As another The Merola Grand Finale (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) marked the end of the San Francisco Opera Center's training program this year last night. This is a chance to hear everyone after weeks of work and to speculate on who might be chosen to come back to be part of San Francisco Opera's apprentice program as Adler Fellows in 2016.
As such, it is always fascinating to hear how the voices have developed, but it presupposes, perhaps, a certain amount of knowledge and interest in singers. The singing is strong, these are among the best out there, having gone through tough auditions. It is also when we get to see the apprentice stage director's work, in this case, Mo Zhou.
It is striking that each year this young artists program of people between the ages of 20 to 34 attracts a rather elderly viewership. Many of the younger people seen in the audience for Merola performances seem to be singers or employees of the opera. Of course, this is not lost on the administration of Merola, and there was only recently an outreach event at Chez Poulet in Bernal Heights the previous Thursday.
As described to me, the event was a mixer for people with an interest in opera, there were young opera singers there, drinks, and 80s music. One of the biggest barriers to going to arts events is not having anyone to go with, so certainly this makes sense. However, at the intermission of the Merola Grand Finale, as an aged opera neophyte seated next to me asked if I was able to follow what was going on, it occurred to me this was not the best experience for those without a lot of background in opera already.
Since the program is designed to showcase the voices of the Merola participants, the assortment of pieces is eclectic and we are dropped into different scenes of all sorts of operas in a variety of languages. We heard selections from no less than 15 operas in French, German, Italian, Russian, and English.
Stage director Mo Zhou used what looked to be the set for Sweeney Todd. Her production made much use of umbrellas, a bird cage with a candle in it, and red roses. This did not help much in explaining the action to someone unfamiliar with the operas at hand, but definitely showed her point of view and aesthetic.
The evening was not terribly consistent. There were times when the orchestra and singers became off track entirely, most noticeably in "Vy tak pyechalni... Ya vas lyublyu" from Queen of Spades and "Condotta ella in ceppi" from Il Trovatore. There were many intonation problems from the singers.
On the other hand, there was much singing that impressed. Toni-Marie Palmertree was arresting as Medora in "Non so le tetre immagini" from Verdi's Il Corsaro. Her voice is exquisite and she stood out as the Sandman in a scene from Hansel und Gretel in the second half of the night.
Both Michael Papincak and Alex DeSocio did well with scenes from Jake Heggie's Moby Dick. Papincak seems suited for the role of Ahab, which makes him quite a rarity, given that so few people have this vocal type. DeSocio sounded solid as Starbuck.
The high point of the performance came with Raehann Bryce-Davis (Santuzza) and Kihun Yoon (Alfio) in "Oh, il signore vi manda" from Cavalleria Rusticana. The evocative singing had a palpable reality, both singers utterly present in the moment.
* Tattling *
Surrounded by music critics, there was not much bad behavior in my immediate vicinity, other than the aforementioned confused person in Row L Seat 5, who was vocal and counted in German during "Papagena! Papagena!." There were lots of cellular phone rings heard whenever a particular piece did not have heavy orchestration.
* Notes *
American Bach Soloists gave the North American premiere of Marais' Sémélé last night in San Francisco. The music is exquisite and Jeffrey Thomas conducted a precise performance. The chorus was strong and the soloists were evenly matched.
Ever consistent, Maestro Thomas led a clean sounding orchestra. Even the trumpet was more or less in tune, quite a feat given the lack of valves. The percussionists seemed like they were having fun playing much of the dance music.
It was remarkable that soprano Rebecca Myers Hoke (pictured above) was able to characterize Sémélé's disquieting dilemma with her voice alone in this concert version of the opera. Mezzo-soprano Sara LeMesh was also particularly vivid in her portrayal of Juno. One did not have to understand the exact words she was singing to know how she felt, the jealously and indignation was palpable.
The rest of the singing was all at a high level. Soprano Chelsea Morris (Dorine) has fine breath control and tenors Matthew Hill (Apollon) and Steven Brennfleck (Adraste) both were bright-toned.
* Tattling *
There were quite a few problems with the titles, which would disappear and show the desktop of the computer being used to project them. The applause at intermission was enthusiastic, but many people did not return for the second half.
The person behind me seemed concerned about leaving right when the music ended, and pulled at my seat during the last minute of the opera, moving my whole body back with him. I was much engaged with the piece, so it did not bother me, but did strike me as odd.
* Notes *
Don Pasquale was performed by the Merola Opera Program at Cowell Theater recently. Warren Jones conducted a swift and lively performance on Saturday afternoon. The production from Nic Muni was entertaining but not entirely coherent.
Muni's direction involved the action taking place on a film set, complete with tempestuous starlet and mollifying director that appear between scenes in the middle of Act I. The author of the screenplay is Ernesto, while Norina is a cleaning lady behind the scenes.
In Act II, for some reason Norina takes the leading role while the starlet, director, and others observe. The garden scene of Act III has many of the extra characters dressed in green, with green stockings over their faces. This does not connect to the earlier action in a meaningful way, though it was amusing.
Of course the main attraction of any Merola performance is the singing, which was impressive and rather loud. Soprano Amina Edris (Norina) has a voice as clear as a bell, and she was able to characterize her part as Sofronia with a distinctive shrill sound. Tenor Soonchan Kwon makes for an endearing Ernesto, but seemed to struggle with intonation during Act III. Baritone Alex DeSocio was a robust and funny Dr. Malatesta. Bass-baritone James Ioulu likewise was strong in the title role and did a fine job with the patter.
* Tattling *
There were squeaking electronics for much of the first half, but this was resolved for the second. As usual there were seagulls heard. Also audible was a small child fishing with his father just outside the theater.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has a world premiere in 2017. The opera will be workshopped next month in San Francisco in collaboration with Cal Performances and additional support from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Looking forward to the opening on Thursday, August 13 at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I am impressed that a second performance had to be added back in June because of the high demand for tickets, as this is a North American premiere.
Rebecca Myers Hoke is singing the title role.
* Notes *
The West Edge Opera opened the third and last opera of its 2015 Festival with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria last night. Monteverdi's opera was held at American Steel Studios in Oakland, a former pipe factory turned studio space. The industrial atelier seems at odds with the Baroque opera but the result was surprisingly intimate, and the voices reigned supreme.
The venue was founded by Karen Cusolito, whose large scale work includes the enormous dandelion currently in Uptown Oakland and the monumental work Ecstasy which was seen in The Crucible's Fire opera, at Burning Man, and on Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley. We were in a section of the building with a relatively low ceiling that worked acoustically. The windows that lined the area above the stage made for a beautiful effect as the light dimmed outside.
Director Mark Streshinsky used three platforms to create a U-shaped stage around the small Baroque ensemble. We were in close proximity to the instruments and the area around the audience was used extensively. Streshinsky was characteristically humorous, for instance Minerva brings Telemaco to Ulysses on a Vespa.
There were extensive cuts, which made the length of the piece a very manageable two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission. Conducted by Gilbert Martinez, who also played harpischord and regal, the orchestra had a dry, understated sound. This let the singers shine.
Many of the smaller parts were of a more humorous nature. Of these the suitors -- Gary Ruschman (Pisandro), Jonathan Smucker (Anfinomo), and Aaron Sorensen (Antinoo) -- and the parasite Iro -- portrayed by Ted Zoldan -- were especially funny. There was fine comic timing and all sorts of sight gags.
Ruschman and Sorensen also sang Jupiter and Neptune, and their transformations were so complete that it would be easy to think the characters had been depicted by four singers instead of two. Kindra Scharich also gave a particularly strong performance as Minerva, as her voice is powerful and resonant.
Nikolas Nackley (Ulysses) and Sara Couden (Penelope) both have expressive voices and were vocally convincing in the roles. The staging kept them in close quarters with the audience and gave the performance a forthright and honest feel. There was nowhere to hide.
* Tattling *
This was the least stuffy of the three venues used in West Edge Opera's Festival this year. There did seem to be a lot of sawing going on in adjacent studios.
The singing was all very strong, especially the leads. I don't focus on the voices in the review, but feel I should mention here that Brenda Patterson (Hannah After in As One) has unreal abilities, she did not seem to need to breathe.
* Tattling *
Neither venue was well-ventilated, but the Oakland Metro was worse. The woman behind me in Row B had a spray bottle and a lint brush that she used during the performance.
* Notes *
The Merola Opera Program recently returned to Cowell Theater with a double-bill of The Medium and Gianni Schicchi. Directed by Peter Kazaras and conducted by Mark Morash, the Saturday afternoon performance was engaging and energetic.
The Medium is a stark, tense work, and Donald Eastman's simple scenery was enhanced by the Kazaras' straightforward direction. The set is two full walls arranged at angles from an upstage platform with a curtained scrim above it. A few solid pieces of furniture and pretty period costumes completed the ambiance, letting the singers shine.
Mezzo-soprano Nicole Woodward was impressively unhinged as Madame Flora (Baba). Her voice is rich. Soprano Madison Leonard made for a devastating Monica, her resonant sound has bite without being harsh. Soprano Kathryn Bowden (Mrs. Gobineau), bass-baritone Austin Siebert (Mr. Gobineau), mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Mrs. Nolan sang well together. Alasdair Kent did a fine job as Toby, a mute role. His movements were convincing and he was unrecognizable when he reappeared as Gherardo in Gianni Schicchi.
Gianni Schicchi (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) happens in essentially the same space, but with the full walls pushed further from the center to make room for Buoso Donati's bedroom. The platform is now a terrace with patio furniture and a bird cage. Baritone Kihun Yoon fully embodied the title role. His voice is strong, with some grit to it. His stage presence is superb. His charisma was palpable from the very moment he stepped on stage.
The others did not perfectly match Yoon, but made fine efforts. Soprano Cree Carrico sang Lauretta prettily, and her big aria ("O mio babbino caro") went nicely. Christopher Bozeka (Rinuccio) sounded bright and pleasant. Kathryn Bowden (Nella), Ashley Dixon (Ciesca) and Tara Curtis (Zita) sang beautifully together as they veiled Yoon changing into Donati's clothes.
As the orchestra is on the same level as the audience, and Cowell is small, the music was loud. All the singers have a ton of volume, so by the time the matinée was over, my ears were ringing. Though not the most subtle of performances, it was certainly gripping.
* Tattling *
I gave myself an hour and forty minutes to make it the 17.3 miles to the venue from my abode. Unfortunately it took me two hours, so I missed much of Act I of The Medium. The staff at Merola and Cowell were helpful and kind. Next time I will plan for lunch in the Marina.
We have Last Chinese Unicorn as a special guest on The Opera Tattler, as she encountered an impressively ill-behaved audience member at Nadine Sierra's concert at the Napa Valley Festival del Sole on Friday, July 17.
* Tattling *
The person next to me in Row M Seat 8 takes the cake for being the most badly behaved audience member of all time. After the first song he rushes out to refill his glass of wine, then runs back to his seat, but not before stomping on my foot. Several times during the performance he raised his phone blatantly over his head to take photos and even videos. When the pianist or singer were speaking to the audience to introduce a new set, he would make loud, obnoxious remarks as though he were having a conversation with them. But the pièce de résistance of his string of bad behaviors happened when he played his recording of Sierra back at full volume, all 15 seconds of it, while she was still singing on stage. I guess he really wanted a duet.
Baritone Gerald Finley, who was to perform the title role of Sweeney Todd (pictured left, photograph courtesy of Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet) at San Francisco Opera, has withdrawn from the production in order to be at home in Great Britain with his wife for the expected birth of their child in mid-September. Brian Mulligan replaces him.
* Tattling *
It did not seem appropriate to mention this in a review, but at this performance I realized that Richard Strauss' music really does make me feel a little queasy. I also got an inkling of why not everyone likes bird-like high voices, but only for a few seconds.
The English translation of the Prologue was amusing and I especially liked it when Zerbinetta says "Opera is easy if you just pay attention."
* Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony are concluding a three-week Beethoven Festival with a semi-staged Fidelio. The opening performance last night featured grand singing and an austere, but effective staging.
The opera boasts a stunning cast. Nina Stemme is a searing Leonore, her sound is luminous and clear. She pierces to the core but is not harsh. Brandon Jovanovich is a robust Florestan. His first notes in Act II had much vibrato but he seemed to settle in and his performance was strong. Alan Held is a gripping villain and he sang Don Pizarro with power.
Kevin Langan is a believable Rocco, he has a tendency to creak, but it works for this role. Nicolas Phan (Jaquino) has a warm sound and Joelle Harvey (Marzelline) is bright and pure. Luca Pisaroni sings Don Fernando with authority.
The orchestra played with enthusiasm as the production unfolded around them. The staging makes cunning use of upstage platforms, the terraces, and the small portion of the downstage area available. The chorus sounded together and did a wonderful job with the choreography, filing in with a great deal of intention and opening scores in a well-timed and deliberate fashion.
Dialogue from Tatjana Gürbaca was included, and thus begins with Nina Stemme's Leonore speaking rather than the duet between Jaquino and Marzelline. Stemme's speaking voice is resounding and rather deep. The spoken parts do help tell the story, given the lack of set or elaborate costuming. The supertitles also spelled out locations and other relevant information. The humanity of this opera came through in the simplicity of the production and the beauty of the singing.
* Tattling *
The person next to me in Row A Seat 112 was an avid and excited viewer, so much so he would occasionally lean over me to try to see what was going on upstage.