Openings a high note for November 

San Francisco Opera General Manager David Gockley is bringing three "really big shows" to town in November, all new productions with casts of renowned singers.

On Wednesday at the War Memorial Opera House is Puccini’s richly melodious, relatively rarely performed "La Rondine" starring Angela Gheorghiu, a glamorous soprano often in the headlines. The Nicolas Joël production is directed by Stephen Barlow and conducted by Ion Marin.

A week later, on Nov. 14, an acclaimed production of Verdi’s "Macbeth" arrives, with baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role of the Shakespearean drama.

On Nov. 23, it’s Igor Stravinsky’s turn with "The Rake’s Progress," a seductive neoclassic work, in a production byCirque du Soleil’s Robert Lepage, with bass-baritone James Morris — a San Francisco favorite for many years — as the devilish Nick Shadow.

Gheorghiu, heard locally at the 1999 San Francisco Symphony opening gala, is making her Opera debut here in the role of Magda, the "swallow" of the opera’s title, so called because she will fly south to find happiness. The Romanian-born soprano, called by FHM magazine "the 74th most beautiful woman in the world," has been justly acclaimed in top opera houses for her voice and artistry. At the same time, her temper and that of her husband, the famed tenor Roberto Alagna, have generated headlines about "opera’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde."

Recently, when Gheorghiu skipped rehearsals in Chicago to attend Metropolitan Opera performances featuring Alagna, the Lyric Opera fired her publicly, without any of the usual diplomatic niceties in the uppermost realm of the opera world. (Alagna himself created quite a stir when he walked out of a La Scala "Aida" after being booed in the first scene.) According to backstage reports from the War Memorial, Gheorghiu is working hard at "La Rondine" rehearsals, and all seems to be well.

The star of "Macbeth" is one of the most respected, intelligent and well-behaved singers in the world. This month, he is featured in "Opera News" under the headline "America’s Finest: Thomas Hampson Returns to San Francisco." Finest he may be, but the return part is an inexact shorthand.

The baritone, whose career went into high gear as a participant in the 1980 San Francisco Opera Center Merola Program, has never really "left." All through his spectacular career around the country and in Europe, Hampson performed with and participated in the work of the Opera (where he last sang in the 1996-1997 "Hamlet" and the 2004 "Barber of Seville") as well as with the San Franicsco Symphony, San Francisco Performances and San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

There might have been controversy (and certain to be here) about the David Pountney "Macbeth" production coming to San Francisco, but from the Zurich premiere on, there was nothing but raves about Hampson’s vocal-dramatic-psychological portrayal of Macbeth. He presents "a young, vital, eminently human figure who is the victim of his ambition, a man torn by external and internal forces," wrote one critic. "There is an overall pulse to this performance found in no other — not only no other ‘Macbeth,’ but no other known opera recording."

Conducted by the debuting Massimo Zanetti, the production also features Georgina Lukács as Lady Macbeth, Alfredo Portilla (Merola participant in 1993) as Macduff and Raymond Aceto as Banquo.

In "The Rake’s Progress," conducted by Donald Runnicles, the title role is sung by William Burden, and besides Morris, the cast features Laura Aikin, Denyce Graves, Steven Cole, Catherine Cook and Kevin J. Langan.

S.F. Opera

Where: War Memoral Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: "La Rondine" opens Wednesday; "Macbeth" opens Nov. 14; "The Rake’s Progress" opens Nov. 23

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330;

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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