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Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!

Hvorostovsky  * Notes *
The season opener, Simon Boccanegra, closed at San Francisco Opera last night. The first half still remained somewhat unfocused, but the second half did come together nicely. The chorus and the orchestra were synchronized. Vitalij Kowaljow (Jacopo Fiesco) and Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo Albiani) were consistently strong. Marcus Haddock was less stiff as Gabriele, and he sang "Sento avvampar nell'anima" beautifully. Barbara Frittoli did better with "Come in quest'ora bruna" but her wide vibrato compromised her pitch a few times. Her voice is quite pretty and in the end I preferred her to Ana María Martínez. Dmitri Hvorostovsky's breaths were not as noisy this time around, I only really noticed his loud breathing during "Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!"

The staging seemed gutted to me, perhaps just knowing that there had been elements that were taken out and not replaced was a factor in this. However, much of the movement on stage was not well motivated, some of the entrances and exits simply seemed random. I was particularly bothered by near end of the prologue, some supers walk across the stage perfectly with the music but for no real dramatic effect. Fiesco also leaves the scene at one point for no particular reason.

* Tattling * 
Often I forget we live in such permissive and self-indulgent times, my friends! I really need to remember not to go to the closing performances, although more than 99% of the audience is able to behave properly, there is that pesky less than 1% that can ruin an evening. I was very happy to not be in the boxes, as a middle-aged woman in Box B kept standing up right in the middle of the box. One of the problems with a box is if one is not in the first row, it can be difficult to see the whole stage. If one were to stand in one's box, perhaps it would be more socially acceptable to stand at the back of the box. Maybe it would be nice if one were to remain standing the entire time, rather than getting up and down again and again. I would imagine it would be distracting to have someone hovering over you, but the person in question seemed to have no qualms about this.

Despite my love of tattling, there are times that even I become exhausted enforcing other people's behavior. There was much whispering during the opera, and the Italian couple next to me in standing room were even talking during much of the singing. I did not hush them, though I should have, and simply tried to ignore their speech. Finally during Act II I turned to the man who was speaking and merely raised my left eyebrow at him. The pair were silent for the rest of the performance.

Unsere Liebe war, ist, und wird sein

Die-tote-stadt-actii  * Notes *
The second performance of Die Tote Stadt at San Francisco Opera only served to solidify my opinion on this work, which surely deserves to be part of the standard repertoire. Willy Decker's production, directed by Meisje Hummel in this revival, has its own complete conception and is consistent throughout. Instead of trying to recapture a fossilized past, the staging is fairly bizarre, to be sure. This does not detract from the music, particularly because most of the action takes place within a nightmare.

Certainly, the set was not perfect. Hardly anything can be seen from the back of the house, I was impressed, actually, how much I had missed during the first performance. I suppose this is an argument for OperaVision, but personally I think it might be nicer to have productions that work for our opera house. The set was also pretty noisy during Act II, again, and someone's voice was heard from back stage. John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer is a poor choice for the purposes of the production, it just looks a cartoon blown up, as the painting is somewhat loose. From closer up, the images looked a little tawdry, though they read well from afar.

The sound is better in the back of the balcony, Torsten Kerl was especially dampened when listening from orchestra standing room. The staging does not help in this regard, much of the singing happens upstage. This physical distance from the audience makes the singers lack immediacy, though one can see how it would work better in a smaller house.

The choreography was strong among the Adler Fellows, for instance, Ji Young Yang and Daniela Mack had their cute dancing kicks perfectly together.

* Tattling * 
There were a few empty seats in the orchestra, and I stood behind someone I happen to know. Needless to say, she was well-behaved. Bloggers were out, Cedric of SFist stopped by to say hello, and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Not for Fun Only at intermission.

Emily Magee did not lose her wig this time, at least, not when she was not supposed to.

Die Tote Stadt at SF Opera

Marietta-emily-magee * Notes *
Nearly 88 years after the world premiere, Die Tote Stadt finally opened in San Francisco yesterday evening. The work is certainly a very pretty synthesis of Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini. It is nostalgic, but also prefigures Korngold's work in film scores. The music sounded effortless under the direction of Donald Runnicles, the orchestra did not overwhelm the singers and the tempi were rigorous. The chorus sounded perfectly lovely as well.

All of the smaller singing roles were filled by Adler Fellows, some familiar to the War Memorial stage, such as tenor Andrew Bidlack, soprano Ji Young Yang, and mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier. The other two, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Alek Shrader, had their main stage debuts. They all did well, sounding and looking the parts. Tier was particularly fine as Brigitta, the maid, her diction was clear and her voice is quite promising.

Former Adler Lucas Meachem was convincing as both Frank and Fritz, his acting strong and his volume good. He sang "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" splendidly and without strain. Tenor Torsten Kerl was palatable enough as Paul, there were times when his voice did not quite cut through the orchestra, though he was always audible. On the other hand, Emily Magee's voice soared over the orchestra, she gave a vocally exquisite performance as Marie/Marietta. For the most part her acting was persuasive, though she does not quite have a dancer's self-possession as far as movement is concerned. However, overall the music was gorgeous and everything seemed to come together beautifully.

As I was unable to see much of the production in the balcony, I have little to say about it. From what I could see, it appeared sleek and tasteful. Clearly the set was meant for a different space, and it was annoying when singers' heads could not be seen. The shrine to Mariette was not in evidence as there was almost no furniture, only scattered and badly cropped reproductions of a portrait by John Singer Sargent. The painting of Miss Elsie Palmer looks rather grotesque when blown up to the dimensions necessary for the stage, but was used effectively in the various nightmare sequences. I very much enjoyed the little houses that were moved around upstage, apparently if such stagecraft is used in a dream, it is not considered Eurotrash.

* Tattling * 
There were many empty seats in the balcony, giving me nothing to tattle about as far as audience behavior. However, I did notice, much to my chagrin, that my name appears in the program.

There was a fair amount of banging and crashing as the set was changed, though the aforementioned houses were silent. Emily Magee lost her wig in Act I as she took off her hat, but remained calm, simply smoothing it back onto her head with aplomb.

Die Tote Stadt Panel Discussion

Die-tote-stadt Yesterday evening Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, which has a San Francisco premiere tonight. The panelists included baritone Lucas Meachem (Fritz, Frank), the revival director Meisje Hummel, and conductor Donald Runnicles. The discussion was one of the more informative, and it is too bad San Francisco Opera neglected to put the talk on their monthly calendar. As such, the audience had an even higher percentage of donors than usual, perhaps because as the talk was listed on the membership cards.

The panelists were asked how they each became involved in this co-production of the Vienna State Opera and the 2004 Salzburg Festival. Meachem is debuting his two roles in the opera this evening, but is engaged to sing in Die Tote Stadt again at Teatro Real in 2010. Ms. Hummel was the assistant to Willy Decker, the original director, and worked on the production at the Salzburg Festspiele, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Nederlandse Opera, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Runnicles conducted the work in Salzburg and Vienna, but had not known it previously, with the exceptions of "Mein sehnen, mein wähnen" and "Glück das mir verblieb."

Runnicles did get into the history of this opera, explaining that Korngold was the son of Julius Korngold, a vicious music critic who also happened to be an arch-conservative. It was Korngold's father that wrote the libretto, based on Georges Rodenbach's novella Bruges-la-Morte. The fiendishly difficult music is certainly late Romantic, influenced by Mahler and Strauss, both of whom agreed that Korngold was a genius. Strangely enough, the opera debuted simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne, so great was the demand for this world premiere.

The production itself sounds vaguely Regie, despite all of the promises for no Eurotrash. Both Meachem and Runnicles adore it, saying it is both emotional and cerebral. Meachem mentioned it was his favorite except for the Pique Dame we had a few years ago, and I immediately thought of the oversized skeleton in that production and how much I had to stifle my laughter. Runnicles believes this production is in the top five of the ones he's been involved with for the last 20 years, and that the playing is better with this orchestra compared to Salzburg and Vienna. In any case, this is the only opera besides Idomeneo that I've been truly looking forward to, despite my disdain of Late Romanticism.

Il Trittico at LA Opera

Suor-angelica * Notes *
There has been much ado about Woody Allen directing his first opera, one third of Puccini's Il Trittico, with William Friedkin, famed director of The Exorcist, directing the other two thirds. One cannot help feeling a bit skeptical of Los Angeles Opera hiring three film directors for the opening performances of the season, as of course, the opera in repertory with Puccini is The Fly directed by David Cronenberg. It was a surprise then that Il Trittico is not only good but actually excellent.

Under James Conlon, the orchestra sounded together throughout the three operas, and more or less with the singers as well. The set designer, Santo Loquasto, did a fine job with the sets, they were traditional without being dull. Although each opera is in a different time and place, the look of each was not haphazard, one having absolutely nothing to do with another. Lighting designer Mark Jonathan also helped in this, light was used dramatically in each opera. I only have a minor quibble on the lighting, the effect of water reflecting on various surfaces in Il Tabarro was a bit overdone. It was almost as if the opera was set underwater. Sam Fleming's costumes for Il Tabarro were pretty, and the colors enhanced the painterly set. His costumes for Suor Angelica were perfectly appropriate. It seems Santo Loquasto had fun with the adorable 40s costumes for Gianni Schicchi.

William Friedkin's direction of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica was a perfect balance of letting the music speak for itself but also motivating the drama without being gratuitous. All the details were pitch-perfect, one never felt that someone was entering without any reason, or was doing something just because the director had told them to. It was impressive that such an artificial form, that is, opera, was rendered in a highly naturalistic manner. Some of the credit goes to the singers themselves, they were all fine actors, even rather minor characters like the drunken Tinca (Matthew O'Neill) of Il Tabarro or Sister Osmina (Angel Blue) with the roses hidden in her sleeves in Suor Angelica, were wonderful.

The principal singers of Il Tabarro were first-rate. Anja Kampe was a vunerable Giorgetta, her light delicate voice had good volume. Salvatore Licitra's warm, round voice suited Luigi, his resonant tones could be heard very well indeed. Mark Delavan had command over the role of Michele, his wrath was palpable, as was his heartbreak. In the smaller roles, Tichina Vaughn stood out as Frugola and Robert MacNeil as a Song Vendor.

The most impressive performance came from Sondra Radvanovsky in the title-role of Suor Angelica. Her voice is simply beautiful and her control is astounding. She conveyed the various emotions of the part deftly, from calm piety to utter despair. The supporting cast was fine, Jennifer Black (Sister Genovieffa) sang about longing to just see a lamb again with great charm and Larissa Diadkova embodied haughty disdain as the Angelica's aunt, the Princess.

Woody Allen held his own in Gianni Schicchi, beginning his production with some false title-credits, complete with silly Italian puns, as if the opera was a movie. The comedy was a bit over-the-top, Buoso Donati's will is found in a pot of spaghetti and Lauretta wields a knife she keeps tucked in a garter. However, it was funny, and the singers were all very good actors, especially Thomas Allen in the title-role. The singing was not as good as in the previous two operas, for one thing, Allen is a bit quiet. Though Jennifer Black made a fine effort as Lauretta, replacing Laura Tatulescu, and sang "O mio babbino caro" tunefully and prettily, she came up somewhat short. Only Andrea Silvestrelli (Simone) was extraordinary, this was worlds away from his recent Fasolt in Das Rheingold, but still wonderful.

* Tattling * 
Los Angeles Opera occasionally will play famous themes from the opera on a vibraphone to signal that it is time to go into the hall. For Il Trittico they used "O mio babbino caro," as it is the most famous aria from the three operas. I overheard the most amusing argument about what it was, one knew it was from one of the three operas, but another insisted it was from a more famous Puccini opera. The first person simply said that Puccini just stole from himself so much that all his arias were alike anyway.

A woman in Balcony Row B Seat 69 talked during the overture of Il Tabarro and was roundly hushed from all sides. Instead of being ashamed, she simply muttered "Shush, shush, shush, why don't you shush yourselves." She was quiet for most of the opera, but unfortunately spoke at the most dramatic moment, right at the end. Thankfully she was silent for Suor Angelica, and even cried. The rest of the audience was fairly quiet, though there was whispering during the music and several watch alarms at each hour.

At the end of Suor Angelica I had been quite moved, and then the Virgin Mary appeared suspended from the ceiling, as a dea ex machina to set everything right. Normally I would find this device effective, but it briefly reminded me of Precious Auntie in The Bonesetter's Daughter, and I nearly had a giggling fit.

The Fly at LA Opera

The-fly * Notes *
The Fly opened at Los Angeles Opera earlier this month and has one more performance next weekend. Based only partially on David Cronenberg's 1986 film, the action is set in the 1950s, as George Langelaan's short story and the original film are. All in all, this production was entertainingly campy, though a bit boring. Howard Shore's music for his first opera is fairly consistant with his previous work with film scores, it is not challenging nor is it particularly lyrical. The fly buzzing sound effects were quite silly, as was the use of chorus as the voice of the laboratory equipment. The arias are declarative, rendering David Henry Hwang's libretto rather humorous at times. My favorite line was something like "Here I am alone with my telepods," but "Help me, help me" and "Be afraid, be very afraid" were also amusing. The pacing was glacially slow, and though the opera is under two and a half hours, the energy level seemed to flag in the middle of Act I.

The set, from Dante Ferretti, is striking. Most of the scene changes were done simply by moving people and props into the one set. This means that the telepods and other machines of the laboratory are always present. The costumes suited the ambiance, the colors used by Denise Cronenberg were bold without being garish. Interestingly, David Cronenberg's staging was not terribly cinematic, it was as if someone had told him directing an opera was just like directing a play, but much slower. At least he seemed to believe in Shore's music, the overtures were not fraught with massive amounts of choreography, in fact, the curtain remained down and we simply listened in the dark. However, acrobatics were employed at key moments, and garnered the most spontaneous applause of the evening.

Israel Gursky conducted yesterday's performance well enough. For the most part the singers and orchestra were together, but there were times when the orchestra overwhelmed all of the singers. The principal singers were all good. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton sang her three roles of the Officer, Lab Doctor, and Cheevers with strength. Tenor Gary Lehman (Stathis Borans) had good volume and acted well. Daniel Okulitch was convincing in the title-role, his voice is not especially distinct but he sounded fine and he acted capably. Ruxandra Donose's voice was most impressive, her icy pierciness suited the role of Veronica Quaife.

* Tattling * 
The audience whispered during the overtures. There were a fair amount of young people, and thus there were less watch alarms than usual, I only heard one near me, albeit three times marking 8pm, 9pm, and 10pm.


The staging involved both nudity and simulated intercourse. Neither was completely tasteless, but perhaps I only think so because I was quite far from the stage.

SF Opera's The Bonesetter's Daughter Media Round-Up

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Thoughts on the Final Dress: The Opera TattlerThe Standing Room

The Bonesetter's Daughter Opening

Bonesettersactii * Notes *
The opening performance of The Bonesetter's Daughter proved to be a rather maudlin and self-indulgent affair. The beginning was promising, the call of the suona players from the Grand Tier was regal and imposing, and the aerial acrobatics combined with projections of water and fire during the overture were impressive. The first trio of Ruth (Zheng Cao), LuLing (Ning Liang), and Precious Auntie (Qian Yi) was also pretty. It is too bad that the set makes such a loud squeaky sound as it moves forward during that scene, it was completely audible from the back of the orchestra level last night, as it was from the boxes during the dress rehearsal. It was also obvious that amplification was used for Qian Yi.

Unfortunately, the music lost focus from there, and seemed very much in the background compared to the elaborate plot, which seems to have as much to do with Greek tragedy as it does the book The Bonesetter's Daughter. Reading Amy Tan's book only confused me, as the characters and story line have been compressed nearly beyond recognition. The players here have been reduced to mere caricature, whether it is the meanness of the Kamen family, the madness of LuLing, or the evil embodied by Chang. I found it extremely difficult to relate to any of the people on stage because all of the personalities were so flat and the music did nothing to illuminate them. As over the top as scenes of urination, threats of vomiting, suicide, attempted incestuous rape, and castration are, all this in 2 hours and 40 minutes is simply too much and is not dramatically effective.

The production is overwrought, one almost feels that director Chen Shi-Zheng doesn't trust composer Stewart Wallace to pull the opera off either. Every moment is filled with either choreography or video projection, if not both. Particularly ridiculous was Act II, Scene 1, when LuLing is in Hong Kong, writing letters for abandoned wives. Not only is she singing about this as she goes, she waves a brush against paper on stage with an apparent wife and her daughters. So far this is fine, but do we really need projections of letters folded into boats to get this message across? Or dancers depicting abandoned wives wandering around the stage?.

As for a few positives, first of all, Act I, Scene 1 has a birthday cake flying through the air, which is certainly unusual. It is brought in by an acrobat suspended by wires, and she does some flips after depositing the cake on the table. The music as we enter Immortal Heart in Act I, Scene 2 was an exuberant breath of fresh air. The suona and percussion were all played beautifully, though again, the singing was amplified. Generally, the singing and acting were very good. Hao Jiang Tian was quite the villain as Chang, and his voice is warm and resonant. Qian Yi was an ethereal Precious Auntie, her movements were perfect. The way she could just glide on stage as if she were on rollers did make her seem otherworldly, and her hand gestures were gorgeous. Ning Liang (LuLing) sounded fabulous in her lower range, though she did have a couple of shrill gasps. Zheng Cao (Ruth) had no such problems, her voice is simply beautiful. It was very nice to hear her in a substantial role, finally.

* Tattling * 
The audience was respectful of this world premiere, there was very little talking, and I heard no electronic noise. There was some talking heard from backstage during a quiet scene in the second half of the opera, but this was not as distracting as loudness of the set in the first scene, so one cannot really complain. Near the very end of the opera, I heard a woman express aloud her confusion about what had just happened on stage. However, the work received a standing ovation.

Beethoven's 9th at SFS

 * Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Knussen's Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 last night at San Francisco Symphony. Though Tilson Thomas gave a helpful exposition of the former piece before he began, the work did not improve for me after a second hearing. I still found it rather metallic in sound, but it did not cause the jarring visceral reaction I had last time. Over the course of the 15 minutes I thought on a cupcake version of Ophelia bobbling in the water. For some reason, less context was better for me, as far as appreciating this music is concerned.

I had also heard MTT conduct the 9th before, and unlike the Knussen it made a very similar impression. I have no particular complaint about his conducting, though the orchestra was rather much louder than some of the soloists. I found the tempi fine, stately at times but not sluggish. The first two movements were good, but the third did not seem as together, the woodwinds and horns had a few problems. However, the fourth movement was lovely, and the chorus sounded fine. The voices of soprano Erin Wall and mezzo Kendall Gladen blended beautifully. Tenor Garrett Sorenson was somewhat difficult to hear, as was bass Alastair Miles. They seemed to have lovely voices but neither was piercing enough to cut through the orchestra.

* Tattling *
This was one of the best audiences I have observed at SF Symphony. There was only minimal whispering between movements, and one watch alarm at the hour. A small number of people clapped after the third movement of the Beethoven.