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S.F. OPERA OFFERS SMASHING MUSICAL CHARM

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It's always a great getaway, as many Utahns know, to go to San Francisco and warm up for a few days in the more amiable weather, hear opera "often as good as the Met," and enjoy the ambience of a big opera house in full swing.

The San Francisco Opera season is winding down now; indeed, it concludes with this weekend's performances. And eschewing the newsworthy draw of such pieces as "The Dangerous Liaisons" and Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel," I settled for a cozy interlude, tucked in right after Thanksgiving, offering three tried-and-true operas - no surprises, just good solid entertainment and musical values.The opera that took me to San Francisco was Boito's "Mefistofele" in the often spectacular staging by designer Michael Levine and director Peter McClintock, starring Samuel Ramey in one of his definitive depictions of the devil. (It's available nowadays on video as well.) This is indeed a smashing piece of musical theater, whose charms few opera fans could resist.

"Mefistofele" has been written off by some intelligentsia as a sort of reverse sandwich, with slices of meat (the wondrous choral apotheosis) at beginning and end, and a mishmash between. I think far more highly of it than that; though in truth, it sometimes reminds you of Offenbach, since this setting of the Faust legend doesn't take itself too seriously (save for the Marguerite episode), and there is an accent on sprightliness, even comedy.

SFO's staging was bawdy at times, with real and simulated nudity in the excessive Easter morning celebration and in the Walpurgis Night. But that's defensible in the general tone of the work. And a wonderfully silly Witches' Sabbath it was, with zany choristers in pointed hats, clad in black garterbelts, corselets and such, who drew their chairs near to Mefistopheles to "oh" and "ah" about his pronouncements.

Ramey had his tongue in cheek to play this delightful devil. Though he didn't have even one first-rate aria, he was always in charge, dramatically and vocally, sometimes as a team player, again shrilly whistling his villainous defiance. The athletic Ramey rambled up and down ladders comfortably, he sang up to glitzy reputation and carried the show.

Richard Margison, a Canadian tenor who has been coming up the charts for the past few years, offered a vocally resplendent Faust, though a little stiff in acting. Patricia Racette, a former SFO Adler Fellow with credits from all over the world (including the 1994 Marian Anderson award) displayed a pristine, flexible soprano of ample weight - replacing Aprile Millo as Marguerite in the December cast.

When Marguerite met Faust, it was on a mechanically tilted green, with four stiff trees - she in a schoolgirl's white ruffled dress with black stockings, "chaperoned" by extroverted Judith Christin, who tried every buxom wile to fascinate the line-spinning devil. Later she compulsively paced a decayed replica of the green, and touchingly sang the lovely "L'altra notte."

Carol Neblett looked as beautiful and sang as vibrantly as ever as Helen of Troy, spearheading the classic Greek interlude.

But the show stopper was the beautiful choral prologue and epilogue, where SFO's large and wonderful chorus sang gloriously of heaven and redemption, in a most beautiful setting. The stage and overhanging balconies were crowded with celestial figures of Eastern orthodox effect, with crowns and masks, in robes and draperies, looking like glazed terra cotta or enamel statues. The effect was sensational, conducted by Julius Rudel, who is in his element with this showy type of music.

December performances of "Il Trovatore" offered a generally respectable cast. Dennis O'Neill sang an expressive Manrico with beautiful tone and manly authority, though he's a wooden actor. As Leonora, Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva seemed inexperienced and over-parted, though she was game and the voice is pretty and well controlled. Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov made a first-rate Count di Luna in all respects, and Stefania Toczyska was an equally at-home Azucena, tossing off "Stride le vampe" with elan, and joining soulfully with Manrico in the famous duet, "Ai nostri monti."

The new staging by resident designer Gerard Howland is very dark, befitting the tragedy of the opera, and sometimes very effective with its flourishes and excitement, as in the battle scene before Castellor with its giant cannons and smoke. Elsewhere it is depressing in its austere 16th century Spanish verisimilitude. Ian Robertson conducted competently.

Ruth Ann Swenson, the unchallenged star of "Lucia di Lammermoor," is another SFO export who has made it to the top of the Met. Swenson sang a wonderful Lucia, caressing the coloratura with the greatest of ease, whether in the extended first act scene with Edgardo or in the climactic mad scene, which sounded as spontaneous as if just happening.

Handsome, dashing Marcello Giordani, an Italian import who has already been almost everywhere, sang Edgardo with Italianate push and sometimes sounded a little raw and over-produced. Roberto Servile made a strong Enrico.

Really disturbing is the new production designed by Howland - as if you were looking into ascending gray castle walls on four sides, with open sky at the back. It has you "climbing the walls" all night, trying to get oriented as to where you are and how this fits together. Costumes by Carl Toms are also dark and forbidding, in a veristic interpretation of the dour Scottish setting.

A bonus of the evening was the consummate conducting of the Italian maestro Nello Santi, frequently at the Met and other major houses.