There are five operas scheduled for next season at Seattle Opera and again we have 3 conductors returning and 2 debuts. John DeMain conducts Gershwin, Carlo Montanaro conducts Verdi, and Gary Thor Wedow conducts Gluck. Pier Giorgio Morandi and Julian Kovatchev have their first performances in Seattle, conducting Carmen and Butterfly respectively. As for singers, Joseph Calleja is Don José, William Burden Orpheus, John Relyea Attila, and Patricia Racette is Butterfly. I am especially curious about José Maria Condemi's production of the Gluck opera.
Greg Weber was just appointed Director of Production at San Francisco Opera and starts on February 1, 2011. Mr. Weber left his post as managing director of the Geva Theatre Center last July. He succeeds Drew Landmesser, who is returning to Lyric Opera of Chicago.
* Notes *
The genesis of the La Fanciulla del Westis well known. Puccini, in New York to supervise the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly, saw David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, and caught what he later called the "California Disease." The result -- after several years of struggling with librettists (Carlo Zangarini and his successor Guelfo Civinini), and after a period of unproductive depression following an extra-marital affair and the suicide of his mistress -- was one of Puccini's most musically enigmatic, elusive and psychologically insightful operas.
The central personality of the story, Minnie, reveals herself as a woman both homesick for and ashamed of her humble origins. Over her inner vulnerability she has constructed a steely shell, ever ready with a shotgun to protect herself and the gold entrusted to her for safekeeping by her ragtag group of miners. Her character is complex and contradictory, yet believable. The only female character in the opera (with the exception of the cameo role of the native Indian Wowkle), she is the surrogate mother and to and schoolmistress of a colorful collection of California Gold Rush gold-diggers.
The success of the opera rests entirely on the shoulders of Minnie, her love interest Dick Johnson and the sheriff Jack Rance. If any of the three legs of this dramatic tripod is weak, the opera fails. Unfortunately, the experience of this reviewer on December 14th was that of an utter failure, especially on the vocal front. With the exception of Marcello Giordani's powerfully and expressively sung Dick Johnson, the efforts of the protagonists were woefully inadequate.
To my great regret, the prime responsibility for the failure of the evening rests with Deborah Voigt's Minnie, which was consistently under pitch, lacking in color and marred by a weak top, with most high notes either approximated or lunged at. Having heard this artist at her peak, prior to gastric bypass surgery, when she possessed a dramatic soprano voice of astounding power and beauty, her current vocal condition is especially sad. In consideration of her statement that she underwent the surgery not for cosmetic reasons, but literally in order to save her life after a struggle with morbid obesity, an attitude of understanding and charity has to be brought to a review of her efforts. However, it is irresponsible of Management to continue to cast this artist in dramatic roles which completely exceed her current vocal state. In Ms. Voigt's favor was an obvious affinity for the character of Minnie and some fine acting, especially in Act II.
Lucio Gallo's Jack Rance was marred by clichéd, stiff, operatic gesturing and a strangled top. As noted above, Marcello Giordani's Dick Johnson, an outlaw whose encounter with Minnie both humanizes him and converts him from his renegade criminality, was very impressive and consistent, with an exciting top and a vocal delivery blessed with a variety of color and expression. Only his signature aria, "Ch'ella Mi Creda," (in which, facing execution, he asks his henchmen to spare Minnie knowledge of his fate, but rather to let her believe that he is enjoying a life of freedom far away from the harsh life of the Sierra Nevada), was flawed by curiously broken phrasing and pitch problems.
The numerous supporting roles, especially Dwayne Croft's Sonora, and Tony Stevenson's Nick, were strong, well-acted and well sung, and avoided the dangers of cartoonish over-playing. Conductor Nicola Luisotti displayed total mastery over the many challenges of the score. To create a sense of seamless flow in Puccini s music, with its constant tempo changes, syncopations and difficult vocal and instrument cues, is deceptively, in fact enormously, difficult. Fanciulla, in particular, presents many challenges, not the least of which is Puccini's delaying of the musical resolution of phrases with ambiguous tonalities. complex harmonic structures and deceptive cadences, counterbalanced by melodic material of luminous beauty, none more so than the finale, "Addio, mia dolce terra, addio mia California," which never fails to grip the listener with its haunting sadness.
Luisotti brought a natural affinity to the music and molded the Met orchestra into a fine ensemble, the orchestra in Fanciulla being, as in much of Wagner, a character unto itself. One hopes that he will be a frequent guest at the Metropolitan.
The production, dating from 1993, is conventional and mostly effective. A particularly beautiful touch was the stream of light that entered into Minnie's cabin at the end of Act II, underscoring her feeling of wholeness and redemption as she gives in to her love of Dick Johnson.
* Tattling *
There were many empty seats in the hall, but the audience was mercifully quiet and attentive.
Maestro Nicola Luisotti (pictured with San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley and President of the Fondazione Festival Pucciniano Paolo Spadaccini; photograph by Cory Weaver) is currently conducting the centennial performances of La Fanciulla del West at the Met, including the upcoming HD simulcast on January 8th. He has been met with success in New York and just received the 39th Premio Puccini Award in recognition for his work. The Opera Tattler spoke to the effervescent conductor just before his final performance of Fanciulla at San Francisco Opera last season. Upon reaching his dressing room, Luisotti could be heard playing the piano.
What were you playing?
Some Chopin waltzes.
Are you always playing?
I study all the time, 6 to 7 hours a day, if I am not conducting, working with musicians, or listening to auditions.
You seem to often wear a navy polo shirt with a white sweater draped over your shoulders. What is the story behind how you dress?
I dress the same all the time, everywhere I go. This is so I am not a distraction to the musicians, I just want people to see that it is me, Luisotti, and get on with the music.
I hear you are to conduct Fanciulla for the centenary of this work at the Met, where the opera premiered. How many times have you worked on Fanciulla?
This will be my 7th run of Fanciulla. My first performances were in 1985, as part of the chorus. I have been the chorus master for Fanciulla as well, and the Met production will be my 3rd time conducting the work.
I was surprised how much certain parts of The Phantom of the Opera sound like Fanciulla. Have you heard this musical?
Yes, I have. My wife and I went to hear The Phantom of the Opera for the first time in London last April, when I was conducting Aida at Covent Garden. My wife and I like musicals, and we see a lot of them, it makes for a nice light evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a good musician, but some whole lines of Fanciulla were lifted out for some of the songs in the musical! In rehearsals with the orchestra, I would say things like "and now let's start again at the "Music of the Night" part. It made them laugh!
You have conducted both Puccini and Verdi a great deal at San Francisco Opera, is there non-Italian repertoire coming up for you here?
I don't want to say too much, but Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Carmen are all on the SF Opera schedule for me.
You are hiring some new musicians, tell me about some of them.
As far as new hires in the orchestra, we have chosen a new principal oboist Mingjia Liu and a new prinicipal clarinetist just started here, José González Granero. José is great, he can go from nothing to everything to nothing again. You can hear this in Act II when Rance asks Minnie why she loves Ramerrez. I don't have to tell José anything, he just knows what to do. Music is not a job! Everyone needs a job, of course, but we try to hire musicians, people who love music more than themselves. I love music more than myself! Music is indescribable, just like love. It is just a group of 200 hundred people moving their hands, with me waving my arms, and suddenly you see Canova's Amore e Psiche, and we stop moving our hands and it is gone!
You seem to have rearranged the orchestra quite a bit for nearly every production, what exactly is going on?
We have tried 5 different configurations of the orchestra, even adjusting the level of the floor. The pit is too narrow and too long. The acoustic is challenging so we are trying to find a balance. I know that not every word that the singers utter can be heard, but I don't want it to be boring. Even if you find something to be too much, that too is a reaction. Being disturbing is a reaction. If I restrained the orchestra, I am afraid it would be boring after a hour. I have to respect the score, for Fanciulla, the winds are doubled, and it wrong to cut that orchestration down. When the composer writes "Tutti forza," I must follow that. I hate mezzoforte, and love pianissmo and forte. Life is full of colors. It is like when people go to the movies, no one complains that it is too loud, we get immersed in a world, just as in opera.
Are you still working on a symphonic season with San Francisco Opera's orchestra?
We are still working on this, but it will not be in the city. There is no need to compete with SF Symphony, of course.
Are you going to make it back to San Francisco for the Ring next summer?
I really wanted to make it back here, but unfortunately, my schedule is just too full!
Would you consider conducting this work?
I go back and forth about wanting to conduct a Ring, fighting with myself. I have 30 or 40 years to torture you with my conducting, so who knows!
Now for a very stupid question! What is your favorite pasta?
No, no, it isn't stupid, everyone has to eat, food is important! I like homemade pastas with Bolognese sauce or egg and tuna. I also like risotto with fresh mushrooms!
* Notes *
The pianist Nicolas Hodges paired Stockhausen and Beethoven for a recital at Cal Performances this afternoon. Hodges made Stockhausen's Klavierstück X oddly compelling for a piece played with wrists, forearms, and elbows. He was able to get quite a lot of sound out of the piano, and emphasize the percussive nature of the instrument. At the same time, he did nuance the various dynamics, and the strange, ethereal harmonics also came out beautifully. In comparison, Beethoven's Hammerklavier was less excitingly played. Hodges seemed to be holding his breath, and the performance was on the dry side. The playing was direct and perhaps a bit mechanical, yet not precise. One wishes a stronger case had been made for putting these particular pieces together, besides the obvious, that both are very difficult.
* Tattling *
There was some whispering, but for the most part, the audience was very quiet. I kept laughing during the Stockhausen, out of both delight and shock, but kept this as silent as I could.
Sacramento Opera has canceled the rest of their 2010-2011 season after poor ticket sales of Orlando.
* Notes *
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's latest offering of Händel's Messiah was very jolly. Nicholas McGegan conducted the third of four concerts last Sunday in Berkeley in his usual chipper way. The orchestra was together and in tune, as was the chorus. The soloists included soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor John McVeigh, and bass Tyler Duncan. The overall impression was that of airy lightness, though all could be heard.
* Tattling *
A woman in Row O made a request for me to switch from my aisle seat with my companion so that she could see the stage, because I am rather short. Naturally her companion inanely exclaimed that the piece was in English once the tenor started. A cellular phone rang during the aria "He was despised and rejected of men."
This year's subscriber survey from San Francisco Opera was a little bit boring, so here are the funniest ones, with answers from the Opera Tattler filled in, of course. To be perfectly honest, I should have checked all of the boxes for question 6, but somehow that did not seem helpful, so I picked ones that I would consider going if I were normal, and did not go to all the operas at San Francisco Opera. I find it particularly alarming that none of the operas that I listed were ones in questions 5 or 6.
* * *
4. Please name up to five operas you would most like to see in the near future.
Mozart's La finta semplice
Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso
5. To help us plan for future seasons, please indicate which of the following operas you would be extremely interested in attending in the next five years. Please check all that apply.
The Flying Dutchman (Wagner)
x Don Giovanni (Mozart)
x Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach)
x Die Meistersinger (Wagner)
Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti)
The Magic Flute (Mozart)
x Peter Grimes (Britten)
The Barber of Seville (Rossini)
Il Trovatore (Verdi)
Elektra (R. Strauss)
x The Trojans (Berlioz)
x Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)
La Traviata (Verdi)
The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
Die Frau ohne Schatten (R. Strauss)
A Masked Ball (Verdi) Madama Butterfly (Puccini)
Così fan tutte (Mozart)
Der Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss)
Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni)
x Nixon in China (John Adams)
La Bohème (Puccini)
6. To help us plan for future seasons, please indicate which of the following works you would CONSIDER ATTENDING. Please check all that apply.
The Dialogues of the Carmelites (Poulenc)
West Side Story (Bernstein)
Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
Les Misérables (Claude-Michel Schönberg)
x Julius Caesar (Handel)
x Jenůfa (Janáček)
Susannah (Carlisle Floyd)
x From the House of the Dead (Janáček)
x Xerxes (Handel)
Carmina Burana (Orff)
King Roger (Szymanowski)
Show Boat (Jerome Kern)
I Puritani (Bellini)
La Cenerentola (Rossini)
Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)
x Moby Dick (Jake Heggie)
Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea)
x Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich)
I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
x Ainadamar (Osvaldo Golijov)
Florencia en el Amazonas (Daniel Catán)
Andrea Chenier (Giordano)
Don Quichotte (Massenet)
The Portrait (Weinberg)
X Rusalka (Dvořák)
Sweeney Todd (Stephen Sondheim)
x Mosè in Egitto (Rossini)
x Ernani (Verdi)
Soprano Renée Fleming has been named the first Creative Consultant of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Whilst the Opera Tattler attended the sold-out performance of Takács Quartet in Berkeley last Sunday, the Last Chinese Unicorn was over in San Francisco for Elza van den Heever's recital presented by San Francisco Performances.
* Notes *
My biggest complaint today when it comes to opera singers is that nobody is willing to take risks anymore. Everyone wants to play it safe for fear of cracking or screwing up a note, so they stay within their comfort zone and manufacture one sterile, cookie-cutter performance after another. I quote the character of Florence Foster Jenkins in play Souvenir: "Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy...You say the notes are absolute, but what are they, after all? Signposts left by the composer to guide us."
I heard Elza van den Heever sing this past Sunday and the girl has a gorgeous voice. But singers with lovely voices are a dime a dozen. What sets Elza apart from the rest of the herd is that she is fearless. She understands that singing is not just about producing beautiful, precise notes, but about putting oneself out there even if it means being vulnerable and exposed. Elza is not afraid to relinquish a bit of control and allow the music to take her (and the audience) on a journey, potentially into unfamiliar territory. I have noticed on several occasions that she tears up during pieces and asked her how this affects her voice. "It is a give and take situation. You can either disconnect from the meaning to maintain that clear beautiful sound, but I really have no choice but to be in the moment," she says. "Whatever happens with the meaning of the poetry or the libretto, I am there. For me, staying truthful to the poetry and the message is most important and I just work with my voice as the emotions come and the music happens." Yes, the tears may interfere with her breath and distort her sound at times. She does make mistakes, but she just laughs them off nonchalantly in such a charming and endearing way that the audience cannot help but laugh along with her. Watching Elza's performance made me think about the origin of the word "Bravo," which literally means "brave" or "courageous" in Italian. Elza van den Heever is one soprano who is definitely worthy of that praise.
Elza opened with two Handel arias from Rodelinda and Alcina which, in my opinion, does not belong in her repertoire. Her voice, while perfectly suited for the long sustained phrases of German opera and lieder, lacks the agility to handle the fast-paced scales and ornamentation of Baroque music. In "Mio caro bene" and "Ma quando tornerai" Elza's breathing was somewhat labored and the long runs were a bit choppy. The accompanist, John Parr, was disconnected from the singer and appeared lost in his own little bubble of oblivion with his head stuck in the sheet music. Not once did he look at Elza or offer her a little support when she required slight adjustments in the tempi. However, even though the Baroque was not her forte, Elza's delivery was packed with emotion and sincerity, you could tell she knew exactly what she was singing about.
Elza seemed much more relaxed as she shifted gears and entered the realm of German lieder where it was evident that she was in her element. Strauss' Wiegenlied, one of my favorite songs, was beautifully executed with crisp clarity and nuanced coloring. Her Frauenliebe und - leben, a song cycle by Robert Schumann that documents a woman's passage through love, marriage, motherhood, and the death of her beloved, required no translation. Especially moving was her interpretation of "Du Ring an meinem Finger" and "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" where her breaths turned into grieving sobs as her character mourned the loss of her husband. The set of Afrikaans songs was a rare treat. Elza sang these songs that depicted the beauty of her homeland with such enthusiasm and nostalgic melancholy that the smells, sounds, and sights described in the text became almost palpable to the senses. She gave two encores, both by Brahms: "Botschaft" and "O komme holde Sommernacht."
* Tattling *
There was an error in the program notes. The text printed was for the wrong Wiegenlied that was written by Strauss in 1878 with the text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallerslebenthat that starts "Die Ähren nur noch nicken." The one that Elza performed was Wiegenlied, op. 41, written in 1899, with the text "Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben" by Richard Fedor Leopold Dehmel.
* Notes *
Today the Communications Department of San Francisco Opera held a press conference on Heart of a Soldier, which will have a world premiere on September 10, 2011. General Director David Gockley told us a bit about how this came to be an opera. An array of individuals were introduced: Susan Rescorla, one of the people whose story is being told in this opera; James B. Stewart, the author of the non-fiction work the opera is based on; librettist Donna DiNovelli; composer Christopher Theofanidis; conductor Patrick Summers; and director Francesca Zambello. Zambello evidently came to Gockley with Stewart's book, saying that the story had operatic themes with two incredible love stories.
This was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Kip Cranna, who asked each person involved a few key questions. DiNovelli condensed Stewart's 320 page book into a mere 26. The piece is complete and has been workshopped in the last few days. Theofanidis took Tosca as his starting point and loves verismo. The work uses a full orchestra but also employs saxophone, bagpipe, and electric guitar.
The opera stars Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla), William Burden (Daniel J. Hill), and Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla). We got to hear a duet from the piece accompanied by piano, sung by Melody Moore and Austin Kness.
* Tattling *
The audience consist of the press, board members, colleagues from other performing arts organizations, and San Francisco Opera staff. Everyone seemed very attentive.
September 7 2011: Gala w/ Lang Lang & Itzhak Perlman
September 8 2011: Birthday Bash Free Concert
September 9 2011: Community Concert
October 23-24 2011: Gustavo Dudamel conducts LA Phil
December 6-7 2011: James Levine conducts BSO
January 2012: Herbert Blomstedt conducts SFS
February 2012: Edo de Waart conducts SFS
February 14-15 2012: Riccardo Muti conducts CSO
March 8-17 2012: American Mavericks 2012
April 15-16 2012: Franz Welser-Möst conducts Cleveland Orchestra
May 13-14 2012: Alan Gilbert conducts NY Phil
June 2 2012: Black & White Ball
June 9-10 2012: Charles Dutoit conducts Philadelphia Orchestra
The San Francisco Symphony announced highlights from the centennial 2011-2012 season today. John Adams and Mason Bates will both have world premieres during the American Mavericks Festival 2012. The full season will be announced on March 1, 2011.
* Notes *
The Takács Quartet played a program of Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven at Cal Performances yesterday afternoon. The playing had a lot of fire, yet with geniality as well. There were a few screechy moments in the otherwise courtly Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 71, No. 3 from Haydn, but it certainly was not boring. One could clearly hear the influence of Beethoven in Mendelssohn's Quartet in A minor, Op. 13. The end of the Intermezzo was particularly cute. Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 was lively and charming. The Allegro ma non tanto sounded especially fresh and the Andante of the third movement was stately.
* Tattling *
There was a child of about 7 or 8 seated in Row O Seat 37. She had great difficulty sitting still, as one would expect for her age, and she would occasionally talk or look turn in her seat to stare at me. There was light talking from others also, a woman in the same Row seemed to fall asleep, she checked her Blackberry on at least one occasion. A watch alarm was heard at 4pm and 5pm.
After the performance, the Cal Performances Award was given out to an adorable person named "Budd." Part of the award involved staying on the stage to hear the encore, a slow movement from Mozart's "Dissonance" quartet.
* Notes *
Christian Tetzlaff played Bach's complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin in Berkeley last night as part of Cal Performances 2010-2011 Koret Recital Series. In the first half he played Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Partita No. 1 in B minor, and Sonata No. 2 in A minor. It seemed he only paused briefly between pieces to tune. The contrasts in tempi and dynamics were clear. Tetzlaff was focused without sounding labored. There were a few passages that were muddy and a note or two may have been slightly squeaky, but the intensity of the playing was impressive.
After the hour-long dinner break were heard Partita No. 2 in D minor, which was incisive but passionate. After the second movement Courante Telzlaff left the stage, and when he returned he explained that there was a noise in the hall that was bothering him. He played the rest of the Partita without further incident. This was followed by Sonata No. 3 in C Major and Partita No. 3 in E Major. The music poured forth relentlessly and the sheer stamina required to play this was in and of itself extraordinary.
* Tattling *
The audience was silent, murmuring approval after each movement, and clapping excitedly after each piece. Someone in G 5 of the orchestra level was even reading the score. There some coughing, and one person may have been asked to leave during the first half, and seemed rather offended. One watch alarm was heard at 7pm, and a cellular phone on vibrate was heard during the third Sonata.
* Notes *
John Adams is conducting his nativity oratorio El Niño at San Francisco Symphony this week as part of Project San Francisco. The work was modestly staged, with direction from Kevin Newbury, set from Daniel Hubp, costumes from Paul Carey, and lighting from Kirk Bookman. The most charming bit might have been the Charlie Brown Christmas tree downstage for the second half. Adams kept time impressively, but for the most part had an introverted conducting style. Much amplification was used and the overall effect was richly textural and rather loud.
The chorus sounded pretty, but did not always seem together. It was especially difficult to discern what they were singing in the beginning. The soloists were amplified, so did not have to contend with being lost under the rest of the music. The trio of countertenors did sound angelic, as did the San Francisco Girls Chorus that came in at the end. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu seemed to have a good heft to his voice. His sibilants were somewhat whistled. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung created a pleasant, pewter-like sound. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was bright and also very lovely. Everyone sounded so comfortable singing in English that when they occasionally switched to Spanish, it was noticeably stilted. There were small errors in Spanish pronunciation, initial voiceless stops were aspirated and some vowels were not clear.
* Tattling *
There was light talking in the first half, but the most of the offenders left at intermission so that the audience was unusually quiet for the second part.