Afloat Once More on San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat…and in Its Wake, ‘Sweeney Todd’

I just had one of the best opera experiences of my life, attending San Francisco Opera’s terrific production of The Trojans, with its gorgeous music by Hector Berlioz, monumental sets and some of the best singers performing today. (While the run for both The Trojans and Two Women has ended, this summer’s third production, The Marriage of Figaro, has one last performance on Sunday afternoon.) It made my summer, but more on all that soon.

Last summer, the opera-going highlight for me was something entirely different: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein‘s Show Boat. That production was filmed and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, so you have a chance to see and enjoy what I did.

Some regular opera goers, of course, were disappointed to find this musical on the short summer lineup. I certainly understand the lack of appeal of many typical Broadway musicals, with their often generic, bombastic, less than nuanced, over-miked voices. But as SFO’s delightful Porgy and Bess, which I saw in 2009, and Show Boat prove, a well-done production, with vibrant sets and costumes, good dancing, engaging acting, a top-tier orchestra (guest conductor John DeMain led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for both Porgy and Bess and Show Boat), and singers with fine operatic voices, can be absolutely exhilarating. Think of Ezio Pinza on the cast album of South Pacific. Some enchanted evening, indeed!

Thus: Show Boat. Soprano Heidi Stober, who played Magnolia, daughter of the riverboat’s Cap’n Andy, had performed here not long before in The Magic Flute and Falstaff. Star soprano Patricia Racette sang Julie, the showboat’s leading lady, who passes for white until her mixed parentage is revealed, in the same SFO summer season in which she was Madama Butterfly. Bass Morris Robinson offered a show-stopping “Ol’ Man River,” and personally, I can’t wait to see baritone Michael Todd Simpson, who made his local debut as Gaylord Ravenal, the charming gambler who marries Magnolia, again.

A cool thing about this production, though, is that Broadway actors were cast as well. Who wouldn’t want to see the great physical actor Bill Irwin as Cap’n Andy? His hilarious one-man depiction of a fistfight is a showstopper in itself. (Speaking of versatility, Irwin won a Tony in 2005 for playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf!). The Broadway vets include Kirsten Wyatt (the lead in Sweet Charity, Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls), John Bolton (Spamalot, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, TV’s Gossip Girls), and Harriet Harris (On the Town, Tony winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie, the indelible Bebe Glazer on TV’s Frasier). James Asher, in a small role as the manager of the seedy Chicago cabaret in which Magnolia finds work after the dead-broke Ravenal leaves her, has acted in plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Laramie Project.

That’s a lot of names and credits. My point is that the variety of actors and voices and styles adds another level of interest and enjoyment to this show. Which must lead to a shout-out for Tod Nixon, Show Boat‘s sound designer. Unlike musical theater performers, opera singers don’t use mikes; Nixon came up with a way of placing area microphones so that the sound was consistent and clear, without that somewhat tinny, vibrating quality that microphones bring.

Premiering in 1927, Show Boat is considered the first great American musical. In 1982, Houston Grand Opera, then led by San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, with John DeMain as its music director and principal conductor, created an “historic” production that restored much of Kern and Hammerstein’s original score and dialogue. We saw this production of Show Boat thanks to Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Washington National Opera, as well as SFO.

In his program notes, Gockley reminded us that Show Boat is “steeped in the musical language and plot issues of our native culture” and said that it could open the door at SFO to “operatic musicals” such as Carousel and Sweeney Todd. It did! Gockley’s final season with San Francisco’s great opera company opens in September with Verdi’s Luisa Miller, followed immediately by Stephen Sondheim’s delicious Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Yay!

July 5, The Marriage of Figaro; September 11, Luisa Miller opening night; September 12, Sweeney Todd opening night, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.861.4008, sfopera.com.

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