Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunday in the Park with Puccini, Verdi, and the Homeless

Only in San Francisco can you attend Opera in the Park and find yourself next to a homeless man who yells "Bravissimo!" after every aria and sometimes in the middle of them too, whistles and hums along with "Che gelida manina," and, when the announcer says something about "pasta e fagiole," yells back at the stage, "It's pasta fazool!" (To which I couldn't help adding, "I agree!") Local color for what has become a treasured city tradition.

This year's concert introduced Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera's new music director, who is expected to raise the company's standards in the core Italian repertory. To that effect, he led an all-Italian program: lots of Rossini, Puccini and Verdi, plus one Italian-language Mozart aria. Luisotti is a slim and animated presence at the podium. At the end of the concert, he gave an impromptu speech about how "San Francisco may not be close to Europe but we can make it the center of the universe for Italian singing," then brought out the singers for a surprise rendition of "O Sole Mio."

At that point the clouds covered Golden Gate Park and a few drops of rain were falling, but it still felt very appropriate. Opera should be communal and joyous and unpretentious. There should be an Italian music director who gives a slightly rambling but very passionate speech and then conducts "O Sole Mio" complete with schmaltzy ritardandos, and the tenor and the soprano trying to outsing each other, and a tambourine banging away in the background.

Luisotti's first production as music director is Il Trovatore, so the concert featured several excerpts from that opera, sung by Sondra Radvanovsky (as Leonora), Marco Berti (Manrico), and Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna). (In the full production, Radvanovsky and Berti play those roles, while di Luna is played by Dmitri Hvorostovsky.) I will probably have more to say about this opera and these singers after I see the "Opera at the Ballpark" simulcast screening of Trovatore next Saturday. I didn't love Berti's voice in the more lyrical music but he sang a rousing "Di Quella Pira"--which I am sure will be even better with a male chorus to back him up! Radvanovsky passed quite near me as I left the concert and she is certainly a striking-looking woman: very tall, wearing bright red lipstick to match her big red evening gown. She just got a rave in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The program contained a very amusing, but, I'm afraid, far too common typo: Puccini's famous soprano aria was listed as "O Mio Bambino Caro." The idea of the virginal, unmarried Lauretta singing "O My Dear Baby" instead of "O My Dear Daddy" just makes me laugh! However, it was nicely sung by Leah Crocetto.

The final aria (before "O Sole Mio" and the traditional "Libiamo ne'lieti calici" conclusion) was a really beautiful rendition of "E lucevan le stelle," sung by Brandon Jovanovich. I think I preferred him to the guy that starred in SFO's Tosca this summer!

Image: Maestro Luisotti is all smiles. Photo from

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