Singers show what San Francisco Opera missed due to the pandemic

United StatesUnited States San Francisco Opera, Celebrating the Summer Season: Michelle Bradley (soprano), Louise Alder (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), Jakub Józef Orliński (countertenor), Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim (conductor), Various locations, 10.7.2020. (HS)

Matthew Shilvock (host), Russell Thomas (tenor), & Michelle Bradley (soprano)

Verdi – Prelude, ‘Ernani, involami’ and ‘Odi il voto’ from Ernani
Rossini – ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ from Semiramide
Fago – ‘Alla gente a Dio diletta’ from Il Faraone sommerso
Mozart – ‘Placido è il mar’ from Idomeneo
Bates – ‘Look up, Look out’ from The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
Cory – ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’

Everything about San Francisco Opera’s free streaming of selections from (and interviews with) the stars of the three operas in its June 2020 season came off as a love letter to the audience that missed it due to cancelled performances. The 90-minute presentation premiered 10 July and served to introduce several singers who were to have made their company debuts.

From the moment soprano Michelle Bradley opened her mouth to sing Verdi’s ‘Ernani involami’, conflicting emotions had to be running through any opera lover’s heart. There was awe at her musicianship and ability to convey meaning, but also profound regret at missing her company debut as Elvira. Singing from her home in Kentucky, Bradley impressed with her gorgeous tone, command of dynamics and flexible pace, all of which amplified the character’s words and her own contradictory emotions.

Tenor Russell Thomas, who made his SFO debut as Pollione in a 2014 Norma, was scheduled to debut in the title role in Ernani. The heroic ‘Odi il voto’ is an aria Verdi added to a revision of the opera to suit the abilities of a star tenor, and the addition would have been justified here. Singing from his home in Atlanta, Thomas’s sound was vibrant and strong yet pliant, and embraced expressive melody and fioratura.

John Churchwell, Head of Music Staff, provided piano accompaniment from his home for both singers.

General director Matthew Shilvock served as host. He introduced these arias with more assurance and a greater appreciation of musical depth than most company directors have done in other video presentations. His post-aria interviews with each singer felt relaxed and friendly, but they always had a cogent point, with the artists voicing their thoughts about their roles.

Bradley’s other role as a jazz singer came to life with an excerpt from ‘Free’, a song she composed during the lockdown. Russell revealed an ambition to sing all the major tenor roles in Verdi operas. (He’s well on his way.) Gracefully left unsaid, but worth noting as “Black Lives Matter” gains traction, Bradley and Thomas are both African-Americans.

British Soprano Louise Alder and Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, who were to make their company debuts in Handel’s Partenope, followed with arias from their specialties. Alder’s bright, silvery, agile voice fit seamlessly into ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ from Rossini’s Semiramide, sung from a rehearsal space in Germany (Anne Larlee accompanied on piano). Singing from his apartment in Poland (alongside Aleksander Dębicz on piano), Orliński offered a rarity, the aria ‘Alla gente a Dio diletta’ from Faro’s 1709 oratorio Il Faraone sommerso, and displayed a voice of pinpoint accuracy, flexibility and tenderness.

Their interviews revealed playful aspects of their careers. One clip was of Alder’s alter ego as all four members of the close-harmony group the Louloubelles, singing ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys’ – which she self-recorded in her bathroom for the sonic ambience. Another showed Orliński breakdancing. Both individuals are worth googling for that, as well as for their operatic talents.

The last excerpt from the canceled season found mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing and accompanying herself on piano in her final-curtain aria ‘Look up, Look out’ from The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Mason Bates’s opera debuted at Santa Fe Opera in 2017, and was to have been revived with the same cast, including Cooke as the Apple Computer founder’s wife. From her New York apartment, Cooke shaped the piece as a simple song, direct from the heart, encouraging her husband (and all of us) to set aside our iPhones and other handheld devices to connect in the real world.

In something of a coup, Shilvock landed Zoom founder Eric Yuan for a brief interview (with Yuan, speaking from his own home, standing before a Zoom-generated image of the War Memorial Opera House). They focused on how technology has changed the way we communicate and, apparently, share live music.

A Zoom-type recording of the company’s orchestra playing the Prelude to Ernani, conducted by music director designate Eun Sun Kim from her apartment in Paris, was the first excerpt heard. Although Kim expressed some concerns about the difficulty of collaborating without all being together in the same room, the performance had the right scene-setting attributes. Another Zoom-type video found the company’s chorus sensitively massaging the interlude ‘Placido è il mar’ from Mozart’s Idomeneo.

As a finale, several Adler Fellows (the top tier of the company’s training program) traded off the melody with the chorus in a lovely arrangement of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, most familiar as Tony Bennett’s signature song.

The video was up and available free to all through Sunday night. Donors of $75 and up get free access on demand in the weeks and months ahead.

Harvey Steiman

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