COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Devotion to God, country and family thrives in 4 opera productions

Searching for a common theme among operas written by different composers on a variety of subjects in different time periods is a challenge. It took some thought to discover a mutual topic in the 2013 repertory of San Diego Opera. A broad interpretation of loyalty can be applied to the four diverse musical dramas.

Fidelity and devotion are expressed in several different ways. Beginning with military duty and ending with family commitment, the season also reveals patriotic redemption in the second opera and duty to God in the third presentation.

All four operas are bound together by a loyalty that drives each plot to a dramatic, tragic or happy ending. But opera is about music, and the 2013 season provides quite a variety in the French and Italian repertory.

Opening night on Jan. 26 features Gaetano Donizetti’s ever-popular “The Daughter of the Regiment.” The new rendition moves the scene from the era of the Napoleonic Wars in a Tyrolean mountain village to a U.S. Army encampment during the waning days of World War II. Otherwise the story line with its humorous mistaken identities and romantic complications stays the same.

Marie is the orphaned mascot of the regiment who takes care of the troop’s laundry and falls in love with a young recruit. When her true heritage is uncovered, she has to abandon her military life to live as a refined lady in the local castle and accept an arranged marriage. After some stage horseplay between the aristocrats and the soldiers, Marie is released from her unhappy new life and marries her young soldier, much to the delight of the regiment.

The musical score by Donizetti is full of tuneful arias, including the challenging tenor showoff solo with nine high C’s that often fail to be perfect. Stephen Costello returns to San Diego Opera to sing Tonio for his third starring role and to meet the demands of the vocal fireworks.

The second production shifts to Old Testament Gaza for the biblical tale of a powerful warrior seduced by a gorgeous courtesan to reveal the source of his strength. Samson is lured into an exotic boudoir by Delilah, who dupes her lover to reveal his secret. The famous haircut renders Samson helpless so his Philistine enemies could gouge out his eyes and chain him to a grist mill for a miserable life of hard labor.

The French composer of “Samson and Delilah,” Camille Saint-Saëns, used tonal variations to create an eastern oriental sound to the opera score. Most notable is the Act III erotic ballet performed at a pagan temple bacchanal, where Samson’s enemies dragged him out to publicly ridicule and disgrace him.

It was a bad decision, because Samson’s hair had begun to grow back and restore his superman strength. In a desperate plea to God for redemption, he topples the main pillars of the temple, bringing down the building to crush the Philistines and the treacherous Delilah. It is always a spectacular stage trick for the finale to watch the temple collapse while the crowd screams.

The third production, “Murder in the Cathedral,” features Thomas Becket, a historically famous martyr of the medieval Christian church. His assassination while praying at Canterbury Cathedral is well-known, but only scholars know why King Henry II ordered his murder.

Becket’s total devotion to his church as the leader of the Catholic communion in England is dramatically brought to the stage by the leading bass artist on the international opera circuit, Ferruccio Furlanetto. Although the 1958 opera by Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti is popular in Europe, San Diego Opera presents the American premiere of a professional staged production.

The libretto is based on a verse drama by T.S. Eliot written in 1935. The play was popular during the rise of fascism in Europe as an individual’s protest against authority and is still performed regularly by English classic theater. Pizzetti (1880-1968) wrote 18 operas in the musical style of Giacomo Puccini, but none are known in the United States.

“Murder in the Cathedral” covers the last month of Becket’s life in 1170 as he battles with King Henry II over the authority of the church in state affairs. The score highlights large choral narratives that provide a story link for the audience as in the great Greek dramas.

“Aida” returns to San Diego Opera in the eighth production performed here since 1966. All the grandeur of the Egyptian pharaohs coupled with glorious music by Giuseppe Verdi are enhanced by the striking sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes. It is a color spectacular.

The plot is a typical triangle romance with two determined princesses in love with the same Egyptian warrior. Aida, a captive daughter of the Ethiopian king, has a secret affair with the hero, whom the pharaoh’s daughter expects to marry as a reward for his conquest of Ethiopia. Complicated? There is more as loyalties run amok when Aida is forced by her captive father to trick her lover into divulging his troop’s strategic position. After the warrior is sentenced to death for his betrayal, the two lovers find redemption in their death together in the silent tomb.

All operas are sung in the original language with the English text displayed over the stage of the Civic Theatre. Tickets for the four operas and a special staged event in March featuring a mariachi group are available online at sdopera.com or by calling 619-533-7000.



Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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