WHO BUT Giacomo Puccini could have transformed the tumultuous tale that originated as a stage vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt into "Tosca," an opera of near immortal proportions?
"Tosca" was almost the opera Puccini didn't write. A composer named Alberto Franchetti was first to obtain the operatic rights from Parisian playwright Sardou — and it was only with some Machiavellian deception and skulduggery that Puccini managed to convince Sardou and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa that he, Puccini, was really the composer up to the task of turning "Tosca" into an opera.
The result — an impassioned piece seething with revolutionary overtones, love, lust, lechery, torture, murder, suicide and religion — finally had its premiere at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome on Jan. 14, 1900.
The San Francisco Opera opened its "Summer 2009" Opera series with "Tosca" on Tuesday and will stage subsequent performances at 8 tonight as well as 8 p.m. June 20, 23, and 26; 7:30 p.m. June 11 and 17; and 1 p.m. June 14, all at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.
The cast features a group of magnificent singers, led by Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role, tenor Carlo Ventre as her painter/patriot/lover Mario Cavaradossi and baritone Lado Ataneli as the corrupt, lecherous Roman police chief, Baron Scarpia. Marco Armiliato conducts, and Jose Maria Condemi is stage director for this Lotfi Mansouri production.
While all the Opera House performances require tickets ranging from $15 to $290, the performance scheduled for simulcast at 8 tonight from the Opera House to the AT&T Ballpark is free. Patrons who would like entry at 6:30 p.m., a half-hour before gates open for everyone, need only register for tickets at www.sfopera.com. Then it's off to the ballpark with family and friends in order to enjoy a free, live, high-definition video simulcast transmitted straight from the War Memorial Opera House to the AT&T Ballpark scoreboard. Folks can enjoy all the traditional ballpark fare of hot dogs, garlic fries and cold beer while watching the unforgettable opera outdoors.
DIAL IN FOR 'DAUGHTER': Who says you always have to go out to enjoy grand opera? There's a super operatic experience possible curled up in your favorite easy chair in your own home at 8 p.m. Sunday when Radio Station 102.1 KDFC-FM and the San Francisco Opera continue the broadcast partnership that brought San Francisco Opera back to Bay Area radio after a lapse of 25 years.
Sunday's opera will be a broadcast of last fall's world premiere of "The Bonesetter's Daughter" by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan. KDFC's Elaine Warner and Dianne Nicolini will serve as hosts for the broadcast.
Other broadcasts of San Francisco Opera productions from the company's 2008-09 season, all recorded live from the War Memorial Opera House, will air throughout the coming year on Classical 102.1 KDFC at 8 p.m. the first Sunday of each month.
But alas, in order to hear Puccini's "Tosca" on your radio, you'll have to wait until 8 p.m. Sept. 6.
It's worth the wait.
'BARBER' IN THE POCKET: A match made in heaven, operatically speaking, most certainly would be the combination of wit and whimsy possible when the literary and musical talents of 19th century Italy's Gioacchino Rossini hook up with 21st century San Francisco's Donald Pippin. That will happen with performances of "The Barber of Seville" at 2 p.m. Saturday and June 14 at the Legion of Honor, at the end of 34th Ave. off Clement St. in San Francisco, at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., in Berkeley and at 2 p.m. June 21 at the Napa Valley Opera House, 1030 Main St., in downtown Napa.
A typical Pocket Opera performance involves top-notch singers, modestly costumed, and a sparsely staged production, in an up-close-and-personal, small venue. A small but excellent ensemble of instrumentalists provides accompaniment, abetted by Pippin himself (a genuine virtuoso!) at the piano. Pippin pops up from the piano at crucial plot intervals to propel his audiences into gales of laughter with his relevant commentaries on the opera's action.
Here's a just a sample illustrating the whole Seville Barber affair straight from the pen of Pippin himself. Writes Pippin, the plot traces "the young, impassioned Count Almaviva (as he) sets out to rescue the lovely Rosina from the tightening clutches of irascible old Doctor Bartolo" — her aged guardian, who ridiculously aspires to become her husband.
Rosina, according to Pippin, is "a high spirited charmer "... a winged sparrow trapped in a cage, desperate to escape a fate worse than death." Figaro, the famed Barber of Seville, is, in Pippin's parlance, "an energetic man of all talents, always ready to assist, especially when a beautiful young lady is involved." In this opera, writes Pippin, Rossini is "at his most exuberant, having the time of his life."
So — for some literate, lighthearted fun and laughter, check out one of Pocket Opera's Bay Area performances this weekend or later on in the summer in the Napa Valley. Tickets range from $20 to $35, varying according to the venue. Call 415-972-8930 or go to www.pocketopera.org.
Reach Cheryl North at email@example.com.