Veteran singers add force to San Francisco Opera

Opera in the United States used to be limited to the winter months in major cities. Now the San Francisco Opera runs a summer season in addition to its usual time from September to December. Two of the most notable events in past summer seasons to date have been the US premi`ere of Aribert Reimann's ``Lear,'' and a magnificent new Wagner ``Ring'' cycle (unveiled in its entirety in June of 1985).

This year, the company offered the sort of operatic evenings one expects to encounter in every major opera house, yet rarely does. The much discussed dramatic soprano Ghena Dimitrova made her company debut in Verdi's ``Il Trovatore''; R`egine Crespin, a favorite everywhere but especially in San Francisco, offered her newest role, Madame Flora in Menotti's ``The Medium''; and a sizzling production of Leoncavallo's ``I Pagliacci'' proved to be one of the most intense operatic/dramatic encounters in many a year.

Clearly, casting is one of general director Terence A. McEwen's strengths. True, I avoided Donizetti's ``Lucia di Lammermoor,'' because the two New York City Opera regulars McEwen had cast in the leading roles were not up to their assignments in this opera when I heard them in New York a few season back.

But his ``Trovatore'' boasted the strongest cast one is apt to encounter in the work today. As well as Miss Dimitrova, he presented Franco Bonisolli in the title role, veteran baritone Piero Cappuccilli as Count di Luna (a last-minute replacement), and a young San Francisco-based mezzo named Dolora Zajic (pronounced ``ZYE-its'') as Azucena.

The above-mentioned ``Pagliacci'' also featured Mr. Cappuccilli, as well as Diana Soviero as Nedda, Ermano Mauro as Canio, and David Malis as Silvio. Mascagni's ``Cavalleria rusticana'' was, as usual, the partner opera -- the two are affectionately referred to as `Cav'' and ``Pag.'' In that cast were the legendary Fiorenza Cossotto (Santuzza) and Cappuccilli and Mauro.

And of course, there was Miss Crespin as the Medium and Karen Armstrong as the solo protagonist in Poulenc's ``La Voix Humaine,'' which began that particular evening.

It was a season of veterans doing what they do best. There is no more consistent, eloquent, and expressive baritone in opera today than Cappuccilli. He is as at home in Verdi as he is in Mascagni or Leoncavallo. The voice rings freely and truly in all ranges.

His Count di Luna (``Trovatore'') is definitive not just because he had the notes, but because they were strung together with such finesse, with such an evenness and breadth of vocal line. In ``Cav'' and ``Pag'' he was more robustly emotive, and yet still tasteful. Cappuccilli made every one of his solo moments into star turns, yet he fit effortlessly into the strong ensemble the rest of the time. How sad he is not heard on these shores more often.

Miss Cossotto has been singing Santuzza most of her career, and the impact of the performance is overwhelming. She projects every nuance, every last drop of venom, every scrap of remorse, fury, and frustration to be found in the role. She sang it magnificently -- strong and true in the upper reaches, elementally forceful in the low.

Miss Crespin has always made a virtue of restraint. She knows the value of underplaying, of letting a glance, a flick of the wrist, a hunching of the shoulders speak where others would lurch, clutch, and stagger. In ``The Medium,'' the French diva projected every last word of the English text with a resounding clarity and conviction that puts British and American singers to shame.

Ghena Dimitrova may not be a veteran on these shores, but she is a seasoned artist in the best of the old fashioned tradition. She managed most of the role of Leonora (``Trovatore'') with poise and the sort of grace one has not come to expect from so large a voice. A few miscalculated top notes aside, here was a true Leonora, capable of sustaining a long arching line, of tapering the instrument back to a gossamer pianissimo and also of filling the theater with thrilling sound.

What about the other contributors to the various evenings? In ``Trovatore,'' Mr. Bonisolli proved not only to be a robust Manrico, but a musical, even elegant one as well. Rarely has ``Ah s`i, ben mio'' been sung more smoothly by a tenor. And yet he could bluster his way through the famous ``Di quella pira'' with just the right sort of crowd-pleasing braggadocio.

As his mother, Azucena, Miss Zajic is a remarkable discovery -- her mezzo rings effortlessly in all its registers. What a thrill to find an American singer who understands, to the very core, the traditions that must go into a successful performance of this sort of Verdi mezzo role. And how easily she fit into the illustrious cast that surrounded her.

In ``Pag,'' one can not overlook Diana Soviero's magnificent, full-voiced, hauntingly acted Nedda, David Malis's forthright, credible Silvio, or Anton Guadagno's taut, volatile conducting. The Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production demands total conviction from the cast, and all chipped in to make this verismo tale something at once heartbreaking and shocking. How remarkable to encounter this ``Pag'' after the tawdry and careless Ponnell ``Cav'' that preceded it.

``The Medium'' received the most handsome physical production of all (designed by Mauro Pagano). Jean-Louis Thamin's somewhat surreal production allowed us to accept the shoddy, ill-conceived plot and the seedy characters that animate it. And it allowed Miss Crespin to breath chilling life into Menotti's desperately creaky, corny melodrama. One witnessed this woman's slip into madness with horror and a certain compassion. The performance was a complete personal triumph.

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