Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Operatic pageantry in season opener


Austrian soprano Martina Serafin in the title role of Puccini's "Turandot" for San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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The San Francisco Opera's 95th season opened last week with a Friday night gala featuring Puccini's spectacular "Turandot" as the centerpiece. The evening was themed around the Oriental fantasy of the story, and the line between on- and off-stage pageantry was sometimes a little blurry – in a fun way. The music is still the thing at the War Memorial Opera House, even on opening night, and by the end of the marathon performance, everyone from backstage to the boxes knew it.

The umpteenth revival of the famous David Hockney production has started the season before, and it has stood the test of time. The artist's designs are bold and striking, arguably the best of his remarkable work for the stage. Like all effective art, they bear repeated viewing. The bright primary colors match the powerful emotions of the sonorous score, and SFO has curated the production beautifully. With Gary Marder's intelligent tweaking of the original lighting by Thomas J. Munn and breathtaking costumes by Ian Falconer, director Garnett Bruce's re-creation of the early 1990s "Turandot" remains an eye-popping treat.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti, entering his last season as SFO Music Director after nine years on the podium, conducted the orchestra with characteristic attention to detail, highlighting many clever touches of orchestration and shaping the massive act finales with awesome strength. It is a big show in every department, and Puccini makes some punishing demands on the leading singers, while requiring equally impassioned volume and refinement from the chorus.

After a sort of saggy, fits-and-starts first act, the company rallied in the second and made a real aural feast of the final third. Ian Robertson's world-class SFO Chorus was muffled at first, but quickly focused on the difficult physical and vocal assignment with customary skill. The highly stylized crowd scenes made a tremendous impact.

The principals were also up for the challenge. Returning to SFO after an absence of 10 years, Austrian soprano Martina Serafin assumed the title role with a gratifying mixture of grace and power. Her repertoire includes Sieglinde in "Die Walkuere" and Verdi's Lady Macbeth, both good indicators of range, but still a tad light for Puccini's ice princess.

Serafin mustered enough strength to sail over the orchestra during her famous aria "In questa reggia," and if it didn't sound beautiful, the recounting of a terrible tale of rape and male cruelty probably shouldn't. Her tone warmed and sweetened as Turandot slowly thawed, and the final duet with her one successful suitor was both lyrical and emotionally convincing.

Act II, Scene 2 of Puccini's "Turandot," in the production by David Hockney for San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

That is saying a lot when the plot and the characters are confusingly illogical. With the exception of the slave girl Liu and the hero's father, this is a fairy tale with skewed psychology. Moods and motivation often change magically in opera, so suspension of disbelief is easier when the music conveys what the text cannot. Puccini's gorgeous melodies and dramatic flourishes cumulatively provide a convincing experience.

That's still a lot of pressure for tenor Brian Jagde in his role debut as the besotted Prince Calaf, willing to risk everything, including his life, for the love of the vengeful Turandot. A confident "Set em up and knock em down" attitude seems to be his stance when it comes to SFO assignments. He has already made successes of other roles, proving his vocal stamina and handsome stage presence as Radames in "Aida." Jagde's Don Jose in "Carmen" also showed he can act. His rendition of Pavarotti's old signature aria "Nessun dorma" at the top of Act III was unforced and richly produced.

Adler Fellow Toni Marie Palmertree is also fast becoming a reliable casting solution with a big career on the horizon. Her touching portrayal of Liu was marked by delicacy and an ability to open her voice with intense emotion. She will continue in the part until soprano Leah Crocetto steps in and Swedish diva Nina Stemme replaces Martina Serafin in the title role when the production returns for six additional performances in November and December. Stemme has won international praise for her Turandot, and we already know Crocetto is a wonderful Liu.

SFO veteran bass Raymond Aceto repeated his impressive realization of the role of Timur. Bass Soloman Howard (with lots of positive buzz) will make his SFO debut when he takes the part for the added run.

The seriocomic trio Ping, Pang and Pong were Joo Won Kang, Julius Ahn and Joel Sorensen. They supplied some humorous (if not exactly comic) relief, and their moments of wistful yearning were nicely done.

Making his SFO debut as Emperor Altoum, tenor Robert Brubaker displayed authority in a rather thankless role. He is also appearing as Aegisth in "Elektra" and Guillot de Morfontaine in "Manon" during the fall season.

The evening ended with retired General Director David Gockley and current Director Matthew Shilvock bestowing the San Francisco Opera Medal on Nicola Luisotti for his years of service and commitment. The maestro's charming remarks underlined the importance of music in troubled times. He also shared his love for the city and the openness of its citizens. The feeling is mutual.


"Turandot" 1 continues to Sept. 30, and "Turandot" 2 runs Nov. 18-Dec. 9 (conductor Christopher Franklin makes his Company debut).


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