Get Acquainted with S.F. Opera’s ’11 Season Scores
(SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE) The forthcoming fall season at the San Francisco Opera promises a much larger proportion of discoveries than in the past. Of the six operas scheduled to take their place on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before Christmas, one is a world premiere and two more, though hardly unknown, will receive their first company productions.
As exciting as novelty is, it can’t hurt to get acquainted with unfamiliar scores in advance – and even the warhorses are new to some. So here once again is our annual guide to the fall’s operas on CD and DVD; all of these releases should be readily available online or through local retailers.
Turandot: The season opens Sept. 9 with Puccini’s unfinished final masterpiece, done in David Hockney’s wonderfully kinetic production. The best way to get to know this opera remains the Zubin Mehta recording (Decca) featuring Joan Sutherland in the title role alongside Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé.
For a second choice, go with either Birgit Nilsson’s recording opposite Franco Corelli (EMI), or Maria Callas’ unwieldy but fascinating account (EMI). The Metropolitan Opera’s DVD (Deutsche Grammophon) puts soprano Eva Marton at the heart of Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagantly gaudy production, which for once seems perfectly apropos.
Heart of a Soldier: The company marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks with this world premiere commission from composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna DiNovelli, opening Sept. 10. There’s no real prepping for a world premiere, other than getting to know the musical style of the composer – in this case lyrical, expressive and rhetorically straightforward. A recent recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony offers a taste (ASO Media).
Lucrezia Borgia: Sept. 23 brings a belated addition to the company’s repertoire, one of two coming this fall. For Donizetti’s opera of Renaissance-era intrigue, a listener has a choice of two sopranos in the title role. I’d give the nod to Joan Sutherland (Decca) for her technical prowess in spite of the characteristic dramatic vagueness that besets her performance.
A reasonable alternative – also vocally powerful but not entirely persuasive theatrically – is the recording of Montserrat Caballé (RCA) with Shirley Verrett and Alfredo Kraus. On video, Sutherland and Kraus team up for a performance from Covent Garden (Kultur).
Don Giovanni: For Mozart’s dark tragicomedy (opening Oct. 15) the top choice of recording has remained steady for decades. There are many competing candidates, but you still can’t do better than conductor Carlo Maria Giulini’s great recording for EMI, with Eberhard Wächter in the title role and a female contingent led by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland.
The catch is that the recording has been remastered a number of times, and the most recent reissue (which I haven’t heard) has garnered some outraged protests. Safer bets include Lorin Maazel’s sound track to the Joseph Losey film (Sony) with Ruggero Raimondi in the title role, and Bryn Terfel’s dynamic account of the role under Sir Georg Solti (Decca). On video, the 2005 DVD from the Metropolitan Opera (Deutsche Grammophon) with Terfel and Renée Fleming led by James Levine will serve as well as anything.
Xerxes: One of the Handel operas to display a comic vein, this 1738 masterpiece (also known by its Italian title, “Serse”) gets its first San Francisco production opening Oct. 30. There’s no better way to get to know the music than with the fine recording by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, featuring mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role (Virgin Veritas).
Carmen: The fall season concludes Nov. 6 with Bizet’s fierce tale of passion and bullfighting. There are countless recordings to choose from, with each boasting its share of champions. Personally, I’m partial to Agnes Baltsa’s account of the title role, in a dramatic account with José Carreras and José van Dam conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon) and to Claudio Abbado’s recording with Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes (Deutsche Grammophon).
Sir Thomas Beecham’s classic recording (EMI) also has its boosters, although I find Victoria de los Angeles’ sweet-toned Carmen a little virginal. The choice for a DVD choice is easy, since Francesco Rosi’s 1984 theatrical release, with Julia Migenes and Domingo, is one of the greatest operatic films ever made.