June 27- August 23 2008: Falstaff
June 28- August 22 2008: Le Nozze di Figaro
July 12- August 21 2008: Billy Budd
July 19- August 20 2008: Radamisto
July 26- August 12 2008: Adriana Mater
The next season at Santa Fe Opera includes the US premiere of Kaija Saariaho's newest opera. Naturally the production of Händel is from David Alden, whose work I am all too familiar with from Munich. David Daniels will be singing the title role of Radamisto. William Burden is singing Starry Vere in Billy Budd. Mariusz Kwiecien will be singing Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro.
* Notes *
Tonight was the last of eight performance of Iphigénie en Tauride at Seattle Opera.This co-production with the Met is yet another Wadsworth/Lynch collaboration, this one tending more toward the elaborately overwrought (Rodelinda) rather than the staid clean lines (Lohengrin). The stage was had a claustrophobic feel, as it was divided into three parts: the main temple, an antechamber, and a sliver of the outdoors. At times one felt that there were characters in different areas for no particular reason. At some point in Act IV a Greek woman prays to a figure of Diana in the antechamber and gasps, though the singing is all happening in the other part of the stage. Later she dances about outside, and it is as if Wadsworth needs to fill every moment with motion.
The set was not contemporary, as so many of the attempts at Gluck's operas are. I did not quite understand the use of Artemis of Ephesus, there was a huge statue of her, but carrying a bow. It was an odd combination of the Greek Artemis, the virgin huntress, and the Ephesian Artemis, the many-breasted fertility goddess. The costumes suggested the draped figures one thinks of as classical, with the exceptions of Iphigénie, who looked more like a French revolutionary in her long black coat and Diana, who looked like a Goth Xena the Warrior Princess.
The opera opens with a depiction of Iphigénie's sacrifice in Aulis, and with Diana coming down from the sky to save her. The image was arresting, but possibly confusing and also ruins the surprise of how Diana enters in the Dea ex Machina at the end, of course, it is almost exactly the same. This sets the tone for the staging, we are shown what happens in the past, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon appear and we witness the latter's murder as Orest sings in Act II.
The staging involved a lot of dancing that was not quite synchronized, some of this was intentional, but sometimes it was unclear if the dancers were supposed to be together or not. Daniel Peizig's choreography for the ladies included much spinning around, and for the men something strangely akin to Morris dancing.
As for singing, I found Nuccia Focile detestable in the title role, her voice may be beautiful in Puccini, but was at times nearly unbearable in Gluck. She has far too much vibrato, and unsurprisingly she is quoted in the program as saying "You sometimes hear the music of Gluck sung in a very detached manner, almost no vibrato, but I believe this repertoire must be sung on the full tone of the voice." It was clear that she has fine control of her voice, and she chose to sing Gluck this way. Thankfully, the other lead, baritone Brett Polegato, was able to sing Orest with passion, yet not with constant wobbling. Tenor William Burden turned out a fine performance as Pylad, his voice sweet, yet with good volume and little strain. Phillip Joll sounded breathy and gasping as Thoas, though he was audible, his voice still seemed underpowered.
* Tattling *
Standing room was full just before the performance, but nearly everyone was able to find a seat. The performance began late, but there was no late seating once the music began. There was very little whispering, though people did discuss the appearance of Clytemnestra in the wall between Orest and Iphigénie. I particularly noted a pair of women in Section 3 Row AA Seats 7 and 8, who also whispered during the beginning of Act III. Someone sitting in Row BB had a plastic bottle, or something of that sort that made 3 or 4 clicking sounds during the music. But, to be honest, all this was minor, the whispering was quiet and not continual and the water bottle sounds were infrequent. The worst disturbance was at the end of the opera, around 10pm no less than 4 watch alarms went off to mark the hour. If the performance had started on time, this could have been avoided.
* Notes *
Appomattox ended its 7 performance run yesterday. Sara Jobin conducted well, and the only weak points I noticed were when the orchestra overwhelmed Brian Leerhuber (Robert E. Lee) at the end of Act I Scene 2 and during the choral "Clap your hands all you people" in Act I Scene 4. Brian Leerhuber sang beautifully, his diction was good and his Southern drawl was convincing. Rhoslyn Jones (Julia Dent Grant) sang the finale particularly well this time, with good volume but also delicacy.
* Tattling *
The house was fairly full for this final performance, but not entirely, despite the special 50% offer on the tickets. The audience was quiet, except for some person in the orchestra with a plastic bag who made quite a lot of noise for most of Act I Scene 3. The only applause during the performance for the scene change between Act I Scene 2 and Scene 3, I believe this was because a metallic wall comes down to hide the upstage.
It only took three viewings, but this time I noticed that baritone Michael Mohammed, who works with Oakland Opera Theater, was part of the chorus. Looking more carefully at the program, I see that bass Anthony Russell (A freed slave) also sang at OOT.
* Notes *
Last night was the fifth performance of Die Zauberflöte at San Francisco Opera, just over halfway through the run, which closes November 3rd. From standing room in the balcony, one can appreciate the colorful designs on the floor, but sadly, only the arms of the Queen of the Night were visible in her first aria. Erika Miklósa's face was obscured by proscenium, and it was still difficult to hear her, though usually one can hear the singers better from the back of the balcony than from the back of the orchestra level.
This time around I was more impressed with Dina Kuznetsova, she and Christopher Maltman sang "Bei Männern" especially well. The Three Boys sounded more together, though the wings of their stork-craft partially obstructed the heads of the children.
As for other performances, I particularly noticed Greg Fedderly as Monostatos, the tenor has good volume and excellent acting skills. Georg Zeppenfeld's rendering of "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" was lovely. The orchestra also sounded quite fine, Runnicles took brisk tempi.
* Tattling *
Standing room was nearly empty on the balcony level, but the seats were relatively full, considering that it was a Tuesday night. There were latecomers that leaned on the railings, which would have been fine, but a gasping pair took it upon themselves to whisper and rearrange themselves. When a harsh look failed to silence them, a hushing made them flee.
People clapped for the hybrid animals in Act I Scene 15 while Tamino was still singing. However, the people directly in front of me (Row L Seats 111-125) were extraordinarily well-behaved. No one spoke, the only noise incidents were when one person quickly unwrapped a candy and another pressed in the plastic of a water bottle by accident.
The scene changes were quieter than opening night. The only time they were disturbing was when the Three Boys sing "Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden" in Act II Scene 26. Since it is only the three children singing, the orchestra is also quiet, just strings, flute, and bassoon. So the noise from the set being put into place was noticeable.
A fortnight ago I was reading E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and laughed quite heartily at the following scene in Chapter 6 at a performance of Lucia:
Harriet, meanwhile, had been coughing ominously at the drop-scene, which presently rose on the grounds of Ravenswood, and the chorus of Scotch retainers burst into cry. The audience accompanied with tappings and drummings, swaying in the melody like corn in the wind. Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it. She uttered an acid "Shish!"
"Shut it," whispered her brother.
"We must make a stand from the beginning. They're talking."
"It is tiresome," murmured Miss Abbott; "but perhaps it isn't for us to interfere."
Harriet shook her head and shished again. The people were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor. For a little time she kept the whole house in order, and could smile at her brother complacently.
Her success annoyed him. He had grasped the principle of opera in Italy--it aims not at illusion but at entertainment--and he did not want this great evening-party to turn into a prayer-meeting. But soon the boxes began to fill, and Harriet's power was over. Families greeted each other across the auditorium. People in the pit hailed their brothers and sons in the chorus, and told them how well they were singing. When Lucia appeared by the fountain there was loud applause, and cries of "Welcome to Monteriano!"
"Ridiculous babies!" said Harriet, settling down in her stall.
Asher Fisch has been appointed the new Principal Guest Conductor of Seattle Opera. He debuted at there in 2003 with Parsifal last season and returns on August 16, 2008 to conduct the International Wagner Competition.
* Notes *
Peter Hall's 1992 production of Die Zauberflöte opened at San Francisco Opera last Saturday. It certainly was odd to see all of Gerald Scarfe's funny designs again, for this production was my first at Los Angeles Opera, and I did not enjoy it particularly then, as I was even crankier in my youth. The cartoon aesthetic is at times grating, particularly the ridiculous faux East Asian meets Star Wars costumes, beards, and Playmobil hair on the chorus. The hybrid animals in Act I Scene 15 are charming, but it might have been nice if they had moved more with the music. The feather-covered costumes are excellent for Papageno and Papagena, as are the spooky contours of the Queen of the Night's gown. The Dea Ex Machina entrance of the Queen of the Night in Act I is both effective and striking, and generally the staging is good, visually the scenes change nicely and without much fuss.
The cast is certainly the best I have heard sing Die Zauberflöte. Piotr Beczala is nearly perfect in the role of Tamino, his volume is good and his vibrato in control. There were times when he spoke that I had a difficult time discerning the German, but his diction in his singing is clear. I was disappointed that Rebecca Evans took ill and canceled as Pamina, but Dina Kuznetsova is admirable in the role. She has slightly more vibrato than I enjoy, and her German diction is not crisp, but otherwise she turned out a fine performance. Christopher Maltman makes a hilarious Papageno, his diction is precise and his voice warm. Erika Miklósa hit every note as the Queen of the Night, and never sounded as if she were straining terribly. She was somewhat quiet in her first aria, perhaps because she was suspended upstage from the ceiling. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld lower notes as Sarastro are quiet, but otherwise he acted and sang well. Many of the other roles were filled with Adlers, Elza van den Heever, Kendall Gladen, and Katharine Tier were adorable as the Three Ladies, sprightly and not shrill in the least. I actually liked Rhoslyn Jones as Papagena, her vibrato did not drive me crazy and her voice was not noticeably louder than Maltman's. I was disappointed by the Three Boys, they were not exactly together, but perhaps that will be worked out in time.
* Tattling *
There were quite a lot of people on the orchestra level, standing room looked full, though Row ZZ was not. There were some whispers, but it was only in Row ZZ that people actually seemed to speak aloud, despite repeated hushings.
The scene changes were, at times, audible. There seemed to be a frightful amount of crashing behind lowered screens.
The use of a green costume for Monostatos side-stepped the racial stereotype, and "grün" replaced "schwarz" in the text.
* Notes *
Late in September, Oakland Opera Theater was forced to move from their location on Broadway at 2nd Street to 3rd Street at Martin Luther King Junior Way. Nonetheless, the company presented Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954) from October 5 to 14. The production was set in Louisiana instead of England, which was lost on me until I read the description later. I had wondered why Mama Grouse had pronounced the voiced dental fricative /ð/ as plosive [d]. Had I read Henry James' novella, I would have noted that this character is called Mrs. Grose in the text.
The singing was solid. Anja Strauss turned out a fine performance as the Governess, though I was afraid her eyes might pop out of her head by the end, her voice is clear and pretty. Her diction in English was nearly perfect, only her way of saying "of" with a voiceless rather than a voiced fricative, betrayed her origins. It was a bit difficult to tell how exactly Gerald Seminatore and Marta Johansen were as the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel, as they sang from offstage, but they seemed good though not terribly distinctive. Seminatore's voice cracked slightly as the Prologue. Lori Willis was convincing as Mama Grouse, though she must be rather young, she was able to pull off playing the old housekeeper well. Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej were a creepy pair as the children Miles and Flora, Fisher's voice is lovely but quiet, Matej seemed slightly off key at a few points, but her volume was good.
The orchestra only requires an ensemble of thirteen, which suits the small scale of the Oakland Opera Theater. Deirdre McClure conducted, and everything seemed to go well. Because there was no pit, the orchestra was seated stage right. It made the balance between singers and orchestra off, but it was quite easy to hear the singers because of this.
The opera is about 2 hours long and is divided into a prologue and sixteen scenes. I found the music tiresomely unlyrical, and unlike Billy Budd, the libretto has no entertaining lines. I was taken with the use of nursery rhymes such as "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" and "Lavender's Blue." My favorite was the homonym aria "Malo, Malo" sung by Miles.
The production was of a higher quality than I have seen from Oakland Opera Theater in the past. The costumes did not look like they were leftover Halloween costumes, in fact, everyone looked pretty smart. The stage had a piece that rotated, so the many scenes could be easily changed. Most of the furniture looked appropriate, though some of the pictures on the walls looked a little shoddy. There were some simple aerial acrobatics done by the ghosts, but the singers were kept offstage and the acting left to the performance artists from The Starlings Trapeze Duo.
I found the insertion of the Mammy Caricature in the guise of Mama Grouse disquieting. One one hand, it is good to see non-whites on stage, particularly when they are as talented as Lori Willis. On the other hand, this ugly stereotype was not delved into, so the usage smacks of tokenism and cultural appropriation.
Overall, I was mostly engaged by the spectacle aspect of the opera, rather than the music or the drama. It was difficult to feel sympathetic to the plight of the Governess, she is not fleshed out as a character, and even less still for the children, who are just frightening. I am not sure if this is because of the libretto, the music, the production, or my own ignorance. I was, however, impressed by Oakland Opera Theater's tenacity, and hope to see them thrive their new space.
* Tattling *
The house was not full last Thursday night, there were a few rows that had no one in them at all. Even still I was nearly falling out of my front aisle seat, as the narrow chairs were zip-tied together and someone chose to sit next to me. The performance started with the ringing of a telephone, which was not intended. Otherwise, people did whisper a little, but this was minor and not distracting.
* Notes *
Appomattox had its world premiere last Friday. I must confess I do not enjoy contemporary music, in fact, I am not overfond of many operas after Fidelio. This is ridiculous, given that this encompasses Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Setting that aside, I found Appomattox rather less challenging than Doctor Atomic, Le Grand Macabre, or Saint François d'Assise. I even got the chorus of Jimmie Lee stuck in my head after the final dress rehearsal, and noted that this was the only part that garnered applause during the music.
As for singing, I thought it was something of a shame that all the lead female roles were filled with Adler Fellows. It is not that they are not good or have poor voices, but they do lack experience. Particularly with Julia Dent Grant, the role is prominent and may have been better with someone with more control of her voice. Rhoslyn Jones, who sings this role, has a big voice with lots of vibrato. Her voice is pleasing in her middle range. I remember her quite clearly as Frasquita in Carmen last season, so she is, at least, consistent and distinct. On the other hand, it was difficult to tell that is was Elza van den Heever in the role of Mary Custis Lee, the role did not show off how pretty her voice can be. Her Southern accent was not as prominent as it could have been, at times she dropped it. Ji Young Yang's accent as Julia Agnes Lee was certainly not Southern, her alveolar approximant /ɹ/,had a certain lateral quality. Yang's voice is otherwise bright and very pretty. Heidi Melton sang well as Mary Todd Lincoln, though her voice is a bit harsh in the higher range too. Her acting was strong. Kendall Gladen was the only mezzo, as Elizabeth Keckley, and she sounded lovely, though she was quieter than Melton, with whom she sang.
Dwayne Croft was excellent as Robert E. Lee, his voice is sweet and he carried himself in a suitably dignified manner. There were a couple of times that his voice was overwhelmed but the orchestra, but I suspect this is partially because I was in orchestra standing room, where quieter voices sometimes get lost. Andrew Shore was slightly less appealing as Ulysses S. Grant, but his American accent was clear and he was always audible. He sang a duet with Julia Dent Grant in Act I Scene 3 that was particularly moving. For the other male roles, tenor and Adler Noah Stewart stood out as T. Morris Chester, his acting was stirring and his voice carried well.
* Tattling *
Sara Jobin did not seem comfortable giving the opera talk, she looked at her watch many times. The conductor did sing parts of the opera, since there were no recordings for her to play, and that was absolutely charming. The orchestra and boxes looked full, though I heard the attendance up in the balcony was sparser. There was a little whispering, but for the most part everyone was respectful and quiet. The work received a standing ovation.
* Notes *
The final dress rehearsal of Appomattox was last night. On the whole, I found the music, libretto, and production rather dark and a bit heavy-handed. The music, unsurprisingly, is reiterative and the singing style more declamatory than lyrical. There are no soaring high notes, but this does keep the text clear, at least when the balance between orchestra and singers was right. The two male leads are both baritones, but their voices are distinct enough from each other. The soprano role of Julia Dent Grant is significant, she begins the piece a cappella, there is no overture at all, and she ends the opera along with a women's chorus.
The choral parts are lovely, especially the Civil War era "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" at the end of Act I Scene 1, the black Union soldiers singing in Act I Scene 4, and the song concerning Jimmie Lee Jackson in Act II.
The set has a modern sensibility, lots of metal and such, but with period furniture and costumes. There were disturbing visual elements such as the cart full of amputated body parts in the Prologue and dead horses hanging from the ceiling in Act I Scene 4 and the Epilogue.
Though Act I is completely set in April 1865, Act II is interspersed with scenes in the from Reconstruction, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and a present day first-person account of the Mississippi civil rights worker murders. Though it is true that the ramifications of the American Civil War exist even now, these jarring direct links provided by the libretto are somewhat preachy and disconcerting.
I have not a few impressions on the singing thus far, but will wait until after the opening to solidify my opinions.
* Tattling *
There were several groups of students at this performance and they were somewhat loud and had to be hushed several times. For the most part they were quiet after that except during Edgar Ray Killen's aria at the end of Act II. The opera has ten instances of American English's most troublesome racial slur, more than half of which are in the aforementioned aria.
Baritone Thomas Hampson, who just sang in "Das Lied von der Erde" last week at San Francisco Symphony, was in attendance, as was Amy Tan, whose book The Bonesetter's Daughter is to be premiered as an opera next year.
Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Appomattox yesterday evening. The panelists included composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, director Robert Woodruff, baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee), and baritone Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant). Each person was asked about how he became part of this world premiere. We learnt that Christopher Hampton knew little about the American Civil War; that Dennis Russell Davies sent Philip Glass a recording of the "Tenting Tonight," which was included in the opera; that there were two baritones as leads to make it easier for the words to be understood; and that the two baritones were distinguished by a major second.
Last night, Philip Glass was interviewed by David Gockley at the Interview with an Icon donor event. The first half of the interview was devoted to Glass' life, working at his father's record store as a child; going to Peabody, University of Chicago, and Julliard; studying with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar; his operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten; and his work in film. The second half had to do with Appomattox, which opens this Friday in a world premiere. Among the details discussed were the librettist Christopher Hampton and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, both of whom are having their San Francisco Opera debuts with Appomattox. This latest opera has two baritones as leads, Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee and Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant. Apparently the costumes are period, the sets minimalistic, and the opera covers not only the Civil War, but comes up to the present day.
* Tattling *
The venue was moved from the opera house to Herbst Theatre, and they did not open the doors until ten minutes before the event. Philip Glass mumbled a great deal, and mistakenly said "Los Angeles" for "San Francisco" at one point, and David Gockley kicked him. Gockley had a cold and also took one of his shoes off during the interview. The audience, however, was very well-behaved.
This interview will probably be made into a podcast.