The concert performances which opened San Francisco Opera’s 101st season lacked passion

United StatesUnited States Various: Aleksandra Kurzak (soprano), Roberto Alagna (tenor), Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 8.9.2023. (HS)

Roberto Alagna with the San Francisco Opera Chorus © Cory Weaver/SFO

Mascagni – ‘Regina Coeli … Inneggiamo’; ‘Tu qui Santuzza’; Intermezzo (from Cavalleria rusticana) with Olivia Smith, soprano
Saint-Saëns – ‘Un jour de nous tu détournas ta face . . . Arrêtez ô mes frères . . . Et nous rend l’espérance’; Bacchanale (from Samson et Dalila)
Puccini – ‘Vissi d’arte’ (from Tosca); ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu?’ (from Manon Lescaut)
Leoncavallo – ‘Vesti la giubba’ (from Pagliacci)
Di Chiara – ‘La Spagnola’
Brodszky – ‘Be My Love’
Mendozo – ‘Cielito lindo’
David Alagna – ‘Libertà’
Lehár – ‘Lippen Schweigen’ (from The Merry Widow)
Denza – ‘Funiculì funiculà’
Verdi – ‘Libiamo’ (from La traviata)

San Francisco Opera tried something different as it officially opened its 2023-24 season in the War Memorial Opera House. Instead of herding a big-spending audience from the opera ball across the street at City Hall to an actual opera, which often produced a mix of rapt attention and snoozing among those in the seats, the company put on a concert featuring soprano Aleksandra Kurzak and tenor Roberto Alagna.

The husband-and-wife team both have worldwide careers. For Kurzak it was her first appearance at San Francisco Opera since a fine Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 2011. Alagna, in his fourth decade as an opera soloist, was finally making his company debut.

They took on the nearly two-hour lineup of mostly popular Romantic-era opera excerpts without an intermission to catch their breaths. That might have been a mistake, as Alagna (in particular) noticeably tired by the end of a late set of six songs ranging from ‘La Spagnola’ to ‘Funiculì funiculà’.

Their singing and that of the stalwart San Francisco Opera chorus, along with the orchestra led by music director Eun Sun Kim, got through it without any serious incident. Something was missing, though – the very thing general director Matthew Shilvock evoked repeatedly in his introductions throughout the evening: passion.

If the program was intended to encourage new audiences to opera with the emotional power of the art form, the scenes from Cavalleria rusticana, Samson et Dalila, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Pagliacci should have positively dripped with fervor, ardor and other stirred-up feelings. The problem was that neither of the soloists dropped their guard and let the music rip – absolutely necessary to deliver this music fully. Try as she might, Kim could not quite whip up the orchestra to reach the abandon of the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila or, for that matter, get the bounce in the Neapolitan songs.

Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak © Cory Weaver/SFO

For their part, Kurzak and Alagna sang with their usual beauty of tone and cut attractive figures in her black-and-gold gown and his maroon jacket. Alagna delivered big sound in ‘Et nous rend l’espérance’, Samson’s pep talk to the down-in-the-mouth Hebrews, and Canio’s ‘Vesti la giubba’, but he acted with little effect in duets from Cavalleria and Manon Lescaut that demanded intense confrontation. Kurzak did her part, adding acting intensity to gorgeous high notes (both softly and full power), phrased with admirable care.

Despite that emphasis on passion, the evening’s best moments were the quieter ones. Among the excerpts from Cavalleria was the chorus’s graceful and heartfelt ‘Regina coeli’ and a superbly detailed reading of the orchestral Intermezzo. Orchestra and soloist created a magical opening to the familiar aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ and brought a lovely lilt to the famous waltz duet from Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

If only the confrontational music had delivered the same wattage, this might have been a concert to remember.

The closing set of mostly Neapolitan songs was spiced up by an arrangement of the Mariachi song ‘Cielito Lindo’ and a new song by Alagna’s younger brother David. ‘Libertà’, his anthem to the sun and the moon, made a fine first impression.

That, alas, was the only new music on the entire program. There is plenty of new material in the upcoming eight operas: among the company debuts are The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, Omar by Rihanna Giddens and Innocence by Kaija Saariaho. There is plenty of passion in them too.

Harvey Steiman

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