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Hither and Yon

September 29, 2009

from Suor Angelica
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Everyone had told me that San Francisco Opera’s current production of Il Trittico was the show to see this fall. I’d heard glowing accounts of Patricia Racette who plays the three soprano roles in Puccini’s three one-acts - a feat she will repeat later this fall in New York. Plus everyone seemed to like the production from James Robinson, the recently appointed artistic director of Opera Theater Saint Louis who crafted an excellent staging of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles this past summer. So I was expecting to be blown away, which is not only unusual for a Puccini opera, but especially so for one that had been so spectacularly good here in Los Angeles last fall under James Conlon in a hybrid production from William Friedkin and Woody Allen. But in the words of the immortal Chuck D, don’t believe the hype. Don’t get me wrong; I think it's a worthwhile evening at the opera, but not one that will stick to your ribs if you get my drift. And while I love Patricia Racette as much as the next person, I have to admit I don't always love her in everything. In fact I don't even love her in the same role all the time. Her Butterfly here in Los Angeles was ho-hum, but I felt much stronger about it in New York. As for Il Trittico, I just wasn’t feeling her, although her acting was good. All I could think about is how much I would have loved to hear Sondra Radvanovsky sing these parts too.

from Gianni Schicci
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Of course not all the parts of Il Trittico are equal. It's all about the second act, Suor Angelica which featured Ewa Podles as the Princess opposite Racette in the title role. It was her eagerly awaited San Francisco debut. Podles' contralto was one of those voices you don’t ever forget. Her acting was superb as well, creating an intense presence that eclipsed everything in the brief time she was on stage. Robinson's staging was quite strong with the convent of the original moved into the day room of a Catholic children's hospital for a sharp modern look. It was heart wrenching, as the opera should be, but this was a darker than usual turn. Prior to her suicide, Angelica covers the face of the Virgin Mary statue in the day room to shield its eyes from what she is about to do. In Angelica’s last moments as she lies alone on the tile floor about to die, crying out for a sign of forgiveness from the Virgin Mary, one of the young children who had previously visited the day room returns to stare at her through the glass doors. The production seems ambivalent as to whether this was a vision of Angelica’s own son revealed to her by the Virgin Mary or just a child who’d wandered down the wrong hallway. It may have been a sign, but Robinson steers hard away from the phantasmagorical implying that Angelica may not have found the redemption she begged for.

Brandon Jovanovich from Il Tabarro
Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2009

Suor Angelica was the only piece of the evening that didn’t involve the production's other highlight, Paolo Gavanelli, whose booming baritone marked the strongest singing in the evening's other works, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. He easily outclassed Racette in both. He also outclassed both conductor Patrick Summers and the rather cheap looking sets in both segments. The bookends to the evening were all about wall coverings be they brick and iron or psychedelic black and white shapes or a badly realized out-of-perspective photograph of Florence. Meanwhile down in the pit, Summers led a rather ham-fisted performance marked by a lack of lyricism and dynamics. Talk about making the argument for the importance Nicola Luisotti has in this company – here is exhibit A. I would also be remiss not to mention Brandon Jovanovich as well, considering his uber-sexy self as Luigi in Il Tabarro. Sure, it’s not clear what this Slavic (via Montana) heartthrob is doing on this particular barge in the middle of Paris, but he actually warmed up to a rather impassioned lover onstage before it was all over.

So, if you were pressed to see only one opera in San Francisco this month, although I know that Il Trittico is the relative rarity, Il Trovatore is probably still the all-around most satisfying production. But you wouldn’t be miserable if things broke the other way – which is always a major accomplishment for a Puccini opera.



Actually, not "everyone" told you that- you were just listening to Racette's partisans (and it seems there are many).
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