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San Francisco Returns to Gilded Past

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The War Memorial Opera House has never really been thought of as one of the world’s most splendid opera houses. It has a certain traditional grandness, but in a stolid WPA sort of way. It is acoustically undistinguished. Still, it is something not very common in America--a genuine old-fashioned opera house as home to a major opera company. And San Franciscans, who are opera mad, love it.

Now, San Franciscans love it even more, because it is new again. After 18 months of work and $86.5 million spent, the house reopened with a gala Friday night, celebrating both the renovation of the 65-year-old theater and the fact that this is the 75th anniversary of San Francisco Opera.

The renovation was motivated by the need to repair damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and by the fact that the backstage facilities and wiring of the house were antiquated. But it also seems motivated by an irrepressible nostalgia. Instead of giving the house a new visual life for the next century, the company took unusual pains to restore it exactly as it had been when it opened in 1932. For instance, a scan of material from the tattered curtain was entered into a computerized loom, which whirred for two solid months in New Jersey weaving an exact replica of the original pattern out of new silk.

The chandelier and ceiling were cleaned for the first time--no one even knew that there were clouds on the painted blue ceiling until six decades of grime was removed, and the lighting has been made seven times stronger to proudly present it. All that light, and new gold leaf applied to the proscenium arch and the boxes, gives the house a luminous glow.

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The real modernization, however, is not for show--new backstage facilities and, of course, earthquake retrofitting. But the audience is supposed to get better air-conditioning, although it wasn’t all that helpful on this warm evening. There are also handsome new seats in the orchestra, but they ultimately proved as cramped as ever for taller men or women in voluminous gowns. Long Wagner nights will remain the problem they have always been in this house.

Nevertheless, a return to the past--the great old European opera houses are hot and cramped too--seemed exactly what old-fashioned San Francisco society wanted. It turned out in force Friday, paying as much as $5,000 a ticket for the occasion, including a fancy ball. San Francisco’s clotheshorse mayor, Willie Brown, has been agitating for the return of white-tie pomp for the opera, and this crowd seemed happy to oblige. There was one fellow in a formal fishnet-and-safety-pin outfit, with his hair in orange spikes, but it wasn’t exactly that kind of San Francisco Opera night.

It wasn’t that kind of operatic night either. Derek Jacobi was on hand as the high-toned if irrelevant master of ceremonies. Beverly Sills was, at least, funnier and more relevant as the host.

The best the gala had to offer was a look at some of the first-rate singers who had come out of the ranks of the company’s important training program or whose careers were significantly fostered by the company.

The most impressive was Deborah Voigt, who brought a sterling tone and security to “Dich, teure Halle,” (“Beloved hall, I greet you once more”) from Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” as an appropriate opener. She also returned to sing the end of the first act of “Die Walkure” with Placido Domingo, for the most substantial musical excerpt of the evening.

The company can also be proud to have produced the likes of soprano Patricia Racette, who sang excerpts from the first act of “La Boheme” with a tired-sounding Jerry Hadley; Ruth Ann Swenson, who couldn’t have sounded prettier in all the fussy ornament conductor Richard Bonynge gave her for “Qui la voce” from Bellini’s “I Puritani”; and the up-and-coming young soprano Janet Williams, who sounded marvelously alert in “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.”

There were few genuine star turns from stars, however, and certainly nothing to compare with the kind of vocal glamour the Metropolitan Opera was able to muster for its James Levine gala two seasons ago. Samuel Ramey (who had canceled his appearances in “Boris Godunov” in Salzburg last month) was on hand for Boris’ monologue from Mussorgsky’s opera, but with less than his usual power. Marilyn Horne is no longer the Dalila she once was in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila,” although Michael Tilson Thomas made a surprise appearance in the pit to accompany her with silken suaveness.

The one other surprise was Frederica von Stade, dressed in tails and bustier, singing an oddly alluring “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen” as if it were a suburban cocktail party seduction song.

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Otherwise the evening was more dead than alive. There were scripted appearances by Joan Sutherland and Leonie Rysanek. Carol Vaness and James Morris, neither in inspired form, warmed up for their appearances in “Tosca” the next night. Uncharacteristically listless, as well, was much of the conducting by music director Donald Runnicles, although the orchestra has new presence thanks to a refashioned pit.

Domingo, however, was the evening’s unstoppable train. Having rushed up from Los Angeles--he had, after all, a free night between his singing in “Fedora” and conducting “La Boheme” --he was not content merely to provide the best singing of the evening. He also brought the most propulsion from the pit when he accompanied the solid tenor Richard Margison and the solid baritone Paolo Gavanelli in a duet from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”

Most curious of all was the finale. A tribute to promising young singers in the company’s training program was commissioned from composer and company publicist Jake Heggie, who offered a cute Broadway-style skit about the trials of trying to become an opera singer. It was the only music heard all evening that was written after the house was built, the only faint recognition of the times we live in.

Certainly there was no mention of the sad day, during which both Georg Solti and Mother Teresa had died, to say nothing of Princess Diana’s funeral, which began while the partying was still in full swing. Nothing was allowed to intrude on the notion that opera could be anything other than a celebration of a provincial pricey entertainment for canary fanciers. Cake and champagne were in plenteous supply afterward in the lobby for all who attended. And sushi, as well, lest we completely think the clock had been turned back to Marie Antoinette’s time.

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