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San Francisco by Richard Connema

San Francisco Summer Opera Starts with Two Eclectic Productions

Also see Richard's reviews of Art and the The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

San Francisco Opera's 2005 Summer Festival has started, and we get an operatic journey from Ceylon to Monte Carlo to St. Petersburg without leaving our city by the bay. This year the opera theme is The Gamble of Love. The season features rotating performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. In these operas there are winners and losers, both in gambling and love.

The Queen of Spades

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was having major personal problems with his sexuality in St Petersburg and so he fled to Florence. It was during this time he wrote this opera in 44 days based on Puskin's novel. The opera itself has a very psychological feeling about it, with dark colors abounding. It is almost like looking at a nightmare, in the second and third acts. The hero is more like Alban Berg's anti-hero Wozzeck with little or no saving grace. However, one feels very sorry for the young misfit as the opera progresses. As Tchaikovsky said in a letter to his brother in 1890, "When I got to Gherman's death and the final chorus I was suddenly overcome by such commiseration with Gherman that I started to weep terribly. I think that my warm feelings toward the hero of the opera find a positive reflection in the music."

Tchaikovsky's opera about one man's blind addiction to gambling features varying and exciting musical styles full of emotional themes and motifs with some self parody in the role of the Gherman. The composer draws on his own identification with complex and tormented characters to craft the opera with action and ambiance. Gherman is a passionate gambler who thinks he can have it all - power, money and love - and he dreams of winning big at the local casino. However, in the end he loses it all.

Gherman (Misha Didyk) has envisaged an overnight passion for Lisa (Katarina Dalayman), a young woman who is to marry Prince Yeletsky (John Hancock). There is a little flirting going on between them in the first act which takes place in a very ominous park that could only be in Moscow, with the chorus all dressed in somber blues and grays and marching boys singing a patriotic song about Mother Russia. It is supposed to be the first day of spring, but that soon changes with an approaching storm in the lives of the center characters.

Young Lisa's grandmother, simply called The Countess, is an elderly woman with an amazing secret on how to win all the money at card games. As a young woman, she was known at the Venus of Moscow in Paris. She was given the secret of how to win at the three card game by an admirer in exchange for an assignation with the beauty. She accepts and wins every game. Gherman stops at nothing to learn this secret, including seducing her ward Lisa. He gains access to the countess' bedroom and frightens her to death. In the amazing second act, performed by puppets from Lunatique Fantastique under the direction of Chris Pirie, a ghost of the countess appears ordering the young man to marry her niece and give him the secret of the three cards. However, in the end the countess has the last laugh.

Misha Didyk displays delicacy and conflict in the tenor role, and he descends into madness after the murder of the countess with realistic conviction. Hanna Schwarz gives an unforgettable performance as the elder countess. The artist's voice has a rugged intensity and her movements across the stage are mesmerizing. Katarina Dalayman as Lisa gives a thrilling attack and arresting brilliance of tone in her voice. Katherine Rohrer as Paulina is excellent when she sings the mournful folk song at a slumber party. Tomas Tomasson, who had a head cold at our matinee, suffered no ill effect and his voice was musically effective as Gherman's friend, Count Tomsky. John Hancock is properly glum as Prince Yeletsky.

The Queen of Spades is a Welsh National Opera production under the production of Richard Jones and his designer John Macfarlane. The innovative production was chosen "Opera of the Year" by the London Times in 2000. Director Roy Rallo's direction of the large opera chorus is almost nightmarish when watching them move. Sometimes it looks like a bad dream you might be having in the middle of the night. The sets by John Macfarlane have gray backwashes and threadbare water-stained interiors. There is even a large image of the countess before the curtain rises, showing a young beautiful face morphing into old age and decay. The last scene looks like something out of those wonderful German Expressionistic films of the 1920s.


The Pearl Fishers

Georges Bizet is primarily known as the composer of Carmen, which is one of the most famous operas of all time; it was even made into a Broadway musical with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. However, at age 24 Bizet wrote a little opera called The Pearl Fishers for an opera competition which he won. The opera contains some glorious and evocative music even though some critics have called the two hour and 20 minute piece "Orientalist hokum." The story is still very French since it contains a tautly woven study of masculine friendship and emotional turmoil these two mem have over the feelings for one woman. The plot is very close to a French classical drama by Racine.

The Pearl Fishers is a rarely performed opera since it is much better just listening to the complete score than watching the antics of the people of Ceylon on stage. Sometimes it reminds me of those Hollywood musicals of the '40s or '50s when we were looking for escapist films. It's the story of two men and one woman on an exotic island in the Indian Ocean where the natives dive for pearls.

Zurga (William Dazeley) and Nadir (Charles Castronovo) are really close and they swear an oath of friendship, vowing never again to let the love of a girl, Leila (Norah Amsellem), come between them. Apparently they both have known this lovely lady in earlier times. Of course, there must be complications since Leila happens to be a priestess, sworn to be chaste and virginal. She just can't keep her vows with these two handsome men vying for her affections.

Leila returns to the village as a priestess but poor Nadir can't keep his hands off her and when Zurga finds out, all hell breaks loose, including some hell fire in the village. Zurga wants to kill them both but he remembers an earlier act of loyalty and instead masterminds a selfless plot to save their lives. You know how the French love loyalty. Yes, it's a lightweight story but the music is intoxicating with a mixture of sensual and exotic sounds. The famous male duet aria "Au Fond du Temple Saint" is one the most famous duets in opera history. William Dazeley and Charles Castronovo performs a beautiful rendition of the piece; however, I missed those soaring voices of more veteran opera singers as they reached the climax of the song. Castronovo marvelously sings "Je Crois Entendre Encore," which is elegantly sublime.

Norah Amsellem as the virginal priestess has a euphoric coloratura voice that delivers sweet sounds from her vocal cords. Her trills are excellent and she looks good as a sexy priestess. However, both Castronovo and Amsellem have very little chemistry together in their romantic duets. Castronovo displays a great masculine stance with his bare chest that makes him an "operatic hunk."

Set Designer Zanda Rhodes certainly has out done herself with this cartoon-bright Technicolor set that Cecil B. DeMille would love. I thought I was back on a Paramount sound stage during one of his biblical productions. The opening scene is almost pure camp with scantily clothed dancing that looks more like those dancers in King Solomon's Mines than village dancers of Ceylon. There are candy colors everywhere, even with a rolling backdrop that represents the village on fire.

The Queen of Spades and The Pearl Fishers are currently in repertory through July 10th at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness at Grove, San Francisco. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte will join the trio on June 24th. For tickets call the opera box office 415-864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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