A Second Look Review: Luisotti Improvises in “Turandot” Game Delay, then Hits a Grand Slam – San Francisco Opera, September 25, 2011

Already this year, I have posted two previous reviews of performances of the esteemed David Hockney production of Puccini’s “Turandot”. The production incorporates the Hockney’s set designs with the wondrous costumes designed by his one-time collaborator, Ian Falconer.

The production provided the opening night festivities for the opening nights of  both the San Diego Opera’s 2011 season (see my review at Lindstrom, Ventre, Jaho Brilliant in San Diego Opera’s Sensuous, Transcendent “Turandot” – January 29, 2011) and the the San Francisco Opera’s 2011-12 season (see my review at Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011).

[Conductor Nicola Luisotti; resized image, based on a John Martin photograph, from www.nicolaluisotti.com.]

My second “Turandot” performance in September 2011 coincided with a popular innovation that General Manager David Gockley established soon after taking over the reins of the San Francisco Opera six years ago – “simulcasts” of a live performance in a venue where a large audience can share in the experience.

Soon the San Francisco Opera season developed what appears to be a lasting relationship with the San Francisco Giants and their home stadium AT&T Park. So this review is of a performance that was not only seen by a virtually sold-out audience in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House, but by an additional 32,000 persons availing themselves of the free tickets to experience the opera through the simulcast at the ballpark.

[Below: Irene Theorin as Turandot; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A “Turandot” Surprise at the War Memorial Opera House

As the War Memorial Opera House audience took their seats, General Manager Gockley, joined by the chief executive of the principal corporate sponsor (Webcor Construction) of the baseball stadium simulcast, brought the official trophy from the Giants’ 2010 World Series win to the opera stage footlights (and afterwards left the trophy, discreetly guarded, in the opera house foyer for the patrons to ogle it during the intermissions). By the time of this performance, the Giants had been eliminated from the pennant race, and so it was an absolute certainty that the trophy would not return to the opera house stage in 2012.

But with good cheer, the introductory remarks had been made, and Conductor Nicola Luisotti took his place at the podium and Gockley announced that the audience would sing the traditional opening of an American baseball game, The Star Spangled Banner.

[Below: Marco Berti is the Unknown Prince, Calaf; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The announcement of the National Anthem created a look of panic on the face of Conductor Luisotti. Indeed, by tradition, all American opera companies precede the beginning of the first performance of a new opera season with the National Anthem, this year performed by the opera orchestra led by Luisotti. This season, the National Anthem was played before the second night of the season, which was the World Premiere of Theofanidis’ 9-11 themed opera “Heart of a Soldier” (with Patrick Summers conducting).

But Luisotti called to the orchestra, “I have no music”. The orchestra members replied, that neither did they, although they all said they could play it by rote if they agreed on the key, and several orchestra members remembered the key they had used previously in the month.

Soon Gockley saw what was happening, and clarified that the National Anthem was being sung at the ballpark, not in the opera house.

Relieved, Maestro Luisotti began the crashing dissonant chords that are the first notes of “Turandot”.

[Below: Raymond Aceto, left, is Timur with Leah Crocetto, who is Liu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Suddenly, Luisotti signals for the musicians to stop playing.  “The curtain hasn’t gone up!” A wag yells “encore”!

Soon a technician arrives in the orchestra pit to let Luisotti know that they are having trouble raising the large gold curtain and it will be several minutes. At that point a couple of the members of the audience start singing the Star Spangled Banner. The orchestra picks up the key and begins to play as Luisotti, in the spirit of the moment, turns to the audience to conduct the singing. Soon all the audience is standing and singing.

Then one hears, through the curtains, members of the San Francisco Opera chorus singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game! Then Luisotti, always a bundle of energy, jumped out of the pit and moved along the center aisle to the back of the auditorium, like a late night talk show host who decides to take an impromptu visit into the audience, shaking hands, entertaining the audience members in the darkened theater with his infectious good cheer.

Then, about a quarter hour late, the technicians called him back to the podium to begin again the dissonant chords that begin “Turandot”.

[Below: Calaf (Marco Berti, in blue, front left), Turandot (Irene Theorin, fourth from left) as, from left to right, Ping (Hyung Yun), Pang (Greg Fedderly), and Pong (Daniel Montenegro) watch Liu (Leah Crocetto, in orange, front center) kill herself; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I doubt that there were many persons in either the War Memorial Opera House or at AT&T Park that minded the mishap with the great Gold Curtain, but the ensuing performance was well worth any wait. Luisotti, whose rapport with the San Francisco Opera orchestra is a great artistic bond that assures that the operas he conducts will be symphonic triumphs.

With boundless energy, Luisotti produces an aural experience, that is deepened by the excellent choral work of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and first rate performances by all of the members of the “Turandot” cast. The aural experiences are further enhanced by the visual wonders of the Hockney production and Falconer costumes, described in greater detail in my earlier reviews cited at the beginning of this essay. It’s like seeing a home run sail out of the AT&T Stadium, with the bases loaded.

Once Calaf melts Turandot’s icy heart and they announce their love to her father, the Emperor Altuom, the opera ends. As the chorus lines up for their curtain call, one sees that four of them are wearing San Francisco Giants paraphernalia. Then Ryan Kuster, the Mandarin, the first of the principals to walk over the Chinese bridge in center stage (over which, by tradition, the principal singer’s entrances for this production’s curtain calls take place) opens his costume to display a Giants sweatshirt.

Then the Joseph Frank’s Emperor brings some Giants’ gadgets, Hyung Yun’s Ping, Greg Fedderly’s Pang and Daniel Montengro’s Pong open their kimonos to reveal Giants’ clothing, Raymond Aceto’s Timur turns his back to the audience to reveal a large Giants’ insignia, Leah Crocetto’s Liu has a large orange “we’re number one” finger-pointing Giants’ hand (as will Theorin’s Turandot). Berti’s Calaf arrives with a Giants’ sweatshirt pulled over his costume, and Luisotti takes his bow wearing a Giants’ ballcap.

[Below: Turandot (Irene Theorin, front left) and Calaf (Marco Berti, front right) announce to the Emperor (Joseph Frank, rear) that they will be married; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The afternoon, even with the delays caused by the Gremlin in the Front Curtain, was a smash hit. One cannot but imagine that every one of these special San Francisco Opera events, introducing opera free of charge to the community, converts new legions to the special appeal of opera in live performance, and, helps build the audiences of the future.