Reviewed by Judy Richter
After being closed for a 21-month, $88.5 million renovation, San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House reopened Sept. 5 with a gala concert celebrating this occasion as well the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Opera. Fittingly, the concert featured operatic greats of the past, present and future.
The project included repairs of damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, improvements for the audience and performers, seismic strengthening and a general cleanup that left the 65-year-old Opera House gleaming.
The program was conceived and directed by SFO General Director Lotfi Mansouri, who filled the evening with magical touches. His dramatic flair was apparent right from the start, when the audience sat in half-darkness and heard a scratchy recording of a Oct. 15, 1932, radio broadcast of the very first performance in the Opera House. As the first notes of The Star Spangled Banner were heard, the audience rose and began singing with its counterpart of 65 years ago. Then the live SFO Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Donald Runnicles, joined in as the house lights brightened and the gloriously restored chandelier came on at full strength -- nine times brighter than its pre-repair illumination level thanks to cleaning, rewiring and relamping.
The new curtain, an exact reproduction of the former gold curtain, rose to reveal soprano Deborah Voigt standing alone center stage to sing Dich, teure Hulle (Beloved hall, I greet you) from Wagner's Tannhäuser. Voigt is one of the many graduates of the SFO's famed Merola Opera training program who has gone on to international stardom.
The evening was hosted by retired soprano Beverly Sills, aided by actor Derek Jacobi, who had a non-singing role in Milhaud's Christophe Colomb in 1992. The program featured non-singing appearances by retired sopranos Joan Sutherland and Leonie Rysanek, both of whom were SFO favorites.
Runnicles shared conducting duties with Sutherland's husband, Richard Bonynge; with tenor Plácido Domingo; and Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
The evening also featured four filmed tributes to each of the SFO's general directors: the late Gaetano Merola, the company's founder, who served from 1923 to 1953; the late Kurt Herbert Adler, 1953-1981; Terence A. McEwen, 1982-1988, who sent a taped greeting from his home in Hawaii; and Mansouri, who presided over the finale.
Although the Opera House itself was the top star of the evening, it had plenty of star voices to fill it, starting with Voigt and followed by the SFO Chorus, in full costume and on the set for the Act 2 party scene of Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus.
Next came tenor Jerry Hadley, filling in for Richard Leech, who had to cancel because of a death in his family, and soprano Patricia Racette. They sang Act 1 arias and O soave fanciulla from Puccini's La Bohème. They were followed by bass-baritone James Morris, who gave a preview of his next night's performance by singing Scarpia's Te Deum from Puccini's Tosca.
Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne sang Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Even though her best singing years are behind her, Horne retains her consummate musical artistry. Another famed mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade, joined by the SFO Chorus, then took the stage for a captivatingly flirtatious Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. Voigt and Domingo capped off Act 1 with a fervent Winterstürme ... Du bist der Lenz from Wagner's Die Walküre.
The second half opened with another Tosca preview as soprano Carol Vaness sang Vissi d'arte. She was followed by tenor Richard Margison and baritone Paolo Gavanelli's well-sung but woodenly delivered Dio, che nell'alma infondere from Verdi's Don Carlo with Domingo conducting.
By way of contrast, soprano Ruth Ann Swenson delivered an expressive, artfully sung Qui la voce sua soave from Bellini's I Puritani. It's no coincidence that she was introduced by Sutherland and that Bonynge conducted, for Swenson is swiftly moving into the roles for which Sutherland became so renowned.
She was followed by Hadley with Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, superstar bass Samuel Ramey with Boris's monologue from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, soprano Janet Williams with Je veux vivre from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette and Margison with a well-received Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot.
After the parade of past and present stars, the evening ended with a look at the future. The SF Opera Center's present and recent Fellows -- Merola graduates following in the footsteps of Voigt, Racette, Vaness, Swenson, Williams and many others -- sang the world premiere of So Many Notes! by Jake Heggie. Heggie, 36, is an SFO publicist who is making a name for himself as a composer for singers like von Stade. Mansouri and the SFO commissioned him to write this work for this occasion. Reminiscent of Bernstein, the work showcased the promising voices of sopranos Alison Buchanan, Nicolle Foland, Peggy Kriha Dye, Christina Lamberti; mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, tenor Stuart Skelton; baritones John Autry, David Okerlund, Mel Ulrich; and bass-baritones Chester Patton and John Relyea.
The concert was preceded by dinners in tents in the courtyard between the Opera House and Veterans Memorial Building and in the street between the Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. More partying followed.
Although Sept. 5 was the night for fancy dress and high-priced tickets in the Opera House, people could watch the concert from lower-priced seats in Davies, where a simulcast was shown. The concert also was taped for later broadcast on PBS.
The general public had its chance to see the Opera House on Sept. 6, when the doors opened for an all-day Opera Fair. The day featured family entertainment, booths and a chance to tour the Opera House for $1. Heggie reported that the lines for the tour stretched around the block and that 2,700 people took advantage of the chance to see what $88.5 million would buy. That total included $49.5 million from a 1990 bond measure approved by San Francisco voters, $30 million in private funding raised by the Committee to Restore the Opera House and $9 million from the city's War Memorial Board of Trustees.
It was money well-spent, for the Opera House is indeed more beautiful, more functional and safer.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.