I’ve had a great time at the opera house this year. Thank you, San Francisco Opera—the programming has been nicely varied, and every production I’ve seen, going back to the summer’s La Traviata and Show Boat (technically part of last season, but who cares?), has been exceptionally enjoyable. I felt it was the best Traviata in my experience, and Show Boat, by its nature, was in a class by itself.
Because I love bel canto, I was overjoyed to see Bellini’s Norma, especially since the season-opening opera starred the dazzling Sondra Radvanovsky, a dynamic “once in a generation” soprano.
With Susannah, we saw a 20th-century opera by a living composer, Carlisle Floyd (he wrote the liberetto as well). Star soprano Patricia Racette, whom I have seen in everything from Madama Butterfly to Show Boat, was a fine Susannah. The discovery for me was the bass Raymond Aceto as the hypocritical traveling preacher who causes enormous tragedy; Aceto made him almost forgivable in his anguish.
Then came Verdi’s Un Ballo in Masquera, with the sweet-voiced if occasionally underpowered tenor Ramón Vargas as the king who desires his friend’s wife, passionately sung by soprano Julianna Di Giacomo. Personally, I never would have strayed from her husband, baritone Thomas Hampson, whose charisma matches his sterling voice.
And then came probably the season’s hottest ticket, Handel’s Partenope. This opera from 1730 is rarely performed, and this production, set in a Dada-inspired 1920s Paris with surprising touches, was highly inventive—reasons enough to attend. Here, the discovery for me was the casting of two countertenors, or male altos. (Some call this voice a natural falsetto, though I hate to use that term, since it can only make you think of Tiny Tim.)
One was David Daniels as Arsace, torn between the seductive Partenope (the gorgeous soprano Danielle de Niese) and his true love, Rosmira, sung by the powerhouse mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. The other was the rising young star Anthony Roth Costanzo, who not only sings and acts beautifully but tap dances, too, though I doubt the libretto calls for this!
I missed Tosca and the outstanding Lianna Haroutounian, a young soprano whom critics have called the definitive self-dramatizing actress Floria Tosca. And I’ve yet to see the season’s final offering, La Bohème, whose two casts have both been acclaimed.
That brings me to one last personal discovery and yet another wonderful evening at the opera house: Rossini’s La Cenerentola, or Cinderella, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos and directed by Gregory Fortner. It, too, was a revelation. In a sense, this production is the opera equivalent of Show Boat: wondrous acting and theatrical values combined with glorious operatic voices. If you ever found an opera on Broadway, this would be it.
Some impresario might consider mounting this production, some of whose stars could surely star in Broadway musicals if they chose to. I’m sure the children in the audience were highly entertained by Cinderella’s stepfather and two stepsisters. Spanish bass-baritone Carlos Chausson is renowned for his mean and grasping yet hilarious stepfather, Don Magnifico. With the physical comedy and fine voices of his daughters, soprano Maria Valdes and mezzo Zanda Švēde, the three set a lively, fizzy tone from the start.
René Barbara has a lovely lyrical tenor and made a charming prince. Baritone Efraín Solís was an impressive and comic Dandini, the valet who changes places with the prince for a time. And mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes was a believably humble yet strong Cinderella. Except for lower notes that you could hardly hear, her voice is forceful and sweet, and she easily made her way through some difficult passages, including the magnificent aria in which she takes her gentle revenge.
Because the pouty, vain stepsisters cannot accept Cinderella’s forgiveness, the scene is as funny and unsentimental as it is generous. And the ending, with its echoes of freeze-frame humor from an earlier scene with the men of the ever more invaluable San Francisco Opera Chorus, is pure delight.
Cinderella, Nov. 21 and 26; La Bohème, Nov. 20, 22, 23, 25, 29, 30, Dec. 2, 3, 5, 7, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.861.4008, sfopera.com.