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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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Gypsies and Revenge Bitter and Sweet in San Francisco

By Marc Geelhoed / July 2, 2003

June 18 and 19, 2003
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House

Fierce and farcical opera was the fare the last two days in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Opera performed "Il Trovatore" and "La Cenerentola." The works themselves couldn’t be more different, and neither could the productions the house employed.

The company boasts a fine auditorium with a wide resonance, one that is occasionally marred by slightly muffling and obscuring voices and diction. The performance space is wide and pale stone-colored, with gilt-edging on the somewhat Beaux Arts filigree, and from whose ceiling hangs a shiny Art Deco chandelier. The first mezzanine isn’t content to stop about halfway through the house, as in some halls, but swoops just a few rows short of the stage.

The San Francisco production of Verdi’s "Trovatore" had its bright spots, but they were few and far between. By far the brightest of these was the Azucena, Dolora Zajick, whose powerful mezzo rolled over the orchestra, as well as most of the cast. Also notable was baritone Carlos Alvarez as the furious Count di Luna. Soprano Marina Mescheriakova’s portrayal of the heroine Leonora was too flat to create this character, which may be the fault of the director, Brad Dalton, but the voice did not adequately project, either. The portly Manrico, Richard Margison, wasn’t visually convincing as the one to win Leonora’s heart, but his vocal ardor was. Conductor Marco Armiliato led with a convincing Verdi sound and style from the pit.

This confusing story was given no coherent help from Dalton, the stage director. The plot is complicated enough: Azucena’s mother is burned at the stake for supposedly placing a curse on the Count’s (not di Luna) baby boy; Azucena then abducts the boy, intending to throw him into a fire to avenge her mother, but accidentally tosses in her own son. Everyone thinks she’s killed the boy she stole, however. She raises the kidnapped child, Manrico, as her own, and only tells him what happened when he’s an adult, in the course of the opera. Manrico’s brother, the Count di Luna, vows revenge on Azucena for the death of his brother, and there’s a mutual love interest for the two brothers in the form of the lovely Leonora. And the Count kills Manrico, and Azucena tells him he’s killed his brother in the tragic denouement.

Dalton’s set consisted of a gloomy black box, rough-textured and claustrophobic. Ruins of ancient Greek-ish statues are scattered about the stage: a huge head over there, the huge head of a horse over there, and a boulder and a piano tossed in for good measure, but no good reason. Bits of broken pillars mysteriously float in and out of the stage, again for no apparent reason. And there’s a fire that flares up whenever the action gets a little heated, in flagrant violation of California’s ban indoor smoking. Dalton wrote in his director’s note that he intended to show the distance that exists between the characters, but his means remained inscrutable. Nothing in the set made the story any more comprehensible, and in many ways distracted from it.

The next night held more instances of mistaken identity, in "Cenerentola," where both Cinderella and her eventual prince disguise themselves, but was played as broad farce rather than tragedy. The set was set back in the 17th- or 18th-century, in either a rundown provincial house or Don Ramiro’s castle, and the primary color costumes matched this conception. Rossini’s opera was acted with the bright humor that is almost palpable from the first notes of the overture.

Kevin Glavin, as Cenerentola’s father Don Magnifico, brought Oliver Hardy-esque bluster (and a physical resemblance) to the role of the doting (to his other daughters) and scornful (to Cenerentola) papa. The Cenerentola this evening, Theodora Hanslowe, was somewhat underwhelming overall, seeming more wide-eyed and innocent than even this character, who is these traits in human form, required. But her concluding aria, "Non piu mesta," in which she sings of how she’ll forgive her sisters, was full of vocal fireworks and Hanslowe gleefully struck the match.

The cloying and vengeful sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, Saundra DeAthos and Catherine Cook, brought more broad, almost slapstick, comedy to their roles, along with prosthetic noses. Don Ramiro’s servant Dandini, the young Daniel Belcher, almost stole the show as the servant who gets to take his master’s role. He side-stepped across the stage, and relished getting to lord over everyone else the power he otherwise never had. But his light baritone doesn’t quite match his theatrical skills, but it might someday.

But the real news here is tenor Juan Diego Florez, who showed that he’s something special in the role of Don Ramiro. He may not have the low notes, he may not have an enormous thundering voice, but in this bel canto repertoire, he’s in his element. Act II was especially remarkable, for he sailed through Rossini’s runs with ease and his top notes flew through the house. The fact that he’s young and looks like a million bucks doesn’t hurt, either. Patrick Summers led a vigorous orchestra, and rhapsodically accompanied the recitatives himself on harpsichord.

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