San Francisco Opera celebrates the launch of its 95th season this coming week with two opening night galas – productions of Puccini’s Turandot and Richard Strauss’s Elektra – followed by the traditional admission-free Opera in the Park on Sunday afternoon.
The first production is Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, starring soprano Martina Serafin as the icy Princess Turandot, and tenor Brian Jagde as Calaf – the prince who would win her heart. In what will be his final season as Company Music Director, Nicola Luisotti leads the cast, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera in this revival of Turandot, designed by British artist David Hockney, and directed by Garnett Bruce. This production is among many international exhibitions being held to mark Hockney’s 80th birthday this year. Painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer, David Hockney is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century.
It was Renato Simoni – librettist, director and theatre critic – who suggested to Puccini that he write a lyric opera based on Friedrich Schiller’s version of the fairytale Turandotte, originally written by the Venetian author Carlo Gozzi in 1762. Puccini was apparently most enthusiastic about the idea, and in 1919, Simoni and librettist Guiseppe Adami – who had already written libretti for Puccini’s La rondine and Il tabarro – started work on the text.
Work on the score for Turandot went slowly – it was five years before Puccini had written most of it – then, tragically, he died in 1924, before he could complete it, and without being able to enjoy the success of one of his most popular and often-performed works. The last duet and finale were written by Italian composer and pianist, Franco Alfano, in 1926. Turandot was premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan on April 25 of that year, but – according to PBS – “The opening night performance omitted the Alfano finale, with Toscanini putting down his baton where Puccini had abandoned the score when he died. Reportedly, Toscanini turned to the audience and said, ‘Here the composer died’.” This production by San Francisco Opera includes Alfano’s last duet and finale.
Set in Peking, this somewhat dark opera tells of the beautiful, but cold-hearted, Princess Turandot who is determined never to be possessed by a man. To ensure that she doesn’t have to marry any of her suitors, she sets them the task of answering three almost impossible riddles – which, until the arrival of Prince Calaf, none of them has successfully done, resulting in their execution. Distraught at the thought of having to marry Calaf, she willingly accepts his challenge of forfeiting his life if she can guess his name before dawn, instructing her subjects not to sleep until his name has been discovered – hence the introduction of the most popular aria in the opera, Nessun dorma (none shall sleep). Thanks to the sacrifice of the slave girl, Liù – who is in love with Calaf, but suffers torture, and ultimately death, rather than reveal his name – Turandot weakens, and Calaf ultimately wins her hand.
This San Francisco Opera production of Turandot is the first of three in which Austrian soprano Martina Serafin will perform this season – the others being with the Metropolitan Opera and Opernhaus Zürich. She made her debut at San Francisco Opera in 2007 as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, a role in which she has also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera and Oper Stuttgart. Among other roles in which Martina Serafina will appear this season are Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, and Tosca – in her fourth appearance in this role at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Tosca is a role for which Ms Serafin is particularly well known, and which she has also sung at Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, Maggio Musicale in Florence, Arena di Verona, La Scala in Milan, Paris Opéra, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Liceu Barcelona, as well as in Melbourne, Beijing and Monte-Carlo.
American tenor Brian Jagde makes a welcome return to the War Memorial Opera House for his debut performance of Calaf, having been part of the ‘family’ since his days as an Adler Fellow in the Merola Opera Program. Brian has previously appeared for San Francisco Opera as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Lt Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, Radamès in Verdi’s Aïda, and has performed with some of the world’s finest companies, to great acclaim. He recently received “one of the greatest ovations of the night” as Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth in Madrid (Gonzalo Alonso – Beckmesser), and sang with “tonal beauty” and “passion” in his role debut as Maurizio in The Royal Opera production of Adriana Lecouvreur – prompting What’sOnStage to comment that his voice “has the potential for him to become one of the great modern tenors”. According to OnlineMerker, he sang Pinkerton at the Teatro Massimo with “unsurpassed musicality”, and The Guardian says: “He has a pliant tone, pinging accuracy, stamina, shading and an astounding ability to make the voice grow throughout a phrase. What a voice … keep your ears on Jagde.”
American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree – in her second-year of a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship – sings the role of Liù, having already proved that she’s more than capable of handling a major role. She stepped in to perform Cio-Cio San during last year’s production of Madama Butterfly with two hours to spare – in what was not only her role debut, but also her first leading role with San Francisco Opera. Her performance was hailed as a triumph. Peninsula Reviews described her “first sparkling tones” as “exquisite”, and according to San Francisco Classical Voice, “she claimed her place among the finest vocal interpreters of the role heard here recently.” In addition to this, Palmertree has thus far also sung for the Company the role of the Priestess in Verdi’s Aida, the Heavenly Voice in his Don Carlo and appeared in Janáček’s Jenůfa and in Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber.
In supporting roles, bass Raymond Aceto is Timur, baritone Joo Won Kang sings the role of Ping, tenor Julius Ahn sings Pang, and tenor Joel Sorensen sings Pong. Bass-baritone Brad Walker is a Mandarin and tenor Robert Brubaker makes his Company debut as Emperor Altoum.
Costumes are by Ian Falconer, and lighting by Gary Marder.
Nicola Luisotti has conducted over 40 operas during his nine seasons as Music Director for the Company. He will step down from this post at the end of the current season, and will be officially honored at the Opera Ball on opening night – but audiences will be delighted to know that he will be appearing as a Guest Conductor for San Francisco Opera in the future.
In this co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Maestro Luisotti leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (director Ian Robertson) in six performances of Turandot, between September 8 and 30 at the War Memorial Opera House. The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website www.sfopera.com.
Turandot returns to the War Memorial Opera House in November for six more performances, in which the cast will be led by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, with Brian Jagde again singing the role of Calaf. American soprano Leah Crocetto will sing Liù, and American bass Soloman Howard makes his Company debut as Timur.