Arts & Culture » Music

San Francisco Opera looks ahead

by Philip Campbell

Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Elena Maximova as Carmen, in a production coming to San Francisco Opera. Photo: Catherine Asmore/Royal Opera House
Alexander Vinogradov as Escamillo, Elena Maximova as Carmen, in a production coming to San Francisco Opera. Photo: Catherine Asmore/Royal Opera House  

The San Francisco Opera's 2018 fall season and holiday events have ended, but preparations for the 2019 summer season are ongoing. Three productions, all new to the War Memorial Opera House, begin in June, completing the first season fully programmed by the administration of general director Matthew Shilvock.

Bizet's "Carmen" usually scores in the top three most-performed and popular operas; some 70 stagings at SFO alone. As recently as 2016, mezzo-sopranos Irene Roberts and Ginger Costa-Jackson alternated in the title role with Company stalwart tenor Brian Jagde portraying an especially visceral Don Jose in Catalan director Calixto Bieito's brutally erotic production.

Director Francesca Zambello brings her own provocative "Carmen" to kick off the summer triumvirate. Originally staged as a co-production of London's Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Norwegian National Opera, and recreated by Australian Opera, there will probably be less nudity and simulated sex than in Bieito's feverish dream, but the tragic tale of the untamable gypsy still packs enough heat to shock and disturb without a lot of tampering.

James Gaffigan, currently chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of both the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Gurzenich Orchestra in Germany, will shape Bizet's endless stream of famous melodies.

Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges memorably portrayed Mexican entertainer Josefa Segovia in John Adams and Peter Sellars' SFO world premiere "Girls of the Golden West." She was praised for her intense combination of beautiful voice, looks, and superior acting. Returning to make her role debut as Carmen, Bridges is an exciting choice. In "Girls," her character was lynched; this time, well, you know what happens to Carmen. Based on what we have seen, Bridges will make it to the end with energy to spare.

American tenor Matthew Polenzani also makes a role debut as Don Jose, and Romanian soprano Anita Hartig makes her Company debut as Micaela. American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made his SFO debut in 2006 as Escamillo, and he's back, after making the part a signature role, to sing the instantly recognizable "Toreador Song." (June 5-29, 2019)

"Orlando" is one of Handel's so-called magic operas. Based on Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," its poetry and possibilities for visual spectacle appealed to the composer's rich imagination. The innovative score includes his first attempt to describe human madness in music.

British-born director Harry Fehr and conductor Christopher Moulds are making their SFO debuts with Fehr's intriguing update of the story (originally staged for Scottish Opera) to a military hospital during WWII.

Dvoráks Rusalka is coming to San Francisco Operas summer season. Photo: Todd Rosenberg/Lyric Opera of Chicago  

San Francisco Opera announced the removal of countertenor David Daniels from the role of Medoro last November. The decision was made following accusations of sexual assault, an active police investigation and a lawsuit filed against the singer. Fans (including me) and countless professional colleagues are shaken by the news and hope a speedy resolution is forthcoming. SFO administration will announce a replacement as soon as possible. Replacing a star of Daniels' caliber isn't easy, but there are a surprising number of talented countertenors around, and I'm thinking of one former Merola participant in particular, recently named as a 2019 Adler Fellow, who might, at the very least, cover the part.

The rest of the cast remains, with lustrous mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke making her role debut as she assumes the title role. Her appearances in SF with the Opera and Symphony have made her a local star, but she has established an international career, and any chance to hear her is special. There is a passion and beauty in her voice that is unique. Soprano Heidi Stober, seen last as Zdenka in "Arabella," and distinctive bass-baritone Christian Van Horn appear as Angelica and Zoroastro (portrayed as a psychologist treating Orlando). (June 9-27)

The final opera in the lineup is UK director David McVicar's production of Dvorak's biggest operatic hit, "Rusalka." The dramatic fairy tale about a water sprite who trades her voice for love will star American soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen in the title role. Her remarkable SFO debut as Eva in McVicar's splendid version of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" demanded a return engagement, and I look forward to hearing her sing Rusalka's lovely "Song to the Moon."

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich returns to the Company as the Prince. He was Eva's hunky Walther in McVicar's "Meistersinger," and, while he is an internationally sought-after artist, he always comes back to SFO.

Two more favorites round the cast. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, recipient of the Metropolitan Opera's Beverly Sills Artist Award in 2016, play Vodnik, the water Gnome, and the witch Jezibaba.

This will be only the second time the Company has staged "Rusalka," and we hope the Shilvock years will continue to present such interesting rarities. (June 16-28)


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