Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera has begun its 74th season in the same place where the company first performed in 1923 -- in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, now known as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in honor of the late rock entrepreneur who staged so many concerts there.
The Opera has moved to the Civic, as well as the nearby Orpheum Theatre, because its home base, the War Memorial Opera House, has closed for much-needed repairs and seismic renovations in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The work started in January and is expected to continue through June, allowing the Opera to return in time to celebrate its 75th season there in September 1997.
In the meantime, both the Opera and the San Francisco Ballet have had to seek other venues. The Opera has already had experience with the Orpheum, where it staged a successful run of Puccini's La Bohème with multiple casts for four weeks this summer.
Now it's time to give the Civic a try. To prepare for its seven productions there this season, the company has made extensive modifications to the arena-like venue, more suited to a basketball game than grand opera.
As conceived by the Opera's general director, Lotfi Mansouri, and designed by resident designer Gerard Howland, the auditorium has been transformed into a festival-style venue with a two-tier stage. The lower tier is a thrust stage allowing three-quarter round seating. The upper tier features an additional performance level in front (14 feet above the main stage) and the orchestra behind that, elevated another 2½ feet and framed by an acoustical shell.
Hence the orchestra sits behind a scrim above and behind the main performance area with the conductor's back to the singers. To overcome the obvious problem that arrangement poses, monitors are arrayed across the apron at footlight level. Likewise, a monitor in front of the podium allows the conductor to see what's happening onstage.
The auditorium floor has been raked for orchestra seating. Instead of just one supertitle screen above the stage as in the Opera House, there are two on either side of the stage and three on the front of the lighting truss.
In general, the entire venue has been spruced up, concession areas added, and extensive carpeting laid. Even though the Civic has a larger seating capacity than the Opera House, 4,177 vs. 3,176, the very last row of seats in the Civic is closer to the stage apron by about 50 feet.
Mansouri and his collaborators deserve an A+ for their efforts. They obviously have gone to great lengths to make their Civic productions a first-rate operatic experience -- far different from the opulence of the Beaux Arts-style Opera House with its traditional proscenium stage -- but new and exciting nevertheless.
The results, as reflected in the Sept. 6 opening night of Borodin's Prince Igor, are mixed. However, as Mansouri has said, this season, especially so early in the run, is a work in progress. It's highly likely that he and his staff will continue to fine-tune as they gain more performance experience with the space. After all, it's one thing to conceptualize and test everything ahead of time, but nothing substitutes for the actual experience of performing with more than 4,100 people in the house.
Two of the more serious problems are acoustics and coordination between the conductor and the singers. Seated in the grand tier (lower balcony) to the right of the stage, I found the clarity of the singing dependent in large part upon whether the singers were facing me or not. The Opera is using some minimal amplification for the singers, but this is an area that needs further study. Furthermore, the orchestral sound was muddy at times, as in the overture, despite excellent playing under the baton of Alexander Anissimov. The choral sound also was muffled at times.
Likewise, there were some problems of coordination between the singers and orchestra, primarily in the crowd scenes, always a touchy issue even in the Opera House with so many people doing different things. This is an area that one might expect will improve during each production.
Some other areas of concern were that some patrons complained of difficulty seeing the supertitles, while others found the lighting to be glaring, depending upon where they were sitting.
The production itself is well-done overall. Director Francesca Zambello makes effective use of the performance space, and designer Zack Brown makes the set pieces and set changes an integral part of the drama. Set changes are accomplished in full view of the audience by costumed stage hands. Most of the set pieces are stairs and platforms of various configurations to allow for a variety of playing areas and levels. Brown's costumes place the action in the late 19th century, when the opera was composed, rather than the 12th century, when the work's literary source, The Song of the Host of Igor, Russia's earliest literary classic, was written. The rationale is that both periods were times of intense Russian nationalism.
Scenes in the Russian city of Putivl feature a black, white and gray color scheme with the performers in typical European garb of the late 19th century. Scenes in the Polovtsian encampment are more colorful and exotic in keeping with the Eastern influence.
The cast is led by Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Prince Igor. Leiferkus lends a fluid, authoritative voice to his role, highlighted by his song of longing for home and family in Scene 1 of Act 2. (This production is divided into two acts with one intermission. As noted in the program, there is no definitive performing version of Prince Igor available because Borodin died before completing it and left confusing, incomplete notes for his colleagues, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov and Glazunov, to complete it.)
Igor's wife, Yaroslavna, is sung by San Francisco-born soprano Lauren Flanagan. Despite some dry high notes, especially in her earlier scenes, she acquits herself well. Her song of longing for Igor in Scene 2 of Act 1 is impassioned.
American tenor Mark Baker as Igor's son Vladimir consistently oversings, but Vladimir's love interest, Konchakovna, daughter of the Polovtsian khan who captures and imprisons Igor and his troops, is gorgeously sung by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba. Her role is written primarily in the contralto range, giving Zaremba a chance to display glorious chest tones as well as exceptional fluidity.
American baritone Jeffrey Wells sings well as Prince Galitsky, Igor's villainous brother-in-law, but he needs to bring more arrogance to the role. Russian bass Paata Burchuladze has a solid tone as Konchak, the Polovtsian khan. He also does well in his interpretation of this most interesting character in the opera, a strong man who admires and respects his foe, Igor, and who can be the gracious host one minute and the cruel ruler the next if someone offends him.
Rounding out the cast with fine singing are Russian bass Vladimir Ognovenko as Skula, Russian tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov as Yeroshka (Canadian tenor Gary Rideout sings some performances), American tenor Dennis Peterson as Ovlur and American mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Yaroslavna's nurse.
Despite the acoustics and problems with seeing the conductor, Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus acquits itself well. The men are especially strong in the carousing scene of Scene 1, Act 1. The concluding scene, a lament, is haunting, almost ethereal.
The famed Polovtsian dances, the inspiration for Broadway's Kismet, are divided into two sections in Scene 1, Act 2. Although the choreography by Alphonse Poulin for the Opera's corps de ballet shows some inventiveness, it also shows some busyness that dilutes its effectiveness.
However, the two solo dancers, Badri Esatia and Teimuraz Koridze, are superb in their athleticism. According to an Opera spokeswoman, they are Georgian immigrants who live in the Bay Area but who formerly danced with Russia's Moiseyev Dance Company. When they auditioned for the Prince Igor corps de ballet, they weren't familiar with the standard sequences, but when asked to perform some Georgian folk dances, they impressed Opera officials so much that some of the choreography was changed and the two men were appointed soloists.
Thus the San Francisco Opera begins its season. As San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown told the opening night audience before the performance, "We're in the adventure zone.''
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.