Arts & Culture » Music

San Francisco Opera's double-header

by Philip Campbell

Laura Krumm as Lola, Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Laura Krumm as Lola, Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

The pairing of Italian operas "Cavalleria Rusticana" ("Rustic Chivalry") and "Pagliacci" ("Clowns") has been famously successful for more than a century. In an earlier age, the Met coupled the verismo shockers in reverse order for its 10th season, but the "Cav" first, "Pag" second formula has worked best for so long, it made sense San Francisco Opera would choose the more traditional order for the opening night Gala last week.

SFO's 96th season, the first programmed almost entirely by the administration of General Director Matthew Shilvock, raised the gold curtain on a bold production of the Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo two-fer, as staged by tenor-turned-director Jose Cura for Opera Royal de Wallonie-Liege. Revival Director Jose Maria Condemi has re-created Cura's move of the lurid tragedies to the Italian quarter of Buenos Aires. Cura's colorful scenery and costumes by Fernand Ruiz, with Olivier Wery's vivid lighting executed by Justin Partier, frame an intriguingly fresh twist on the time-tested operatic coupling.

It sometimes feels needless and confusing, but the change of locale offers a thematic link between the stories of love, betrayal and murder. Talk about an atmosphere of steaming passion and dangerous liaisons - it's a wonder the inhabitants have time for anything but their own personal dramas, all played amidst frequent calls to fervent prayer. Lots of stage business and a spot of sensuous choreography by Lawrence Pech fill the War Memorial stage with the bustling ebb and flow of the Italian Quarter. The musical performance matches the scorching emotional temperature.

If conductor Daniele Callegari, making his SFO debut, dawdled less in the seemingly endless (but gorgeous) introduction to "Cavalleria," or director Condemi scrapped Cura's addition of vintage Argentinian radio at the start, the first half might be more convincing. The offstage serenade by full-throated tenor Roberto Aronica as Turiddu and lovely choral contributions were muffled as the denizens of the Quarter milled about. It was hard to know when the story would actually begin.

Once the scene painting was done, the excellent cast brought the proceedings up to speed with accelerating energy. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, remembered for her strong Amneris in "Aida," immediately took pride of place as the tortured Santuzza, matching pure voice with sympathetic acting.

Roberto Aronica's Turiddu was tough and reckless. Former SFO Adler Fellow, mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm as Lola made her seductive powers genuinely alluring. Turiddu simply had to fall.

Amitai Pati as Beppe and Marco Berti as Canio in Leoncavallos Pagliacci. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera  

I'm hoping rich-toned mezzo-soprano Jill Grove won't be typecast in future SFO productions. Her Mamma Lucia marked another stirring portrayal of an older woman after a string of similarly characterful roles.

As Lola's betrayed husband Alfio, baritone Dimitri Platanias made his SFO debut, a little dwarfed by the fussy staging. He got his chance to stand out more in the following "Pagliacci" as the scheming Tonio, the traveling actor who alerts the lead clown to his wife's infidelity. The denizens of Cura's Italian Quarter are certainly busy.

After a long and enjoyable opening night intermission, the curtain rose again for a thoroughly satisfying rendition of Leoncavallo's perfect little jewel in the crown of verismo. When the drama came to its shattering conclusion, more than one excited listener said SFO might have followed the old Met's programming plan 125 years back. The musical action might have thrilled us right out of the gate.

Conductor Callegari finally took the gloves off and gave the red-blooded orchestral musicians full rein, building bold and beautiful support for the invigorated singers. "Pagliacci" is stark, violent and fabulously melodic. "Cav" is no slouch in the tunes department either, but it can't hold a dripping candle to Leoncavallo's superior text. Think early Fellini to get the mood of the doomed band of vaudevillians and understand how a simple tale of heartbreak and jealousy can assume mythic proportions.

As the world's most legendary scary clown Canio, tenor Marco Berti returns to SFO after appearing in many notable starring roles. He validated the Company's continued confidence in a performance of unaffected depth and impressive power. His "Vesti la giubba" ("Put on your costume"), the first million-selling record in history, was truly touching. When he turned murderous, he was frighteningly realistic.

Soprano Lianna Haroutounian made her highly praised SFO debut in "Tosca" and later returned as "Madama Butterfly." Her voice is particularly well-suited to Puccini. Her sweet tone, with a pleasant edge and firm lower register, also fits the role of Nedda. Charmingly costumed and seemingly innocent - she is cheating on Canio, after all - she gave a fine portrayal of his conflicted wife. Her duet with Texan baritone David Pershall (Merola Program 2008) as her secret lover Silvio provided a beautifully lyrical vignette. Silvio isn't afforded much individuality; Pershall brought fervent life to the part.

When the curtain fell following the opera's renowned closing line "La commedia e finita!"("The play is over!"), given here unconventionally to Jill Groves (returning from the first half), the audience exploded with applause. Ian Robertson's wonderful SFO Chorus, a theatrical troupe in its own right, shared in the well-earned ovation.

"Cav/Pag" continues in repertory through Sept. 30.


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