Mixtape 3

Your Curated Playlist — Historic Firsts and Lasts

Feeling a little wistful for times past? Let us lighten your nostalgia blues with an opera-backed stroll down memory lane.

Revisit memorable moments and notable performances with this week's Historic Firsts & Lasts mixtape. Close your eyes, let your mind wander, and hit play.

Still dreaming of Manon

Company founder Gaetano Merola’s earliest seasons customarily featured a lineup of the great Italian works, but now and then he also liked to add a touch of French style. During the Company’s second season, in 1924, Jules Massenet’s Manon was an immediate favorite thanks, in large part, to tenor Tito Schipa portraying the hero, Chevalier des Grieux. Schipa’s Act II dream aria,“ Le Rêve,” was greeted with such tumultuous and sustained applause that he repeated it on the spot — the Company’s first encore!

Almost 90 years later, Manon still gets hearts thumping. In our most recent performance, in 2017, soprano Ellie Dehn and tenor Michael Fabiano captured the seductive power of Massenet’s romantic score in their role debuts as Manon and Des Grieux, the opera’s ill-fated lovers. Here, Fabiano’s Des Grieux sings “Le Rêve,” recounting the tender vision he has of a future with Manon. Things don’t quite work out as planned in the opera, but we can still dream, can’t we?


Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s final bow with San Francisco Opera

Dmitri Hvorostovsky was one of opera’s most commanding performers. He thrilled a generation of San Francisco Opera goers from 1996 to 2009 with his astonishing breath control, impeccable legato, and charismatic swagger in works by Rossini, Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov, and, most of all, Verdi. He was taken too soon by cancer in 2017, but the memory of his passion and artistry lives on for all who witnessed him on the stage.

San Francisco’s last glimpse of Hvorostovsky was as the Count di Luna in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, one of his greatest roles. Fabled tenor Enrico Caruso once quipped that staging this opera — with its admittedly convoluted plot and succession of magnificent musical scenes — is easy so long as you have the four greatest singers in the world to sing it. That’s no mean feat, of course, but San Francisco Opera came pretty close in 2009 with Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky, Marco Berti, and Stephanie Blythe.


A mammoth American first: Les Troyens by the Bay

Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens is epic in every conceivable way. Sometimes performed over two nights, the massive, two-part work reimagines one of history’s great conflicts as an ambitious stage work tracing the fall of Troy to the origins of Rome. Its depiction of the horrors of war and the rapture of love — combined with multiple ballets and a huge cast of Greeks, Trojans, and Carthaginians — make Les Troyens one of opera’s most uniquely immersive and rewarding experiences.

San Francisco Opera gave the American professional stage premiere of Les Troyens in 1966, with the French diva Régine Crespin starring in the two leading female roles: Cassandra and Didon. Almost five decades later, the Company revisited this French masterpiece with a new production by David McVicar and conducted by Donald Runnicles. As the opera encompasses nearly five hours of music, this epic, eight-minute highlight reel only scratches the surface, but it will be enough to have you chanting, “Italie! Italie!”


It all started with The Barber of Seville

Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) is fundamental to the origin story of opera in America. Like a promethean flame brought down from Olympus, the opera arrived on this nation’s shores in 1825 as the first example of top-notch European opera, thanks to performances by Spanish tenor Manuel García and his hyper-talented family of singers. After nearly two centuries, the work’s wit, humor, and lyrical brilliance continue to sparkle and, in fact, are still winning over newcomers.

Barber also has one of the most recognizable entrance arias in all of opera. “Largo al factotum” introduces Figaro, the opera’s title character and canny jack of all trades. In this performance, baritone Lucas Meachem, one of San Francisco Opera’s greatest “barbers,” confidently enumerates Figaro’s many talents with rapid-fire, tongue-twisting virtuosity.


Long live Sondra Radvanovsky’s queen in Roberto Devereux

Sondra Radvanovsky has been a favorite with San Francisco Opera audiences since her 2009 Company debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore. In 2014, she returned with her world-renowned portrayal of the title character in Bellini’s Norma, followed by another star turn as Elisabetta (Elizabeth I, Queen of England) in 2018’s Roberto Devereux. The already-electric atmosphere inside the opera house intensified between shows as word spread about Radvanovsky’s authoritative portrayal of the British monarch. After the run, the soprano announced she would be retiring the role from her repertory. We hope you were there for those thrilling performances!

In the opera’s last scene, the world-weary Queen Elizabeth reflects on fateful decisions made during her rule, especially the sacrifice of putting country and duty before her own happiness. Her seven-minute tour-de-force calls upon every resource in the bel canto arsenal.


First nights and first loves: La Bohème inaugurates San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera burst onto the scene in 1923 with one of the past century’s most popular operas, La Bohème. The inaugural opening night boasted the international star power of Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli as Rodolfo, but the real hero was Puccini’s immortal score. Painting with broad orchestral brushstrokes and the intimate musical detailing of an old master, Puccini transports audiences through the gamut of emotions, from love to loss, in this tale of bohemian Paris.

But while its story centers on romance, La Bohème is also about friendship through good and hard times. Here, roommates Rodolfo and Marcello, performed by Arturo Chacón-Cruz and Audun Iversen, get wistful singing about their ex-girlfriends in the duet “O Mimì, tu più non torni.”

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