'Show Boat' directed by Francesca Zambello this summer would make a good Opera at the Ball Park but alas it’s another old war horse, “La Traviata”. Show Boat is an All-American romantic comedy musical extravaganza with a happy ending however. So, one would think Show Boat would make traditional opera fans and purists grouchy at such a travesty, having a Broadway musical elbow it's way on stage, opera through the back door. So take 'La Traviata'. Granted it’s a Verdi, a glorious and tempestuous epic with arias to burn. It's three hours long and starts at eight. Would you like garlic fries with that?
So in 'Show Boat', you get a whimsical and theatrical father hiring a no-account as a leading man for his innocent daughter. The handsome husband Ravenal loves his wife and the daughter that follows and stays with them until all the money is gone and he has no more friends to borrow from. He is in the end forgiven and welcomed back like a prodigal son. It's pretty unlikely except in Hollywood, highly idealized and escapist. Morris Robinson sang 'Ole Man River' like a myth come to life. Opera tickets ranged from $24 - $379 generally.
Verdi’s hallmarks include heart-wrenching stories about relationships gone awry but with more conservative, religious judgment. Verdi with his morality plays focuses on fathers and daughters often. It's innocence and selfless love tempered, nay truncated, by protective fathers and their well-intentioned efforts. It's dark, private and backstage manipulations. I could go on. And on. You get not only social hypocracy and double-standards but also the oodles of suffering that result and yes, the long, long tragic death scene. You know, the happy ending. Verdi makes martyrs, that's why we love him.
So. Verdi in “La Traviata” tells of a vivacious yet dying courtesan—basically a French socialite without the pedigree or family money who lives above her means. She even has to sell her possessions to keep her young lover in the style to which he is accustomed. Having gone as low as she can go, Violetta still only gives up the love of the aristocratic young man who she had been supporting at the behest of his gentleman father for the sake of the family name, oddly enough. The young man just goes abroad after appearing to be sold out and jilted for a baron. He unknowingly leaves the shrinking Violetta dying but only to have father and son return to her bedside when all is told and all forgiven.
CD signings at the opera shop following performances
Sunday, July 6 – Patricia Racette
Sunday, July 13 – Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello, husband and wife with a CD of love duets.
‘Traviata’ American cast features real-life husband and wife in leading roles
Laurie Feldman of San Francisco directs. Nicole Cabell of Panorama City, California sings in the first cast which is more European. It’s an incredibly demanding role requiring stamina and a range of acting from French high spirits to dying of tuberculosis and heartbreak, with the diva singing throughout the first act which lasts 45 minutes. Anna Netrebko kicked off a party shoe in 2009 and sent it soaring straight up to the stage lights.
The Americans perform for the Fourth of July weekend, with former Merolini Ailyn Perez singing with the second cast and her real life husband Stephen Costello. Young Perez, from Florida, sings on the evening of the simulcast. Hawaiian Quinn Kelsey will bring his thick-as-honey baritone to the role of the father Giorgio Germont. It’s a hard role to make palatable. Daniel Montenegro from Santa Ana, California, a former Merolini who worked with Perez back then, performs as Gastone.
Devon LaRussa of Oakland, California makes her San Francisco Opera debut as a principal dancer with a solo, so look for Mom Elaine and Dad Tony. Yaelisa, an Emmy award winning choreographer, makes her SF Opera debut with ‘La Traviata’. She is a master teacher of flamenco. The late David Walker of Kolkata, India, designed the costumes which include a ballroom full of off-the-shoulder gowns with full, draping skirts.
Whether the second cast rises to the occasion or not, the Opera at the Ballpark audience at the Fourth of July weekend free for all at AT&T park will keep the sparks flying. While there’s nothing like experiencing the opera live at the opera house, the ball park revelers over Independence Day weekend should celebrate their own company. Hence the picnics for all ages with seagulls gliding overhead and the casual outdoor clothes. Hence the freedom from the kill joys, freedom from jaded observations of those opera regulars who have seen the classic one too many times at the opera house and who don’t get outside much.
Yet the big time and old fashioned elegance of the period Euroopean costumes and sets should enrapture. The singing rocks, particularly when Ian Robertson’s opera chorus fills the stage at the party and lets their voices ring en masse, in all their glory.
Indeed. Opera at the Ballpark has become an institution, being a populist notion that flies in the face of the staid and snobbish world of old school opera much the way SF Opera director David Gockley staged the joyful American classic Show Boat this summer. Gockley brought on board Tony winning comedian and actor Bill Irwin as Cap’n Andy and Broadway singers joined opera singers for the production which floated the boat of all who experienced it. The opera house lit up with renewed life, a happiness it had never known.
All American Girl Power
More specifically, the cast seemed to revel in the glorious production and it showed. Sally Warren, an opera supernumerary from way back, loved everything about it. Kimberly Thompson, a super since 1989, said she had never seen the opera house so happy. Considering the direction of Francesca Zambello, there was a lot of girl power in the air. Everything and everybody displayed such spirit.
Heidi Stober brought a lovely youth and energy to her role as Magnolia, Cap’n Andy’s virginal daughter who falls in love at first sight with a pretty boy river gambler her father hires suddenly to play leading man. They star together on the show boat The Cotton Blossom after meeting in Natchez on the Mississippi in the late 1880s. Stober even plays guitar for real on stage as she sings and learned to play for the role. John Imhoz played the banjo with the orchestra and Glen Deardorff played guitar.
Michele Lynch choreographed and presented many American dances with some vibrant Black performers. Lynch wove in vaudeville, cakewalk, rag, shuffle, the March, the Waltz, Buck and Wing, tap, the Charleston and the Black Bottom. One delight though would be the stolen chicken dance tribute that Stober exited with quickly, a tribute to the film chicken dance of Magnolia with Queenie and Julie.
Julie, the former star of the show, must bow out when she and her husband get accused of miscegenation, mixed race marriage between a White and non-White. Patricia Racette plays Julie with grace, heart and compassion as well as a maternal wisdom and selflessness. Parthy Ann Hawks, Cap’n Andy’s domineering wife and Magnolia’s overbearing and protective mother, brought some heft and volume to the production in the form of comedienne Harriet Harris in her San Francisco Opera debut. She gained infamy as the agent of radio psychiatrist Frasier on NBC. Yup, no need to mic her, nosirree.
Perez, Costello and Kelsey perform on July 5, July 8, July 11, July13.
Tickets at the opera house for this performance run from $68 to $359. Standing room and student rush tickets cost $10 cash at the door the day of the performance.
Visitors at the free ballpark simulcast must register on line. http://sfopera.com/Season-Tickets/Archived/Opera-at-the-Ballpark.aspx. Registration here.
The War Memorial Opera House is at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
Civic Center BART. Bikeable but no bike racks except across Grove at Davies Symphony Hall. Bicyclists locking bikes at a BART station should use two U locks and a bike seat leash. Embarcadero Center offers a Bike Link bike cage.
For more information: SFOpera.com. Tickets call 415 864-3330.