Opera Review

SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

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San Francisco Opera ends 2016 with yet another run of Madama Butterfly after only two years, but with a very fine soprano in the title role that makes it worth the time to hear again.

I am not a big fan of Puccini or of this opera with its Orientalist theme, however, Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) had me right away. She is completely emotionally engaged and her brilliant, flexible voice is never seems strained or constricted. The support of the orchestra, which was a little fast in Act I under Yves Abel, was wonderful in Act II.

The rest of the cast is likewise strong, as has been the case all season. Tenor Vincenzo Costanzo's US debut as Pinkerton was notable, his voice is plaintive, with much vibrato at the top, but not at all unpleasant. His duet with Butterfly at the end of Act I seemed quite heartfelt and lovely. In his San Francisco Opera debut, Anthony Clark Evans was a warm Sharpless.

Zanda Švēde (Suzuki) was not her usual self, as she was ill, but she did fairly well and certainly hit all her marks as far as acting is concerned. Julius Ahn was an unctuous Goro whose sliminess reads with perfect clarity even from the very back of the house. Raymond Aceto made for a convincing Bonze.

The revival production (Act I pictured above, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Jun Kaneko and directed by Leslie Swackhamer, has much appeal in its spiraling circular stage filled with concentric circles and off center round platform. The set forces a certain kind of movement to navigate, which is more apparent from above, and keeps the staging from ever feeling static.

This is helped also by the many screens raised and lowered for moving projections and by the four stagehands dressed in black (kurogo). The scenes keep moving without having to stop the drama or music.

* Tattling *
A group of six sat near me in Row L Seats 118 to 128, and they chattered a lot when Haroutounian was not singing. I was able to ignore them, especially since I kept crying during Act II.


SF Opera's Aida

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The most spectacular part of San Francisco Opera's new Aida is undoubtedly the singing, with the orchestra coming in as a close second. Last night's opening performance features the elegant work of contemporary artist RETNA but Francesca Zambello's production is stark and static.

RETNA's art is clearly influenced by calligraphy and graffiti, and it is heartening to see San Francisco Opera engage a younger and more diverse scenic designer than usual. Some of the scenes are quite striking while others are less so. There are a lot of grey walls, monumental painted designs, and bold lighting choices in blocks of color. The triumphal march scene of Act II Scene 2 (pictured above, photograph by Cory Weaver) is disappointing, except for the final flash of glitter, while Act III, which features a huge moon swirled with clouds, three enormous calligraphic cutouts, and lovely blue lighting was much more visually arresting.

The first half did not have pauses to switch the four scenes but the second had two after both scene changes. The energy level always goes down in these moments, people turn on their cell phones or start talking, the music starts again, and it takes at least a minute to get back into the world of the opera again.

Zambello focuses on the human dramas of the piece, and eschews the cliches of elephants and sphinxes. The ballet was embarrassingly uncool, soldiers hopped around cheerfully as they threw around a lady captive in the triumphal march scene. The boy acrobats in the scene before in the chamber of Amneris was much more on point.

There was quite a bit of simple standing and singing, Zambello never gets in the way of the singers, and this cast is vocally powerful. It was gratifying to hear former Adlers Leah Crocetto and Brian Jadge in the two lead roles of Aida and Radames, they've come so far in the last few years and watching them develop over time has been great. Crocetto has a gorgeous legato and her voice commands attention, even though her acting does leave something to be desired. Jadge sounded strong throughout. The duet at the end, with the two of them sitting in front of a grey yet iridescent wall was the high point of the evening, both singers sounding beautifully sweet.

Ekaterina Semenchuk made for a fine Amneris, her voice is more delicate than Crocetto's, but has both rich creaminess and brilliance. Her appearance at the end of the opera above the protagonists -- she is shown through the scrim -- was decidedly odd. George Gagnidze gave a commanding performance as Amonasro, while Raymond Aceto's Ramfis sounded a bit shaky, at least at first.

The three small solo roles were taken by current Adlers. The King of Egypt seemed to sit a little low for Anthony Reed, Toni Marie Palmertree sounded more comfortable as a Priestess, and Pene Pati sounded wonderful as a Messenger. One looks forward to hearing these emerging talents in more meaty roles in the years to come.

* Tattling *
The orchestra level of the opera house and the boxes looked completely full. It was relatively quiet, someone around Row Z Seat 124 had a mishap with Siri on his phone, she couldn't understand what the overture was saying, apparently.


SF Opera's Makropulos Case

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With a monstrous but charismatic narcissist as protagonist, last night's revival of San Francisco Opera's The Makropulos Case felt timely. It was difficult to not compare our lead, soprano Nadja Michael, with the previous star in the role, Karita Mattila, especially since the latter was so recently here in the nearly perfect Jenůfa over the summer.

Michael's Emilia Marty was certainly very frightening, as befits a jaded person who has had 300 years of youth and cannot find meaning in anything. The soprano has a powerful voice but lacks an ethereal quality that was so impressive in Mattila's performance six years ago. Michael's movements are also very floppy, one would expect more of a cat-like slinkiness from the libertine Marty, though Michael is certainly flexible.

The rest of the cast was fine. Adler Julie Adams was a sweet Kristina, the aspiring opera singing daughter of Kolenatý's clerk. Matthew O'Neill ably reprised his role as Count Hauk-Šendorf as did Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenatý.

Baritone Stephen Powell's Baron Prus was not as subtly drawn as Gerd Grochowski's the last time around. In his San Francisco Opera debut, tenor Charles Workman had a squeaky start as Albert Gregor, but he recovered well and his voice has a lovely timbre.

Mikhail Tatarnikov's conducting was straightforward, there were slight mishaps in the brass at the beginning, but nothing terrible. The orchestra, however, did not achieve the unearthly beauty that we heard over the summer and in 2010 when playing Janáček.

* Tattling * 
The house was not full, and there were lots of seats in the back of the balcony, which is ideal for standing room but not great for the opera company. It's a shame since the piece is gorgeous and the stylish staging, with its rotating set and looming clocks, is elegant.


SF Opera's Don Pasquale

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After an absence of over thirty years from the War Memorial stage, a new production of Don Pasquale opened Wednesday at San Francisco Opera. Inspired by Italian comedic movies from the 50s and 60s, the slapstick staging from Laurent Pelly features a charming turntable set (Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) and extensive choreography that the superb singer actors pulled off immaculately.

Everything came together, the clever set and the pantomime style movement of the singers were not overwrought and always very funny. All the singing was great too, and the design of the set seemed to help project the voices.

Maurizio Muraro is hilarious in the title role, as is Lucas Meachem as Dr. Malatesta. Their duet in Act III, "Cheti, cheti, immantinente," was delightful. Heidi Stober certainly makes for a vicious Norina, the metallic tang of her voice adds to this reading of the character (which comes from the director, incidently). She can sing and pirouette perfectly, and one should note that she hurt her ankle in rehearsals, making it all the more amazing.

The big draw of this run is the San Francisco Opera debut of tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and he did not disappoint as Ernesto. His sound is unmistakable, very sparkling and agile, and with a certain tautness at the top. He sang in a closet, with his head against a wall, and on a ladder, but none of this seemed to effect his voice.

The orchestra was lively under Maestro Giuseppe Finzi, not always perfectly synchronized, but always full of energy. The trumpet solo at the beginning of Act II from Adam Luftman was particularly beautiful.

* Tattling * 
The last few rows of the balcony were nearly empty, making standing room ideal. This production looks great from the back and all the movement reads clearly.

Twitter indicates that there was a lot of bad behavior in the audience, but I only noted that the person in Row L Seat 108 took her shoes off and that the woman in Row L Seat 126 crumpled a wrapper as Heidi Stober sang in the beginning of Act III.

It is too bad that SF Opera isn't putting on an Opera for Families version of this Don Pasquale. I know my son would adore the set because it has so many goofy sight gags involving doors, chairs, and light fixtures. Speaking of which, it would be fun to see the narrated set change that SF Opera periodically does during intermission for this one.


Opera San José's Lucia

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Opera San José's latest season started with a solid production of Lucia di Lammermoor last weekend. The cast, especially Lucia (Sylvia Lee as Lucia pictured left; photograph by Pat Kirk), was very strong and the orchestra sounded fine.

Ms. Lee has just started in Opera San José's resident company, and based on her performance Sunday afternoon, she is a welcome addition. Her voice isn't huge, but is bright enough to cut through the orchestra, and is consistent throughout her range. Her mad scene was completely convincing and it was remarkable how frightening she was, even though she is a tiny woman.

Resident tenor Kirk Dougherty sounded perfectly nice as Edgardo, though it does always look like he is putting in a lot of effort. His final aria was good, and it really was terrible that someone's cellular phone rang during a quiet part of the piece. Baritone Matthew Hanscom likewise performed well, and is suited to the big brother role of Enrico, it seemed more natural to him than some of the others he's had in recent memory.

In the smaller parts, tenor Michael Mendelsohn (Arturo) stood out as a scene stealer in Act II Scene 2. He was very funny, which isn't the usual way the character is handled but it worked anyway. Bass Colin Ramsey was a reedy Raimondo, while Anna Yelizarova (Alisa) and Yungbae Yang (Normanno) rounded out the cast with sympathetic ease.

Ming Luke kept the orchestra together, his tempi were appropriate and the woodwinds sounded especially pretty. The chorus also was fairly synchronized and cohesive.

There was very little surprising about Benjamin Spierman's production besides the comic Arturo and the fact that it was difficult to keep sharp objects away from Lucia. She kept grabbing knives and swords, menacing men much larger than herself.

Tattling *
There was a hearing aid that was quite noisy during the whole performance.


SF Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber

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Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang's Dream of the Red Chamber had a world premiere at San Francisco Opera on Saturday night. The music was upstaged by the breathtaking stagecraft (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver), and marred by an ungainly libretto.

Based on the Qing Dynasty epic by Cao Xueqin, frame story concerns a stone and a flower asking to be reincarnated as humans, the stone becomes Bao Yu, male heir of the Jia family, and the flower becomes Dai Yu, his cousin. The opera must condense the 2,000 page novel into less than three hours, and thus the plot is stripped down to essentials, a love triangle between Bao Yu, delicate and artistic Dai Yu, and worldly beauty Bao Chai with the backdrop of court intrigue and aristocratic life.

This is a perfect scenario for opera, and the art direction from Tim Yip is spot on. His sets are light and dreamy, easily changing scenes with the use of platforms, screens, projections, and layers and layers of ornate fabric. Director Stan Lai uses all these elements to stunning effect and the theater of the piece comes out very clearly in the visual aspect, especially in Dai Yu's last scene, which includes the very simple use of blue cloth to represent water, but is both incredibly beautiful and moving.

Sheng's music isn't bad, there's some interesting chromaticism, bending of notes, and percussion, some soaring lyricism that eschews blatant sentimentality. The only additions to a pretty standard orchestra are in the percussion (if you are going to use a gong, this is the right place) and the qin, a seven stringed plucked instrument that is similar to a very quiet guitar. The qin, played by Zhao Yi, had to be amplified, which was done tastefully and well. The orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, sounded clear and together.

The weak link, as with many contemporary operas, is the libretto, co-written by the composer and famed playwright Hwang. Performed in English to make the story more immediate to the San Francisco audience, the words could be painfully awkward, as in Act I, Scene 4, after a gorgeous ballet dream sequence. There was too much telling rather than showing, we don't need to hear Bao Yu sing that "aroused" by his erotic dream, it should be apparent in the music. There were definitely moments when I tried to focus on the action and the singing rather than the words. On the other hand, the framing of the story with a narrator, in this case a monk played by actor Randall Nakano, was poignant.

On the other hand, the singing was fantastic. Soprano Pureum Jo has an ideal voice for Dai Yu, and sounded utterly ethereal. Tenor Yijie Shi was plaintive and bright as Bao Yu. Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Bao Chai) radiated sophistication and touching vulnerability, while mezzo Hyona Kim (Lady Wang) sang with rich power and clarity.

The cast has many high principal voices, so it was nice to hear the fine chorus, which is prominent in the piece.

* Tattling * 
While there were only six people in the standing room line by 10am, there were quite a few more people when we lined up to get in at 6:20pm, as there were no tickets for seats left.

Many audience members wore Chinese-themed clothing to the performance, and red silk brocade seemed most popular.


SF Opera's Andrea Chénier

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The 94th season of San Francisco Opera opened last night with Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano's concise verismo piece about the poet killed in the French Revolution. The opera has a number of gorgeous arias, and the cast assembled (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver) was certainly up to the task.

Especially impressive were the titular character and his beloved, both debuts at San Francisco Opera. Tenor Yonghoon Lee is a dapper Chenier and has an expansive, bright sound. His "Un dì all'azzurro spazio" in Act I was showed much promise, and he really did soar with his Act IV aria " Come un bel dì di maggio." Vocally, soprano Anna Pirozzi (Maddalena) matched Lee, her voice is clear and flexible. Her high notes do not have the slightest hint of strain. Pirozzi's "La mamma morta" in Act III was a show stopper, incredibly wrenching and lovely.

Top to bottom, the cast was strong. Other notable debuts on the War Memorial stage included baritone George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard, a former servant and revolutionary leader, who of course loves Maddalena, and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as Bersi, Maddalena's mulatto servant girl. Gagnidze gave a nuanced turn as the conflicted Gérard while Bridges sang with much power.

The lucid orchestra, conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti, was supportive of the singing, and only rarely got ahead. The volume of the musicians never overwhelmed the singers. The chorus was together and sturdy.

David McVicar's production is straightforward. The sets, from Robert Jones, are attractive but sadly take quite a long time to change. Jenny Tiramani's costumes are very pretty.

* Tattling * 
There was no one in the standing room line besides myself until after 9am.

We heard from San Francisco Opera's new General Director for his first opening night in the role. The Chairman of Board of Directors seemed to have momentarily forgotten the Music Director's name. Again, the audience was restrained this year, and cheered Nancy Pelosi when she was acknowledged.


West Edge Opera's Cunning Little Vixen

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West Edge Opera opened its 2016 festival with The Cunning Little Vixen last night at the abandoned 16th Street train station last night in Oakland. While the orchestra could have been crisper under Maestro Jonathan Khuner, the beauty of Janacek's score comes through. Pat Diamond's production has a ton of charm and the singers did well.

In a time when there's so much awful news, it's easy to want to find an escape, whether it is the latest iteration of a blockbuster movie franchise or Pokémon GO. But what West Edge Opera has achieved here with Janacek's lightest opera represents more than mere distraction from the headlines, a refuge of sorts. The piece is a beautiful meditation on the cyclical nature of life, and though certainly sad, is also celebratory.

The reduced score by Jonathan Dove was played by a tiny orchestra of only 16 that made an impressively huge sound, sometimes overpowering the singers. There were intonation issues, but lots of spirit. Volti Chorus and Piedmont Children's Chorus looked and sounded great as well. The children are ridiculously cute.

The storybook set (pictured above) is also teeny-tiny, with an attractive forest motive that could be projected on with images of ferns, bark, brick, and even a deer head. The lighting, especially the shadows, looked quite evocative of a forest near an urban space with the gorgeous decaying train station walls. The staging is lively, and no one seemed constricted by the lack of space. The costumes are cute and not slavishly descriptive, the chickens wear yellow tutus, nary a feather in sight, but it is completely clear who and what they are.

The one misstep was perhaps the Dragonfly, a dancer in ribboned dress who flitted around between songs. Though her choreography was fine, and she managed to navigate the small space without running into anything or anyone, the dancing did not add much to the performance and seemed gratuitous.

Baritone Philip Skinner sang the Forester with warmth and humanity. Amy Foote is a piquant Vixen, her icy voice is nice and light but pierces through the orchestration. She has a lovely control of her instrument. Nikola Printz (Fox) sang with power and also has a slight strident quality that works for the role.

Joseph Meyers (The Schoolmaster), Nikolas Nackley (The Parson), and Carl King (Harasta) contributed fine performances, rounding out a strong cast.

* Tattling * 
The couple behind me talked at full volume for the beginning of the first and third acts.


Merola's Transformations

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Conrad Susa's Transformations was performed by the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. Neal Goren conducted the jazz and pop influenced score with aplomb, the music sounded idiomatic. The production from Roy Rallo was very consistent with his style.

The piece is based on ten poems by Anne Sexton, from her book also entitled Transformations. The work consists of re-tellings of Grimm fairy tales, which are already rather dark, and take on an even more sinister meaning here Sexton is wry and very disturbing. Susa's music spreads the lines between eight singers who sing up to thirteen characters a piece. There's a surprising amount of singing together, which is quite nice.

Rallo's production is not, as far as I could tell, in a psychiatric hospital, its normal setting. Act I used only the downstage, everything else hidden behind a white curtain, and looked to be someone's living room with white Rococo style couch and cabinet, with a pink kitchen area stage left. In Act II a cave of grey plastic is revealed, and the couch turned around. As in Rallo's 2011 Barbiere for Merola, there was a lot of tinsel used. Tinsel stands in for Rapunzel's hair and for Rumpelstiltskin's straw spun into gold. The direction had a fair amount of slap-stick to it, a whole apple held in the mouth of Snow White to signify the apple stuck in her throat (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) and straw thrown at the head of the miller's daughter.

The chamber format of the opera and its many parts makes it a good fit for Merola. Unfortunately lead soprano Shannon Jennings, who plays Anne Sexton, was ill. She did remarkably well in Act I, though sang with some strain. Her part was taken over in the pit by Mary Evelyn Hangley, but Jennings continued on stage, acting and mouthing the words.

Soprano Teresa Castillo was a game Princess and Gretel. Mezzo Chelsey Geeting as a plush, lovely sound as the Good Fairy and Witch. Tenor Boris Van Druff was very creepy as Rumpelstiltskin. Also impressive was baritone Andrew G. Manea as Iron Hans.

* Tattling * 
The audience was fairly quiet. There was noticeable attrition after the intermission.


SF Opera's Jenůfa

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My review of San Francisco Opera's Jenůfa up on KQED Arts.

* Tattling *
A very enthusiastic couple were in Row L Seats 13 and 15 of the orchestra level. At least one of them was crying during the performance and they were among the first to stand during the ovation. They screamed "bravo," "brava," and "bravi" at every opportune moment. Normally I hate hearing the audience during a performance, but something about their love of opera made it not bother me.


SF Opera's Don Carlo

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The latest Don Carlo (Valentina Simi as Countess of Aremberg, Ana María Martínez as Elisabetta, Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli, René Pape as King Philip II, and Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Act II Scene 2; photograph by Cory Weaver) that opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon is impeccably cast from top to bottom. Michael Fabiano is a brilliant Don Carlo, with powerful high notes. Ana María Martínez sings Elisabetta with icy purity and strength. Her formidable vibrato is controlled.

René Pape is completely believable as King Philip II, his rich tones sounded mature if not slightly weathered. Mariusz Kwiecień made for a warm, sympathetic Rodrigo, his famous duet with Fabiano in Act II Scene 1 ("Dio, che nell'alma infondere") was beautiful, as was his death scene aria "Io morrò, ma lieto in core." Nadia Krasteva (Princess Eboli) has a darkness and a hard edge that works well for the role. Her "O don fatale" in Act IV Scene 1 was surprisingly lovely.

Even the smallest roles had fine singing, including Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquistor, Pene Pati as Count Lerma, and Toni Marie Palmertree as a Heavenly Voice.

The orchestra members also acquitted themselves well under the direction of Maestro Nicola Luisotti. There were moments that were fuzzy, but for the most part the music flowed nicely and was phrased skillfully.

The sets are spare and costumes lavish. Everything was very pretty to look at but a bit dull. The scene changes require a lot of pauses and this dampens the dramatic import of the proceedings.

* Tattling *
I arrived 30 minutes late as I did not realize the curtain time was 1pm rather than the normal 2pm because of the length of this opera, so I missed the first scene. Terrible!

Sadly there was much misbehavior other than my own in balcony standing room. Lots of talking and fidgeting, and at least one cellular phone. Someone exclaimed very loudly to himself during Act IV when the Grand Inquisitor tells the King that God sacrificed His own son for mankind, so he can surely kill Don Carlo without a bad conscience.


SF Opera's Carmen (Ginger Costa-Jackson)

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The second cast of San Francisco Opera's current Carmen (Adam Diegel as Don José and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen in Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) production was performed a day after the first. The production is consistent, and it was impressive to me seeing it this time from Row J of the orchestra level, how much of the staging read clearly from the very back of the house as I saw it the first night.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is a sexy Carmen, her acting is on point. Her ability to emote was completely clear: she was sultry, defiant, and terrified as her role warranted. Her voice doesn't have the most volume, her high notes can be shrill but her low ones are pleasant.

Adam Diegel could always be heard as Don José, his reedy, plaintive sound cut through the orchestra. There were moments of slight strain, but again, Diegel's acting was convincing and carried him through to the end, which was very moving.

Erika Grimaldi (Micaëla) was stunningly vital and had a promising SF Opera debut with this performance. I also loved Michael Sumuel as Escamillo, his robust, beautiful sound and fine acting served him well.

* Tattling * 
It was fairly quiet, there was some light talking.

From the orchestra level I was able to recognize Jamielyn Duggan (Manuelita) as someone I took dance classes with many years ago.