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Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Tosca and Cyrano de Bergerac, Themes of Evolution

Posted By on Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 2:26 PM

Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac)
Puccini's Tosca at SF Parlor Opera

Remaining shows: November 13, 18, and 20.

Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at SF Opera

@War Memorial Opera House; Saturday, Nov. 6

On one hand, a small troupe of local singers performs an iconic opera in the basement and garden of a private home. On the other, the most revered singer on Earth takes the stage at one of the country's best opera houses in a work charitably classified as a "hidden gem." On the face of it, SF Parlor Opera's Tosca and SF Opera's Cyrano de Bergerac have nothing in common, outside of genre. But after seeing both performances within 24 hours, a unifying theme is clear: evolution.

In its two-and-a-half-year existence, SF Parlor Opera has taken on some formidable artistic challenges -- The Marriage of Figaro, Thais, and this spring's Don Giovanni, for example -- for a company with a minuscule budget and a DIY ethos. It's a paradigm-shifting experience to see grand opera two feet away from the singers in someone's backyard. But to keep audiences coming back (versus providing a diverting one-off experience) it's essential for the company to not just keep doing the same thing well, but to deepen and enrich its artistic efforts.

Friday's opening performance of Tosca did just that. Under the direction of Tony Daussat, the cast achieved new levels of dramatic conviction, and the production's staging and overall aesthetic was the company's most effective and sophisticated to date. The work takes well to a futuristic-dystopia setting, and Daussat established this milieu without belaboring the point, leaving the singers and Tosca's tight drama unfettered by gimmickry (if liberally splashed with fake blood).

Parlor Opera regulars should know by now that soprano Patricia Urbano is the real deal, and the title role was an ideal showcase for her rich, powerful vocals and feisty acting. Her rendition of the aria "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" in the rollicking second act shook 1652 Hayes from the foundation up. Newcomer Alex Taite brought a reverberant tenor voice and convincing dramatic chops to the role of Cavaradossi, Tosca's politically beleagued lover, and bass-baritone Cole Grissom was perfectly at home as the scumbag Scarpia. Kurt Krikorian, Steven Hoffmann, Gustavo Hernandez, and eight-year-old Jack O'Neill ably rounded out the cast; musical director Steven Bailey gallantly battled mischievous cross-breezes to keep the piano accompaniment rolling; and Arnold Levinson kept the audience informed (and sometimes in stitches) with his puckish pre-scene narration.

How different was the next afternoon's performance of Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at SF Opera? It starred Placido Domingo, and maybe twelve people in the audience could legitimately claim to be familiar with the work.

While the story of the titular poet/swordsman/plastic-surgery poster child has become a cultural archetype (we have the original, immensely popular 1897 play to thank for the 1996 cinematic masterpiece The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and for any number of reinterpretations along the way) the opera's not on many people's bucket lists -- and SF Opera seemed to have felt the same way until this season, when it presented Franco Alfano's 1926 work for the first time. 

Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Stephen Powell (De Guiche) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac) and Stephen Powell (De Guiche)
​Not to take anything away from this perfectly serviceable opera, but if Domingo were to sing the list of donor names in the back of the playbill, the house likely would have been just as full as it was Saturday. Skeptics, rest assured: the 69-year-old discharges the role with passion, wit, and some slick swordfighting moves. If anything, his age works to his advantage, reinforcing the contrast between him and Roxane's stud-muffin beloved. And it redounds to his credit that an artist of his age and stature, who also divides his time among conducting, performing, running an opera company, and fundraising, is still willing to add new roles to his repertoire.

It's just that the role itself, in terms of its vocal payoff, isn't all that thrilling. Cyrano's an appealing hero, but you don't need to be the world's most accomplished tenor to sing the part. The vocal fireworks largely fell to soprano Ainhoa Arteta as Roxane, and she was equal to the task. The curtain call was telling -- Domingo got his due from the audience, but the applause for Arteta was markedly more energetic.

Ragueneau's Bakery - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Ragueneau's Bakery
The large cast also featured fine contributions from baritones Steven Powell and Lester Lynch as De Guiche and Carbon, respectively, and tenor Thiago Arancam as Christian. Director Petrika Ionesco's sets were the only dissonant element; though the staging calmed down by the end, the sets for the first two acts ranged from cluttered to bizarre -- while portraying Cyrano as the "director" of the love affair between Roxane and Christian is an interesting take, aren't there less obnoxious ways to handle it than wheeling out huge silver-hooded lighting apparati at key moments? The effect was about as nuanced as having someone yell "... aaaand CUT!" when Christian expires.

If you're able to score tickets to the remaining performance, sure, go see the old master at work. But temper your expectations by remembering that evolving as an artist -- as Domingo certainly continues to do -- sometimes means knowing when and how to gracefully scale back.

The final performance of Cyrano de Bergerac is Nov. 12 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. Sung in French, with English supertitles. Tickets are only available to season subscribers, but standing-room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of each performance. $10, cash only. For more information, call 864-3330 or visit

San Francisco Parlor Opera's performances of Tosca are Nov. 13, 18, and 20 at 1652 Hayes. Sung in Italian, with pre-scene narration in English. Tickets are $55, or $25 with student ID. For more information, visit

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Emily Hilligoss


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