San Francisco Opera celebrates a century with a rousing gala

United StatesUnited States San Francisco Opera’s 100th Anniversary Concert:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim, Donald Runnicles, Patrick Summers (conductors). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 16.6.2023. (HS)

The soloists with the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Drew Altizer Photography

As we have come to expect from San Francisco Opera’s thoughtful current administration, a three-hour gala celebration in the War Memorial Opera House of the company’s first 100 years brimmed with music – listed in full below – that reflected its history with specific choices, delivered by a starry cast.

Singers from the three currently running productions populated the stage, joined by heroes and heroines of the past, a lusty chorus and, in the pit, three conductors with vital ties to this company. A slide show (click here) of hundreds of historical photos offered visual evidence behind them, reminding us of just how illustrious things have been from the very beginning.

To start the proceedings, music director Eun Sun Kim led the orchestra in a juicy, if somewhat choppy, performance of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Photos of previous general directors and music directors were projected upstage. Others showed Claudia Muzio getting the key to the city in 1932, Lauriz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad in a 1935 Die Walküre, Leontyne Price making her operatic debut in the 1956 American premiere of Dialogues of the Carmelites and Samuel Ramey starring in the 1989 Mefistofele,

Although the printed program did not specify this, the performances were sorted into groups that represented elements of the company’s strengths. One set was devoted to modern-era operas, and others focused specifically on Baroque, Verdi and Puccini, French and German operas.

Matthew Shilvock, the current general director, was both genteel and warm as master of ceremonies. He shared the role with singers Susan Graham and Patricia Racette, who extemporized comments on how they both saw San Francisco Opera as their artistic home.

The orchestra, now at its best in my 45 years of attending operas here, responded chameleon-like to the styles of three conductors. Kim, the current music director, led fluid and energetic Verdi, Puccini and John Adams. Sir Donald Runnicles, music director from 1992 to 2009 and guest conductor since then for several big productions (including the current Die Frau ohne Schatten), weighed in with remarkably sensitive Korngold, lyrical Britten and powerful Wagner. Patrick Summers, a former principal guest conductor, brought luminous beauty to Monteverdi, Verdi and Sondheim. Ex-music director Nicola Luisotti was conducting in Spain and could not join in.

Among the best performances, the most arresting might have been mezzo-soprano Graham’s duet with soprano Heidi Stober. Their melodic lines intertwined sinuously in Monteverdi’s ‘Pur ti miro’ from L’incoronazione di Poppea, underlined by Summer’s delicate work with the orchestra. Or perhaps it was ‘Vicino a te’, the passionate death duet from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier sung with ringing fervor by soprano Ailyn Pérez and tenor Michael Fabiano (Kim conducting vigorously).

For me, the highlight was Patricia Racette’s heart-rending ‘Losing My Mind’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Racette, who has sung with this company since 1989, mostly in starring roles, used a microphone (Sondheim wrote his music for amplified voices), which captured her phrasing details in this touching pastiche of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’.

The excepts on this program were from operas presented at San Francisco, except for that one. The company did mount Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 2015, with Brian Mulligan in the title role. Mulligan delivered one of the dramatic jewels of the evening with an appropriately tortured rendering of ‘Batter my heart’ from Adams’s Doctor Atomic (its world premiere at SFO in 2005).

Kim conducted for tenor Russell Thomas’s heroic ‘Oddi il voto’, a rarely heard let’s-go-get-‘me aria from Verdi’s Ernani (Kim conducting), and Runnicles led the way for baritone Lucas Meacham’s hauntingly lyrical ‘Tanzlied’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. He was also the impassioned co-conspirator for Karita Mattila, who reprised her 2015 Kostunica in Jenůfa with an incendiary ‘Co cilia’. Her long association with the opera includes eight operas here since her 1989 debut in Idomeneo. With Summers conducting, Graham’s ‘Ombre mai fu’ from Handel’s Xerxes was a study in legato in service of suspended melody.

Along the way, a few singers fell a bit short. Soprano Nina Stemme blustered her way through parts of the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich didn’t quite get into the swing of things in arias from La fanciulla del West and Pique Dame, and Lawrence Brownlee didn’t summon the necessary flair in an otherwise pinpoint ‘Cessa di piu resistere’ from Rossini’s Il barbieri di Siviglia. Adela Zaharie, who recently starred as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni here, could have been more sparkly in ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn teamed with Stober for a charming ‘La ci darem la mano’ duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Kim conducted that, and the finale to Part One, the Te Deum scene at the end of Act I of Puccini’s Tosca – the most performed opera in the company’s history, and the one that christened the War Memorial Opera House in 1932. Van Horn rose impressively above the choral and orchestral clamor.

Other orchestral and choral pieces provided various shades of deliciousness. Part Two opened with crisp fanfares in a joyful and brilliantly played Entrance of the Guests from Tannhaüser (Runnicles conducting), as photos of the brand-new opera house filled the screen. It concluded with Boito’s magnificently ornate chorale ‘Ave Signor’ from Mefistofele. Kim’s steady increase in momentum and the chorus’ rich harmonies brought the evening to a triumphant conclusion.

The chorus distinguished themselves in a rousing ‘Va pensiero’ from Verdi’s Nabucco, and the men backed up the Rossini aria with precision (and more flair than the tenor).

On purely musical grounds, the performances were more admirable than thrilling. As a stroll down memory lane, however, the program correctly emphasized an appreciation for San Francisco Opera’s storied history. It also underlined how the company is thriving today. To these ears, it is more consistently fine than ever.

Harvey Steiman

Wagner – Prelude from Die Meistersinger (Kim); ‘Entrance of the Guests’ from Tannhaüser (chorus, Runnicles); ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde (Nina Stemme, Runnicles)
Gluck – ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’ from Orpheus et Eurydice (Daniela Mack, Runnicles)
Monteverdi – ‘Pur ti miro’ from L’incoronazione di Poppea (Heidi Stober, Susan Graham, Summers)
Verdi – ‘Odi il voto’ from Ernani (Russell Thomas, Kim); ‘Va pensiero’ from Nabucco (chorus, Summers)
Korngold – ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied’ from Die tote Stadt (Lucas Meachem, Runnicles)
Britten – ‘Embroidery Aria’ from Peter Grimes (Stober, Runnicles)
Giordano – ‘Vicino a te’ from Andrea Chenier (Ailyn Pérez, Michael Fabiano, Kim)
Puccini – ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ from La fanciulla del West (Brandon Jovanovich, Kim), ’Tre sbirri’…Va Tosca…Te Deum’ from Tosca (Christian Van Horn, chorus, Kim)
John Adams – ‘Batter My Heart’ from Doctor Atomic (Brian Mulligan, Kim)
Janáček – ‘Co chvila’ from Jenůfa (Karita Mattila, Runnicles)
Sondheim – ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies (Patricia Racette, Summers)
Gounod – ‘Je veux vivre’ from Roméo et Juliette (Adela Zaharia, Kim)
Handel – ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes (Graham, Summers)
Tchaikovsky – ‘Prosti, nebesnoe sozdanya’ from Pique Dame (Jovanovich, Runnicles)
Mozart – ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni (Stober, Van Horn)
Rossini – ‘Cessa di più resistere’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia (Lawrence Brownlee, chorus, Summers)
Boito – ‘Ave Signor’ from Mefistofele (chorus, Kim)

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