Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

SF Opera Chorus up-close & personal


San Francisco Opera Chorus, with Chorus Director Ian Robertson (left) and Associate Chorus Master Fabrizio Corona (right). Photo: Matthew Washburn
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Away from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House and out of the shadows of the stars, the esteemed San Francisco Opera Chorus gave its second annual concert last week in the more intimate surroundings of the Taube Atrium Theater in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. No costumes or makeup were required for the amiable showcase conducted by 30-year SFO veteran Chorus Director Ian Robertson, with Associate Director Fabrizio Corona playing piano accompaniment.

The Atrium's Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system was only needed to help enliven the space. The 47-member SFO Regular Chorus is able to fill any auditorium with a big and thrilling sound. Season after season, the choristers can be clearly heard to mighty effect when singing either onstage or off.

Known as a harmonious and highly professional group capable of blending soloist-quality voices to any stage director's wishes, they also manage to create subtly individual characters without upstaging the lead singers. They serve not only the composer, but also the hundreds of colleagues necessary for any successful opera production.

No wonder the concerts at the Taube are becoming such a relaxed and lighthearted event. It is a once-a-year day for the singers, freed from the weighty responsibilities of vocalizing in character. The good vibes are infectious, and the intrinsic value of joining singular talents into a team is wonderfully apparent.

The annual programs are relatively short, but varied enough to show the group's musical versatility. Introducing each selection with a little history and some gentle wit, Robertson's delightful Scottish accent (softened over the years) added to the fun. Corona provided excellent support from the piano, and English translations of the texts were projected on a rear wall.

The full house of admirers, friends and family enjoyed some seasonal pieces. "Jauchzet, frohlocket" from J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and Poulenc's "Hodie Christus natus est" from Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel, along with some sacred pieces by Verdi and Puccini, set a holiday mood.

The opera stage was mostly recalled by songs from composers best known for their theatrical works. Jules Massenet, who got his props this SFO season with the Chorus' passionate performances in "Manon," was represented in two characteristically melodic and perfumed songs from Chansons des bois d'Amaranthe. Robertson couldn't resist including a lusty all-male Chorus of the Roman Soldiers from "Herodiade" to conclude the first half.

Soloists were appropriately but sparingly employed during the concert. Baritone Torlef Borsting, listed as Chorus member appearing in a Solo Role, was excellent in movements from Puccini's Messa a Quattro voci . William O'Neill, another Chorus member appearing in a Solo Role, was amusing as the Drunken Poet in a scene from Purcell's "The Fairy Queen." Angela Eden Moser and Mary Finch chased him about the front of the Atrium performing area and the chorus bleachers with good-humored commitment. It was more typical of the work they do at the War Memorial, but they blended back in with their colleagues easily. Aria Umezawa was the effectively minimalist stage director.

Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic composers were on the bill; Orlando di Lasso, Michael Praetorius and Johannes Brahms sounded rich and beautifully articulated. 20th-century works were paced throughout the night, but nothing too "modern-sounding" jarred the atmosphere of creamy harmony. Three Hungarian Folk Songs by Matyas Seiber proved a rustic delight, and an arrangement by John Cameron of the achingly beautiful "Nimrod" from the "Enigma Variations" by Edward Elgar, called "Lux Aeterna," was a lovely high point.

"Stars" by contemporary composer Eriks Esenvalds, featuring haunting sounds made from rubbing tuned crystal water goblets, made an ethereal finale. An encore from Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" brought the temperature back up and sent the satisfied crowd back out to Van Ness Avenue humming along.


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