News Column

Discs offer previews of S.F. Opera's fall season

August 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 23--Like last year's schedule, the San Francisco Opera's fall lineup comprises a mere five operas, one commissioned world premiere alongside multiple performances of standard-rep works that testify to the company's still-tightened purse strings. Among the latter are works by Wagner and Verdi to mark the composers' shared bicentennial (though nothing, alas, for the Britten centennial).

As always, of course, even the most familiar works are new to some listeners, and a little advance acquaintance with the music tends to enhance the theatrical experience. Here, then, is our annual guide to the fall's operas on CD and DVD; all of these releases should be readily available online or through local retailers.

Mefistofele: The season opens Sept. 6 with a revival of Arrigo Boito's expansive treatment of Goethe's "Faust," in the ornate Robert Carsen production that has been done here twice before. There are a handful of choices for a recorded introduction to this opera, the best of which is the recording led by Julius Rudel (EMI Classics). It features Norman Triegle in the title role, alongside splendid performances by Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballe.

A good fallback is the set conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis (Decca), with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role alongside Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Caballe again. Samuel Ramey, who sang the title role here memorably, does so again on CD, but that set (Sony Classical) is hampered by the work of conductor Giuseppe Patane and soprano Eva Marton. Video aficionados will also get a rare chance to witness more or less exactly what's on tap, since the 1989 San Francisco production, featuring Ramey and Gabriela Benackova, is available on DVD (Kultur).

Dolores Claiborne: This new adaptation of the Stephen King novel by composer Tobias Picker and librettist J. D. McClatchy has its world premiere Sept. 18, so we'll all encounter the music together for the first time. In the interim, though, both King's compulsively readable book and director Taylor Hackford's fine 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh make a splendid joint introduction to the material.

Additionally, two of Picker's earlier operas are available on CD: "Emmeline" from the Santa Fe Opera, with Patricia Racette in the title role (Albany), and "Ther se Raquin," based on the Zola novel, with Diana Soviero in the title role (Chandos).

Falstaff: Verdi's brilliant final opera (opening Oct. 8) is amply represented on disc. My preference is still the classic 1956 recording led by Herbert von Karajan, with Tito Gobbi in the title role (EMI Classics). Gobbi's wonderful performance -- robust, hilarious and beautifully sung -- is accompanied by fine contributions from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Anna Moffo, Rolando Panerai and Fedora Barbieri.

Alternatively, Bryn Terfel, who will sing the title role here, has made a splendid recording (Deutsche Grammophon) under the baton of Claudio Abbado, with a good cast that includes Adrianne Pieczonka, Thomas Hampson and Larissa Diadkova. Among several good choices on DVD, I'm partial to the Covent Garden production headed by Renato Bruson and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (Kultur), as well as -- if you can find it -- the Vienna production starring Gabriel Bacquier (Deutsche Grammophon).

The Flying Dutchman: The best recording of Wagner's tale of love and redemption (opening Oct. 22) remains the 1985 recording from the Bayreuth Festival with Simon Estes in the title role and Woldemar Nelsson conducting (Philips). It's out of print, but worth trying to rustle up a copy.

Failing that, either Otto Klemperer's 1968 recording (EMI Classics) -- with Theo Adam as the Dutchman and Anja Silja as Senta -- or Sir Georg Solti's recording with Norman Bailey and Janis Martin (Decca) make a good second choice. A 1989 performance from Finland's Savonlinna Opera Festival, featuring Franz Grundheber and Hildegard Behrens, is one of the few options on DVD (Kultur).

The Barber of Seville: The fall season concludes with two alternating casts of Rossini's perennial comedy (opening Nov. 13 and 14). Among the many choices here, the standout is the 1957 La Scala recording, an effusive and charming account with Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Luigi Alva (EMI Classics).

A good alternative is Claudio Abbado's 1971 recording, with Teresa Berganza, Hermann Prey and Luigi Alva heading a fine cast; the same singers and conductor are seen in a DVD from La Scala (both Deutsche Grammophon). {sbox}

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: jkosman@sfchronicle.com

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