In San Francisco, a week of destination opera

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In San Francisco, a week of destination opera
Inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre, in San Francisco on June 13, 2023. The decision by Westfield, the mall’s property owner, to walk away from the downtown location it has owned for more than 20 years was the latest blow for the city’s shopping district, which has seen high-profile exits like Nordstrom, Old Navy and The RealReal over the past couple of months. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.- For a week this month, San Francisco was the country’s opera capital.

Nowhere else in the United States could you see, as I did, three destination operas — all worth the effort — in four days. I started on Saturday with Richard Strauss’ immense “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” at San Francisco Opera, and continued across the street on Sunday with Kaija Saariaho’s contemporary “Adriana Mater” at the San Francisco Symphony, staged just days after her death at 70.

Then, on Tuesday, came the local premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” — San Francisco Opera’s first Spanish-language work, unveiled last fall in San Diego. (It heads next to Los Angeles, and eventually the Metropolitan Opera.) That was just the latest opening in the company’s often ambitious centennial season, which started with John Adams’ new “Antony and Cleopatra” and continues on Friday with a bash of a celebratory concert.

These weren’t three workaday, repertory-house offerings. (And what city has offered back-to-back operas by women?) Even the Strauss — a problem piece, with a score that calls for over 100 performers onstage and nearly 100 in the pit — was a relative rarity, and hadn’t been staged at San Francisco Opera since 1989.

But the company was visibly invested in doing this opera right, deploying David Hockney’s delirious scenic designs from 1992; bringing back its former music director, Donald Runnicles, a fleet hand with hefty fare like Strauss and Richard Wagner; and hiring a principal cast that included two mighty sopranos, Nina Stemme as Barak’s Wife and Camilla Nyland as the Empress. Musically excellent, it felt like the event it was. Or, rather is: It continues through June 28, with a livestream planned for the 20th.

“Adriana Mater” had a much shorter run, like any concert program at Davies Symphony Hall. (I reviewed the Sunday performance earlier this week.) This semi-staged production reunited director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who collaborated with Saariaho on the premiere of this work at the Paris Opera in 2006.

In its painfully realistic, nuanced treatment of cruelty and the lasting damage of war, “Adriana” is a brutal contrast to the fairy-tale fantasy of “Frau”; it is even a departure from the allegorical romance of Saariaho’s first opera, “L’Amour de Loin.” But performed at the highest level (and thankfully recorded) — with absolute commitment and skill at the podium, and rich characterization throughout the cast — it was a touching memorial to Saariaho, a testament to her singular, sure to be missed, voice in classical music.

Saariaho’s sound world was all the more distinct, and freshly modern, sandwiched between Strauss and “Último Sueño” — a smartly crafted and accomplished, if comparatively traditional, opera debut for Frank. (It continues through June 30 and, like “Frau,” will be livestreamed, on the 22nd.)

Frank’s partnership with Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, has been fruitful in the concert hall, but this is their first opera. As a team, though, they are naturals: his libretto poetically concise, her setting of it flowingly dramatic, with generous, singer-friendly melodies and an ear for the musicality of language on the level of syllables and words.

Their subject is extremely familiar — the love of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera — but the treatment is less biographical and more mythic. This is a work that deals in the broad strokes of opera, and seems to tip its hat to the earliest known story in the art form: Orpheus and Eurydice. But here, instead of the hero traveling to the underworld to retrieve a lost love, the protagonist journeys to the land of the living. In both cases, though, a creative spirit is required to cross borders, and there are dire consequences for any missteps.

In approaching his characters this way, Cruz avoids the pitfalls of retreading the well-known ups and downs of Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship. Instead, they are treated as archetypes, for the better. And rather than tell a life story — which in opera tends to result in episodic, undramatic works — Cruz hews to classical unities, with a focused plot that unfolds on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Diego — baritone Alfredo Daza, a quiet and low-lying presence that grew as the night unfolded — begs Frida to return to him three years after her death. But Frida (the often affectingly aching mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack), in the Aztec underworld, doesn’t want to revisit the place of her emotional and physical agony. In the end, she is persuaded by a fellow artist, a young actor named Leonardo, sung with creamy richness by countertenor Jake Ingbar.

She is lured by the hope of going back for her art, rather than for Diego — whom she cannot touch, she is warned by the Keeper of the Dead, Catrina (soprano Yaritza Véliz, the work’s comic and musical highlight), or she will be newly barraged with memories of pain. Of course she touches him, in a reconciliatory embrace, but she is once again saved by painting. And, as the Day of the Dead comes to an end, he pleads to the gods to let him join her in the underworld, where they remain together forever.

Frank’s score, like the libretto, mostly avoids obvious choices, with only flashes of traditional Mexican music. But the production, by Lorena Maza, is sensitively specific to place, supported by Jorge Ballina’s scenic design and Eloise Kazan’s costumes, on a stage set up like a terraced cemetery decorated for the Day of the Dead. The action takes place within a gilded frame that surrounds the proscenium; focusing things even further are shutter-like panels colored with a rich blue redolent of Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul.

In the first act, the Underworld is differentiated by a nearly monochromatic palette of reds, oranges and yellows echoed in the cemetery flowers. And in the second act, images from Kahlo and Rivera’s painting are smoothly integrated with the staging: folk iconography, her self-portraiture and his murals, particularly his 1947 work “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park.”

References like those — and a digression about the couple’s politics — are oddly literal for a nearly metaphorical story about art and mortality. And they conflict with Frank’s score, which belongs more to her own sound world than any Mexican idiom. If anything, her music here recalls Puccini. The opera begins with a crash and nearly immediate drama, like “La Bohème” and “Tosca,” and the chorus chatters like the commentating observers of “Turandot.”

I make that comparison largely as a compliment: Frank demonstrates here that she knows fundamentally how opera works. The first act is stronger than the wandering, sagging second, but her orchestra integrates with singers rather than accompanies them; her arias sit well in the voice, with melodies that match the dramaturgy; and the finale is recursive, neatly packaging the action’s 24 hours.

In a program note, Frank expressed interest in writing more opera. I hope she and Cruz do. And it seems like San Francisco would be just the place to perform it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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