02/07/2014 10:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Introduces 'Rita' by Donizetti, February 12-16

"We have programmed the most politically incorrect opera in the most politically correct area of the country!" said music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, referring to the New Century Chamber Orchestra's up-coming production of Rita, ou Le mari battu (Rita, or The Beaten Husband).

It's true. Some may see the political shenanigans in Die Walküre as running a close second. Gaetano Donizetti's Rita is a one-act 'opera comique' -- high octane musical numbers connected by bits of snappy dialogue. Rita is a swift and very fun dose of Donizetti -- not just a bagatelle knocked-off by the composer in something like eight days. Though the opera never hit the boards in his lifetime, he knew the curtain would come down in about an hour. Nadja and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, in partnership with the San Francisco Opera Center and members of the Adler Fellows are presenting four performances of the opera throughout the Bay Area beginning February 12. The concert also includes specially arranged versions of the Overture to Die Fledermaus, the Méditation from Thaïs, Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, along with a less familiar piece from Giuseppi Verdi -- the Prestissimo from his String Quartet in E minor.


Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Photo, Christian Schneider

Since 2008, renowned violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has been the music director and concertmaster of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, a 19-member string ensemble. Their intercommunication is intense, the music-making is sublime and for the ever-expanding fan base -- the artistic connection is immediate. For Nadja, a concert devoted to opera is a dream come true.

"Choosing Rita was based on logistics. And me being kind-of naughty. You have to be realistic about what is possible. It took a little while to get adjusted to the job. I started thinking about all the fantastic ensembles and groups in the Bay Area. I wanted to see if we could have some collaboration. It got us talking about who we'd ideally like to work with. The problem for a string ensemble is the limited repertoire. And not really being conducive to opera! But we started looking into it and since we had already worked with soprano Melody Moore, an Adler Fellow from years ago, we decided to approach the San Francisco Opera Center. They were all for it. But, you have to start thinking on a smaller scale."

Donizetti's Rita sits somewhere between a screwball comedy such as the 1940 film, My Favorite Wife and all the animated savagery and duplicitous scheming of classic Looney Tunes. Current Adler Fellow soprano Maria Valdez plays "Rita", owner of a popular roadhouse. She's the kind of restauranteur whose management skills begin with a sharp tongue and a high-flying rolling pin. Dodging Rita's admonitions and mayhem is her husband and chef, "Peppe", sung by tenor Thomas Glenn. Mr. Glenn was seen last June as "Spalanzani", inventor of the wind-up doll "Olympia" in San Francisco Opera's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Enter "Gaspar", Rita's former but still-legal, terribly abusive husband. He is played by baritone Efraín Solís, a finalist for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and first-year Adler Fellow. Gaspar, always with a heavy hand for Rita, has led the authorities into believing he drowned. So now he's back. Let the games begin!


Thomas Glenn (Tenor) - Maria Valdes (Soprano) - Efraín Solís (Baritone)

Photos: Carlin Mia, Chris Fain, Laura Bunker

"I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be leading an opera! From the time I was a toddler, my love of opera has been no secret. I adore Donizetti. So, this is extremely exciting. Even nerve-wracking. As the music director and looking at how our organization can grow, this is the year that I couldn't be more proud of. And it's taken years to get to this point! I'm very proud of all the collaboration and the largeness of what we're doing."

Nadja is equally excited about the program's orchestral selections, those glittering non-vocal stretches which sometimes feature a solo violin. The Méditation from Thaïs is the prime example. In a fully staged production, conductors who are also violinists will occasionally play it themselves. It's Very French, very showy. But for a string orchestra or perhaps a solo organist wanting to play the same material, it's all about having or creating your own arrangement.

My attraction to Massenet's Thaïs started with the Tito Capobianco production which opened the 1976 season at San Francisco Opera and starred Beverly Sills as the dazzling whore of Alexandria. The performance was broadcast live. The Méditation occurs after Thaïs, a devotee of Venus, has been told by a determined desert monk (sung by baritone Sherrill Milnes), that if she were to abandon her sinful life and convert, her beauty would last through Eternity. Thaïs is suddenly consumed by the possibility. It is during these moments that the solo violin begins the familiar theme. Choreographer Louis Falco had created a simple and totally effective piece of dance-movement for the very nimble Miss Sills. Gliding past a series of mirrors, Thaïs accepts that her youthful beauty will one day fade and decay. Come the violin's long final note - a shimmering super-soft High A -- Thaïs is completely won over. Yes, she will head to the desert and -- what's more -- take the veil. What she doesn't know, is that the monk has fallen completely in love with her.

"The Méditation is a great encore in recitals." said Nadja. "By the way, I have the slowest recording -- it's on my debut album with EMI. It's an absolutely gorgeous moment in the opera. So is Mascagni's Intermezzo from Cavalleria. Just don't think about what movie [Raging Bull] you heard it in! We're also doing the overture to Die Fledermaus. It's an arrangement I had made quite a long time ago by a very dear friend, cellist Mats Lidström, who I went to school with. We then recorded it with my quintet. The CD is called Night and Day. His arrangement is extraordinary. I've carried it with me all these years and now the orchestra is going to play it."


New Century Chamber Orchestra. Photo, Matthew Washburn

The best way to describe Verdi's String Quartet in E minor is that it's just so very-very Verdi. Including it on a program such as this reveals similar dramatic flavors found in any of his operas.

"Exactly. It's a fantastic piece. Not many people know this other side of him. Also, how can you possibly put on an opera program and not have something by Verdi?"

On Tuesday morning, February 11, the New Century Chamber Orchestra will be doing an open rehearsal of this amazing program at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center. The first performance happens Wednesday evening, 2/12 at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley; the second is on Friday, 2/14 at the First United Methodist Church, Palo Alto. The weekend performances are Saturday, 2/15 at 8:00 p.m. at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center; and Sunday, 2/16 at 5:00 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, San Rafael. Click here for more information.

Images used with permission.