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September 2002
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November 2002

Trallalera, trallalera.

I have a hard time understanding why a person, or a group of people, would feel the need to vocalize or clap at a television set. But I don't even understand the need to clap before the music is finished at the opera just because the singing is done, as in after an aria, and so forth, and that involves live humans fairly near at hand. So it isn't surprising that I don't understand. It just seems that audiences are very absorbed in themselves, they do not forget themselves and their own part. So interested in themselves and their role as consumers. The commodifaction of art is rather depressing, but nothing new.

Last Sunday's matinee of Die Entführung aus dem Serail was much better attended than the previous Sunday. The bass role was sung this time by Friedemann Röhlig, who is a skinny young man not as well suited to the role of Osmin as Michael Eder. Röhlig lacked gravity, and made the audience laugh quite a lot, which is certainly fine, as it is a comic role. But Eder's performance was more challenging, a little tragic even. More ambiguous. Röhlig's low range was nice, but he sounded uncomfortable higher up. I'm beginning to appreciate how hard that role is, the person it was written for had an impressive range.

Regina Schörg had the beginnings of influenza, and she was even more strained than before. I believe she missed a few high notes in her aria "Marten von alle Arten", but nevertheless, she did well under the circumstances.

This time I was struck by how nice the choreography was at the very end of the opera, when the chorus is singing as the Europeans take their leave of Pasha Selim. I also noticed that Belmonte's fall after his aria in Act I, "Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen, dich!" is rather absurd. There is another silly part where they have him throw his coat, but I don't remember at what point.

I was asked if I was from Tibet while in the standing room line. I also met some nice opera coots and discussed Monteverdi and Shakespeare.

Circling all round the sun

Die Entführung aus dem Serail again on Sunday afternoon and Otello again with Tuesday evening. I was struck by how different the former opera's set looks up close and how consistent and monolithic the latter one's set was even when immediate.

The delicate projections used on the palace in Die Entführung aus dem Serail were lost on me in the dress circle, but from up close they were lovely. I decided on Sunday that I could hear Entführung at least ten times in a row and not tire of this lively music.

The choreography and staging for Otello seemed a bit more absurd close at hand, the two times Otello pushed Desdemona to the ground, the two times he fell down stairs, and the dropping of both scimitar and dagger down stairs. All somewhat much taken together.


Olivier Messiaen's only opera, Saint François d'Assise, closed last night at San Francisco Opera after a run of six performances. This production was the first staged one in North America, and there was much to do about it. The house was quite full, as the production received some acclaim. I was curious what all the fluffle was about, as I have heard Les Mages from his organ cycle La nativité du Seigneur, which only provoked a fit of hysterical giggling.

The music was often choppy, very chromatic and discontinuous. In addition to a full orchestra, there were five gamelan percussionists and three ondes martenot players. These eight people were visible on either side of the stage in little platforms, apparently there was not enough room for them in the orchestra pit. I found gamelan very odd next to violin & co., to say the least. As for the ondes martenot, the instrument is supposed to have an unworldly sound, but I must say I prefer the harp or organ for this quality. The ondes martenot sounds more like a mobile phone than music from heavenly spheres.

They say that Messiaen was interested in suspending time, subverting the very idea. But I could never get lost in his music, at times the music was indeed dull. But I did like his libretto, which he wrote himself, long as it was it was dramatic enough and not at all unreasonable.

The singing was pretty, sometimes sounding very much like an oratorio. I particularly liked the L'Ange, sung by Laura Aikin. The part was eerie, and Aikin moved in a sort of naive and graceful way that was apt. Some of her choreography recalled Martha Graham. Willard White was a convincing Saint François, he has a rich baritone that is kindly. In the seventh scene, when François receives the stigmata, he is lifted on a beam and rends his clothes. At in these moments he looked like a Zeus coming down from the heavens.

As far as the rest of the singing, none of the other soloists stuck out as being either good or bad. The chorus was nice, especially in that seventh scene, the ardent strains of "François! François!" where a relief.

The staging was perhaps the prime reason most people could sit (or stand, as in my case) four and a half hours for this opera. The set was sparse mostly involved a spiral path that could be turned. It was fairly quiet for how large it was, making a sort of crinkling noise that could be drowned out by percussion but not voices. The costumes were likewise simple, monks in rough habits, angel in an ultramarine blue body suit with one wing, and the chorus in trench coats, some with hats. All together it felt a bit like a Magritte painting.

There were clever things done with the scrim, with projections, and an especially cunning use of snow on that spiral road.

Before the opera I was asked when Messiaen lived and how Charles Barber's pre-opera lecture was. During the intermissions I was asked a plethora of questions about how standing room in the orchestra section worked, and whether or not one could find a seat. I was also offered seats on two occasions. On my way home I was asked if I was a "Spanish" dancer, and if I thought the opera sounded "eastern."

Wer so wie du nur zangen kann, den sieht man mit Verazhtung an!

Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail opened last night at San Francisco Opera, with Peter Schneider conducting, and a whole gaggle of singers, and one actor, from the Germanic realms.

The production seemed to not have confidence in either Mozart's music to enchant or the audience's ability to attend to this music, and the beautiful opening overture was marred by Belmonte coming out onstage and disrobing with the assistance of two servants, and changing into other attire. Other examples of this lack of confidence was seen in the five lines of English given to Blonde, one of which was "Here I am, an Englisher, speaking German to a Turk." These interspersed lines delighted the audience in a certain way, but they were distracting. There was also a ridiculous use of a cut out moon during Belmont's aria Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen in Act II, in which the moon was lowered all the way down, and Konstanze leaned against it as she was listening.

However, the singers all had pleasing voices. Paul Groves was the best tenor I've heard at SF Opera all season, and he sparkled as Belmonte. His voice had good volume and was sweetly supple. His spoken German stood out as non-native compared to the others though. Regina Schörg as Kontanze, on the other hand, had being Viennese to her advantage. Her voice was a pretty one, though at times it was strained and slightly brittle. Schörg did well in her back-to-back arias in Act II (Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele and Martern aller Arten), she held back a little in the first one, but the second was simply beautiful.

Peter Bronder (Pedrillo), Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Blonde), and Michael Eder (Osmin) all were adequate in their parts. Welch-Babidge has a bird-like voice that was suited for Blonde. Eder's voice was just didn't quite carry perfectly, just a touch quiet, and he didn't quite get his low notes. Frank Hoffman was a fine Pasha Selim, a speaking part, and they were able to integrate the speaking and singing parts just so, never leaving one horribly confused on why this part is only spoken.

The staging was fairly good. The palace was a cross between a dollhouse and a wedding cake, which was cute, but the peach color added to a cultivated falseness of the set. The outer wall used in Act I was too dark of a mahogany for the lightness of the palace, the colors were not harmonious. The floor was done wonderfully though, blue tile with a vine pattern. The outer screen they used was painted showing the setting from afar, the sea with ships and the land with palace. It looked a bit like a tapestry with hues reminiscent of Chagall.

The choreography was artificial, lots of spinning and dancerly movements. Unfortunately the singers, save for Welch-Babidge, were not good enough dancers to carry this off well. Schörg looked uncomfortable wearing sandals in Act II, as if she didn't know she had feet before. Bronder shuffled and skipped like a young bird who couldn't stay still. However, Eder had a certain gravity of movement that was particularly good when he was praying. Just with slight but very graceful motions he was able to silence everyone.

The costumes were quite pretty, as usual. One would think that if they could get the costumes in harmonious hues, that they could make the set match.

Uccidere non voglio l'anima tua.

A production owned by the Washington Opera of Verdi's Otello opened at San Francisco Opera last Wednesday. Tenor Ben Heppner was to sing the titular role, but withdrew earlier in the year. Consequently, the part is now being shared by Jon Fredric West and Timothy Mussard. West's voice is not particularly stunning. West sounded cold especially next to baritone Sergei Leiferkus' fiery Iago. Patricia Racette was an adequate Desdemona, her voice is neither sweet nor passionate, but has a watery quality that is neither here nor there.

The sets were gorgeous and included beautiful arches devised to look like grey stone. The costumes were what one would expect, mostly Renaissance Venetian in character, with some of the chorus in Orientalist garb.

The choreography was carried off well, there was much swooning and Desdemona was thrown to the ground a few times by Otello, and these movements were staged nicely. Catherine Cook as Emilia seemed as though she were on the verge of a seizure even from the dress circle. Her movements were too big and sharp.

A nice production, but not inspired. Maybe I simply do not like Verdi as well as Mozart or Händel.