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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

OPERA IN THE PARK - Holiday Fireworks

By Seán Martinfield

July 4, 2006

Last Saturday afternoon music-loving sun worshippers gathered at Dolores Park to pay homage to three of The City's brightest Divas appearing at this Summer Season of the San Francisco Opera. Led by Conductor Donald Runnicles and supported by the fabulous Opera orchestra, sopranos Ruth Ann Swenson and Twyla Robinson and mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick treated the crowd to a variety of arias which exploited their goddess-like vocal chops and filled the open grassy amphitheatre with love, light and mesmerizing charm. The crowd went wild with cheers, beers and tears. Beaming alongside as Host and Master of Ceremonies, newly appointed General Director David Gockley (shaded by his lucky baseball cap) promised the benefactors, veteran ticket holders, opera buffs and buffed opera queens, along with all the Newly Converted yelling "more, more!" that the San Francisco Opera would get back on track with guaranteed crowd pleasers, international celebrities, and - with the announcement of the winning ticket holder - dinner with him and a diva (maybe a divo?).

It was another first for Mr. Gockley and for San Francisco. Fast in the fast lane with his glamorous success of the Opening Night simulcast at Civic Center Plaza [see article, "San Francisco Opera - Opening Spectacular"] including usage of the "curvilinear array" of MILO speakers (suspended from cranes) providing clear stereophonic separation for everyone, the choice of a Saturday afternoon at Dolores Park proved a most welcome alternative to the traditional Sunday afternoons in Golden Gate Park. Dolores Park is a short and easy walk to BART and is criss-crossed in every direction by nearby MUNI lines. The weather is always better in this palm-lined oasis of the Castro District, there are wonderful cafés and coffee houses nearby and even a couple of Laundromats if you need to multi-task between cadenzas. Earlier that morning up the street at Mission Dolores, local historians joined bus loads of tourists and the persevering faithful to commemorate San Francisco's 230th Birthday - the first occurring 5 days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence - and defined by the mission being The City's first public building (albeit a brushwood shelter erected on the shore of a now swallowed-up lake, the Lago de los Dolores) and dedicated with the celebration of a Mass. En masse this day at Dolores Park - nearly 10,000 celebrants raised their cups and spirits to the dazzling fireworks springing-up from the human voice.

Dolora Zajick, the "Joan of Arc" in this season's MAID OF ORLEANS [see review, June 12, 2006] has been proclaimed as the leading dramatic mezzo soprano of our time. She can stand side by side with Marilyn Horne, both women carrying the power and blast of a Sherman Tank. Similarly, both singers endear themselves to us with sweet vulnerability and fiery passion, impishness and regality. Ms. Zajick shows her smarts by exercising her options when selecting the text. In her final selection, Leonora's aria, "O mon Fernand", from Donizetti's challenging "La Favorite", she chose the original French as opposed to the later and now more commonly heard Italian libretto. Some material for some singers just sits better in the voice when performed in another language - a common practice in the world of opera. For Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, his lusty Spanish heroine, "Leonora" - mistress to King Alfonso, conqueror of the Moors - needed the sophistication and delicacy of the French tongue. Probing a bit deeper, the singer discovers it is the subtle differences in the placement of the vowels, especially on the high notes, that allow her equipment and technique to rouse the listener (or, in this case, to sustain the Royal interest) - or simply choose another piece. Ms. Zajick's top register rivals that of her fellow sopranos. In fact, during the final moments of an "anything you can sing, I can sing higher" duet/encore by Swenson and Robinson, "Musetta's Waltz Song", Ms. Zajick approached the stage, gave a high-sign to the audience, muscled her way between the two who gestured back with an "OK, it's yours" and then blasted out a sustained High B as bright and welcoming and secure as Liberty's torch. It was candy all around. Treat yourself to her CD, "Dolora Zajick - The Art of the Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano".

Twyla Robinson, this season's "Countess" on the "Cast B" roster of Mozart's THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO proved herself a formidable concert recitalist and extremely savvy Diva. On top of that, with haunting eyes ("the color of tears" as she would later proclaim in an aria by Menotti), bright auburn hair, and a set of cheek bones possessed by many of the world's leading sopranos, she is also majestically beautiful. Two of her selections were incredibly appropriate to the Holiday Weekend. Sung in the original Czech, her "Song to the Moon" (from Dvorák's, RUSALKA) was among the material American Black Soprano Marian Anderson included in her 1939 Washington, DC performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Because of Ms. Anderson's race, the Daughters of the American Revolution had banned the famed soprano from singing at Constitution Hall. In protest, thousands of well-established members including the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization. However, being under the management of famed impresario and talent agent Sol Hurok, he and Mrs. Roosevelt along with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for Ms. Anderson's outdoor concert which was then broadcast nationwide. For us in the free open air of Dolores Park, Twyla Robinson's piercingly beautiful voice - itself a Discovery - was launched toward the silvery half-moon gliding across the afternoon sky. "Silver moon upon the deep dark sky / Through the vast night pierce your rays. / This sleeping world you wander by, / Smiling on men's homes and ways."

Following Intermission, Twyla Robinson again stirred the political blood with "Magda's" aria, "To this we've come" from Gian-Carlo Menotti's 1950 opera, THE CONSUL. Arriving early for the rehearsal, I was astounded that she held nothing back during a complete run-through of this aria so filled with angst and colored by frustration. Addressing a governmental secretary (and throughout the meatier parts of a typical dramatic soprano's range, i.e., 1st-space F to High A-flat) Magda furiously admonishes with, "Tell me, Secretary, tell me, who are these men? If to them, not to God, we now must pray, tell me, Secretary. Who are these dark archangels? Will they by conquered? Will they be doomed? Is there one - any one behind those doors to whom the heart can still be explained? Is there one - any one who still may care?" Come the actual concert presentation, Ms. Robinson's voice was fresh, sparkling, and formidable. It seemed we were all taken by surprise by the beauty of the composition, and the striking poignancy and powerful currency (or "capital") of its text. The composer will observe his 95th birthday on July 7th. With Twyla Robinson at the helm, he is assured that his works will not fall into obscurity.

Sadly, our dazzling "Madama Butterfly", Soprano Patricia Racette ("La Fantastique"), was not on the bill due to illness. If it has anything to do with this year's pollen counts and the paralyzing and clogging effects it has exacted upon the vocal cords and sinuses, she has my heartfelt sympathy. But, the door was opened for an appearance by new-comer and current Adler Fellow, soprano Rhoslyn Jones. She participated with Dolora Zajick in the "Veil Song", another Olympian challenger, this one from Verdi's DON CARLO. No doubt, Ms. Jones will be a "returning diva" some years hence, having just picked up a few tips from the Masters - such as Dolora being on stage left and then lifting the veil to her beaming face while tantalizing the audience by spinning her fine coloratura through the gossamer threads. A-ha!

Following the last-minute rescheduling of Melody Moore as "The Countess" in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO [see review, "Wife #3"] I also attended Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson's (Cast "A") performance the following week. Very different. Ms. Swenson has enjoyed a respectable career and has certainly built a large contingent of loyal admirers. Given the fact that she would be facing another 3 ½ - hour "Figaro" again the following afternoon, it is totally understandable that she may have been pampering her vocal cords with the one aria, "Addio senza rancor" from LA BOHEME and the closing song, "Over the Rainbow" from THE WIZARD OF OZ. Nevertheless, the mature and lovely and still very perky Ms. Swenson was surrounded in magic all afternoon. Streams of hand-blown bubbles floated by her during "someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me." And at the end, with an eye towards the fog beginning to roll over Twin Peaks and during the lyrical question of "if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can't I" - a pair of vagrant street pigeons decided to land above and behind her on the canvas tent protecting the orchestra and then darted off during her final high-note. Well, folks, even Ms. Swenson would have to agree that such timing is so typically San Francisco.

To repeat Mr. Gockley's announcement about the forthcoming Opera Season of 2006-07: "Individual tickets go on sale Monday at 10 AM."

Tickets available at: http://www.sfopera.com/tickets.asp

Box Office: (415) 864-3330




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