Within five minutes of the opening skirmish in the San Francisco Opera’s jihad against The Merry Widow, its new script had touched upon such non-Pontevedrian matters as rolling blackouts and mutual funds. Such were the with-it fancies of contemporary playwright Wendy Wasserstein, brought in to tin-plate the spoken dialogue in the Victor Léon/Leo Stein libretto with a contemporary gleam. The songs themselves were left alone; in this context their sweet verses – in Christopher Hassall’s serviceable 1958 Englishing — came across with a positively Shakespearian resonance.
Director Lotfi Mansouri, in collaboration with Richard Bonynge had created this version of the Widow, with Hassall’s text, in 1981 as a vehicle for Joan Sutherland, padding out the 80-plus minutes of its already generous score with borrowings from elsewhere in the Léhar canon – an interminable ballet to a medley from The Count of Luxembourg, a bland final piece from Paganini and a comic aria (for the flunky Njegus) that Léhar had tacked onto the Widow later in its history. All told, San Francisco’s Widow, in Mansouri’s restaging intended as his company farewell, held its audience – depressingly paltry as witnessed on December 5 — captive (if not exactly captivated) a near-Wagnerian 3-1/2 hours. The Los Angeles Opera production, first staged by the Utah Opera in May, 2000 – running simultaneously in the same version with the same director and designers but without the trendy-Wendy lugubriously unfunny text – zoomed past at 20 minutes shorter.
Michael Yeargan’s sets — as nearly identical on both California stages as never mind — filled the eye with a pastiche of Art-Nouveau Paris, including the swirls and squiggles of Hector Guimard’s subway entrances; Thierry Bosquet’s fin-de-siècle costumes seemed to float free of gravity’s constraints, At the Widow’s first entrance – sheathed in blazing red atop a staircase engulfed by white-tied admirers – you had to wonder if another Dolly had been cloned. On the podium, in his San Francisco Opera debut, Erich Kunzel’s presence should, you might think, guarantee the proper accents for congenial musical theater. But no, not in this lumbering, joyless pageant of merriment betrayed.
Australia’s Yvonne Kenny had those accents, however: the wisdom, the cynicism, the lustrous voice. So did Austria’s Angelika Kirchschlager – surprisingly, a light mezzo in a soubrette role – and so did the ardent Camille de Rosillon of America’s Gregory Turay, a young tenor clearly on the rise. But Danish baritone Bo Skovhus’ Danilo was mostly huff, a far cry from Los Angeles’ airborne Danilo, Rodney Gilfry – slated to take on the role in San Francisco’s later performances — who sang and danced rings around Carol Vaness’ Widow.
Less – far less – might have been more.
Tones of greater delight, and greater dramatic honesty, had filled San Francisco’s opera house in preceding weeks. The 1985 Falstaff abides as one of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s most endearing creations, and so it was in its November revival (seen on November 18), staged by former Ponnelle assistant Vera Lúcia Calábria, with the immenso , sonorous mountain of a John Del Carlo in the title role, Nancy Gustafson as the wise, endearing Alicia and a hilarious ragtag of comics – Doug Jones’ Bardolfo, Stanislaw Schwets’ Pistola and Jonathan Boyd’s Caius – nicely welded under Calábria’s direction. Donald Runnicles’ musical leadership – as in his Meistersinger weeks before, restated the sometimes-forgotten principle largely ignored in the aforementioned Merry Widow: that the essence of truly comedic music lies deep within the notes themselves.
Leos Janacek’s Jenufa made its overdue return to San Francisco’s repertory on November 19, in a modest, handsome production from the Dallas Opera. Francesca Zambello’s staging traced the stark, bleak lines and scary empty spaces of Allison Chitty’s design, in which warmth and communicativeness seemed perpetually lost. Patricia Racette’s tense, desperate Jenufa had its dramatic foil in Kathryn Harries’ overpowering recreation of stepmother Kostelnicka and drew fitful warmth from the sympathetic but troubled Laca of Richard Berkeley-Steele. (Harries and Berkeley-Steele, both Brits, were making their San Francisco debuts.) Veteran soprano Helga Dernesch, a San Francisco love object since her debut there in 1981, sang Grandmother Buryjovka, small role to grand applause. Jiri Kout conducted the serious, intense performance.