`Don Carlos,' `Jenufa' at San Francisco Opera

Today more than ever, companies like the San Francisco Opera are demonstrating that the Metropolitan Opera is no longer America's only international company of note. In the early weeks of its 64th fall season, general director Terence A. McEwen has served up a few stimulating firsts. This is the first major company in the United States to devote its attention to the original Paris version, in French, of Verdi's ``Don Carlos.'' It is also the first US company to eschew the corrupt edition of Janacek's ``Jenufa,'' in favor of Sir Charles Mackerras's, based on the original manuscript.

The ``Carlos,'' given in a ``concept'' production directed by John Cox and designed by Stephanos Lazaridis, was cast with singers who would learn the work in French. ``Jenufa'' was revived so that soprano Leonie Rysanek would be able to introduce -- to the city of her US debut 30 years ago -- her newest role of Kostelnicka. Around her was an ideal cast, featuring the Czech soprano Gabriela Benackova and Polish tenor Wieslaw Ochman, with maestro Mackerras in the pit.

When sung in French, ``Don Carlos'' takes on new dimensions of dignity and subtlety. Verdi's vocal line was so clearly composed for the riches of the French language that it should be performed only in French, even though it has been known in Verdi's four-act Italian revision for much of its history.

The Cox production requires that an audience do its homework if it is to fully understand what is going on. Mr. Cox deals in symbols, rather than plot. Elisabeth makes her first appearance on the wintry French scene when a cellophane tree is lifted up. There she stands, on a swatch of AstroTurf and plastic daffodils -- actually, an effective fairytale vision that Carlos will keep with him for the rest of the opera.

The Spanish scenes are dominated by huge frames on which are hung effigies of hooded monks in contorted positions -- capturing both the oppressiveness of Spain and the all-pervasiveness of the Inquisition. The last acts of Verdi's work take place on an obscurely lit dirt pile -- arguably the ashes of the martyrs burned during the preceding, and impressively ghastly, auto-da-f'e.

One must put aside all ideas of pretty sets, narrative logic, etc., to allow the often intrusive symbols to carry their just weight. Happily, there is a strong undercurrent of the human, since much of Cox's direction includes a very detailed interrelating of the individual characters.

Cox also had a good acting cast to work with, even if the singing was not always as smooth and powerful as it must be for this work. For instance, Stefania Toczyska looked handsome enough as Eboli, but lacked the vocal requirements for the role. Pilar Lorengar's radiant presence could not altogether compensate for the lack of vocal weight in the first two acts of her Elisabeth. Nevertheless, she sang creamily, and with great majesty, in the final scenes.

Neil Shicoff does not have the title role fully worked into his voice, but even now it is an important part for him. Robert Lloyd's imposing Philippe II came into his dramatic own in the Inquisitor's scene, where he was partnered by a tenuous Joseph Rouleau.

Alan Titus was a revelation as Posa. He found an entirely new voice and used it with insight and a sure sense of the language and its need for nuance. I cannot recall a more sensitive performance of the role, nor a more poetic one.

``Jenufa'' was, quite simply, opera at its finest. One came away first and foremost with Miss Rysanek's compelling Kostelnicka emblazoned on the mind. She was performing it for the first time in Czech (earlier she had done it in English, then German), putting her definitive stamp on it just as she has done with so many other roles in her long career.

On this occasion, her justly celebrated histrionic command was matched with a new-found freshness of voice. Thus, Rysanek could thrust out the moments of high drama with house-filling intensity and then bewitch the audience with a protracted moment of intimacy. We got the gamut of emotions, with an array of vocal colors.

Miss Benackova sang Jenufa with astounding vocal beauty, and her restraint managed to be a brilliant foil to Rysanek's grandeur. Their voices together created moments I will not soon forget. Wieslaw Ochman was an ideal Laca, while Neil Rosenshein's Steva proved convincingly caddish.

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