It's A Wonderful Life, a new opera by composer Jake Heggie (pictured left, photograph by Art & Clarity) and librettist Gene Scheer is based on Frank Capra's 1946 film and will have a West Coast premiere at San Francisco Opera in the 2018-19 season. The work has a world premiere at Houston Grand Opera this Friday.
* Notes *
Opera Parallèle opened the 2015 season with a chamber version of Dead Man Walking at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last night. Opera Parallèle again makes a compelling case for contemporary works, and the appeal of Jake Heggie's first opera is obvious. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement conducted a lush and robust sounding small orchestra. Director Brian Staufenbiel's production is elegant and effective. The main props are a dozen floating rectangular screens, each segmented into smaller shapes made up of metal bars. The use of video projection in the background is tasteful, as is having two supernumeraries representing the murdered teenagers on stage for most of the opera.
The cast is impeccable. Catherine Cook did an amazing job singing Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the title character. Her appearance at the pardon board in Act I Scene 7 was one of the strongest moments of the performance. The following scene with the parents of the victims was also ravishing. Robert Orth (Owen Hart), Kristin Clayton (Kitty Hart), Joseph Meyers (Howard Boucher), and Michelle Rice (Jade Boucher) are convincing. Talise Trevigne is an outstanding Sister Rose, her voice is beautifully lucid. Michael Mayes has a pretty voice, but his physicality works well for Joseph De Rocher. Jennifer Rivera sounded pure and lovely as Sister Helen.
* Tattling *
Everyone around me in the Center Orchestra section was absolutely quiet and attentive.
* Notes *
West Edge Opera's summer festival continued at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley last weekend. Yesterday was the Bay Area premiere of Jake Heggie's The End of the Affair. Again West Edge Opera was able make the most of the venue, despite the fact that the space is unconventional. The production, from General Director Mark Streshinsky, is efficient. A few key props (couch, bench, lectern, and prie-dieu) are put into place by stagehands or by the singers themselves. The bombing scene at the end of Act I was particularly fine, employing painted paper on a canvas stretcher and flying bits of paper thrown by two people sitting under the stage.
The orchestra is house left, alongside the audience. This seems like it would be challenging, but conductor Jonathan Khuner managed to keep everyone together rather well. The singers were all impeccably cast. Mezzo Donna Olson was amusingly brash as Mrs. Bertram. Philip Skinner was a suitably pathetic Henry Miles. Keith Phares sounded strikingly warm as Maurice Bendrix. The contrast of the two baritone voices worked beautifully. Carrie Hennessey gave a nuanced performance as Sarah Miles. Her voice can sound prettily delicate or rather robust in accordance with the music.
As for Heggie's work, the music is agreeable and there are bubbly, bright tunes. The last scene felt slightly awkward somehow.
* Tattling *
This time around there was assigned seating in the VIP section. There was a little too much talking from the third row before the singing started in Act II.
* Notes *
The Alexander String Quartet (pictured left with Jake Heggie and Joyce DiDonato, photograph by Brian Byrne) celebrated 30 years with a new commission presented by San Francisco Performances. Yesterday's performance at Herbst Theatre began with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing Hahn's Venezia, accompanied by Jake Heggie on piano. DiDonato sang these evocative songs with a beautiful legato line. Alexander String Quartet took the stage next with Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893). The playing was balanced, and second movement Scherzo was especially charming.
After the intermission came the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. The music was pretty and often wistful. DiDonato enunciated clearly and was clearly moved by the songs. The fifth song, The Gossips, was, for this listener, most striking. The quartet played all together here, and the rhythms were attractive. The encore was Richard Strauss' "Morgen!" with DiDonato accompanied by not only the string quartet, but by Heggie on piano again.
* Tattling *
Members of the audience only occasionally whispered, most were quiet. I seemed to be seated next to the music historian-in-residence of San Francisco Performances and his date. It was entertaining to hear exchanges between the former and his various friends. At one point Italian was spoken, and this ended with someone saying "Spaghetti!" and someone else responding "Meatball!"
* Notes *
A performance of recent songs by Jake Heggie closed Music at Meyer's 2009 Season on Monday. Emily Albrink began the evening by singing Rise and Fall, four songs set to texts by Gene Scheer, accompanied by Heggie himself on piano. Albrink's soprano is cold and bell-like, she was particularly good in the last song, "The Shaman," which was rather jazzy. Brian Leerhuber sang 2 pieces from For a Look or a Touch. I find Leerhuber a very solid singer, but not striking. Cellist Emil Miland played a third piece from the work, "Silence," and this was possibly the most beautiful moment of the program. Next came tenor Nicholas Phan singing 4 songs based on the life of Poulenc, Friendly Persuasions. His voice is sweet and appealing, and his accompaniment of Julie McKenzie (flute), Carey Bell (clarinet), and Emile Miland (cello) was impressive.
After the intermission, the darling bass-baritone John Lindstrom sang a song set to Robert Browning's "Grow Old Along with Me!" Kristin Clayton and Frederica von Stade sang Facing Forward/Looking Back, 4 songs about mothers and daughters. Clayton had a few gasps, but her voice blended very nicely with von Stade's. This was the first time I have gotten an inkling into why von Stade is held in such high regard, her voice can be scintillating, and in those close quarters this was apparent. Catherine Cook held her own singing Statuesque with an ensemble of flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, and cello. Her voice is distinct, she had good volume for this space, and she is hilariously funny. She did crack or wheeze a little, but it was hardly distracting. The work itself did have a Broadway or jazz sensibility, and was fun.
* Tattling *
The performance was dedicated to the ailing Zheng Cao, who is friends with Heggie, von Stade, & co. The audience was fairly well-behaved, no cellular phones rang, no watch alarms sounded, and there was only a bit of whispering. During intermission, the coffee line was rather chaotic, and I noticed that the marketing director of San Francisco Opera cut in front of us. A moot point given that there was only decaf, so we did not actually get any coffee in the end.
Summer 2011: Der Ring des Nibelungen
September 2011: An opera about September 11th by Christopher Theofanidis
Summer 2012: John Adams' Nixon in China
Fall 2012: Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick
June 2013: Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Fall 2013: An opera by Jennifer Higdon
* Notes *
The West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers was presented by Cal Performances and San Francisco Opera last night. This chamber opera involves just three singers and less than a dozen musicians, including two pianos played by the composer himself and the conductor, Patrick Summers. The work is unchallenging, the arias sound not unlike numbers in a musical. The evening went well, though there were synchronization issues between singers and musicians near the beginning. Interestingly, the orchestra was upstage, behind the singers.
The singing and acting was all quite fine. Soprano Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) had a lovely iciness to her voice, in contrast to baritone Keith Phares (Charlie), whose tones were smooth and warm. Their duet at the end of Act I was lovely. Frederica von Stade embodied her part as the actress and absent mother Madeline. Her voice, though shaky at times, was very effective.
The pacing of this work was good, not utterly glacial and boring as some new operas can be. Gene Scheer's libretto could have been entirely sappy, but somehow managed not to be. The staging, directed by Leonard Foglia, was artful and simple for the most part. The years projected on the scrim to set the various scenes seemed unnecessary.
* Tattling *
Zellerbach Hall was not at all full, and there were only a few latecomers. There was some talking during the first half, but otherwise the audience was quite silent.
I must have been looking particularly characteristic of the Opera Tattler, for I was recognized and greeted by both the Chronicle's classical music critic and the General Director of San Francisco Opera.