Last Thursday’s Verdi-themed concert at San Francisco Opera was something of a promissory note. In a season when the company recovered from the pandemic shutdown and rehearsed only one show at a time, it would have been impossible to schedule the usual three productions in a month that the Bay Area’s operagoers have become accustomed to in June.
The concert came off successfully, thanks to three superior soloists, the wife-and-husband team of soprano Nicole Car and baritone Etienne Dupuis and the bass Soloman Howard, plus Music Director Eun Sun Kim, leading the SF Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, who had originally been scheduled to fly in to sing the concert, had to withdraw, due to an ear infection.
While the soloists were wonderful, the focus of the evening was reflected in the official title of the concert, “Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi.” And with General Director Matthew Shilvock presiding as emcee, the conductor’s first campaign with the company and her future became the primary focus. For her part, Kim communicated through her baton, saying nothing but leading flawless and dramatic readings of the Overture from Luisa Miller and the ballet music from Don Carlo.
Shilvock has every right to exult in the initiative he took signing Kim as music director after her mighty debut with SF Opera in 2019’s Rusalka. Though the pandemic derailed her first season with the company, the world now knows that Shilvock negotiated a prize that will strongly define his legacy, as recent music directors have done for their bosses. Donald Runnicles was thrilled to conduct Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise during Pamela Rosenberg’s term, providing the signal artistic success of her tenure. Wishing to woo back dissatisfied patrons, David Gockley declared that he wanted SFO to be known as a singer’s house and hired Nicola Luisotti, whose performances of the Italian repertory (and also Richard Strauss’s Salome) were highlights of those seasons.
Shilvock, a witty, congenial host, announced at this concert a multi-season deep dive into the operas of Verdi and Wagner conducted by Kim, beginning in earnest with next season’s new production of La traviata.
The omnivorous, multilingual Kim refuses, however, to specialize. Next season, in addition to a vigorous schedule of guest conducting, she also leads the John Adams premiere Antony and Cleopatra and Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.
The concert itself was planned to show the traditional early-to-late progression of Verdi’s career, but at that point it came down to the singers. Howard provided a velvet-gloved but intimidating counselor Wurm to contrast with Car’s silvery legato as Luisa in “Tu puniscimi, O Signore,” and Merola Program soprano Mikayla Sager was a spirited Ines, counterpointing Car’s Leonora in the scene and aria from Il trovatore, “Che pìu t’arresti … Tacea la notte placida.”
Car confirmed the impression she made as Donna Elvira in this month’s Don Giovanni: innately dramatic, with an unforced lyric soprano that projects well into the auditorium. Both she and Dupuis offered detailed characterizations without resorting to stock operatic gestures. Dupuis could not have been more at ease in his rendition of Count di Luna’s “Il balen del suo sorriso”, singing on the breath and without breaks through the vocal line’s repeated trips across the passaggio and into the upper register. He was even better in Rodrigo’s farewell aria from Don Carlo, “Per me giunto … O Carlo, ascolta,” capitalizing on a role he recently sung in the Metropolitan Opera’s acclaimed production. He floated an effortless piano without diminishing the voice in the final lines, as well as in the touching phrase “My last breath is happy, dying for you.”
Car matched that ovation-grabbing performance with her own sublime portrayal of Elizabeth in “Tu che la vanità,” more a monologue than a set-piece aria, with numerous filaments of feeling and thought. Car conveyed it all within Verdi’s shifting melodic lines, without exaggerations. As she did all night, Kim was the perfect partner, and the orchestra, liberated from the pit, listened to the singers and gave perfect support.
The SF Opera Chorus made a couple of fine appearances, prepared by their relatively new director, John Keene. There was a planned encore, which, to no one’s surprise, was “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” from La traviata, with Dupuis taking the tenor part and doing very well by it.
Corrections: As originally published, this article misstated the date of Rusalka (2019, not 2018) and the third mainstage production Eun Sun Kim will conduct (Dialogues of the Carmelites, not Eugene Onegin). We regret the errors, which have been corrected.