San Francisco Opera (SFO), like so many musical organizations, has countered the pandemic closure by showering its audience with online recitals, concerts, lectures and celebrations.
But SFO has done much more: large-scaled live performances. This spring on a sprawling fairgrounds parking lot at the Marin Civic Center, a towering black structure erupted. Fronted by a shallow stage the width and height of its home opera house, divided into two levels, and flanked by enormous LED screens, the set-up has enabled live performances such as the condensed version of Giacomo Rossini’s The Barber of Seville I attended on May 7th. Patrons watch from their own cars, as at a drive-in movie, listening to singers and orchestra on their FM radios.
In delightful parallel to the Rossini performances, this Marin theatrical set up also framed staged concerts featuring emerging artists from the company’s Adler Fellowship Program. These carefully selected singers, whose advanced training often includes supporting roles in main stage productions, are graduates of the competitive SFO Merola Opera Program. Canadian soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh, for example, gained attention and much praise when she took the lead role of Diana in Merola’s 2019 world premiere of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s If I Were You.
Anne-Marie MacIntosh along with fellow Canadian Adler artist, Simone McIntosh, created the highlight of the evening with the “Barcarolle” duet from Les contes d’Hoffmann. MacIntosh’s limpid soprano merged elegantly with McIntosh’s richer, yet still transparent, mezzo-soprano in the plangent rise and fall of this entrancing duet. Huge screens allowed us to see them up close and side-by-side even though they were physically separated on stage by at least 50 feet. The effect, enabled by the production’s pervasive media devices, seemed almost like instant replays at sporting events. Singers now face such scrutiny, sometimes on-stage like this and sometimes in HD broadcasts. Both Canadians came across handsomely.
MacIntosh, who appeared in a sweeping emerald green gown carrying rich orange flowers, gave an intensely dramatic version of “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Her approach seemed a little more verismo than bel canto, especially given the token presence of trills.
McIntosh, also richly attired and moving handsomely in a mulberry gown, displayed her elegant high mezzo with plenty of drama in “Enfin, je suis içi” from Massenet’s Cendrillon. She collaborated with Esther Tonea in a ravishing, stylishly rehearsed offering of the letter duettino “Sull’aria. . . che soave zeffiretto” from Le nozze di Figaro.
Other memorable moments included Elisa Sunshine’s fiery Queen of the Night, Christopher Oglesby and Timothy Murray in the famous Gallipoli duet from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, and, especially, Stefan Egerstrom’s touching “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. At the finale, Anne-Marie MacIntosh took the lead as all joined in the ensemble toast, “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” from Puccini’s La rondine.
Two loyal pianists, Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and Andrew King, lovingly supported the singers throughout an evening that posed demanding conditions for any vocalist. To perform out-of-doors puts up a yellow flag for the voice. Add to that the quite cool, and on this evening, windy climate near the coast in Northern California—not to mention the charming adjacent lagoon spotted with Canada Geese—one must send up gold stars of congratulation.