Opera San José's Entführung aus dem Serail

Abduction_opera-san-jose1* Notes *
A winsome cast (Matthew Grills as Belmonte and Rebecca Davis as Konstanze pictured, photograph by Pat Kirk) opened the Opera San José 2018-2019 season with the delightful music of Die Entführung aus dem Serail yesterday night. Mozart's jaunty Singspiel is a joy to experience with the young soloists, the sprightly orchestra, and gorgeous set, despite the muddled staging.

The quality of Opera San José's soloists always is solid and this was no exception, the singers are appealing and can both sing and act. The music of Entführung is challenging to pull off, and I was especially impressed by soprano Rebecca Davis as Konstanze, her incisive sound is strong and beautiful. I am astounded every time Konstanze has to sing the back to back arias in Act II, and Davis did not disappoint. Tenor Matthew Grills (Belmonte) also gave a pleasing, lovely performance, making only a few errors. He swallowed a note in his first aria and may have been under pitch for one or two notes in "Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke," but did great in "Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen" of Act II and in all the ensembles.

Abduction_opera-san-jose3Tenor Michael Dailey is endearing as Belmonte's valet Pedrillo and soprano Katrina Galka is perfectly sassy as maid Blonde. Both (pictured left, photograph by Pat Kirk) were very distinct from the other tenor and soprano, Dailey's voice has texture to it and Galka's has a hard edge. Both are excellent actors and are ridiculously attractive, especially for opera singers.

Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam is an amusing as the grumpy Osmin. His clowning had to compete with a lot of silliness from nearly everyone on stage, of course from Pedrillo but there was much buffoonery from Belmonte and even Bassa Selim, the speaking role portrayed here by bass Nathan Stark.

My least favorite element of the performance was the English dialogue coupled with the singing in German, I wish they simply sang in English as much as I like hearing the sung German text. Dramatically it doesn't make sense, and an opera is artificial enough already without having to overcome this too. I appreciated the many details of Michael Shell's direction and the wonderful physical humor, but some gravity was missing for Bassa Selim, I don't see how he goes from his crass antics to becoming the enlightened person who lets his enemy's son go in the end.

This was saved by a splendid set from Steven C. Kemp, which looks better than both productions at San Francisco Opera right now and provides a fine spectacle. It did not surprise me at all that the audience clapped for the last act's set design as it was revealed, it simply looks like a seraglio.

In the end though, Mozart's music shines. I love this opera and I loved hearing it here. Though there were inconsistencies in intonation from the strings, Maestro George Manahan kept the orchestra together and the sound was buoyant. The chorus was powerful and bright as well.

Tattling *
"Your" replaced "you" in a supertitle announcement about silencing electronic devices at second intermission. A cellular phone did ring in Row D, around Seat 5 and 7. More distracting were the loud comments from the man in Row F Seat 1, who talked regardless if the orchestra was playing alone or people were singing.


SF Opera's Roberto Devereux

_T8A7380_crop* Notes *
A magnificently cast Roberto Devereux (opening scene pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is the second offering in San Francisco Opera's 96th season. Though somewhat marred by a tepid staging, the tragic opera by Donizetti is a fine vehicle for vocal fireworks and held together by a confident orchestra and chorus.

Maestro Riccardo Frizza had the orchestra well in hand, clear and synchronized. From the first notes, the sound was declarative and bright, but never overwhelmed the singers. Frizza was never in a rush but also did not drag in the least.

Stephen Lawless's production from the Canadian Opera Company is set in the Globe Theatre, in fact we see Shakespeare pop up out of a trunk during the overture, along with lots of explanatory notes on the supertitle screen setting the context for us about Queen Elizabeth's time. It was odd, given that the piece is not historically accurate, and it was a lot of reading to do before the singing even started. Then again, I am not much of a fan of Donizetti's music, the overture refers to "God Save The Queen," which of course sounds like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to us Americans, so a distraction was welcome enough.

There were some weird elements to the staging, for instance Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and a young Elizabeth appear in glass cases during the overture, Elizabeth thrashes around for a bit and then the cases move off the stage to be replaced by a new scenes. All of these were perfectly seamless, which made the set changes between actual scenes and acts all the more irritating. A red curtain came down as the stairways were moved or a bed was placed to indicate Sara's apartments while a note read "Please stay in your seats during this scene change" on the screen. This takes the audience out of the drama, giving them time to chat or look at their phones, and even though the changes were quick, the damage was done.

But the real reason for mounting this opera is certainly for the singers. Tenor Russell Thomas did not disappoint in the title role. His Act I "Nascondi, frena i palpiti" where Roberto Devereux denies loving anyone is convincing. He also sang "Come uno spirto angelico... Bagnato il sen di lagrime" with great beauty. I found the music here incongruously cheerful for the scene, in which Devereux is imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting death.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is the hapless Sara, beloved by Devereux and married off to the Duke of Nottingham through the machinations of Elizabeth I. Barton has a lovely, rich voice and she sings with utter ease. If memory serves, she nearly upstaged lead soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last time they sang together at San Francisco opera in Norma four years ago.

That was definitively untrue here. Radvanovsky is devastating as Elizabeth I, and it made you wonder why Donizetti didn't keep the title of the source text, Elisabeth d'Angleterre. Radvanovsky takes chances, her notes aren't perfectly clean and white, her voice crackles with emotion when necessary. Her voice is powerful and her rage is unmistakable. At times she seemed completely unhinged, yet she is able to show vulnerability, especially in the last scene.

* Tattling *
The opera was sparsely attended, at least in the balcony, quite undeserved given how strong the cast is. Standing room was even more empty than the night before, perhaps because rush tickets were available.

There many people using their devices in the upper balcony and more than one person was scolded by the ushers.


SF Opera's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

37A7113* Notes *
The standard double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci opened the latest season at San Francisco Opera last night with a colorful production (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) from tenor turned director José Cura.

With the departure of Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera is looking for a new music director and Maestro Daniele Callegari is the first of many conductors making a debut at San Francisco Opera this season. The orchestra sounded transparent, particularly the harp and strings.

Because of the orchestra, the Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana was the best moment of that opera, despite the surreal dance choreography at odds with the realistic production. Likewise, the chorus did a great job throughout the two operas, singing with cohesion and gamely depicting the busy neighborhood denizens.

The leading ladies are powerful here and both sang with much emotion. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk's Santuzza has much pathos, even when she used a shrill edge, it was not inappropriate to her role. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian is secure and lovely, she makes a pretty little Nedda and the violence against her was especially pronounced because of her small stature. Her singing with David Pershall as lover Silvio was beautiful.

The men were more of a mixed bag. The off stage singing of tenor Roberto Aronica (Turiddu) was warbly but his drinking song ”Viva, il vino spumeggiante" was strong. Baritone Dimitri Platanias was serviceable as Alfio in Cav and more gripping in Pag both in the Prologue as Leoncavallo and Tonio, the buffoon who tries to force himself on Nedda. Most compelling was tenor Marco Berti as the betrayed Canio, his anger is palpable. “Vesti la giubba” was a high point of the performance. 

José Cura's production, directed here by Jose Maria Condemi, is at once static, just the one street scene in Buenos Aires in the Italian neighborhood La Boca, and fiddly, with people constantly walking through, peering out their windows and the like. The idea has its appeal, why not have these two operas, so often done together, inhabit the same world? In practice, it was forced, and confusing unless one consulted the program as characters from Cavalleria Rusticana showed up in Pagliacci. I ended up feeling very sorry for Mamma Lucia (played by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove) who mourns for not only her son Turiddu but for Silvio as well, since he is a waiter at her tavern.

* Tattling *
Standing room was not competitive at all this year, I arrived at the opera house at 9:52am and got tickets 8 and 9. The opening night crowd was raucous, applauding and cheering Nancy Pelosi, who was in attendance.

There was the usual talking and inattention, particularly after the intermission as many people did not make it back to their seats in time and were stuck at the back of the orchestra level. Someone in this area talked loudly on his cell phone during Pagliacci. I also heard someone's device ring with the sound of crickets during a quiet part of this opera, which seemed terribly inappropriate.


West Edge Opera's Quartett

Weo-quartett-2018* Notes * 
West Edge Opera's third production this summer is Luca Francesconi's Quartett, based on the 1980 play by Heiner Müller, which in turn is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both music and drama here are utterly disturbing.

The piece debuted at La Scala a scant seven years ago, but has seen great success, and has been done in Vienna, London, and even Buenos Aires. The work requires only two singers playing ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, but they role-play each other as well as virtuous Madame de Tourvel and virginal Cécile de Volanges, victims manipulated by the pair.

Director Elkhanah Pulitzer keeps everything clear by use of onstage costume changes, even though there are many scenes in this one act opera, and the English text can get lost in the layers of music. Chad Owens' set is unique: there are two dressing rooms on the left and right above two showers, the dressing rooms can be assessed by either ladders or a steeply raked platform. In the center is a long dining table for eight and around the orchestra runs a strip of stage as well.

The characters go around and around in circles, repeating the same patterns several times in the 85 minute piece. They are powdered white from head to toe, but the physical demands of the staging which include sliding down, climbing up, and running on that steep incline definitely wore the makeup off. The costumes, almost all white, had a lot of impact. I especially liked the imposing Marquise's nearly vertical tulle and ostrich feather head dress.

Pulitzer highlights the vanity and cruelty of the pair, the Marquise has a phone that she takes photos with that are projected onto the incline and often garishly reappear in the negative. There is much sex and violence, it is all highly artificial in this staging, but somehow the grotesqueness is very effective.

The music seems difficult, Francesconi studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and the piece requires electronics, a live orchestra, and a pre-recorded one with a chorus. There was a lot of shimmers, buzzes, and elaborate percussion. I spent a lot of time looking at the supertitles, as it could be quite hard to understand the words, which come from the play but translated into English and expounded on by the composer. The musicians, lead by Maestro John Kennedy, looked like they were concentrating intensely, and as far as I could tell everything came off the way it was supposed to. Soprano Heather Buck and baritone Hadleigh Adams both sounded and looked great. Buck's voice could be angelic or dangerous, while Adams has a pleasant, lyrical tone.

* Tattling * 
Someone outside the theater was having a loud conversation on her cell phone right before the music started, causing a few giggles from the audience members, otherwise they hardly made a peep, so intent were they on the opera.


West Edge Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande

Weo-pandm2018 * Notes * 
Nomadic West Edge Opera is performing this summer in yet another alternative space, this time in Richmond at the Craneway Conference Center, once a Ford plant. The opening show is Debussy's very wonderfully weird Pelléas et Mélisande. The music is utterly beautiful, the singing was very good, and the production sleek and inventive.

The Craneway is right on the water, and has a glorious view of San Francisco. The building houses the Rosie the Riveter Museum, as it was the site of shipyards with female workers during World War II. A space upstairs was transformed into a theater with much black fabric, platforms, and extensive structures for lighting, which needed its own generator as the building's electrical system was inadequate for this. Unlike previous venues in the last few years, this one does have running water and real bathrooms.

Director Keturah Stickann, very much in keeping with this opera company, did a lot with very little, and her production worked incredibly well. The set (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Chad Owens, is a wall with five openings, and it was impressive how these were used as places to project onto screens or serve as doors or bring in props to the scene. The costumes had a medieval look but were often festooned with rivets.

Maestro Jonathan Khuner kept the small orchestra together, and created a big sound. The singing was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom is an otherworldly Mélisande, her high notes soar and her low ones are deeply rooted. She also was mysterious and nymph-like in her acting. Her Pelléas, tenor David Blalock, may have been a bit more wooden, but his voice is bright and strong. In contrast, baritone Efraín Solís truly embodied the role of Golaud. From grave and sad to crazed and jealous, Solís was completely convincing, and he sounded great, very warm and sympathetic.

* Tattling * 
There were technical difficulties with one of the four supertitle screens which made the opera start late. It was not resolved and those in that area had to move to see the titles.

A young woman in Row D 26 took a picture of Act III, Scene 1, when Mélisande's hair spilled out of the tower. The young man behind her texted. The woman next to me fell asleep during an intense moment of the opera in Act II.

I wish I could go to this opera again, there are two more performances on August 12 and 17, but am overbooked and will be out of town.


Merola's The Rake's Progress

The-Rakes-Progress-1149_Kristen-Loken_website* Notes * 
The Merola Opera Program's second opera this year is The Rake's Progress, performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on August 2 and 4. The singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) gamely performed this challenging music in a sleek Baroque meets modern production that suits Stravinsky's music.

The stage is clean and elegant, a simple white wall with five doors topped with pediments, a raised platform in front, some space on the sides for chairs and the chorus. The costumes matched. I especially loved Anne Trulove's outfit, a navy dress with bright blue accents in the shape of a Baroque gown, but no frills and a short hem, worn with sturdy brown boots. The chorus members had many different outfits for their many roles, there was a lot of drag, both for men and women. Scene changes are managed with props, especially inventive was the use of a huge doll house, which is the conveyance for Baba the Turk in Act I and the stone/bread machine in Act II.

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of big voices here. The chorus made up for its small size by being very loud and sang in a unified and cohesive manner. Even the smaller roles are excellently cast, tenor Addison Marlor really hammed it up as the auctioneer Sellem. He was very funny. Also hilarious is mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire as Baba the Turk. Her sound is very deep, almost gravelly, and she has the right self-possession for the role.

Soprano Meigui Zhang's wide-eyed Anne Trulove has a supple, gleaming sound. Tenor Christopher Oglesby is likewise fine as Tom, his voice is rich and warm without strain. Best of all though may have been baritone Jacob Scharfman as the villainous Nick Shadow. His voice and movements conveyed his dangerous nature, even when being very obsequious at first.

* Tattling *
It seemed that the audience was not clear on the libretto of the opera, because they seemed to clap at the wrong time more than once. This may have contributed to the Act I harpsichordist missing a cue, and also delayed the epilogue.


Merola's Il Re Pastore

Merola-il-re-pastore-2018* Notes * 
The first of two operas from the Merola Opera Program this summer is the rarity Il Re Pastore at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 19 and 21. The lighthearted production directed by Tara Faircloth suits the early Mozart very well, as do the young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken). Maestro Stephen Stubbs conducted with warmth and kept everyone together.

The absurd plot of Il Re Pastore involves Alexander the Great (Alessandro) conquering the kingdom of Sidon, deposing a tyrant named Stratone, and reinstating the rightful heir Aminta, who has lived as a shepherd and has no idea that he is royalty. Alessandro wants the tyrant's daughter Tamiri to marry our titular pastoral king Aminta, but unfortunately he loves shepherdess Elisa, while Tamiri loves Agenore, a Sidonian aristocrat.

The cheery music is unmistakably Mozart's, even if he wrote it when he was only 19. The small orchestra is exposed, and there was a violin out of tune, but the conductor did a fine job keeping the singers and musicians together without being square and dull.

The set is essentially a staircase and two big curved walls covered in greenery on one side and stripes on the other. These were moved by male supernumeraries who were security for Alesssandro. Everything seemed to be mid-century, and the costumes very cunning. There were many sight gags, including topiary sheep, dancing with umbrellas, and throwing petals with deadly seriousness.

The singers, all with high, bright voices, were ebuillent. The part of Aminta was originally cast for a soprano castrato but was played here by female soprano Cheyanne Coss in men's wear. Coss has a clear sound that is well-grounded and her "L'amerò, sarò costante" in Act II was especially beautiful. Her Elisa, soprano Patricia Westley has a very different voice, though also sweet, has a metallic tang, and she both looked and sounded exceedingly girly. Mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh's Tamiri was winsome, her voice is brilliant and crystalline. Her Act II aria ""Se tu di me fai dono," in which she scolds Agenore for giving her away was one of the highlights of the evening.

Tenor Charles Sy has a plaintive voice which works for long-suffering Agenore, he is physically attacked in this production by both Elisa and Tamiri. Tenor Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro) also has a pretty voice, but definitely sounds different than Sy, more robust and with a great openness.

* Tattling *
A prominent Bay Area music critic had to be re-seated next to me in J 3 because his original seat was broken. Unfortunately, the people next to him in J 5 and 7 talked to the couple in front of them. He moved to another seat so that he could sit with his date after intermission, but so did the noisy pair that had been next to him.

A man in Row F Seat 101 put an earbud into his ear at some point in Act II and looked at his cellular phone for several minutes.


Schwabacher Summer Concert 2018

Schwabacher-Summer-Concert_2167_Kristen-Loken_website* Notes * 
The Schwabacher Summer Concert at SFCM on Thursday kicked off the 2018 Merola Opera Program's season. This is when we get to hear the more unusual voices selected for this opera training program, the ones that didn't quite fit into the two operas that will be performed in July and August.

The most striking singers were definitely both sopranos. In the first half, soprano Marlen Nahhas gave a passionate account as Giorgetta in some rather passionate scenes from Puccini's Il tabarro. Her voice is searing. Tenor Christopher Colmenero (Luigi) sang "Hai ben ragione" with fire. Baritone Jaeman Yoon was suitably tormented as Michele, the texture of his sound was unsettling.

The star of the second half was certainly soprano Kendra Berentsen as Leila from Les pêcheurs de perles. Of the four operas that were excerpted, the selections from Bizet's opera were most scattered, parts from each act appear. So we got to hear the lovely "Comme autrefois dans la nuit" from Act II in which Leila realizes she loves Nadir and the bit in Act III when she tries to save her love but only angers Zurga. Berentsen really got to show off her emotional range. Both WooYoung Yoon (Nadir) and SeokJong Baek (Zurga) gave perfectly fine performances as well, and it was great to hear the famous duet from them.

The evening started with the first scene of Vanessa and ended with the last one from Don Giovanni. The orchestra, conducted by Kathleen Kelly, was upstage behind the singers, and there were serious synchronization problems, especially by the end. All our young singers are quite loud and in the rather small space. They very gamely put on masks and got up on furniture as directed by Aria Umezawa and the blasts of confetti (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) at the end were wonderful fun.

* Tattling * 
The audience was attentive but certain people were unable to keep their thoughts to themselves.


SF Opera's Ring Media Round-Up

_T8A6216SF Opera's Ring Site | Production Web Site

Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 of Das Rheingold pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are trickling in.

Cycle Reviews: San Francisco Examiner | The Mercury News | San Francisco Classical Voice | Berkeley Daily Planet

Götterdämmerung Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | Not For Fun Only | The Rehearsal Studio

Siegfried Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | Not For Fun Only | The Rehearsal Studio

Die Walküre Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | Not For Fun Only | The Rehearsal Studio

Das Rheingold Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | San Francisco Examiner | Not For Fun Only | The Rehearsal Studio


SF Opera's Götterdämmerung Cycle 1

_37A5168* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's first Ring cycle this summer came to a glorious end with Götterdämmerung (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) this evening. The singing was strong and the playing exquisite.

Maestro Donald Runnicles had the glittering orchestra sounding better than ever. The tempi are exciting without being rushed. The brass was vibrant, and the solo horn player deserved being singled out at the final ovation.

In this opera, soprano Iréne Theorin had fewer harsh notes as Brünnhilde. Her quieter singing in Act III could have had more warmth and vulnerability. Tenor Daniel Brenna somehow makes the unlikable character of Siegfried winsome. He pushed his voice somewhat in Act II as he recounts his history, but was otherwise in fine form, light and pleasing.

Baritone Brian Mulligan is a conflicted Gunther, his voice is very pretty and nuanced. The bottomless depths of Andrea Silvestrelli make him a perfect match for the villain Hagen. His scene with bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich) showed off both their voices. Soprano Melissa Citro minced around hilariously as Gutrune, fluffing pillows in Act I and growing more dignified as the dark events of the opera unfold.

Jamie Barton is an appealing Waltraute, her sound has a lot of colors to it. She began the performance splendidly as Second Norn, singing beautifully with Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn). The Rhinemaidens Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum sang brilliantly.

The set changes were remarkably quiet. The staging holds the attention with physical humor and jumbled projections during the instrumental parts of the music. The little girl planting a sapling at the end of the final scene was unnecessary though.

Tattling * 
The house manager clarified that standees save at most two spots at the rail.

There was a lot of audience attrition during the long first third of the opera, there was some talking also. A latecomer forced to wait in orchestra standing room for this part of the opera had a lot of trouble with her purse, it made a lot of metallic sounds.

An alarm rang incessantly during a soft part near the end of the opera.


SF Opera's Siegfried Cycle 1

_37A3596* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's current Ring cycle continued with beautifully played Siegfried (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) last night. There was also much fine singing.

The orchestra seems more settled than in the previous two performances of the cycle, there were fewer intonation errors in the brass, and the horn solo in Act II was nearly perfect. Donald Runnicles seems to bring out the best in the musicians. I especially loved the harps. The singers were never overwhelmed by the orchestra, and almost always synchronized.

Tenor Daniel Brenna is a confident Siegfried, with a sweet, well-nuanced sound. He projects a youthful aplomb that suits the character. Soprano Iréne Theorin is a powerful Brünnhilde, some of her top notes can be harsh but she has a lot of strength.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley's Wanderer is likewise incisive and the contrast between him and the warm brightness of tenor David Cangelosi (Mime), the richer tones of bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich), and the lush timbre of mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Erda) all worked well.

Bass Raymond Aceto is effective of Fafner, his death scene conveyed both a sense of wonder and regret. Soprano Stacey Tappan sounds wonderfully bird-like as the Forest Bird, though I still don't think having her be a studious girl that gestures a lot makes much sense.

Other elements of the staging have the same holes as before too. It isn’t clear what Fafner’s hiding place is exactly, Grane is referred to but isn’t represented, and so forth. The colors of the projections — many are of clouds or fire — look much brighter, I noticed a lot more lime, pink, and purple.

Tattling * 
I was scolded for taking all the spaces in orchestra standing room by someone looking for a spot at the rail because I was saving a place for a friend rushing over from work. I could see the woman's point, but on the other hand, I bought two tickets and ran out the door right after nursing my one-year old at 7:30am to secure a good position in line.

There wasn't much talking around us during the performance, and no electronic noise either. I thought I heard a crying infant in the first act at the back of the orchestra level, but it seems the baby was taken out into the lobby fairly quickly. I can only guess this was the child of one of the singers.

I think there were two mishaps onstage. One of Mime's eggs in Act I dropped and bounced off the floor. The Wood Bird tripped near the end of Act II. In both cases, the singers involved handled themselves with admirable calmness.


Boris Godunov at SFS

_T8A8435* Notes * 
The opening of San Francisco Symphony's Boris Godunov was a gratifying way to spend the gap day between San Francisco Opera's Ring performances. The semi-staged production (Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) from James Darrah is sleek and makes efficient use of the space. Most importantly though, the singing and playing was all exceedingly beautiful.

Michael Tilson Thomas had the orchestra in hand, the strings shimmered, the woodwinds were lovely, and the brass was clean. There was only one moment, when the solo trumpet entered from the audience in the last scene, that seemed out of sync. The Russian bells played by Victor Avdienko were especially wonderful and the orchestra did best when playing the jauntiest passages, as with the inn scene.

The cast is strong, the dozen and a half soloists all sang very well, as did the chorus. Bass Philip Skinner (Nikitch) is always a great villain, and he was intimidating as ever here. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is sympathetic as the Innkeeper. Bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev has an open and bright sound as the scholarly monk Pimen, while tenor Sergei Skorokhodov is pleasantly reedy as the novice and Pretender Grigory.

On the other hand, tenor Yevgeny Akimov used his pretty voice to unsettling effect as Prince Shuisky. His account in Scene 6 of the dead Dimitri was perversely dulcet. Another fine tenor is Stanislav Mostovoy, his plaintive quality is perfect for the Holy Fool.

The only soprano principal is Jennifer Zetlan, who sounded petulant and whiny as Xenia. As her brother Fyodor, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet is rather more winsome. Stanislav Trofimov played the tormented Boris to a tee, his voice is powerful and has a warm richness.

The set includes projections on three odd-shaped circular scrims, all very tasteful with Russian inflected designs. There were also six actors/dancers that ripped books, moved cloths around, and tormented boyar Krushchov and two Jesuits. The last scene was all the more chilling because of them.

* Tattling * 
There was so much talking from the audience in the back of the orchestra, it was unbelievable. I heard both Russian and English at full volume. A woman next to me at the end of Row Y kept looking at her phone to check the time during the first half, and finally left with her companion before the intermission and didn't come back. Someone in one of the side orchestra boxes near the back (probably H) fell asleep and snored audibly during Scene 6

On a happier note, I saw many people take this chance to hear four operas in a row. Even Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) was there.


SF Opera's Die Walküre Cycle 1

T8A6791 * Notes * 
As with the previous installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera, Die Walküre (Act I pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) has beautiful playing from the orchestra and a powerful cast. Donald Runnicles drove a propulsive performance with very bright and exultant brass. The woodwinds were plaintive, especially the clarinet and bassoon.

The cast for Die Walküre has a lot of new singers compared to Das Rheingold since its last outing in 2011, most notably soprano Iréne Theorin. As Brünnhilde Theorin is able, she is icily strong and has good control of her dynamic range. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Wotan) could match Theorin in volume. While he's very good at sounding angry and authoritative, he did lack tenderness (at least in his voice) in the last scene as he says good-bye to Brünnhilde.

Soprano Karita Mattila's distinctive creamy tones are wonderful, but her voice isn't convincing as Sieglinde, a young woman. This was especially odd when she sang with Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), as he sounds sweetly youthful. But I still found her "Du bist der Lenz" moving, and her singing in Act III was poignant. Mattila also played well off of bass Raymond Aceto, who is a menacing Hunding.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was most impressive as Fricka, sounding bold and secure. As with everyone in the cast, she also moves well, every gesture or turn of the head conveying emotion with clarity.

The Walküren reminded me of a chorus from a Merola production, all the singers are great but very loud, and their voices did not cohere into a blended sound. In fact, most are former Merolini, only Lauren McNeese (Rossweise) is not, if memory serves. I could definitely recognize the voice of Melissa Citro as Helmwige, her piercing soprano is unmistakable, even though they are all costumed as paratroopers.

Mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum stood out as Waltraute. Laura Krumm (Siegrune), Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), Julie Adams (Gerhilde), and Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite) all were easy to hear and distinct. Their entrance got the most reaction from the audience as they parachute in for the Walkürenritt.

Director Francesca Zambello definitely has a good sense of humor and it is a welcome part of the production. The singers are all very fine actors and the various sight gags have their charm. The projections did not look noticeably different in content to me, the first scene still reminds me of The Blair Witch Project, but the colors do look brighter and more saturated.

* Tattling * 
The audience in standing room on the orchestra level was quiet. I heard some electronic noise during some of the softer parts of Act I.


SF Opera's Das Rheingold Cycle 1

_37A1480* Notes *
An exuberant orchestra and strong cast in Das Rheingold opened a revival of Francesca Zambello's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 pictured, photo by Cory Weaver) last night at San Francisco Opera.

It is a joy to hear Maestro Donald Runnicles conduct the orchestra, which sounded driven and robust. The brass, though not perfectly precise, sounded especially bright and effusive. The harpists and percussionists also did a very fine job.

The cast is solid. Since more than half the soloists are the same as in the premiere of this production (at least as a whole cycle) seven years ago, it is fascinating to compare the different singers. For me, the standouts are still tenor Štefan Margita as Loge and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller as Erda, both of whom had these roles in 2011. Margita’s voice is incisive without being the least bit harsh, he embodies his cunning role as demigod with a graceful ease. Miller is nothing less than a force of nature, the sumptuousness of her sound emerging from the floor of the stage as she rises from below for her entrance is very effective.

Also ably reprising their roles were the lovely Rheinmaidens Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), and Stacy Tappan (Woglinde). Their last scene with Margita is haunting and gave me chills.

As for those new to the cast, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is particularly promising, her Fricka is lush-voiced. I also look forward to hearing more of both bass-baritones Falk Struckmann (Alberich) and Greer Grimsley (Wotan). Struckmann has a richer tone than Grimsley, but there were heavily orchestrated moments in which I had difficulty hearing him. Grimsley is a secure presence and a good actor.

Zambello's production is wonderfully human, there's lot of great humorous moments, as when Loge tricks Alberich into becoming a toad in Scene 3 or the gods frolic in the beginning of Scene 2 and as they ascend Valhalla in Scene 4.

Revamped by S. Katy Tucker, the overwrought video projections are still the weakest link. It makes sense that visuals are needed between scenes, but it is gratuitous to add in effects that are perfectly handled by the music, as when Alberich curses the Ring. Also the descent into Nibelheim with scenes of moving through mountains paths and into caves looked especially awkward. Images of water, clouds, and fire looked best.

* Tattling *
I definitely annoyed myself the most during the performance and can hardly complain about anyone else, as I have a slight but lingering cough from asthma that's acting up because of a fire we had in our house a few weeks ago.

A woman had a seat in front of us in orchestra standing room, but she has a back condition at the moment and had to stand rather than sit. She was very apologetic when she explained her situation, saying she was the wife of "the main guy" in the opera. I wondered if she was Alberich or Wotan's wife, but it was very clear right away that it was the former.


Preview of Boris Godunov at SFS

Boris-ScenicPreliminarySketchJune is going to be a very opera-heavy month in San Francisco this year, with the return of Der Ring des Nibelungen starting on Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House. For those intimidated by Wagner's 15-hour epic (or maybe you don't think going to 12 operas in three weeks is enough), San Francisco Symphony is performing Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.

The semi-staged production (preliminary sketch by Mac Mock Design pictured) was conceived by Michael Tilson Thomas and  is directed by James Darrah, who has had great success with previous work at SFS including Peter Grimes in 2014 and On the Town in 2016.

Based on Pushkin's play, this tense political drama will be heard in its 1869 original version. The cast of 18 vocal soloists, many of whom are Eastern European -- bass Stanislav Trofimov is the title character -- also includes local favorites such as mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook (Innkeeper) and bass Philip Skinner (Nikititsch).

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