Furlanetto Triumphs Over “Murder”

Since his 1985 San Diego Opera debut starring in Verdi’s early opera Oberto, internationally renowned bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has mesmerized audiences here with his artistry and raw power. Spectacular SDO turns as Méphistophélès in Faust, the title roles in Don Giovanni, Boris Godunov and Don Quixote, and absolute monarch King Philip II in Don Carlo, have established both his stardom and command of his impressive voice. His leading role as Thomas Becket in the West Coast premiere of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Murder In The Cathedral on Saturday night cemented his place in the hearts and minds of his extensive San Diego fan base.

The role of Becket demands a vocal and dramatic giant, and Furlanetto amply fulfilled both of these requirements. From the moment of his powerful entrance in Act One his extraordinary voice, astonishingly consistent from top to bottom, seamlessly alternated between commanding authority and heartbreaking persuasiveness. He skillfully portrayed the personal insecurities that shake the foundations of Becket’s intense religious faith and make him vulnerable to earthly temptations, while sustaining our belief in Becket’s ability to bravely refute the mounting injustices conspiring against him, and to stand in defiance of his king.

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Tenor Joel Sorensen is the First Tempter and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is Thomas Becket. Photo by Ken Howard.

As in any first-class mystery, Murder leaves us with gnawing questions: Which callous perpetrator was truly responsible for this cold-blooded homicide? Was it the despotic Henry II, or his own knights playing vigilante? Such loose-hanging threads keep the subject alive after centuries of conjecture, assuring the continued interest of a fascinated audience. Like a finely wrought cinematic piece, the opera focuses only on the inordinately stressful last month of Becket’s earthly existence, effectively evoking the volatile changes of mood and atmosphere of T.S. Eliot’s brilliant play on which the opera is based.

Pizzetti’s music expressively symbolizes the conflicting emotions at work during the drama: from the excitement, fear and anguish of the women of Canterbury to the declamatory church rhetoric and solemn Latin chants of the priests; from Becket’s quieting presence to his forceful repudiation of the tempters’ exhortations; from the soaring melodies lifting toward heaven to the harsh, dark battle-hardened music of the knights. All of it points to the inevitable tragedy of martyrdom, to great effect. Stylistic touches are reminiscent of Debussy and Puccini – the ethereal descriptions of springtime evoke Puccini’s Suor Angelica – yet the music is uniquely the composer’s own.

A robust cast ensured that Furlanetto’s powerful depiction of the doomed Archbishop of Canterbury was well supported. Most are familiar to SDO audiences.

I remember tenor Allan Glassman from his many roles at the Met. Since his 1989 debut in SDO’s Boris Godunov, he has returned in that opera in 2007 as well as last season’s Salome. His brief but memorable turn as the Herald announcing Becket’s return to Canterbury was done with his customary vocal assuredness. 

American soprano Susan Neves made her SDO debut as First Chorister. Her repertoire thus far, which includes many of Verdi’s heroines in prominent international opera houses, served her well in this pivotal role. From her very first notes, her ample voice filled the hall, and she sustained it forcefully through her difficult Act Two aria. Helene Schneiderman, who debuted here in Der Rosenkavalier in 2011 and has sung diverse roles in the US and Europe, provided good support with her able mezzo as the Second Chorister.

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(L-R, foreground) Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam is the Third Knight, (seated) bass Kevin Langan is the Fourth Knight, tenor Joel Sorensen is the First Knight and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie if the Second Knight. Photo by Ken Howard.

Tenor Joel Sorensen (First Tempter/First Knight) has performed a wide range of repertoire since his debut here in 1999. Malcolm MacKenzie (Second Tempter/Second Knight) has delighted SDO audiences recently with performances in Moby-Dick and The Daughter of the Regiment. Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam, who debuted here last season in Salome, brings his previous experience in companies all across the US to his role as Third Tempter/Third Knight. Kevin Langan, (Fourth Tempter/Fourth Knight), who debuted in SDO’s 1983 production of Henry VIII, has also sung a broad spectrum of roles here and at San Francisco Opera, among other companies in the US and Canada. All four voices rang true, and their characters came across as appropriately villainous, judging from the vociferous booing from the audience at the curtain call.

The three Priests also have been seen here in recent seasons. American tenor Greg Fedderly (First Priest) debuted in Peter Grimes in 2009 and appeared last month in Samson and Delilah. Also debuting in Grimes was American bass-baritone and 2007 Grammy nominee Kristopher Irmiter (Second Priest), a veteran of numerous companies in the US and Canada.  Gregory Reinhart (Third Priest) debuted his impressively deep bass earlier this season in Samson and has performed internationally, most frequently with Opéra National de Paris. Their contentious discussion at the beginning of Act One, which brought to mind the arguing of the Jews at the opening of Salome, set the stage for the impending drama about to unfold.

Award winning conductor Donato Renzetti’s SDO debut was impressive. His experience with many of the world’s finest orchestras and opera companies, including the Met, and La Scala in his native Italy, showed to great advantage in his rendering of Pizzetti’s difficult score. In my recent interview with Ferruccio Furlanetto, the singer expressed his ongoing respect and admiration for Maestro Renzetti’s proficiency and musical acumen. I heartily agree with Furlanetto’s assessment. The maestro’s command of orchestra and stage was exemplified by a graceful stick technique, which kept him in perfect synch with Furlanetto in Becket’s Act Two sermon, as if a laser beam were connecting the two of them.

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The finale of San Diego Opera’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL. Photo by Ken Howard.

Ian Campbell celebrates his gala thirtieth year as General Director and Artistic Director of San Diego Opera, by crossing the foot lights as Stage Director for this auspicious West Coast premiere. He met the challenge of a unit set by creating tableaux of monumental pageantry, with choristers and secondary characters providing support to Becket’s commanding presence, yet maintaining their own visual and dramatic integrity. Campbell’s direction constantly moved the action forward, sustaining a rubber band-like tension to keep the audience riveted. The impact of the Act One finale, with its crown of thorns symbolism, was striking.

Returning after his 2009 SDO scenic design debut in Don Quixote, award winning set designer Ralph Funicello lends his expertise from a dizzying array of Broadway, Off Broadway and operatic productions to partner with Campbell for this production. The unit set for the Cathedral, its intimidating Gothic pillars contrasting the delicate stained glass windows, evokes an atmosphere so realistic as to afford an almost religious experience.

Alan Burrett’s lighting evolved according to the dramatic moments: subtle in its intensity behind the stained glass windows, and stark in the harshness signaling the intrusion of jarring action. Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes effectively captured the period. The women’s attire was simple but not plain, soft folds subtly draped with symbolic red, allowing Becket’s pure white vestments, beautifully highlighted in appropriate moments by Burrett’s lighting, to stand out.

Special kudos go to chorus master Charles Prestinari, who deftly handled the challenge of preparing the women’s and children’s choruses. Both sounded extraordinary, but the women, who are constantly on stage, sustained touching emotional impact and enormous vocal strength throughout.

Unquestionably, Furlanetto carried the show. There was no question that the audience would leap to their feet the moment he stepped in front of the curtain after his formidable finale. As in the end, where the knights acknowledge the greatness of Becket, we laud Furlanetto as a towering presence in the realm of operadom, in this masterful rendering and all others. We are most fortunate indeed to be graced with that presence.

Musically and theatrically, the opera provides a riveting experience: a marvel of the sensory and the cerebral, spearheaded by a performance from one of the great bassi of all time, in a  role that Furlanetto has called “amazing, vocally demanding, stunning.”

Murder In The Cathedral should not be missed.