Following Opera Ball opening night gala on Friday and the world premiere of John Adams’s new opera Antony and Cleopatra on Saturday, San Francisco Opera rounded off their Centennial Season launch with Opera in the Park on Sunday. The afternoon performance marked the return of the well-loved outdoor event after a prolonged pandemic hiatus.
Mustered at Golden Gate Park’s Robin Williams Meadow, the city’s opera lovers, casual listeners, newcomers and seasoned connoisseurs were treated with a generous selection of stage hits from Baroque to Broadway, alongside a newly-commissioned orchestral fanfare, composed by Texu Kim. Performed with dedication and merit by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Eun Sun Kim and joined by a notable team of the company’s marvellous soloists, Opera in the Park was an entertaining affair indeed.
In the course of the afternoon, no less than nineteen vocal numbers were heard, alongside two orchestral cues, starting with Richard Wagner’s rousing Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin (1845-48). A swiftly-paced orchestral introduction, the prelude is a feast of instrumental agility, beautifully served by the orchestra under Kim’s inspired pacing and translucent balancing.
Auguring the vocal selections, Si può from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) served as a reflective mood-setter, wonderfully sung by baritone Lucas Meachem, musing on the duality between reality and performance. A repeat performance from Friday’s War Memorial Opera House outing, the outdoor rendering came off less intimate, understandably, while still maintaining an aptly pensive tone.
Entering deeper into the realm of fantasy, Vidino Divná’s take on Prince’s Act I aria from Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka (1900) conveyed befitting aura of enchantment and rapture.
From Donizetti to Verdi and Bellini to Puccini, pristine selections from the multi-faceted art of Italian opera were presented in captivating contributions from tenor Michael Fabiano, sopranos Nadine Sierra and Deanna Breiwick, alongside Meachem, paying homage to the Company’s hundred-year commitment to the repertoire. Interwoven, the French repertoire was cherished in equal measure by sopranos Michelle Bradley and Melody Moore, as well as mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina, joined by Sierra and Meachem. The singers took the audience on a journey through Charpentier’s Louise (1900), Massenet’s Thaïs (1894) and Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila (1877).
The meeting point of the two traditions, Io son l’umile ancella from Francesco Cilea’s 1902 Italian setting of the 1849 French play Adriana Lecouvreur anchored the parallel universes nicely together, in sensitive outing by Moore and the orchestra under Kim.
Among the afternoon’s many operatic treats, the two tasters from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) – that is to say Non più andrai and Sibillar gli angui d’aletto – stood out as highlights, both wondrously sung by bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. Ideal numbers for displaying the orchestra’s sectional clarity, the two takes were instant favourites.
Premiered as a part of Friday’s gala, Texu Kim’s fffanfare!! (2022) came off wonderfully in its second performance, enthusiastically received by the park audience. Fast-forwarding through four centuries of operatic tradition in five minutes, Kim’s orchestral fanfare is conceived as a collage of musical quotations, fashioned somewhat in the manner of the central movement of Luciano Berio’s game-changing Sinfonia (1968).
Although disputable, to some degree, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1609) is often hailed as the first-ever opera proper. Befittingly it opens with a princely fanfare, happily quoted by Kim. Ensuing references to Bizet and Offenbach hardly went unnoticed, as was surely the case with Bernstein’s Candide (1956) as well. The Valkyries, in their turn, paid far more fleeting visit to the fabric, whereas the connoisseurs of Italian opera were treated with several cameos. A delightful collection of riddles, fffanfare!! certainly benefits from repeated hearings. Thus, one hopes that Kim’s piece will be often visited over the years to come.
One of the 20th century’s absolute American masterpieces, West Side Story (1957) was the source for two pristine songs, Somewhere and Maria, sung by Sierra and Ben Bliss, respectively. Bookended by the Bernstein numbers, two spirituals were heard. First Ronnita Miller delivered a gripping rendition of Deep River, then Michelle Bradley led the audience into the evocative core of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Completed by Melody Moore’s enchanting take on Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the afternoon’s American selection was a truly rewarding one.
A showstopper on Friday’s gala, Lucas Meachem’s Freddie Mercury cover Don’t Stop Me Now (1978) was every bit as rousing in its park rendition; a case in point of crossover at its finest. Performed with top-class virtuosity by Meachem, the orchestra and Kim, joined by vocal trio Victor Cardamore, Edward Grawes and Timothy Murray, Matthew Freeman’s adaptation retains the energy of Queen’s original, well translated for orchestra and stage voices.
Concluding the playlist proper, Fabiano’s soaring Nessun Dorma from Turandot (1920-24/1926) was naturally received with enchantment, and deservedly so. Shunning away from all routine, the performance was a true team effort from the soloist, the orchestra and the conductor.
In the collective San Francisco encore, the whole company bid their fond farewell to the park audience, repeating Friday’s joint ritual. On both occasions, the 1936 film tune by Bronisław Kaper and Walter Jurmann put smiles on people’s faces, lending the performances with an uplifting finale. Here’s to the new season!
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and soloists
Eun Sun Kim, conductor
Opera in the Park
Robin Williams Meadow, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Sunday 11 September 2022, 1.30 pm
© Jari Kallio