San Francisco Opera’s ‘Homecoming’ concert knocks it out of the park

United StatesUnited States Live and In Concert: The Homecoming’: Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano), Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), San Francisco Opera Orchestra / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 10.9.2021. (HS)

Rachel Willis-Sorensen (r), Jamie Barton (l) and Eun Sun Kim conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (c) Corey Weaver

von SuppéLight Cavalry Overture
Verdi – ‘È strano…Sempre libera’ (La traviata); ‘O don fatale’ (Don Carlo); ‘Fu la sorte’ (Aida)
Donizetti – ‘O mon Fernand’ (La favorite); ‘Dio che mi vedi in core’ (Anna Bolena)
Charpentier – ‘Depuis le jour’ (Louise)
Dvořák – Polonaise and ‘Song to the Moon’ (Rusalka)
Saint-Saëns – ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (Samson et Dalila)
Richard Strauss – ‘Moonlight Music’ (Capriccio)
Bellini – ‘Mira, o Norma’ (Norma)

San Francisco Opera took a different approach to the traditional celebrity opera highlights concert with Friday evening’s ‘Live and In Concert: The Homecoming’. Rather than a parade of soloists, the concert focused on two singers, a conductor and the company’s excellent orchestra for a celebration of live opera’s return to a refurbished War Memorial Opera House after a year-and-a-half pandemic shutdown

It was a reunion of the key players from June 2019’s superb Rusalka, in which conductor Eun Sun Kim won over the orchestra, the company and audiences in her debut. And it brought back the stars of that memorable production – soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen who sang the title role, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton who was Ježibaba.

The orchestra, arrayed across the stage before a newly constructed shell, played impressively in its three all-instrumental moments – Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture (long a staple of pops concerts), the Polonaise from Dvořák’s Rusalka and the ‘Moonlight Music’ from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. Kim’s sensitive conducting found impeccable balance with the singers in their arias, scenes and duets, without losing an ounce of energy and flair from the band.

The best vocal moments came in the second half, when Willis-Sørensen, displaying richly textured sound and impressive articulation, applied limpid flow to the gorgeous melody in Dvořák’s ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka, a reminder of just how wonderful she was in 2019. That was her first go at the role, which she has since performed internationally.

She also nailed Norma’s long lines and all of the vocal challenges in the evening’s thrilling finale – the great duet, ‘Mira, o Norma,’ from Bellini’s Norma. Barton, who sang Adalgisa to Sondra Radvanovsky’s Norma here in 2014, was fabulous as well.

In the first half, the soprano got through Verdi’s ‘È strano…Sempre libera’ from La traviata without incident, if not quite getting into the character’s quandary. Charpentier’s ‘Depuis le jour’ from Louise was perfect for her voice and laid out with precision.

Barton could do no wrong. She brought out the emotional punches on all her assignments with a deep gold tone, jaw-dropping power when needed and satiny textures in the more lyric music. She followed Willis-Sørensen’s delicious ‘Song to the Moon’ with a seductive ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, bathing the sinuous melody in milk-chocolate low notes and a perfectly placed high B-flat.

Even better was her ‘O don fatale’ from Verdi’s Don Carlo, a tour-de-force of emotional intensity and vocal agility. Her work in the duets marvelously balanced her weightier sound with the soprano’s, set up the drama in ‘Dio che mi vedi in core’ from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and ‘Fu la sorte’, the Aida-Amneris duet from Verdi’s Aida.

That last one, which opened the second half, seemed to shake off any cobwebs, especially at the end of the long scene. The soprano found her focus on Aida’s soft, poignant ‘Numi, pietà del mio martir’, and the second half was off and running.

Opera fans watch the concert livestreamed to Oracle Park (c) Natalie Schrik for Drew Altizer Photography

The concert was streamed live to Oracle Park, the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium, as the annual free offering to opera fans willing to brave a chilly San Francisco evening. Groups were socially distanced on blankets across the field to watch on the mammoth TV screen.

The encore mashed up two Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that have become anthems for persistence and hope during the pandemic – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel and ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music. The two pieces usually make me roll my eyes, but this arrangement brought a tear to some of us.

Harvey Steiman

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