Laura Aikin

Gil Shaham plays Berg at SFS

Gil-shaham * Notes * 
The Schubert/Berg Festival over at San Francisco Symphony ends this week with performances of Berg's Violin Concerto and Schubert's Mass No. 6 in E-Flat major, D. 950. The soloist for the former, Gil Shaham, seemed very immersed in the work, and made frequent eye-contact with the members of the orchestra. Shaham played assiduously, the strings sounded clean, the woodwinds were expressive, and the brass had a warm but muddy sound. The piece itself seemed very constrained and prickly, though not overwhelmingly sorrowful, at least, not in this particular reading.


Last night's performance of Mass No. 6 was this symphony's first. The chorus sounded nice, very together, and not strained in the least. The playing was likewise fine, but without any fire. The five soloists had little actual music, but their voices blended beautifully. Tenor Bruce Sledge sounded more delicate than tenor Nicholas Phan. Laura Aikin's voice, on the other hand, has both heft and a lovely ethereality.

* Tattling * 
The amiable Michael Tilson Thomas spoke at length about the Berg piece, and helpfully gave live musical examples. At times, one does wonder about conductors who may have more to say verbally than musically.

There was scattered speaking during the music, especially during the second piece. I even caught myself daydreaming about Spanish cognates to the Latin text of the Mass.

Opening of The Rake's Progress

Laura Aikin and William Burden, Photo by Terrence McCarthy* Notes *
Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress opened yesterday in a co-production with
Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Opéra de Lyon, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and Teatro Real Madrid. The opera was taken from the 16th century into the 1950s, so taken from when Hogarth's paintings are set to when the opera was premiered. The effect makes Stravinsky's self-consciously Baroque/Classical style, complete with harpsichord, somewhat nonsensical. The English countryside is reimagined as Texas, Nick Shadow takes Tom Rakewell to London to become a movie star. Carl Fillion's sets are exceedingly charming, it seems that every scene had something terribly clever in it as far as staging. Especially amusing were the bed that Tom and Mother Goose dally in, the inflatable movie trailer, the dollhouse meant to represent the Trulove home, Anne's flyaway scarf as she makes her way to London, and the swimming pool of the Rakewell home. Boris Firquet's video design was excellently incorporated, the scene changes that used this were seamless, and the only time the rather horizontal screen really bothered me was the movie marquee scene (Act II Scene 2), because naturally the eyes go up to see the rest of the building, and it is just blank black space. The lighting design, by Etienne Boucher, was blinding as Nick Shadow filmed Tom in Act I Scene 2, but was otherwise good.

Runnicles and the orchestra were not in their best form, they overwhelmed the singers, they were not always together, and the horns sounded rough. Both William Burden (Tom Rakewell) and Laura Aikin (Anne Trulove) sounded clear and bright. Burden sang quite plaintively, and Aikin sounded perfectly angelic and bell-like. James Morris was a placid Nick Shadow, his lower notes were slightly gravelly, though his higher range was pretty. Denyce Graves played Baba the Turk to a tee, her powerful voice has a wonderful warmth and was appropriately gruff in this role. In the smaller roles, tenor Steven Cole stood out as Sellem, his acting in the auction scene was hilarious, and though he was slightly quiet when he moved upstage, his voice is pleasing. Besides Ms. Graves and Mr. Cole, the acting of the principals was rather subdued. It was difficult to see how Tom's actions were motivated, Morris was particularly ambiguous, in playing the Devil himself, though unctuous, he did seem rather cold and bored.

* Tattling *
Because this opera opened the day after Thanksgiving and my family is not in the Bay Area, I had to convince a friend to get a ticket for me in the morning. Someone managed to sneak past her into the building and I got the following text message at 10:22 am: I had to beat a queue-cutting coot to get your #1 ticket. I hope you're happy!

Standing room was only moderately full, and the rest of audience was somewhat sparse. Everyone was pretty quiet, I heard no watch alarms on the hour. Someone tore paper at one point in Act I, but this was only for a few seconds. The sign asking people exit from the side doors during the performance was knocked over twice. There was much applause for the set, and this obscured the music more than once.

I was given a lovely crocheted cupcake in standing room, for my efforts in depicting pastry. Certainly it was one of the nicest presents I have received at the opera.


Olivier Messiaen's only opera, Saint François d'Assise, closed last night at San Francisco Opera after a run of six performances. This production was the first staged one in North America, and there was much to do about it. The house was quite full, as the production received some acclaim. I was curious what all the fluffle was about, as I have heard Les Mages from his organ cycle La nativité du Seigneur, which only provoked a fit of hysterical giggling.

The music was often choppy, very chromatic and discontinuous. In addition to a full orchestra, there were five gamelan percussionists and three ondes martenot players. These eight people were visible on either side of the stage in little platforms, apparently there was not enough room for them in the orchestra pit. I found gamelan very odd next to violin & co., to say the least. As for the ondes martenot, the instrument is supposed to have an unworldly sound, but I must say I prefer the harp or organ for this quality. The ondes martenot sounds more like a mobile phone than music from heavenly spheres.

They say that Messiaen was interested in suspending time, subverting the very idea. But I could never get lost in his music, at times the music was indeed dull. But I did like his libretto, which he wrote himself, long as it was it was dramatic enough and not at all unreasonable.

The singing was pretty, sometimes sounding very much like an oratorio. I particularly liked the L'Ange, sung by Laura Aikin. The part was eerie, and Aikin moved in a sort of naive and graceful way that was apt. Some of her choreography recalled Martha Graham. Willard White was a convincing Saint François, he has a rich baritone that is kindly. In the seventh scene, when François receives the stigmata, he is lifted on a beam and rends his clothes. At in these moments he looked like a Zeus coming down from the heavens.

As far as the rest of the singing, none of the other soloists stuck out as being either good or bad. The chorus was nice, especially in that seventh scene, the ardent strains of "François! François!" where a relief.

The staging was perhaps the prime reason most people could sit (or stand, as in my case) four and a half hours for this opera. The set was sparse mostly involved a spiral path that could be turned. It was fairly quiet for how large it was, making a sort of crinkling noise that could be drowned out by percussion but not voices. The costumes were likewise simple, monks in rough habits, angel in an ultramarine blue body suit with one wing, and the chorus in trench coats, some with hats. All together it felt a bit like a Magritte painting.

There were clever things done with the scrim, with projections, and an especially cunning use of snow on that spiral road.

Before the opera I was asked when Messiaen lived and how Charles Barber's pre-opera lecture was. During the intermissions I was asked a plethora of questions about how standing room in the orchestra section worked, and whether or not one could find a seat. I was also offered seats on two occasions. On my way home I was asked if I was a "Spanish" dancer, and if I thought the opera sounded "eastern."