Cher Public

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Gala this; gala that; who knew rich people wore clothes so badly?  Freed’s Law (formulated long ago) states that every tenor you meet is going to think he’s the smart one, but there must be some corollary about every opening night opera gala sending out a bat-signal to the one socialite who thinks she’s going to Bring Back the Tiara. Friday night was the occasion not only of a gala, but also an opera by Mr. Verdi, in which people sang.  

Wait, let’s start over.

I remember the exact moment, more or less, when I understood that audiences will laugh at almost anything. It was the revival of Glenngarry Glen Ross with Liev Schreiber, and the audience laughed after literally every line. Glenngarry Glen Ross is not a comedy.

I found myself thinking of this during the scene between Rodolfo (or Carlo or George Glass or whatever he’s calling himself these days) and Federica in Act I of San Francisco Opera’s season-opening Luisa Miller. In certain theatrical moments, it seemed to me, where the emotional content is not experience-near for most audiences, it is the job of the director to keep audiences from laughing at tragedy.

Now, let us bear in mind that the director is only part of the equation. Unlike Don Carlo or Maria Stuarda, Luisa Miller is one of those translations that takes the stately dramatic bones of a Schiller play and filets them. Worse, Ekaterina Semenchuk, who would shortly go on to do some poised and sonically rich singing had not yet hit her stride and wasn’t making much of an effect.

Still, I think the rampant chuckling in the audience during this scene points to what was weak in SFO’s generally quite agreeable production: incoherent personregie and a larger-scale aesthetic floundering characterized by tableaux that were somehow at once striking and uninvolving.

I have of course seen interesting productions by Francesca Zambello,  a prolific and seasoned director. This revival, stage directed by Laurie Feldman, was not among them. Michael Yeargan always creates a beautiful stage but if anyone can guess why he was asked to design the giant square panel that slid about on an industrial-looking track, I’d be eager to know.

The bigger problem, though, was that nobody refined the sometimes overeager physicality of the singers. The tragic denoument recalled, in certain ways, a late scene between Andie MacDowell and Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk, I’m sorry but also delighted to say.

Happily, none of this mattered a great deal. If it had only been for Leah Crocetto’s Luisa—is it Passover already?—it would have been enough. Crocetto is the kind of singer who will never depend much on the production around her, because the voice is just that lovely. If her singing is not always overtly emotive, neither is it dull.

The first act’s somewhat disposable “Lo vidi e ‘l primo palpito”—primarily of use to hecklers—didn’t play to her strengths, but by “Tu puniscimi, O Signore,” she was in fine form, the voice billowing out into luxury where many lyrics fade.

She might have walked off with the show had it not been for Michael Fabiano, whose star continues to rise. Though his diction remains spotless and his commitment unflagging, the notable thing about this performance was the range. Fabiano seemed equally comfortable lavishing the phrase “puro amor” with a little old school crooning and blowing the roof off the house in the Act I confrontation with Walter (Daniel Sumegi, making expert and deeply musical use of the roughness that now encrusts his substantial voice.) “Quando le sere” was bliss, in the finest Verdian style.

Andrea Silvestrelli as Wurm and Vitaly Bilyy as Miller ably rounded out the cast. Bilyy was a pre-season replacement for Thomas Hampson, who sensibly dropped the role, and probably a better fit. His declamation struck me as a touch under-specified, but the house loved him. Nicola Luisotti served up a strong, dramatically pointed reading of the score and a singer-friendly one, at that.

At the end of the evening, David Gockley presented the San Francisco Opera Medal, recently awarded to Susan Graham, to Zambello in what it was hard not to read as a bellwether with regard to the company’s upcoming succession. “Great bling!” Zambello quipped, upon being thusly festooned or, perhaps, anointed.

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

  • Porgy Amor

    Great stuff, Greg. It made me wish I had been there, despite what wasn’t so great about the staging. An acquaintance in SF said that Crocetto was knocking them out in rehearsals for this.

    When I see Silvestrelli’s name, I always have to remind myself he isn’t that old, especially for a bass. He was in the Muti/Zeffirelli Don Carlo (the one that made headlines for the booing of Pavarotti), but that was probably very early career for him. Monk/Carlo V typically seems to go to someone near the beginning or near the end, and he was the former.

    • Greg.Freed

      Thanks, PA. I’m pretty certain you’d have enjoyed it. I have some dim memory of seeing coverage of Pav in Don Carlo on like…Sixty Minutes (?) and of him cracking on a phrase that would later wreck Heppner, unless I am making 100% of this up.

      • I don’t think Heppner sang Don Carlo. I believe Pavarotti cracked on the big high note when Carlo defies his daddy in the Auto da fé.

        • Camille

          That high note is a a B, again by memory so please correct if wrong, and written in an ungodly difficult passage. I always hold my breath right there. Doubt Heppner sang it but he did sing Andrea Chénier, didn’t he? Or did he? Yikes!

          • Yes, Heppner sang Chenier at the Met. with Urmana and a single performance with Millo.

          • gustave of montreal

            You memory means nothing to us, unless you have the score open right in front of you to substantiate what you’re writing.

            • Camille

              You mean nothing to us, old man, go jump in Lake Erie! Now that I have the time and the score open in front of me it IS A B NATURAL! My memory is generally reliable but sometimes I, UNLIKE YOU, make mistakes! Not everyone can be PERFECT a——!!!!!

              NOW GO JUMP IN THE LAKE. Or you could have dragged out your score to substantiate or repudiate me instead of acting the FOOL!

            • Troll.

            • Camille

              papopera — Sorry — Lake Fiddler is much closer than Lake Erie!
              The only reason I bear with you is because you are
              A) an OLD FART LIKE ME, and
              B) you sit and play your scores at the piano, like me as well

              This web ‘zine is NOT The Opera Quarterly, nor the Cambridge Opera Journal, for that matter and I have utterly no obligation to sit with my scores at the ready in order to satisfy your demands — you do not run this place nor contribute anything at all but your sniping complaints and downright offensive jibes.

              À quoi bon tout cela?????

            • Cicciabella

              Gustavo di Monreale, is your friend for non-copyrighted opera scores. Telling your Bs from your B flats has never been easier.

            • manou
            • gustave of montreal

              That’s the way to do it, not with your gerontic memory

        • Greg.Freed

          Oooohhh right right right. I am thinking of Heppner’s epic crack in Otello.

          • Krunoslav

            Even *Jonas* cracked there when I heard his otherwise exemplary Carlo in Zurich…

            • Lohengrin

              Should this have been his very first Don Carlo?

    • Camille

      “When I see Silvestrelli’s name…” ……

      …..I run for the exit. Once was more than enough.

      Part of why I opted out on this Luisa as I already hate Wurm enough as it is.

      • Krunoslav

        I agree, except Silvestrelli’s name in a cast list-- like that of Lee Marvin on an old movie-- will keep me from seeing things to begin with. A cult voice, ugly and vibrato-riddled beyond belief. Sparafucile has been less painful than Sarastro or Seneca or the RING baddies, but how can people hire him???

      • oscar

        And yet he is hugely popular among SF audiences. His voice is enormous (and ugly) and his characterizations are over the top. Maybe that’s how people like their villains played.

      • Camille

        Sounds like a big, woolfy dog baying at the moon to me.

        I like my villains silken, sullen, and subtle, most of all, not like big dogs about to jump on me.


    • Milly Grazie

      Super review -- intelligent, amusing and insightful. Thanks.

  • steveac10

    If I remember correctly, this is the production where Federica arrives astride a giant horse statue that looks like something from a giant’s toy box. When I saw it 15 years ago it elicited more than a few titters and wrecked whatever impact the scene might have. Federica’s an odd role to boot. One long ungainly entry flourish followed by something more akin to a mean Emilia. The Met used to cast it with house mezzos (back when they still had them). Jean Kraft pretty much owned it through the 70’s.

    IIRC this production looked cheap and tacky in 2001, and is one of those weird affairs where they blew the budget on picturesque costumes and handed the meager leftovers to the set designer and tell him to make do. Yeargen is a good as anyone under those conditions, but to me the whole abstract setting/hyper-realistic costume aesthetic was tired 30 years ago when it was all the regional houses could afford and the sets had to work on half the opera stages in the country.

    • Camille

      That’s the most perfect description of Frederica I’ve ever heard…”Frederica’s an odd role…ecc”. And astride a giant horse? Oy vey. Who thought that one up? N wonder they laughed.

      Glad to hear that Il Fabiano delivered, as I knew he would and look forward to his Din Carlo(s) next summer with the greatest anticipatory glee.

      Tiaras? Really? How old hat.

      • Camille

        DOn Carlo(s) although Carlo is rather Dim, come to think of it.

        Tired. It’s raining. Basta e Buonanotte

        • Krunoslav

          ” somewhat disposable “Lo vidi e ‘l primo palpito”

          One of my very, very favorite Moffo cuts-- she is *terrific* in it, and I am by no means a big fan generally.

          Federica at the Met got upgraded above Louise Pearl ( pretty dire on the tapes) and Jean Kraft ( never, to my ears, a pleasure) when they assigned it to LEADING house mezzos, like Mignon Dunn and Bianca Berini. Berini and Iris Mishura were the best two I recall seeing live. Much to-do was made about Denyce Graves singing it, but… alas, alas…

          As for tiaras-- as a friend said when we attended a San Fran opening night some years ago, “Many people here could be at a PTA fund raiser in Stockton or Merced.”

          • Krunoslav

            “Iris”, hence away! I typed “Irina”…

          • Camille

            I remember Denyce’s run as Frederica as a bit of a demotion or setback after something preceding it which was a bit less than stellar. Or that’s the way I remember it now as I only heard it via broadcast and not in the house.

            Anyway, very ungrateful role and that is putting it nicely. Not nearly as much fun as shaking one’s bosom aound in 4th act Rigoletto, so one would imagine.

            • Porgy Amor

              What preceded it was five Dalilas the prior year (2000). Those were her first performances of a staged opera at the Met since 1998 (same role).

              Then in 2002, the year after Federica, she had some Maddalenas.

            • Camille

              Yes, I thought it was those Dalilas, which were so stiff, so uptight, so I dunno, anything but what they should or could have been. She looked absolutely smashing! But she sang with all the abandon of a church choral section leader. Okay that’s an exaggeration but not far off. I just couldn’t figure iut what was wrong. Then, BOL’SHOYE Olga came in and blasted her off the stage, even if she was wearing a caftan.

              I miss Olga. I always shall. She was just so wonderful. Fierce and unafraid.

            • Porgy Amor

              I was just watching 26-year-old Borodina’s knockout of a Marina within the enduring greatness of the Andrei Tarkovsky Boris Godunov. (Enduring not only because there’s such a good filmed performance of it but because it still turns up once in a while. Tarkovsky’s original AD on the production, Stephen Lawless, seems to take good care of it.)

  • LT
    • DerLeiermann

      Speaking of rehearsals… That Turandot chorus rehersal, gurls, the WOBBLE…

      • Krunoslav

        • DerLeiermann

          This Merry Widow rehearsal is iconic, though. I imagine hell is watching this video on an infinite loop.

          • LT

            I thought it was quite fun. Yippee ay and yippee yaay

            • Camille

              ET MOI!

    • Milly Grazie

      Why does anyone think these clips do any justice to these performers? Who are they aimed at? They certainly couldn’t entice non-opera goers as there is no “magical theatricality”. Sher isn’t so much a director as a physical prompter -- a traffic cop!

  • pasavant

    Another villain in leather drag. Talk about being done to death.

  • Camille

    And lastly, what the hell is Hudson Hawk? Or who the hell?
    What tragic denouement?
    Granny wants to know.

    (Good thing I looked before I submitted as I wrote, twice, “Tranny” wants to know.)

    • Greg.Freed

      It’s a notoriously terrible movie a friend of mine who likes terrible things likes. I honestly tried to find the clip on youtube, to no avail. For reasons I can’t recall even a little, Bruce Willis and Andie MacDowell are given curare, which paralyzes them from the neck down, except they can breath and speak and, to a lesser extent, act.

      • Camille

        Gotcha, Greg—

        It falls into a category which I always term “so bad that it’s good”, or in this case, almost.

        Thanks for helping out Granny.

  • manou

    “I have of course seen interesting productions by Francesca Zambello, a prolific and seasoned director. This revival, stage directed by Laurie Feldman, was not among them.”

    A lovely example of paraprosdokian, like the apocryphal Groucho remark :“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

    • To quote Mary Poppins:

      “Bert: I always say there’s nothing like a good joke.

      Uncle Albert: No, and that was nothing like a good joke.”

      I can now add “paraprosdokian” to my vocabulary. Thanks, manou.

  • Batty Masetto

    Our own Greg Freed, posted Saturday afternoon, PDT: “I have of course seen interesting productions by Francesca Zambello, a prolific and seasoned director. This revival, stage directed by Laurie Feldman, was not among them.”

    J. Kosman in the SF Chronicle, the following Monday morning (today): “Zambello was presented after the performance with the San Francisco Opera Medal, an honor she richly deserves for her many brilliant productions for the company over the years (most notably, perhaps, the 2011 staging of the Wagner “Ring” Cycle). The current effort is not among them.”

    I call paraprosdokian shenanigans on Mr. K.

    • manou

      Indeed -- not to mention arrant peculation.

    • I said the same thing in my SFCV review; I didn’t see either Greg’s or Joshua’s review beforehand; and we all said the same damn thing BECAUSE IT IS AN OBVIOUS POINT TO MAKE.