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In Review > North America

Turandot, Elektra 

San Francisco Opera

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Martina Serafin, San Francisco Opera’s Turandot
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

THE TITLE CHARACTER in Turandot doesn’t make her first entrance until Act II, and that’s about how long it took for San Francisco Opera’s fall revival to achieve a full measure of the grandeur and excitement in Puccini’s melodrama. On opening night of the company’s ninety-fifth season, Turandot merely simmered until the appearance of Martina Serafin. As the enigmatic princess with the power to determine life and death, the Austrian soprano conferred icy glamour and vocal authority on this tale of love and sacrifice in ancient China. By the end of the opening-night performance on September 8, conducted by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti with expansive flair and luster, the company’s season had been launched in fine Italianate style.

Turandot has proved to be ideal gala fare for this company in past seasons, especially in David Hockney’s opulent production, co-owned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and revived for SFO this season by stage director Garnett Bruce. Hockney’s China is an attractively integrated blend of stark symbolism and artful refinement defined by vibrant color, looming façades, sleek lines and abundant Orientalist motifs.  Thomas J. Munn’s bold lighting (re-created here by Gary Marder) and Ian Falconer’s lavish costumes—particularly Turandot’s Act II gown and glittering gold headpiece—complete the effect.

Serafin was a regal presence, deploying her large, securely placed instrument with steely force; from her first aria, “In questa reggia,” she simply dominated the stage with power, unerring top notes and a minimum of stage business. Brian Jagde was a muscular if somewhat faceless Calàf. The tenor, who spent much of the evening striking stock poses, rose to a forcefully sung if emotionally bland “Nessun dorma” that scanted a measure of the aria’s impact. Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree exuded pathos as Liù, from her impressive Act I “Signore, ascolta” to her impassioned final act of self-sacrifice. Bass Raymond Aceto was an uncommonly touching Timur, and Joo Won Kang, Julius Ahn and Joel Sorensen achieved a silken blend as Ping, Pang and Pong, particularly in their Act II trio, with Luisotti providing fragrant accompaniment to their tender reminiscences of home. Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Opera Chorus, augmented by members of the San Francisco Girls’ and Boys’ Choruses, sang with power and precision.  

Much of the evening’s success was due to Luisotti. At the start of his tenth and final season as music director with this company, the conductor, who was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal at the end of the evening, led his forces with customary fervency, confidently guiding the opera to its stunning conclusion.

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Adrianne Pieczonka and Christine Goerke, Chrysothemis and Elektra at SFO
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

THIS SEASON'S presentation of Richard Strauss’s Elektra by San Francisco Operathe company’s first since 1997—was eagerly awaited because of Christine Goerke’s first local assumption of the title role. Goerke’s bravura performance exceeded all expectations, but the opening night on September 9 delivered visceral thrills on all counts. A superb supporting cast, a searing orchestral reading led by conductor Henrik Nánási and a brilliant staging by director Keith Warner made this production one of the company’s most enthralling offerings in recent seasons. 

Warner’s Elektra, a coproduction of San Francisco Opera, Prague National Theatre and Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, was directed here by Anja Kühnhold. The staging places the opera in a modern, two-story museum featuring “The Elektra Exhibit.” On designer Boris Kudlička’s excellent set, mannequins, body armor and a large axe representing the House of Atreus were displayed in glass cases. Video screens showed bronzed figures in ritualized movement. As the opera began, a voice announced, “The museum is about to close.” Patrons departed, security gates on the upper floor came down as the music began, and Elektra, seated on a bench downstairs, was suddenly alone. As the performance progressed, additional spaces, subtly illuminated by lighting designer John Bishop, appeared—a bathroom where the bloodied Agamemnon was glimpsed; a boudoir where Chrysothemis first appeared at a vanity table, calmly applying her makeup. The family gathered around a coffin in what resembled a funeral parlor, and Klytämnestra was dispatched in a suburban kitchen.

Goerke, dressed in contemporary black by costume designer Kaspar Glarner, gave a performance of strength, insight and vocal precision, bringing rich tone to her opening monologue and incisive depth to her confrontations with Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra. She drew on apparently bottomless reserves of energy throughout the evening: as Goerke greeted the return of Orest, her rapturous singing was nothing short of sublime. This was a triumphant evening for the soprano, who made every moment register as a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. 

The company surrounded her with a first-rate cast. As Chrysothemis, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka projected her large voice in urgent, crystalline outbursts. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens imbued Klytämnestra with ripe sound and a riveting sense of the character’s volatility. Alfred Walker, in his company debut, was a robust, impressively aristocratic Orest. Robert Brubaker was a clear-voiced, agile and aptly unctuous Aegisth. The maidservants—Jill Grove, Laura Krumm, Nicole Birkland, Sarah Cambidge and Rhoslyn Jones—made insinuating contributions. 

The cast received tremendous support from Nánási. With ninety-five players in the pit, the conductor led a bracing, cohesive performance of Strauss’s score, eliciting rhythmic definition, enveloping sonorities and episodes of startling beauty and elegance throughout. This performance reminded listeners that Elektra can be as sumptuous as it is shocking.  —Georgia Rowe

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