96th SF Opera season charts journey through emotions

San Francisco Opera will present a chronological, comprehensive selection of nine operas — from Handel’s rarely performed Baroque classic “Orlando” to Jake Heggie’s contemporary “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its West Coast premiere — when it ushers in its 96th season on Sept. 7.

On Wednesday, general director Matthew Shilvock announced the 2018-19 season of productions, all new to the War Memorial Opera House. It opens with powerhouse singers returning to San Francisco in the Italian tragedy double bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” with mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” with soprano Lianna Haroutounian. Heralded baritone Dimitri Platanias appears in both in his U.S. operatic debut.

The 2018-19 programming exemplifies the priority the director set in planning his first season, which is to delve into what he calls opera’s greatest strength: understanding and exploring human emotion.

“What we do on this stage opens worlds in ways that almost no other art form can, opens an understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to intersect with other humans,” Shilvock says. “That emotional thrust was a huge a part of the repertoire selection as well as of the artists who could tell those stories on our stage.”

The season proceeds with the third of the Donizetti “Tudor queen triple crown” of operas, “Roberto Devereux,” led by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and including mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (in SFO’s Ring cycle this summer), tenor Russell Thomas in the title role and baritone Artur Rucinski, who made an impressive SFO debut last year as Germont in “La Traviata.”

A new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” will mark the company and title role debut of renowned Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio, with familiar tenor Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi.

“One of my key goals is to ensure a strong legacy of great productions that will be a resource for the company for many years to come,” Shilvock says. “In talking about what a new ‘Tosca’ could look like with director Shawna Lucey, it was: How do we use that framework of an expected ‘Tosca’ and find some inner truth that audiences may not have seen before?”

Popular company regulars soprano Ellie Dehn and baritone Brian Mulligan appear in an updated-setting production of Strauss’ “Arabella” next, followed by a special concert with legendary tenor Plácido Domingo. The fall season concludes with Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” based on the movie classic.

“It’s an iconic expression of the holidays but also of understanding the real depth of humanity, as it is a story about somebody who believes that his life has attained nothing, that he has failed in all of his dreams, and it takes this reflection back on his life to help him understand the impact that he has truly had on those close to him,” Shilvock explains. “Jake and Gene (librettist Gene Scheer) take that essence, imbue it with lyricism and pathos, and find this wonderful blend of American musical theater and opera house and provide something that will be a great expression of this piece for families and people of all ages.”

Summer unfolds with Bizet’s “Carmen,” directed by Francesca Zambello; “Orlando,” set in World War II-era London; and Dvorak’s “Rusalka” in the second time the company has presented the Czech work.

A post-Nicola Luisotti era begins with Daniele Callegari leading the orchestra and chorus for “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci”; different conductors will lead subsequent productions.

“We will be bringing in a lot of incredible talent to the podium, and understanding what resonates musically and also as a potential leader of this important part of the company,” Shilvock says. “It’s a unique, almost luxurious moment to take a step back from the dedicated period of the music director (Luisotti) and explore some very diverse talent, and we will be eager to select somebody as they come into focus.”

San Francisco Opera 2018-19 season
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: Sept. 7 to June 29, 2019
Tickets: Half and full subscriptions ($71 to $3,024) on sale now; Domingo tickets ($77-$353) available on first-come, first-serve basis to full-series subscribers, two per household; single tickets go on sale in June
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci: Sept. 7-30
Roberto Devereux: Sept. 8-27
Tosca: Oct. 3-30
Arabella: Oct. 16-Nov. 3
It’s a Wonderful Life: Nov. 17-Dec. 9
Plácido Domingo: Oct. 21


Carmen: June 5-29
Orlando: June 9-27
Rusalka: June 16-28

Leslie Katz

San Francisco Examiner’s arts and entertainment editor Leslie Katz has been assigning, editing and/or writing news stories about the Bay Area’s rich cultural scene since 1997. Reach her at (415) 359-2727 or lkatz@sfexaminer.com.

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