San Francisco Opera will kick off its centennial season in just over two months and on Thursday celebrate the music of Giuseppe Verdi – a composer whose operas played a prominent, memorable and enduring role in the first 100 years of the famous company – with “Eun Sun Kim conducts Verdi”, a concert which presents many of his arias, duets and orchestral and choral works.
SF Opera’s musical director Kim, originally from South Korea, made her US debut with performances of Verdi’s “Requiem” and “La Traviata” and conducts the orchestra. He will be joined by the San Francisco Opera Chorus conducted by John Keene, as well as baritone Etienne Dupuis, his wife, soprano Nicole Car, and bass Soloman Howard, all of whom perform in the company’s captivating production “Don Giovanni.” in an evening of musical selections from “Luisa Miller”, “Il Trovatore” and “Don Carlo”. (On Friday, tenor Arturo Chacón Cruz retired due to illness.)
Covering the breath of Verdi’s illustrious career, ‘Luisa Miller’, ‘Il Trovatore’ and ‘Don Carlo’ represent, respectively, masterpieces of his early, middle and late periods.
“The composer’s mid-1930s ‘Luisa Miller’ embodies the gritty energy and dynamism of her youth,” said SFO playwright emeritus Kip Cranna. “Luciano Pavarotti starred in the first performances of SFO’s ‘Luisa Miller’ in 1974, and we did the play over the next two seasons, most recently in 2015.”
“Il Trovatore” was one of the three major operas, along with “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata”, which Verdi composed successively in the middle of his career and they were performed several times at the OFS, with a few seasons at the War Memorial Opera House not including at least one of these titles.
“‘Il Trovatore’ comes from the early 1850s, when Verdi was about to turn 40 and displayed his growing gift for pairing masterful melody with compelling drama,” Cranna said.
And “Don Carlo”, the trio’s most mature opus, was first composed in French as “Don Carlos” but is most often heard in its later Italian version. The San Francisco Opera will for the first time perform ballet music from the rarely heard French version as well as famous arias from the Italian standard.
“Verdi composed the opera in his early 50s and revised it when he was nearly 70,” Cranna said. “Its broadly arched dramatic structure allows for expansive scenes like the soprano’s magnificent “Tu che la vanità” featured in the concert, as well as the rarely heard ballet music of the opera.”
Conducting Verdi’s works and preparing singers to perform his operas presents challenges, according to Keene, which involve balancing rhythmic propulsion with long, grand lyrical phrasing, as well as the need to “create beautiful detailed colors and textures in the orchestras without overwhelming the stage.But conducting his compositions brings other challenges, some unique to each of the three operas featured in the concert.
“A less technical but equally important challenge overall is to capture the ‘tinta’ (color) of each opera, honoring what Verdi chose musically in response to the dramatic situation,” Keene said. “For the first ‘Luisa Miller’ and ‘Il Trovatore’, there are the bel canto aspects of the works which must be respected; for the last ‘Don Carlo’ there is the more symphonic structure that needs attention.
Keene is particularly sensitive to the specific needs of conducting the vast choral compositions that often command the stage in Verdi’s operas, particularly their rhythmic pulse, and one of the operas highlighted in the concert is a favorite of his.
“I try to encourage the choir to feel that impulse individually and collectively as an ensemble, to meet the conductor with a constant ‘heartbeat’ rather than being led or followed,” Keene said. . “This allows the choir to respond flexibly to a conductor’s interpretation in rehearsal and spontaneously in performance. I have to say that ‘Don Carlo’ is one of my favorite operas in general – the depth of pathos and emotional mastery that Verdi found in this work is unrivaled in his production, which says a lot when you think about all the great characters he brought back to life. »
As for the orchestra, Keene cites specific qualities that make Kim particularly well suited to conducting Verdi’s music.
“Eun Sun is a singer’s bandleader; his sensitivity to the needs of singers vocally and artistically is on par with his attention to orchestral detail,” Keene said. “It allows great performances to emerge, the combination of the stage and the pit into a unified whole. His technical mastery allows the stage and the pit to enter into this symbiosis, which is always a wonderful thing in lyrical interpretation, but above all Verdi’s music demands a particular combination of precision and freedom for maximum impact.
For Howard, who is one of the singers at the concert, Verdi’s music has a special, almost stylish resonance.
“As a bass, there’s a nobility to sound and vocals in the majority of his roles that I find fluid and close to my sensibility and my love of elegance,” Howard said. “To me Verdi’s music is the perfect blend of voice and musical orchestration, like wearing the perfect suit and tie – an immediate distinctive sense of character and connection.”
SFO presented 16 of Verdi’s operas, many of which were memorable performances, including the 1938 production of “La Forza del Destino” in which sustained applause for a duet prompted famed tenor Beniamino Gigli, playing the close to the dead Don Alvaro, rising from his stretcher to salute; Leontyne Price’s first role as Lenora, which would become one of her signature roles, in the 1958 production of ‘Il Trovatore’; Pavarotti’s debut as Radames in the company’s new production of “Aida” in 1981; and Plácido Domingo’s salvage from the opening night of the company’s 1983 “Otello” gala, when he flew in from New York to replace the ailing Carlo Cossutta in the title role.
Verdi’s operas opened more than a quarter of San Francisco opera seasons, but they were a big hit in The City long before the company’s debut in the 1920s. Indeed, the composer’s music , especially his then-modern opera “Ernani”, was hugely popular during the San Francisco Gold Rush era. And very early on, according to Cranna, the San Franciscans understood that Verdi brought something new that went beyond the Italianate lyricism of his predecessors.
“Those rough-hewn 49ers obviously loved it,” Cranna said. “Thanks to touring companies, ‘Ernani’, though rarely heard these days, was the staple opera of this city’s early days, with over 150 performances before the turn of the century. The locals apparently couldn’t get enough, and I think they responded — as we still do today — to the vigor and dramatic thrust of Verdi’s music, as well as the melody convincing. And that allure hasn’t faded in 21st-century San Francisco.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
“Eun Sun Kim conducts Verdi” at the San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, SF
When: 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $29 to $249; Live stream available at $25
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com/verdi
To note: An after-party with Music Director Eun Sun Kim and General Manager Matthew Shilvock will be held at 10:15 p.m. in the Green Room of the Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., SF; proceeds from the tickets, which total $250, benefit the San Francisco Opera’s annual campaign in support of Kim’s vision for the future of opera.