SF Opera announces 2020-21 season

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday January 22, 2020
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San Francisco Opera Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc
San Francisco Opera Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim. Photo: Marc Olivier Le Blanc

A first look at the San Francisco Opera's 2020-21 season announcement is predictably exciting. There are some bold and baffling surprises, but the reasons are smart and balanced. A recent conversation with SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock helped explain choices and changes in the Company's 98th season.

A major replacement project for the War Memorial Opera House's aging seats shortens the fall season and moves the summer series to spring. It also messes with SF Ballet's programming, but the need is obvious, and in the tradition of the house, patrons come first. Better-designed seats also promise improved sight lines.

Shilvock (a congenial Matthew to you and me) also cites patron feedback for the big format change opening night. Rather than wedging the first opera between hours of pre- and post-performance revelry, 2020's opening trims down to an 80-minute concert featuring New Zealand tenor Pene Pati and coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova.

After the glamorous Gala free-for-all Sept. 11, autumn begins in earnest Sept. 12-Oct. 1 with Beethoven's glorious "Fidelio." Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim conducts a new SFO production from director Matthew Ozawa set in a government detention facility. Beethoven's triumph of love and freedom asserts the overarching theme of the season: outsiders fighting back, for good or ill, against oppression. It also dovetails with Beethoven 250 celebrations.

We haven't waited long for the return of Verdi's vengeful "Rigoletto" (Sept. 13-Oct. 4). Director Mark Lamos' strong original production in Michael Yeargan's luridly colorful set design was seen as recently as 2017. Revival director Jose Maria Condemi works with conductor Sir Mark Elder and baritone George Gagnidze in the title role to bring fresh insight to the classic tragedy, brimming with famous tunes. Gagnidze was nuanced and forceful as Gerard in SFO's 2016 "Andrea Chenier." His portrayal of Verdi's tortured court jester has won international praise. Pene Pati reprises his lecherous Duke of Mantua from 2017, and Armenian soprano Nina Minasyan makes her American operatic debut as fatally na´ve Gilda.

The annual free "Opera in the Park" is pushed to October, but the event is more special than ever because fabulous soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is making a special trip to appear as headliner.

Oct. 6-28: Mozart and Da Ponte's "Cosi fan tutte" opens as the second installment in director Michael Cavanagh's inventive Company trilogy started last season (to raves) with "The Marriage of Figaro." The legendary triptych of operas will conclude with "Don Giovanni." All three are set in the same American manor house during different eras. "Cosi" revisits the house as a country club in the mid-1930s.

"Cosi fan tutte," sometimes loosely translated as "They're [women] all like that," remains insightful and relevant. A sarcastic take on the war between men and women, it contains some of Mozart's most beautiful vocal writing. As the quartet of young lovers embarking on an amusing but dangerous course of trickery, soprano Jennifer Davis makes her American debut, baritone John Chest (last season's breakout "Billy Budd") is back, Northern California native mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts returns after star turns in "The Tales of Hoffmann" and "Carmen," and Canadian tenor Frederic Antoun makes his Company debut.

Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park debuts as wisecracking chambermaid Despina. Marvelous Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto sets the plot in motion as cynical Don Alfonso. Italian conductor and pianist Speranaza Scappucci was the subject of the documentary "Conducting a Revolution" in 2018.

Danish composer Poul Ruder's musicalization of Margaret Atwood's horrific "The Handmaid's Tale" is getting a West Coast premiere 20 years after first performances in Denmark. The new staging by Royal Danish Opera Artistic Director John Fulljames opens in Copenhagen before coming to the War Memorial Oct. 29-Nov. 22.

Renewed interest in Atwood's still-pertinent fable matches the success of the Hulu TV series. The visionary author is a household name, and the haunting sight of white-capped, red-robed women has become ubiquitous at women's resistance events. "The Handmaid's Tale" promises no walk in the park, but it is sure to become the season's biggest talking-point. Company (and personal) favorite mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke takes the role of Offred in librettist Paul Bently's English-language translation. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens (an unforgettable Klytemnestra in SFO's "Elektra") and former Adler Fellow Canadian soprano Sarah Cambidge join Cooke, with bass-baritone James Cresswell as her Commander. Danish conductor Thomas Sondergard makes his Company debut.

Another rapid-return production, Puccini's "La Boheme" concludes the fall season, Nov. 15-Dec. 6. The first time we observed director John Caird's charming ingeniously designed staging (David Farley and Michael James Clark) we fell in love with the intimate concept and attractive, age-appropriate cast. Young tenor Michael Fabiano was the heartbreaking Rodolfo in 2014, a sensational performance that will be reprised when he returns to sing in tandem with Mexican tenor Arturo Chacun-Cruz (also back as Rodolfo from 2017).

Both casts will be conducted by former SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti. I admit they had me at Ciao, but there are more reasons to revisit the endearing production or take the plunge. Soprano Amina Edris is brilliantly cast as Musetta, and Italian soprano Maria Agresta makes her SFO debut as Mimi. The second cast features Armenian soprano Aurelia Florian as Mimi (a remarkable U.S. debut as Violetta in SFO's "La Traviata"). American soprano Janai Brugger makes her SFO debut as Musetta.

We'll talk about spring concerts and operas as the dates get closer, but note: a variety of subscription bundles go on sale Jan. 22. Spring 2021 offerings include hilarious veteran Italian bass Maurizio Murano as Doctor Bartolo in "The Barber of Seville," April 25-May 16, 2021; Alexander Zemlinsky's shocking and sensual "Der Zwerg," April 27-May 15, 2021; and a concert celebration of Verdi and Wagner starring sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Irene Theorin, May 2, 6 & 8, 2021.

SFO box office: (415) 864-3330 and www.sfopera.com