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.