Review: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II – Gheorghiu and “Rondine”, November 25, 2007

The last time that Puccini’s “La Rondine” was given in the San Francisco Opera’s main season, the Magda was Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori (born in 1887) and the Ruggero was the Florentine tenor Dino Borgiolo (born in 1891). The opera performed it once. It has returned for its Main Season for seven additional performances in 2007, 73 years later. It was more successful the second time around. In fact, it was a triumph!

[Below: Nicolas Joel’s conceptualization of Act I of “La Rondine” from the Opera Capitole de Toulouse; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Every once in a while, the stars align in such a way that an opera company’s General Director can enjoy a legendary success.

“La Rondine” is impossible to contemplate without a great Magda, and, at least, a passable Ruggero. Angela Gheorghiu (Magda), with the appealing partnership of Mischa Didyk (Ruggero), a tenor who has paid his dues with the San Francisco Opera audiences and has earned their respect, proved to be a team with the stuff of which standing audience ovations are made.

But aren’t we discussing a “problem” soprano appearing in a “problem” opera? After all, a few weeks earlier, Gheorghiu was fired by the Chicago Lyric Opera for missing rehearsals, exactly the charge that San Francisco Opera used as the cause to fire the legendary Maria Callas in the 1957 season, exactly 50 years prior. And what of “Rondine”, is it not a basket case of an opera?

This website already has waded into the “Rondine” debate, concluding that the opera – in the traditional ending seen in the Nicolas Joel production in San Francisco (which is the production scheduled to travel to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera later) – is much more in tune with 21st century sensibilities than with those of the early 20th century.

[Below: Angela Gheorghui as Magda; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

This opinion is not a unanimous one in Puccini circles.  Last month, I reviewed Marta Domingo’s production at Los Angeles Opera with an alternate ending that she constructed from a few fragments of otherwise incinerated original Puccini documents in the Italian publishing house Casa Sanzogno, which suffered extensive collateral damage from Allied bombing of Italy during World War II.

Domingo’s production premiered over a decade ago in Bonn, and has been seen in Washington DC, St Louis, Leeds and once before in L. A. She is an important advocate for the idea of re-composing the ending. How “Rondine” should end is certainly not a debate that likely will be over tomorrow.

Gheorghiu obviously had differences with the Chicago Lyric management (and perhaps differences with the stage director of the “Boheme” from which she was dismissed – Renata Scotto, a great Mimi herself whose star rose when she replaced Callas after the tempestuous diva cancelled performances in Europe).

But whatever “lockout” strategies existed between San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric and the Met in 1957, they clearly do not exist today.  Gheorghiu’s 2007 San Francisco Magda was peerless, and Gheorghui is scheduled to return to San Francisco to star as Mimi in Puccini’s most popular opera in November 2008, during the Puccini Sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary of the great composer’s birth.

San Francisco Opera is one of the opera companies that has committed to exploring Puccini works beyond the B’s and T’s (i.e., Boheme and Tosca, Butterfly and Turandot, while not neglecting these four most popular Puccini works either.)

Making multi-year commitments to the work of a single composer can prove easier said than done. Gockley’s predecessor as San Francisco Opera General Director, Pamela Rosenberg, would announce multi-season themes, Berlioz and Janacek cycles, for example, as part of her “Animating Opera” ideas, and then not be able to realize her vision.

But Gockley has already achieved great success in Fall 2006 with Karita Mattila and Mischa Didyk in “Manon Lescaut” and Fall 2007 with “Rondine”.  There is absolutely every reason to believe that the three operas of the “Trittico” will appear  as a triple bill in San Francisco, surely in cooperation with the Los Angeles Opera.

And to round out the canon of mature Puccini operas, Gockley has confirmed a new production of “La Fanciulla del West” starring Deborah Voigt to celebrate the centenary of an opera whose story’s setting is in the Gold Rush – the event that transformed San Francisco into a world destination.

Team Joel

[Below: Bullier’s, the location of “Rondine’s” Act II, the sets realized by Ezio Frigerio; edited image,  based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Nicolas Joel team was the same as that for Joel’s Zurich Opera production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (whose review appears in the December 2005 Archives on this website), with the sets designed by Ezio Frigerio and the costumes by Franca Squarciapino.  In both cases the sets and costumes made sense for the opera they were producing.

Puccini seemed to have intended “Rondine” to take place a few decades earlier than the period chosen by Frigerio and Squarciapino.  There is something, though, about the timelessness of Paris that makes this slight time change seem appropriate for this opera, and I have admired productions that shifted Puccini’s “La Boheme” to the 1930s (Jonathan Miller’s production for Opera National de Paris, whose review is in this website’s December 2005 archives) and Vincent Paterson’s “Manon” all the way into the 1950s for Los Angeles Opera (whose review is in the October 2006 archives.)

This was, of course, the second Joel production to be seen in San Francisco in Fall 2007 – his exotic 1980 production of Saint-Saen’s “Samson et Dalila” opening the season.  Joel’s early career had important assignments in San Francisco, while an assistant to the great director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.  (Before too long, this website will launch yet another new series on opera history entitled  Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and the San Francisco Opera to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ponnelle’s 1958 set designs for a Carl Orff double bill that introduced Ponnelle – and Orff – to San Francisco Opera.)

Frigerio has one previous credit at San Francisco Opera, designing the sets for the 1999  Lotfi Mansouri production of Verdi’s “Nabucco”, one of the most memorable productions mounted during Mansouri’s General Directorship.

Joel, of course, has much more to think about these days, with his eminent accession to the directorship of the Opera National de Paris in 2009, than what might be happening in San Francisco, but Joel is widely expected to rein in the wildness of bizarre productions in Paris, just as Gockley is doing in San Francisco. Given a long history of relationships between Nicolas Joel and San Francisco, it is not inconceivable that some joint projects between San Francisco Opera and Opera National de Paris might be considered in the future.

(The person whom Joel is replacing as Director in Paris, Gerard Mortier, has signed on with New York City Opera, with ambitious plans, that, to me, seem like the heady early days of the Pamela Rosenberg era in San Francisco, before financial realities and a subscriber pushback occurred, but that may be the subject of commentary at a later date.)

The Performance

Conductor-composer Ion Marin, who appeared in San Francisco in 1992 only six years after his defection from Dictator Ceausescu’s Rumania, returned to San Francisco after a 15 year absence to lead “Rondine’s” large orchestra. Gheorghui (whose international career began the year after Ceausescu’s fall) and Marin have recorded several works together, and the rapport between the conductor and the diva was obvious.

[Below: Rambaldo Fernandez (Philip Skinner) with a token of affection for his lover, Magda (Angela Gheorghiu); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The first act sets with a central fireplace, arresting art deco murals, and marble wall inlays, portrayed a Parisian salon of great wealth.

Prunier (Gerard Powers) is at the piano, Magda (Gheorghiu) in an intricately beaded gown is performing the role of a gracious hostess, and three Adler Fellows, Rhoslyn Jones (Yvette), Melody Moore (Bianca) and Katharine Tier (Suzy) are intently absorbing Prunier’s interesting sentiments. Rambaldo (Philip Skinner) finds his lover Magda seemingly unimpressed  by a gift of pearls.

The entrance of Ruggero (Mischa Didyk) requires a few decisions from the conductor and stage director.  Does he sing the aria Parigi! e la citta dei desideri, a later addition by Puccini to give the lead tenor an aria of his own?  Yes, the team of Gheorghiu and her husband, Roberto Alagna, have smiled upon that aria in their complete recording of the opera.  (Marta Domingo’s version has it too, and suggests an emerging consensus that it belongs in the opera.)  Didyk, with an enjoyable delivery, did his part also to ingratiate the aria with the San Francisco audience.

Obviously, if you have a tenor waxing eloquent about a city in which he has only just arrived, he could well attract the attention of the mistress of the salon, Magda.  A stage director who does not want to compromise the surprise meeting in Act II has to be rigorous about keeping them from interacting with each other in Act I. The libretto provides Prunier with distractions to keep Magda focused elsewhere, just as Lisette (Anna Christy, a sparkling leggiero coloratura soprano), provides distractions of her own for her lover Prunier.

Frigerio’s Act II sets for  the Bullier’s night spot have elegance, as well, with tall glass windows and decorative columns and a full bar at stage right.  Many of San Francisco’s night spots in the 1970s  were well into disco dancing and a prominent mirrored glass reflective ball caused some audience discussion as whether a “disco ball” was an anachronism, before being assured that the device’s history stretches back a half century or so before the disco era.

[Below: Ruggero (Mischa Didyk) believes he has found his soul mate, while Magda (Angela Gheorghiu) is attacted to a man willing to enact the rituals of her fantasy; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The meeting in which the lovers to be fall for each other was well staged. Sitting at small round tables with ice cream parlor chairs, Ruggero is willing to order the Bocks and over-tip the waiter to reenact Magda’s memories of a youthful encounter that might have led to romance.

But we are able to see that their expectations of the relationship are mismatched, and we are well prepared for the third act breakup.

The Act III sets for the love nest are another marvel, with four pillars with mosaic designs, and an abundance of stained glass patterned in the blue and green colors of a grape arbor.  Their interior decorator admires the beauty and utility of wicker furniture.

Contemporaneous with this performance, I posted a quite extensive discussion of “Rondine” Act III, which may be accessed by the following hyperlink: Reflecting on Puccini’s “Rondine”

It is sufficient to say that the quartet of Gheorghiu, Didyk, Powers and Christy fulfilled my expectations for a powerful presentation of what I regard as the correct way to end “Rondine”.

The Opera’s Performance History at San Francisco Opera

During the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler, the San Francisco Spring Opera Theatre, the opera company’s wing for lower-budget productions with young casts did “Rondine” in 1968 and 1969 (with Carol Todd and Vahan Khanzadian) and in 1978 (with Leigh Munro and Barry McCauley), but none of Adler’s successors touched the work, until Adler admirer David Gockley added it to the Fall 2007 opera lineup, because he liked Puccini, and because he wanted to link San Francisco Opera with soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who very much liked “La Rondine”.

One of the Gockley lines that resonates with audiences (and whose resonance is particularly helpful with audience members who can afford large contributions to the opera company) is that the San Francisco Opera will regain its reputation for having the world’s great singers appear in beautiful productions.

And, to give this sentiment a specific form, with a founding endowment by David and Joan Traitel, he launched the Great Singers Fund. In an advertisment in the program for Natalie Dessay’s San Francisco Opera debut as Lucia di Lammermoor, it is explained that San Francisco Opera is “a singer’s house – a place where exquisite singing leads our musical values and the greatest voices in the world want to perform”.

And, along with the telephone numbers with information on how to contribute to the fund, he lists the 2007-08 season Great Singers (Gheorghui, Dessay, Thomas Hampson, Susan Graham and Ruth Ann Swenson – all of this website’s reviews of the artists named are obviously in concurrence.)  For 2008-09, he adds Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Samuel Ramey, Ramon Vargas and Anna Netrebko.  After that, for sure, we expect the return of Debbie Voigt, the Girl of the Golden West.

For the first of the four parts of the “Remaking of San Francisco Opera” series, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007