Opera San José's Idomeneo

Idomeneocoro * Notes *
Last weekend the 28th season of Opera San José opened with Idomeneo. The production (Act I pictured left, photo by P. Kirk) directed by Brad Dalton, is gorgeous. Steven C. Kemp's set looks meticulously researched, and Johann Stegmeir's costumes were quite pretty. The choreography, from Dennis Nahat, did not always go with the text, but worked well on the singers. The dancing was rather festive, but not executed perfectly.

The orchestra sounded smooth and energetic under Maestro George Cleve. At times the musicians in the pit were slightly ahead of the principal singers. The chorus kept together for the most part, and were not overly loud. Overall the singing of "Cast 1" that performed on Sunday was nice, if not occasionally timid. Mozart leaves the voice exposed, and small errors are noticeable.

Sandra Bengochea was a flirtatious Ilia, had good volume, but her enunciation of the Italian was not always clear. Jasmina Halimic was very funny as Elettra, without sounding harsh. She does have a bit of a gasp at the bottom of her voice. Her last aria was outstanding, however. Betany Coffland (Idamante) is convincingly tall and slim enough to play a young man, her metallic voice is sounds strong and high, and perhaps a bit tinny at the top. In the title role, Alexander Boyer made valiant attempt. His voice has a pleasant warmth. Boyer did seem afraid of the coloratura, and his "Torna la pace al core," while pretty, was not completely decisive. Nonetheless, his performance was part of an enjoyable and satisfying afternoon.

* Tattling * 
The audience seemed utterly delighted to be at this matinée, and clapped with enthusiasm for singing and sets alike. There was hardly any whispering or electronic noise.

Idomeneo at Opéra national de Paris

Palais-garnier * Notes *
Wednesday's performance of Idomeneo at Palais Garnier had some beautiful singing. Tamar Iveri's Elettra could be strident and hysterical, without being ugly. Isabel Bayrakdarian (Ilia) does have quite a bit of vibrato at times, but her voice is pretty. Vesselina Kasarova certainly looked the role of Idamante, but her wobbly gasping was distracting. At least this was not the case in all of her arias. Charles Workman was wonderful as Idomeneo, his warm, sweet voice has a lovely resonance.

The orchestra did not sound particularly together and did not seem to mind the conductor, Philippe Hui. Given that he was filling in for Emmanuelle Haïm, who recently withdrew from these performances, it was a bit mean of the audience to boo him so vehemently. The horns were especially out of tune.

As for Luc Bondy's production, as far as I could tell, it seemed rather dull. It was a sort of minimalist naturalism as far as set. For example, the beach in Act II looked strewn with paper, orange peels, and random trash. This was not exactly indicative of a horrible sea monster that was wreaking havoc on the Cretans. The set was also loud, people thumped up and down the rake all evening long. The costuming was inexplicable, the time period was unclear and the styles were not becoming on the female cast. Ilia's dress was very unflattering, and I have never seen Bayrakdarian look so matronly.

* Tattling * 
The audience was silent, though we were in a box, so it was hard to gauge. The applause seemed a bit tepid.

Idomeneo Log

11. October 2008: Final Dress Rehearsal
Review from Dodaro

15. October 2008: Opening
Opera Tattler Review

18. October 2008: From the Orchestra
An announcement was made that Alice Coote was ill, but was graciously singing despite this. She started off poorly, but did sound lovely for the most part, at least in Acts II and III.
* There were many watch alarms, including one with at least 8 beeps in a row. One would think someone would tell the owner of the watch to turn it off, but no, it sounded at both 9pm and 10pm. Unfortunately, 9pm was during Ilia's "Se il padre perdei." Kurt Streit also coughed once as Genia Kühmeier sang this aria.
People whispered and talked quite a bit.
* Kurt Streit did not have as much trouble with his costume, it did not seem to get caught on the set this time. His singing is very compelling.
* Iano Tamar had more trouble with her "Tutte nel cor vi sento" than in the opening performance. She was more audible this time, but her intonation suffered. However, the other arias were better, especially "Idol mio."
*  I was very kindly given a third row seat in the premium orchestra section after the first intermission. It is incredible what one can see from that close up.

21. October 2008: From the Balcony
As I waited for standing room to open, I heard Genia Kühmeier practicing her first recitative and aria. Then someone was heard playing bagpipe from across the street.
* There are some cuts, but these are mostly of recitative.
The performance was consistent with the previous ones, Acts II and III are stronger than Act I.
* The pain in Kurt Streit's "Fuor del mar" is palpable.

24. October 2008: Daniela Mack as Idamante
An announcement was made that Alice Coote had hurt her back, and Daniela Mack was singing Idamante. Mack's vibrato is a bit too wide for Mozart. Though her voice is not as breathy, it lacks the warmth and resonance of Coote's.
* Two arias are cut from Act III, Arbace's "Se colà ne' fati è scritto" and Idomeneo's "Torna la pace al core."

* Most of the repeats are not taken.
The matinée audience was characteristically ill-behaved. Late-comers were boggled that they could not get to their seats and were kept in standing room. A particular woman with her child was especially irritating. Her mobile phone rang and she was unable to silence it without making a huge fuss. She also spoke aloud, and huffed when I hushed her. So much the worse for her, as she paid more attention to the recitatives and not the arias.
* There were many beeps, perhaps coming from the machine associated with OperaVision on the north side of the building in balcony standing room. Someone came to look at the machine during the second intermissions, but it still seemed to make noises.

28. October 2008: Daniela Mack from the Orchestra
Evidently, they did not want to pay for someone better suited to the role of Idamante as the cover. It is too bad, given that Mack does have a good voice, it is just not shown to best effect here.
* Kurt Streit sounded like he was on the verge of breaking, one felt like his voice would crack at any moment during Acts II and III. This was exciting, but scary.

* There were numerous beeps and some feedback, perhaps from OperaVision, though it was difficult to pin-point.

* The audience was pretty quiet, though someone had a rather loud, rustling jacket in standing room.

31. October 2008: Halloween
* Unfortunately, Alice Coote did not end up returning for the last performance. Daniela Mack still sounded tentative, her first aria was shaky ("Non ho colpa"), though her second one ("l padre adorato") went better. She sounded fine in the quartet in Act III.

* Kurt Streit sounded less on edge than in the penultimate performance. His vibrato could be somewhat wide, but still controlled.

* I hope to hear Genia Kühmeier again soon, her voice is just so lovely.

* Something must have happened during the overture, as there was much giggling at one point.

* There was no noticeable electronic noise, interestingly.

* The audience was fairly good, but there were a couple of latecomers that talked for an incredible length of time and had no regard for the various people giving them dirty looks.

* For Halloween, I dressed as Carmen, and someone had her photo taken with me.

Opening of Idomeneo at SF Opera


  * Notes *
The opening performance of Idomeneo at San Francisco Opera started off a bit shaky, but did hit its stride by the second act. John Copley's 1999 production has a very similar look to his Ariodante seen at the War Memorial earlier this year. Certainly this is no surprise, as the productions also share the same set designer and costume designer. John Conklin's set for Idomeneo is fairly quiet, there was less banging and such for the scene changes than in Ariodante. One was not quite sure what to make of the spoils of war hanging from ropes with pulleys in the first scene, but the rest of the set is perfectly reasonable, the backdrops are especially lovely. The costumes, from Michael Stennett, recall Tiepolo, not only in style but in palette.

Runnicles conducted the orchestra crisply enough, the only issues seemed to be a few minor pitch problems from the horns and oboes. Adler Alek Shrader sounded nice as Arbace, despite his youth, which is at odds with the role. In her debut at San Francisco Opera, Iano Tamar (Elettra) was overwhelmed by the orchestra in Act I, but was audible for the rest of the evening. Her voice has a certain smoky fragility, but is appealing. Genia Kühmeier's main stage debut as Ilia was more impressive. Though she has the slightest harshness at the top, her voice is beautifully clear and pure. Her "Se il padre perdei" in Act II was gorgeous.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was exceedingly breathy in Act I, almost gasping. She did look convincingly male as Idamante, though she is perhaps a little shorter than Kühmeier. The rest of her performance was smoother, though it was not completely amazing. On the other hand, tenor Kurt Streit was vocally sensational in the title-role. He did have trouble with his train, it got caught on the set at one point and seemed to trip him. However, his performance was engaging nonetheless, and his Act II aria, "Fuor del mar," was gut-wrenching.

* Tattling * 
There was much whispering in Box A, but it did die down as the evening wore on. One watch alarm was heard three times, but there were no mobile phone rings. Someone did take a flash photograph at the beginning of Act II.

I was able to hear the prompter after Idamante first entered. There was very little backstage noise but a walkie talkie was clearly heard in Act III just after the chorus had gotten to place.

I absolutely loved the horse heads at the end of Act II and giggled hysterically during the applause.


Final Dress Rehearsal of Idomeneo

The Opera Tattler was not able to attend the final dress for Idomeneo last Saturday, so sent one Dodaro in her stead. Below are Dodaro's comments.

Idomeneo-streit   * Notes *
The final dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's Idomeneo was promising. The singing was generally strong.

Neptune's wrath included an awful lot of strobe light flashes. If all the flashes were indeed scripted, the authorities might do well to post a warning, in big red text, on the website.

* Tattling * 
The atmosphere in the Grand Tier was markedly relaxed. Before the performance started, many unfolded newspapers were in evidence. I was surprised, however, when my neighbor opened and began eating a single serving of Häagen Dazs. Looked like vanilla. Possibly yoghurt.

There was some Runnicles-related whispering as the second act started. Other than that, the group was generally well behaved.

The Blue Angels were not as considerate. They made quite a few passes over the opera house during Elettra's "Idol mio" aria and the embarkment scene.

John Copley Interview

Jcopley John Copley directed the revival of San Francisco Opera's Idomeneo, which opens this Wednesday, October 15 and runs until October 31. He has worked on 19 productions for San Francisco Opera since his 1982 debut in Giulio Cesare. The Opera Tattler spoke to Copley on Friday morning in San Francisco.

It has been 60 years this month since you were first a supernumerary for Aida at Covent Garden. How did you get interested in opera?
My mother took me to La bohème when I was 10, and I caught it like the measles. I also studied piano, my father gave me one for my 6th birthday. He only played by ear, so he had me take lessons.

You went on to study ballet, painting, and architecture?
I studied ballet at the Royal Ballet School, but I started too late. Ninette de Valois sent me over to the opera, where I was told I would do better, and I did. I learned about painting, costumes, furniture, and architecture at the Central School of Arts. One of our models for drawing was Quentin Crisp, whose memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, was turned into a movie.

What has changed in the years since you started?
My generation of opera directors insisted on acting, one cannot just stand and sing. So that's one difference.

Also, there aren't as many divas. Perhaps it is just because I'm getting old and people feel they should be nice, since they figure I'll die soon. [Laughs]

Singers do tend to get used up these days, as opera is quite popular. The opera world is littered with causalities. Singers push too hard and take too many roles, they are often pressured by their managers. They need to be more patient if they want to have careers that are more than a few years long.

Mirella Freni had 7 or 8 parts within her voice in her early years, and she was terribly bored with them, but she wanted to keep singing. So she made it to 70 and still could sing. There are those that are very lucky, like Joan Sutherland, who was singing Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Desdemona very early. But she has vocal cords of steel, and that's very rare.

You call yourself a "dinosaur" because of your traditionalism in staging operas. What are the considerations you make in directing an opera?
I try to find a new way of doing what's written, telling the story, and staging the music. I learned from Callas that you must examine what the music tells you. It doesn't have to be old-fashioned, but there are certain settings that do not work for certain operas. For instance, La Traviata doesn't work after women's liberation, Violetta would not have taken all that abuse, she and Alfredo could have just stayed together. Or Le Nozze di Figaro, the opera is very much about the right of primae noctis, it doesn't make sense in today's world. I saw a production in which Susanna was already pregnant, and it missed the whole point of the story, in which Susanna's virginity and purity are of great importance.

So what do you think of all these film directors directing opera?
Good luck! [laughs] That's what I think! Some of them might think it is going to be easy, and it isn't. I've been told that certain film directors are just so clever, so new and brilliant, but I haven't seen much evidence of this. They don't realize how hard the task is, moving that many people around the stage, knowing the music and the text. There are a lot of options, aren't there? Some film directors are good, Anthony Minghella, for instance. His Madama Butterfly was great.

What do you think of the Met simulcasts in movie theaters? What about the emphasis on how singers look?
I don't mind if singers look good as long as they can sing. I haven't seen the simulcasts but they are very important for expanding the audience. You look around at the average opera audience and people are quite elderly. We were at a performance in St. Louis recently and we counted at least 50 Zimmer frames!

A few days ago we went to a rock concert, and though it was an entrancing show, the music was not generally of a very high quality. The text was certainly not great. I'm not sure how to get a younger audience engaged with something like opera, but it needs to be done. Maybe new opera is a good way of doing this, as with The Bonesetter's Daughter bringing in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco.

What did you think of The Bonesetter's Daughter?
It was an incredible effort and a smashing success. I did have some trouble following what was going on, and would buy the recording if they release it. I would have liked to hear the music more. [Singing from Precious Auntie's part from the end of Act I] "Sit on your pot, grunt all you can, you cannot move your bowels."

Getting back to your work, I went to the dress rehearsal of Ariodante last summer and noticed that the horse heads in Ginevra's mad scene were removed in the actual performances. Why?
The horse heads were based on a Tiepolo painting, and are meant to show Ginerva's madness, but they just bothered people, including Ruth Ann Swenson, who sang the role.

I liked them! You also didn't replace them with anything so the stage is fairly placid at that point.
I liked them too, but so many people were confused by the horse heads, I just didn't want that. The music isn't placid, so the madness comes out there.

How about Idomeneo, what is this production like?
It is much in the same vein as Ariodante, inspired by Tiepolo as far as the sets and costumes, particularly in the colors. Mozart understands the human condition, even at age 24. The opera is very much about the father and son relationship, and about the perils of hubris. Idomeneo gets me every time, it is just so moving.

You are coming back next year to direct Peter Grimes in San Diego and San Francisco?
Yes, the San Diego rehearsals are in March, and the San Francisco ones are about this time next year. The production is based on the post-war Covent Garden one that I was actually in, as Peter Grimes' apprentice. Anthony Dean Griffey is singing the title role in San Diego and Ben Heppner will sing it here.

Did you really stand-in for Maria Callas in rehearsal?
Yes, I was Zeffirelli's assistant for Tosca at Covent Garden. Callas was ill and Franco said to me [Italian accent] "John, you do it, the cover isn't here." In those days there were ways of getting into the house, people would make sure they had to make deliveries, and everyone wanted to hear Callas, of course. Tosca starts off-stage, so when they heard me everyone was sure that Callas was finished!