Monday, November 3, 2008


On my way to the opera Sunday afternoon, I bumped into fellow Bohemian Tim Santry, who does makeup for the Club and at the San Francisco Opera. I mentioned that I had seen Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love the night before. I said the singing was really excellent, and I loved the fixed set—though it reminded me more of New England from Carousel rather than Napa Valley as advertised. He said it seemed to him more like River City in The Music Man. I agreed. Then he commented that the star of the whole production was a white balustrade, which seemed to outshine all the singers. This afternoon I left Tim a voicemail to check out my Blog posting for September 18 about Judith and the Baluster.

Ramon Vargas was outstanding as Nemorino. (Though I prefer my recollection of Jose Carreras back in 1975— my third year in San Francisco— and well before he was struck with cancer). Inva Mula was very good as Adina, though she had intonation problems with her parallel thirds in the duet at the end of Act I. She was much improved in Act II.

That role for years was the property of Beverly Sills. I never saw her sing Adina live, but I believe it was one of her signature roles at New York City Opera. I have heard several recordings and seen some programs on PBS.

I remember the first time I heard Beverly Sills in person was as a soloist with the New Haven Symphony back in 1971 or 1972. Afterwards I was invited to a party in her honor at a music professor’s house.

Beverly Sills’ career nearly started in San Francisco. She had been selected to be the protégé of San Francisco Opera’s maestro Gaetano Merola. She was in her late teens and was to live with his family and be featured with the San Francisco Opera. She traveled cross country by train and arrived at his house, only to learn that he had died the day before! Nobody was expecting her. Beverly had only enough money to stay in a cheap hotel for several days and she survived on canned beans. Then in despair she returned home by train to New York. Her jump start career was still born. Years later, however, she concluded that it had actually had been to her advantage. Otherwise, she might have done big roles too quickly and burned out at an early age.

Miss Sills related how she had had a long career, that she had carefully paced herself in order to prolong that career, and that going forward, she wasn’t going to hold back any more, and that she expected to sing only another two or three years. About a decade later, I heard her sing I Puritani in San Francisco, and wished she had kept to her stated intention. I guess it’s really difficult to let go, especially when contracts are signed years in advance.

I met Beverly Sills and her family several times at La Traviata, an Italian restaurant in the Mission District not far from where I live. She had a disabled daughter, who was completely deaf. What a pity…she never heard her mother sing.

Tim Santry told me to look out for the Simpleton in Boris Gudonov, the matinee on Sunday. Tim said he had great hair, but you’d never know from the role.

San Francisco’s production of Boris Gudunov was absolutely superb! I stood downstairs in the back of the orchestra until intermission, and had a marvelous view of the coronation scene. For the second half I stood at the back of the top balcony. The acoustics at the War Memorial Opera House are really peculiar. The very best place to hear is standing room in the balcony. The orchestra is perfectly balanced and the singers project gloriously over the orchestra, almost like a Bayreuth acoustic, where Wagner placed the orchestra under the stage to give the singers a fighting chance to be heard.

In an attempt to economize this year (something I’m not very good at, for those who know me) I gave up my season seats at the opera. For the price of a first run movie, I can get a standing room ticket to the San Francisco Opera, and change locations between acts. For some acts you want to see the stage, and for others it’s more important just to listen. (I did keep my season subscriptions to the San Francisco Ballet, ACT, Chanticleer & a shortened Symphony season.)

Back to the production on Sunday, the three basses were simply wonderful. Samuel Ramey, Boris, is celebrating his thirtieth season with San Francisco Opera. He’s had an extraordinary career. His voice has a little more wobble than it used to, but it suited the role. His power was overwhelming.

San Francisco performed the original version as orchestrated by the composer, Modest Mussorgsky. A number of Nineteenth Century critics thought his orchestration lacking. So the brilliant version by Rimsky-Korsakov is probably performed more often today. But Mussorgsky’s appropriately dark orchestration is very effective and extremely moving.

After buying my standing room ticket on Sunday, I had two hours to occupy so I went to the Asian Art Museum a few blocks away for the Afghanistan exhibit: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. I was amazed that so much Hellenic art had escaped destruction by the Taliban. And the gold jewelry was stunning!

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