It is said that opera is all about singing. (That’s not true, but they say it anyway.) So how do you understand an opera program in which the conductor is the star and the singers are more or less the accompanists?
The San Francisco Opera staged such a show on Thursday, June 30, at the War Memorial Opera House. The single performance – which joined productions of ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ to make up the company’s slightly shortened summer season – was billed as ‘Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi’, thus emphasizing where he belonged.
Like Esa-Pekka Salonen across the street at the San Francisco Symphony, Kim took over as musical director just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to crush all initial plans. As a result, the exuberant honeymoon period of getting to know you must have gone by in spurts.
So Thursday’s program (which was also streamed live on the company’s website) provided a welcome opportunity to hear Kim in action in this key corner of the operatic repertoire. And even in a relatively small sample – the two-hour program featured excerpts from three Verdi operas – the news was quite encouraging.
In the music for “Luisa Miller”, “Il Trovatore” and “Don Carlo”, Kim created a fast and robust pattern that still left room for tenderness and expressive flexibility. The melodic phrases found room to breathe without taking the performance away from its rhythmic guide rails.
In his oral remarks between selections, general manager Matthew Shilvock made much of the stylistic arc of Verdi’s career, moving from the rather conventional early strains of “Luisa Miller” to the increasingly inventive and reactive emotional lexicon. of “Don Carlo”. But in truth, Kim found a fitting dramatic and musical path through all of these works with equal finesse.
Local audiences will benefit in the coming seasons as Kim plans to present an opera by Verdi every season for the foreseeable future – as well as an annual offering by Wagner, the other great figure in 19th century opera. Thursday’s program, in other words, was tantamount to a promissory note for more expansive pleasures yet to come.
The ongoing proceedings were unfortunately cut short by the last-minute withdrawal of tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz after an inner ear infection prevented him from flying. That left soprano Nicole Car and her husband, baritone Etienne Dupuis — two stars of the company’s “Don Giovanni” — to do most of the vocal assignments.
They did it most seductively in the second half, in a pair of “Don Carlo” tunes. In Rodrigo’s farewell aria, “O Carlo, ascolta,” Dupuis combined remarkable breath control with rich expressive brilliance. Car’s crystalline tone and sustained phrases made Elizabeth’s “Tu che le vanità” a glorious showpiece.
The Opera Chorus, singing beautifully under new director John Keene, brought vigor and strength to the “Anvil Chorus” of “Trovatore”, and the small vocal contributions were handled well by bass Soloman Howard and soprano Mikayla Sager.
Yet perhaps the most eerily memorable segment of the evening was purely orchestral. “Don Carlo” boasts a long, rather useless, almost always omitted ballet sequence, for which Verdi composed a series of magnificent music. We never hear this music, and here Kim and the orchestra at the opera have given it a wonderful degree of tonal muscle and stylistic variety. It was a reminder of the depth of Verdi’s genius and how much there is yet to be discovered here.