Slavyanka Russian Chorus Festival Preview

FortRossSlavyanka Russian Chorus, an a cappella chorus based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is presenting a festival of Russian choral music starting next Sunday in Berkeley. The festival highlights Russian music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and includes works by Tchaikovsky, Sergei Taneyev, Rachmaninov, and Pavel Chesnokov.

Most notably there will be two West Coast premieres by Taneyev (who studied with Tchaikovsky): a choral cantata with full orchestra, Ioann Damaskin, and the choral work Sunrise. Seven different ensembles are joining Slavyanka Russian Chorus in the three performances, each with a different program.

The Sunday, October 15 performance at St. Mark's in Berkeley features the folk traditions of the Moscow region and includes including Oakland-based female vocal group Kitka, Kostroma (San Jose), Silicon Valley's Iskra Etno Vocal Group, Pava from Seattle. The Friday, October 20 concert at Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco includes Slavyanka Russian Chorus with church choirs from Burlingame, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. The Sunday, October 22 at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco is devoted to Taneyev and features countertenor Andrej Nemzer. Tickets are available here.


SF Opera's La Traviata Review

_B5A8025* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's recent La Traviata is very pretty both in the orchestra pit and on stage.

This is Maestro Luisotti's last series of performances as music director, and the orchestra sounded spirited during the Sunday matinée last weekend. I felt like I could hear every individual instrument from the back of the balcony. Though not always with the singers, the effect was still strong.

The production, from John Copley (lovingly known by many as "Uncle John"), is traditional, though has been livened up by Shawna Lucey and includes quite a spanking by Flora of the Marquis d’Obigny in Act II Scene 2 that I don't remember from before.

The singing had much to recommend it, and certainly was not dull. The Adlers all did well, from Amina Edris' sympathetic Annina to Anthony Reed's despairing Doctor Grenvil. Amitai Pati was particularly tantalizing as Gastone, one would love to hear him in a major role, his voice is just so beautiful.

It was fascinating to hear each of the three major principals, all of whom are new to the War Memorial stage. Artur Ruciński may have lacked a certain gravity for Giorgio Germont, he really seemed no older than his son, but his reedy, plaintive sound was lovely. Atalla Ayan (Alfredo Germont) had a wonderful rich warmth, though there were times when his voice did seem to disappear into the orchestra, as at the end of Act II, Scene 1.

Aurelia Florian has a bright, though bordering on shrill voice, but her Violetta is convincing, and she has an appealing, delicate quality that works nicely for a consumptive. She does express a lot of emotion through her sound, and could channel a wounded animal or a sweet angel depending on what was required.

* Tattling * 
One definitely missed the seriousness of the Elektra audience during this performance. Many people were late as it was Fleet Week and the last day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and traffic getting into San Francisco must have been bad.

Then again, standing room upstairs was nearly empty and I could place myself away from those who needed to chatter during the music.


SF Opera Lab's Operatronica

2.11.16_SFOLab-1658SF Opera Lab is back with another pop-up (previous event pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) next Thursday at the dance club Mezzanine in San Francisco.

The theme is electronic dance music (EDM) and opera, and will feature Adler Fellows and Loves Company. I asked co-hosts and Adler Fellows Anthony Reed and Aria Umezawa a few questions about curating this event.

Reed is a singer that has a whimsically funny vlog, My BASSic Life, about being an operatic bass and is half of the EDM group Rœhn.

Umezawa is a director who recently had a successful run of Hamlet at West Edge Opera. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto-based independent opera company Opera 5 and has an online web-series called "Opera Cheats."

How are EDM and opera similar?

Anthony Reed: That is something we have been trying to figure out during this process, and it's been a fun task. I think both forms have the power to seep into people's skin. Opera helps people escape into the lives of the characters on stage. Seeing the characters on stage can reflect and mirror one's own personal experiences and add new insight into whatever it is going on in your life at the moment. EDM helps people escape into sheer sonority. With sweeping pads, incessant rhythms, and undulating melodies it's easy to ride the highs and lows and sometimes even enter into a meditative state.

Aria Umezawa: Opera and EDM are not subtle art forms - they are both about big emotions and big moments, and how the music builds up to them. With both genres it can feel as if you are on a rollercoaster climbing a huge hill, just waiting for the drop on the other side. In many ways, they're a perfect fit!

What are the challenges of blending these genres?

Anthony: Opera by nature is an entirely acoustic art form. The glory of opera is that a single human voice can project over an entire orchestra without the assistance of amplification. There are no electronics required to send the sound into a space and directly touch the listener. EDM is the polar opposite, in most cases doing away with acoustic instruments all together. The hardest part about this event is marrying the acoustic to the electronic.

Aria: Finding repertoire that would work was a bit complicated. Anthony and I both have diverse tastes when it comes to music, and when faced with a dance party themed show, we really had to resist the urge to do more crossover pieces like "Bohemian Rhapsody." We focused on choosing works that have a great beat or that match the emotional arc people look for in electronic music.

What are we to expect from this event? What exactly will the mashups be like?

Anthony: I think people can expect to have a great time experiencing a genre blend they may never get a chance to be a part of again. Some of the singers will get a chance to affect their voices electronically and the DJs will sample some opera singing into their set lists. Ultimately we are striving for something cohesive, but the fact that these two seemingly disparate genres are existing in the same space, simultaneously, is exciting on its own!

Aria: I think you can expect to dance, to party, to hear great singing, and to hear great spinning. The mashups we have planned are going to play with both what technology can do with the operatic voice and seeing what classical music can bring to electronic music.

You have worked together before on a recital that blended art song and romantic comedy. Was that helpful in putting together this event?

Anthony: Doing my Rom-Com recital [The Woods: A Rom-Com Recital, April 9, 2017] was an exercise in thinking outside of the box. One of my biggest fears as an entertainer is to bore people. Meeting expectations is an easy way to manifest that fear. So, in everything I do, I try to approach things from a new angle that gives old forms fresh perspective. The nature of this event is that there is no box, so the challenge is trying to create one to fill.

Aria: Working together on The Woods gave us a chance to get to know each other, which I think was very helpful. I am, frankly, in awe of how creative Anthony is and how thoughtful he is as an artist. I think he's exactly the type of person that you want to partner with on a project like this, because he brings so much to the table while being collaborative.


SF Opera's La Traviata Reviews

_37A0080Production Web Site | SF Opera's Blog

Sounds like the reviews are mixed for San Francisco Opera's La Traviata (Act II, Scene 2 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver). Interesting, since it's the only offering this October at the War Memorial.

Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | San Francisco Examiner| San Francisco Classical Voice| The Rehearsal Studio | The Bay Area Reporter | Berkeley Daily Planet


SF Opera's Elektra Review

_37A6151* Notes * 
Despite glowing reviews, I was apprehensive about hearing San Francisco Opera latest Elektra yesterday afternoon because I have never much liked the music of Richard Strauss. My doubts were dispelled almost at once, this stylish production has an excellent cast and conductor, and works both theatrically and musically.

Originally directed by Keith Warner in Prague last year, Anja Kühnhold has taken the reins here to fine effect. The opera is set in a museum, and looks very convincing. People wander around the exhibits before the music begins and even the announcement asking patrons to turn off devices has been switched to one for a museum rather than a performance. I really enjoyed the artfulness in the direction, the eye is drawn around the stage and there are surprises as far as the space and the entrances of singers.

The look of the set matches the singing and playing, everything is clean and crisp. Maestro Henrik Nánási had a promising San Francisco Opera debut, though the orchestra included 100 musicians, the music did not blare or overwhelm. The brass played neatly and the woodwinds sounded absolutely lovely.

The cast is top notch. Though I was disappointed that Stephanie Blythe was replaced by Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in these performances, Martens was commanding in the role. Tenor Robert Brubaker simpered perfectly as Aegisth, while bass-baritone Alfred Walker (Orest) sang with power. The recognition scene of Orest and Elektra was incredibly creepy, and Walker definitely can act and sing.

In the title role, soprano Christine Goerke likewise is a respectable singing actor, though there isn't really a dance for her at the end, and this works perfectly well. Goerke has some beautiful deep rich low notes and a ton of endurance. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka's sound as Chrysothemis is a very pretty counterpoint to Goerke, her high notes are so shimmery.

* Tattling * 
I loved how quiet the balcony level audience was for this performance.

The end of the Elektra program (and I'm going to guess it is in the Turandot one also) has a "Postlude" from General Director Matthew Shivlock that addresses "Inclusion, Equity, and Opera." I liked that it recognized orientalism in opera and addressed building dialogue with new audiences, but remain vaguely skeptical as always. It will be interesting to observe what happens.


Ars Minerva's La Circe Review

La-circe-2017* Notes * 
Ars Minerva gave the modern premiere of Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe last night at ODC Theater. It is almost alarming how pretty all the unknown music the group has uncovered is, this being the third Baroque Venetian opera the company has staged. It is clear that there is simply a ton of lovely pieces that languish in obscurity, as with Rameau's Le Temple de la Gloire that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra did in April and Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana recently at West Edge Opera.

Ziani was the organist at Basilica di San Marco and then worked for Eleonor Magdalene of Neuburg in Vienna. He's a generation after Monteverdi and one before Handel, and operas in this period are not at all in the standard opera repertoire.

The music is perfectly attractive, and the plot of La Circe is a standard sort of convoluted Baroque opera inspired by a few lines from Ovid, which involves multiple overlapping love triangles. There is a gorgeous duet at the end of Act I between Pyrrhus and Andromaca, but mostly it is da capo aria after da capo aria for the various voices that highlight a certain low female or high male vocal range.

The breadth of Bay Area musical talent was on full display here and the diversity of sound was impressive. Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, also the leader of Ars Minerva and stage director of this opera, sang a focused and really quite frightening Circe. Her incisive, precise delivery is such a contrast with fellow mezzo Kindra Scharich's smooth, rich tones as Andromaca, not to mention Jasmine Johnson's vivid near baritone as Aegle (who pretends to be the male gardener Floreno for most of the show). The lone soprano was Aurélie Veruni as the hapless Scylla, so carefree and coquettish, wrongfully hated by Circe, who turns her into a sea monster.

Countertenor Ryan Belongie sang Pyrrhus with sweetness, while tenor Kyle Stegall was a charmingly rakish Glauco. Tenor Jonathan Smucker got many laughs as the clownish Gligoro. Rounding out the cast was baritone Igor Vieira, who sang three small roles (Custode del Porto, Tissandro, and Creonte) with ease.

The small orchestra included a harpsichord, two violins, a viola, and a theorbo. The playing was neat and astringent. My miswired brain tasted unripe persimmon after Glauco sees his love Scylla transformed, and oddly my teeth ached for the rest of the opera.

 The staging featured the dancer Katherine Hutchinson. Her work with aerial silks was a wonderful spectacle. Her strength in her first dance and her skin-matching unitard got an audible gasp from the audience.

* Tattling * 
I was mildly surprised about how many of my friends were in the audience, skipping the San Francisco Opera opening for this obscure gem. The audience was attentive and quiet, those that received flower crowns from Scylla in Act I wore them with pride.

The end of this opera was very abrupt.


Ars Minerva's La Circe Preview

Circe_Offering_the_Cup_to_OdysseusFor the first time in more than a decade, I am going to skip to San Francisco Opera's opening weekend, as Ars Minerva presents the modern premiere of La Circe, an obscure Baroque opera this Friday and Saturday. I, of course, have a soft spot for Baroque operas and am not particularly interested in Turandot (though of course I will hear both casts, I'm sure).

This will be the third time Ars Minerva will bring an unknown Italian Baroque opera to the stage. This one is by Pietro-Andrea Ziani and hasn't been heard since the 1665 premiere in Vienna.

The semi-staged production looks to be an intimate affair, with eight singers, six musicians, and an acrobat performing at the ODC Theater in the Mission.

The cast boasts a host of local talent including mezzo-soprano and Ars Minerva director Céline Ricci, tenor Kyle Stegall, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, and baritone Igor Vieira.

There are only two performances, this Friday and Saturday, so competes directly with San Francisco Opera opening night and the premiere of Elektra. Tickets for La Circe are available here.


West Edge Opera's L'arbore di Diana

Arbore-di-diana-2017* Notes * 
West Edge Opera has found a new home at Pacific Pipe, an abandoned warehouse in Oakland this year, after the City of Oakland denied permits public events at the 16th Street Station, where the company performed the previous two seasons. Since I had a baby a scant 12 weeks ago, I decided to attend only one of the three productions, choosing Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana. It turned out very well for me, the music is delightful, the production amusing, the conducting crisp, and the singers fantastic.

Martín, a contemporary of Mozart, is best known today for the quote of "O quanto in sì bel giubilo" from Una cosa rara at the second act of Don Giovanni. Interestingly, both these works and L'arbore di Diana are by the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The music of L'arbore di Diana is jaunty and attractive, and the small orchestra played nicely under the direction of Maestro Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff of San Francisco Opera and was an Adler Fellow. The fortepiano, played by Mollicone, was amplified, and this was disorienting (especially at first) because the sound came from a different direction than the instrument. There were times when the singers and orchestra were slightly off from each other, but for the most part, the playing was pretty clean.

Director Mark Streshinsky is at his best with this sort of divinely silly opera. The tree of the title is made of ladders and pink tulle, complete with fruit to pelt unchaste nymphs. The fruit are the dancers of the Sarah Berges Dance Company, and their costumes, emerald lame leotards each emblazoned with a single golden breast, pink areola, and multicolored flashing light as a nipple, are hilarious. The dancers mutely comment on the action, their expressions and gestures are priceless.

The singing was likewise excellent. The trio of nymphs (pictured above with dancers) included soprano Maya Kherani (Britomarte), mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney (Clizia), and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss (Chloe), who all have beautiful voices and sang wonderfully together. Tenor Kyle Stegall's voice rang out clearly, even though the venue doesn't have ideal acoustics at all, hardly having walls. His Endimione, love interest of Diana, is convincing, as Stegall is tall and handsome.

The dueling sopranos Christine Brandes (Cupid) and Nikki Einfeld (Diana) were no less appealing. While I'm not a fan of Brandes' incisive sound, it works in this space, and was a good foil for Einfeld, whose flexible voice is nothing short of gorgeous. Einfeld can also pull off wearing a floor length blue sequined gown with fluffy blonde wig and still look slim and perfectly self-possessed. I was impressed by her coloratura and happy to hear her in something so different from Opera Parallèle's Flight earlier in the year.

 

* Tattling * 
I bought an expensive ticket for this opera so that I could have an assigned seat rather than being in the general admission section. It was worth the price for me, as I was not next to anyone in Row B Seat 24 and did not have to get to the venue early to stake out a good seat.


Merola's La Cenerentola

Merola_cenerentola_2017_loken_2400x1800* Notes * 
The second set of opera performances from the Merola Opera Program this year was Rossini's La Cenerentola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on August 3 and 5. The sugary sweet staging from Chuck Hudson showcased a plethora of fine young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) supported by conductor Mark Morash and a mostly competent orchestra.

The production featured three wardrobes moved around the stage by the male chorus, meant to look like the doors of various edifices. The costumes were slightly baffling, the male chorus members wore moto jeans splattered with paint and none of the women's clothing seemed to have sleeves. The choreography involved a lot of voguing.

But as usual for Merola, the voices were preeminent, and even the smallest roles are filled by very strong talents. Soprano Natalie Image, Clorinda, one of the step-sisters, has an especially gorgeous voice, and one would love to hear her sing more. The trio of bass-baritones were all strong. Szymon Wach sounded lovely as Alidoro, Christian Pursell made for a dashing, pretty voiced Dandini, and Andrew Hiers was a perfectly silly Don Magnifico.

Anthony Ciaramitaro has a sweet-toned tenor suited for Prince Ramiro, contrasting well with mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey's dusky sound. Hankey has a fabulous physicality that Ciaramitaro obviously lacks, she moves in an elastic and adorable way that made the cloying title role much more sympathetic.

* Tattling *
I was so sad to learn that long-time opera supporter John Lindstrom died a few weeks before the performances, which were dedicated to his memory.


Merola's Triple Bill

Merola-the-bear-2017* Notes * 
The Merola Opera Program presented a triple bill of Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, Holst's Sāvitri, and Walton's The Bear at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 20 and 22. It came off as a deadly boring tragedy sandwiched by cutesy frills, perhaps because of Peter Kazaras' staging. But as always, the singers were almost all great.

La Serva Padrona ("The Servant Turned Mistress") is a light, bubbly piece, only 45 minutes long. Full of sight gags, the production did get a lot of laughs, from the popcorn eating of mute Vespone (played by David Wiegel) at the start to the fake parrot on his shoulder when he pretends to be a very pirate-like Tempesta near the end. Jana McIntyre's Serpina was sassy and stylish, her sound is bright. As Uberto, Daniel Noyola was perfectly hapless, and his voice has a pleasant weight to it.

Sāvitri was staged in a stark, static manner, it dragged a bit for being so short, a mere 40 minutes or so. The title role sounded challenging for Kelsea Webb, though she has a big voice. The men, David Wiegel as Death and Addison Marlor as Satyavān, fared better. Wiegel's sound is deep and grave, and such a stark contrast to his role in the previous opera.

Of the three pieces, The Bear (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) was most successful, though also staged in a silly and quaint way. Daniel Noyola was hardly recognizable as servant Luka. Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum has an impressive stage presence, and delighted as Smirnov, while mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was a convincing Popova.

* Tattling *
The audience was fairly quiet, though the person on my right elbowed me many times during the first opera as he took notes (he was left-handed), and I had nowhere to shift away, until the next opera, when the lady next to me was notably absent.


SF Opera's Don Giovanni 2017 Cast Change

Erwin Schrott_pic1_ThommyMardo (2)Bass-baritone Erwin Schrott (pictured left) and bass Erik Anstine will share the role of Leporello in Don Giovanni at San Francisco Opera this summer. Both artists are making their debuts with the company and are stepping in for previously scheduled bass Marco Vinco, who has withdrawn for health reasons. Schrott is scheduled to sing the first six performances from June 4 to 21 and Anstine the last two on June 24 and 30.

Don Giovanni | San Francisco Opera Press Release


Steve Jobs Opera in SF and Seattle

MasonBates by Todd Rosenberg 53San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera will both present Mason Bates' opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The piece has a world premiere this July at Santa Fe Opera.

The piece is part of the 2019-20 season at San Francisco Opera and the 2018-19 season at Seattle Opera.

SF Opera Press Release | Seattle Opera Press Release