. The opening measures of the Porgy and Bess overture nodded to Gockley’s 1976 Houston production that that established Gershwin’s work worldwide as a real opera. Bass Eric Owens followed that with a marvelous star turn in “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.’”
Representing two of the most prominent composers Gockley commissioned were Carlisle Floyd (who co-founded HGO) and John Adams—both in attendance and warmly received by the audience. “News” from Nixon in China represented Adams’ landmark minimalist work from 1987, and one of the most often performed operas of the past 30 years. Baritone Edward Nelson, current an Adler fellow in San Francisco’s young artist program, gave it a splendid reading. “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Floyd’s 1956 Susannah no doubt inspired Gockley to commission the half-dozen subsequent operas from the composer, and Ana María Martínez sang the aria radiantly.
Conductor John DeMain, music director in Houston for 18 years, conducted those and other American works with innate understanding. Patrick Summers, currently HGO’s music director and principal guest conductor of SFO, handled Handel, Rossini, Wagner and André Previn with aplomb. SFO’s current music director, Nicola Luisotti, gave emotional thrust to the Italian wing, and Jiří Bělohlávek—in town to conduct Jenůfa—set spacious paces for excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier and Rusalka.
Those last two showcased soprano Renée Fleming, taking the Marschallin’s part in the final trio of Strauss’s opera, and soaring into vocal bliss in the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s. She paired with young Heidi Stober for a delicate “Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro, but my favorite Fleming moment was “I can smell the sea air” from Previn’s 1995 A Streetcar Named Desire. She debuted the role of Blanche in San Francisco.
Other big stars included bass René Pape, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick and soprano Karita Mattila, sharing the stage with up-and-comers Martínez, tenor Michael Fabiano, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, and soprano Nadine Sierra.
Singers who who could not make it to San Francisco sent video tributes, including Plácido Domingo and Susan Graham. For his part, Gockley took the occasion to honor someone else, presenting the San Francisco Opera medal to Fleming, whom he cast as the Countess in Figaro in Houston in 1988, three years before she made her SFO debut in that same role.
Aside from Fleming’s moments among the 19 arias and ensembles on the program, there were other highlights. Fabiano launched a virile and emphatic “Quando le sere al placido” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, for which he is currently singing the title role at SFO. He returned in the second half with Sierra in a steamy “N’est-ce pas plus ma main?” from Massenet’s Manon. Soprano Patricia Racette, who starred in Gockley’s colorful and successful revival of Kern’s Show Boat (2014), made a dramatic and touching jewel out of “Bill,” a tender moment from the musical.
A very pregnant Sasha Cooke subbed for Graham, who had to bow out because of illness, in an incendiary “Adieu, fière cité,” which Graham had sung in Berlioz’ Les Troyens—a towering achievement of Gockley’s San Francisco tenure. Cooke’s seamlessness and ringing tone at both ends of the range were astonishing. She also participated in the trio from Der Rosenkavalier, blending with Fleming and Sierra.
Pape brought wit and expansive vocalism to “Son lo spirito,” from Boito’s Mefistofile, working his difficulty in whistling into a funny climax. Zajick, who debuted with SFO in 1984, made a veritable dramatic novel out of “Voi lo sapete,” Santuzza’s wrenching aria from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. And as Sieglinde, soprano Karita Mattila brought incisive musical intent and power to the Act I finale of Wagner’s Die Walküre (a nod to the Ring Cycle Gockley mounted in 2011). Tenor Simon O’Neill sounded pinched in comparison, but Summers led a rousing account from the orchestra to end the first half.
For the orchestra, the apex was the Intermezzo from Marco Tutino’s Two Women, which the company debuted last June. It’s a gorgeous piece that deserves as much concert time as other, more famous, intermezzos.
Not everything was hunky-dory. Tenor Brian Jagde’s vigorously sung “Nessun dorma” lacked phrasing. In “Da tempeste” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Stober smeared the coloratura beyond recognition. Mack did much better with her coloratura in “Tanti affetti,” from Rossini’s La donna del lago, but it never quite took off until the final phrases.
Summers returned for a rousing finale, the sextet “Make our garden grow,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and an appropriate finish for several reasons: first, it referenced one of Gockley’s seminal moments in Houston, the first staging of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place in 1983. DeMain, who led that premiere, conducted this finale here. And second, it featured six homegrown singers, all of whom came through SFO’s training program.
After the evening’s eloquent demonstrations, it was totally appropriate for Gockley to stride on stage to deliver Pangloss’ ironic final line from Candide: “Any questions?”