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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 26, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 43
Homoerotic Moby-Dick anchors SFO fall season
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Homoerotic Moby-Dick anchors SFO fall season

Lohengrin, rare Romeo and Juliet top choices

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

San Francisco Opera opened its fall season with a trio of stunning productions - programmed, as usual, to allow visitors to the City by the Bay to see three different operas in two or three days. This rotating repertory format is incredibly expensive and only a few companies attempt it. Some weekends, it is possible to see Opera One on Friday night, Opera Two on Saturday night, and Opera Three on Sunday afternoon, spending just two nights at a hotel and taking an early evening flight back to Seattle. The operas SGN's scribe saw included a glorious production of Wagner's Lohengrin, a rarely staged Rossini adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick. All three productions were as expected from SF Opera - gloriously sung and unbelievably staged. Read on:

MOBY-DICK
Heggie's operatic adaptation of the classic Herman Melville novel anchors the fall season. It is a new (2010) work that cries out success from its very first moments. While Heggie's music speaks for itself - as does the libretto by Gene Scheer - the musicalization likewise stands on its own. The subject matter remains ultra-serious, but the adaption is full of comic hijinks - sailor's dances, gigs, and cartwheels. Minor characters are brought vividly to life by a kaleidoscopic approach to casting. It often seemed that the sailor's chorus had been cast from a Mack Sennett silent film - 'There's a Charlie Chaplin,' a woman behind the SGN trio whispered. 'And there's Laurel and Hardy dancing a hornpipe,' her lady friend countered.

The minute the curtain went up, the near-capacity Sunday matinee audience knew it was watching an opera that would stay in the world's repertory for decades. Much of it is physically reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's modern classic version of Billy Budd - Melville, of course, wrote both source books. Heggie's music has the power and the surge - the 'smell of the sea' - that marked Erich Korngold's classic Hollywood swashbuckler scores of the 1930s and '40s.

The usual problems of the book remain in the opera. Who is the real hero? Captain Ahab? Well, he did take the final, cleverly staged curtain call. Starbuck, the first mate who questions authority and risks a mutiny? Queequeg, the South Sea Island native who longs for his ancestral home (and who seems more than interested in making a 'friend' of another man)? Ishmael, who is appropriately called 'Greenhorn' here? Hundreds of doctoral dissertations have been written on that question, and this opera gives no more answers than Melville did. The homoerotic attraction between two of the main characters - a mixed-race couple, at that - is true to the book, as are the many scenes of bare-chested hunks climbing the rigging and tying down the sails. An old, old Navy expression, 'There'll be no friggin' in the riggin'!' seemed remarkably apt.

The physical production is incredible. It seemed impossible to produce Moby-Dick as a stage work, but SFO's talented tech crew did just that. Patrick Summers' assured turn on the podium showcased the SFO Orchestra at its finest, the sweeping Hollywood-like score by Heggie providing a real chance for the musicians to shine. The projections were another incredible highlight of the show. Along with the sets and lighting, it seemed that the audience was truly on sail aboard the Pequod. And, to be honest, the story is really not about a whale, no matter how hard Ruth in Wonderful Town tried to convince us otherwise. Moby-Dick continues with three more SFO performances though November 2. Good, if scattered, seating was available for all performances at press time.

Heggie, who once worked in the SFO press department ('to get my foot in the door'), calls the company and San Francisco his musical and personal home, but he deems Seattle his 'second musical home.' The Seattle Opera production of Remains of the Day remains a highlight of modern works for many SO season subscribers and self-proclaimed opera nuts. His many commissions for Seattle's Music of Remembrance concert series - especially the heartbreaking For a Look or a Touch, which tells the tale of two Gay men in Nazi Germany - are another set of musical and compositional landmarks for Emerald City fans. A daring structure - one man sings, the other just speaks with no score behind him - garnered national attention. Heggie is often in Seattle and will be here for the world premiere of his latest commission for MoR. Watch SGN for details.

THE CAPULETS AND THE MONTAGUES
Shakespeare's beloved Romeo and Juliet has been the inspiration for dozens of operatic adaptations. Rossini - master of comic operas and father of 'The William Tell Overture' from his one serious work (his only failure at its premiere and his final opera) - places the focus on the two families. The opera's Italian title is simply I Capuleti e I Montecchi, which translates as The Capulets and the Montagues. A glorious feast of beautiful bel canto singing (now there, dear reader, is an incredible example of a redundancy), this adaptation casts women in every role - male as well as female.

Beautifully sung but strangely staged (was the designer captivated by The Hunger Games?), this was one of the most bizarre productions this scribe has ever seen. It ran only six performances and closed last weekend. Conductor Riccardo Frizza deserves special praise for showcasing the SFO Orchestra in a beautiful but little-known score. Bravo, Maestro!

LOHENGRIN
Seattle-area opera fans rejoice in Seattle Opera's well-deserved reputation as 'the Wagner opera company,' but it must be said that SFO's Lohengrin was simply the finest production of that challenging work that anyone in the nearly sold out audience had ever seen. Every role, both major and minor, was sung to perfection - a 10 out of 10. Lohengrin continues through November 9, and is well worth the trip all by itself. Add in the 10-out-of-10 Moby-Dick and 9-out-of-10 The Capulets and the Montagues, and you have an unforgettable opera weekend.

Tickets and details on all SFO productions are available at (415) 864-3330 or online at www.sfopera.com. As usual, tell 'em SGN sent ya.

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