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Opera Overdrive: The Season in Song

September 5, 2012

There’s always a surfeit of choices for fans of voice and opera in the Bay Area, but this fall, as the smaller-budget organizations raise their game, the choice seems particularly difficult. I’ve made my picks, but here’s an indication of how hard the choices were: San Francisco Opera’s Lohengrin, Kate Royal’s recital at San Francisco Performances, Opera San José’s The Pearl Fishers, West Bay Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann, and Les Sirènes presented by San Francisco Early Music Society — these are among the many promising shows that didn’t make the list. And this year, the Green Music Center enters the fray, making it clear that it’s going to be the magnet arts organization in the North Bay (finally). Its first season promises to be spectacular.

San Francisco Opera - RigolettoVerdi’s Rigoletto, San Francisco Opera

You always know a performance of Verdi will be exciting when San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti is at the helm. One of the alternating casts brings the debuts of Aleksandra Kurzak (singing the role of Gilda) and Francesco Demuro (Duke), both of whom arrive with a stunning list of credits. The other cast has three singers who have quickly become San Francisco favorites: Marco Vratogna (Rigoletto), Albina Shagimuratova (Gilda, this summer’s astounding Queen of the Night), and David Lomelí (Duke, and one of many recent Adler Fellows who have made good). Rigoletto is one of the great Verdi operas in which darkness finds relief amid a host of great tunes.

Rigoletto, Sept. 7–30, War Memorial Opera House, $22 and up, (415) 864-3330.

Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, San Francisco Opera

Bellini's <em>Capulets and the Montagues</em>Based on the Italian story that yielded Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this opera features some exquisite arias, especially Giulietta’s “Oh quante volte” from Act 1. But mainly it’s an ensemble opera, in which the partnership of the superb mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the “it’s about time we heard her” soprano Nicole Cabell could potentially take your breath away. Throw in the debut of tenor Saimir Pirgu, the eagerly awaited return of bass Eric Owens, and the gifted Adler baritone Ao Li, not to mention a new production, and there’s every reason to grab this one.

The Capulets and the Montagues, Sept. 29–Oct. 10, War Memorial Opera House, $22 and up, (415) 864-3330.

Mark Padmore, tenor and Jonathan Biss, piano, San Francisco Performances

In the time it has taken Mark Padmore to make his recital debut in San Francisco, he has grown into a lieder singer to be reckoned with. In his first of two collaborations with the brilliant Jonathan Biss, Padmore performs Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) on a program that also includes clarinetist Carey Bell and violist Scott St. John joining Biss for Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen (Fairy tales), and Kurtág’s Homage à Schumann.

Two nights later, he and Biss give us Schumann’s indispensable and supremely beautiful Dichterliebe, along with Berg’s luxuriant Seven Early Songs and a set of Schubert songs to poems by Heinrich Heine that includes the powerhouses “Der Atlas” and “Der Doppelgänger.” What an evening!

Schumann Under the Influence, Oct. 4, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre, $25–$65, (415) 392-2545.

Livermore Valley Opera - La bohéme

Puccini’s Livermore Valley Opera

To some, Livermore may seem out in the sticks, or on the glow-in-the-dark edge of the Bay Area. But Livermore Valley Opera has signed up a cast that includes a major soprano, Marie Plette (Mimi); a very fine and strong tenor, David Gustafson (Rodolfo); the “boy are we lucky he lives here” baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (Marcello and director!); and, you must be kidding, another major singer, soprano Kristin Clayton (Musetta). That’s a lineup that any opera house, great or small, would salivate over. If I’m wheezing like Mimi, it’s from excitement.

La bohéme, Oct. 6–14, Bankhead Theater, $39–$74, (925) 373-6800.

Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick, San Francisco Opera

Given the fabulous reviews that composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Gene Scheer’s latest opera has received in Dallas and San Diego, why wouldn’t you want to see the SFO premiere of this heralded work by our local-boy-made-good? Ben Heppner, who originated the role of Captain Ahab, sings in the first five performances, before ceding the final two to our triumphant Siegfried of the Ring Cycle, Jay Hunter Morris. Add in three SFO debuts, by Stephen Costello, Jonathan Lemalu, and Talise Trevigne, plus the return of two SFO favorites, conductor Patrick Summers and director Leonard Foglia, all of whom triumphed in the Dallas premiere, and this is a great catch.

Moby-Dick, Oct. 10–Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, $22 and up, (415) 864-3330.

Karina Gauvin, soprano, and Michael McMahon, piano, Sonoma State University

Canadian soprano Gauvin has made her mark in two contrasting art forms: Baroque repertoire, in which she excels in rapid-fire coloratura, and song, in which her gift for lyric expression comes to the fore. Nominated consistently for Canada’s Juno Award — she has won two so far, for recordings of Handel and Mozart — she has also received the Opus award for her collection of French art songs with Marc-André Hamelin, as well as two Grammy nominations. You may have to go up north to hear her, but, given her extremely beautiful voice, the superb acoustics of the Green Music Center’s new Weil Hall, and music by Debussy, Massenet, and Poulenc in which she’s sure to excel, I wouldn’t miss her long-awaited Bay Area recital debut if I could help it.

Karina Gauvin, Oct. 13, 8 p.m., Weill Hall, Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, $20–$70, (866) 955-6040.

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, Cal Performances

The history of opera as we knew it changed when Einstein on the Beach premiered in France in 1976, and made it to Hamburg, Paris, Belgrade, Venice, Brussels, Rotterdam, and New York City by the end of the year. (Fat chance of that happening today with a new work.) Here was an intermissionless, five-hour, music-theater piece comprising nine connected 20-minute scenes and five “Knee Plays” (interludes) at which the audience was free to come and go. The current revival tour, which began this year in France, heads to Italy, London, Toronto, and Brooklyn before reaching Berkeley. Catch this radical work while you can — you may not get another chance.

Einstein on the Beach, Oct. 26-28, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, $30–$150, (510) 642-9988.

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in concert, Cal Performances

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer/conductor who until recent years led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, brings to the Pacific shore the same Philharmonia Orchestra whose many recordings — lists a mere 1,590! — with some of the greatest conductors of the latter 20th century who have achieved legendary status. In November, they tackle one of the undisputed masterpieces of that century, in a concert that includes two singers celebrated for their performances in this opera, Johan Reuter and Angela Denoke. If you still think that atonal music = unlistenable, wait until you hear how brilliantly Berg’s riveting score captures the dead-end decadence of modern life.

Wozzeck, Nov. 10, 7 p.m., Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, $30–$150, (510) 642-9988.

Puccini’s Tosca, San Francisco Opera

The second mainstay opera of SFO’s season to feature equally strong alternating casts, this Tosca, thanks to the company’s shrewd General Director David Gockley, gives us the dueling divas Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette. Very different singers, but equally strong in the histrionic department, they respectively fret, fight, and kill for Massimo Giordano (making his SFO debut) and third-year Adler Fellow Brian Jagde (making a major career move). Stabbed in the process are the Scarpias of Roberto Frontali and Mark Delavan (who has great rapport with Racette). Those who attend both performances are free to sport the Opera Queen Medal of Honor.

Tosca, Nov. 15–Dec. 2, War Memorial Opera House, $22 and up, (415) 864-3330.

Joyce DiDonato at the Green Music Center of Sonoma State University

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano and Il Complesso Barocco, Sonoma State University

Anyone who doesn’t yet know that Kansas-bred former Merolina Joyce DiDonato is a treasurable and highly versatile artist can join her throngs of devotees for “Drama Queens,” a program in which Handel and a variety of Baroque and late-18th-century composers bring to life (and sometimes death) Queens Berenice, Orontea, Octavia, Semiramide, Ifigenia, Armida, and Cleopatra. Prepare for an unforgettable evening in which imaginative, technically astoundingly coloratura is put to the service of dramatic expression. A prerecital visit to an Oxygen Bar is strongly encouraged.

Joyce DiDonato, Nov. 20, 8 p.m., Weill Hall, Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, $35–$90, (866) 955-6040.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.