Opera Review

Les Arts Florissants' Actéon/Dido and Aeneas

Arts-florissants-2017* Notes * 
This year a second obscure French Baroque opera was seen at Cal Performances last Thursday, this time from Les Arts Florissants (pictured).

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Actéon, only rediscovered in 1945, is the first half of a show being toured by the French based Baroque ensemble whose name comes from a chamber opera by the very same composer. The piece is perfectly elegant and was played adroitly by a small, tight group of seven instrumentalists including conductor William Christie on harpsichord. I particularly liked the oboist, Pier Luigi Fabretti, whose notes sparkled like those of a woodland bird.

The seven singers were equally exquisite, and I was impressed that baritone Renato Dolcini (Chasseur) managed a convincing tambourine. The dusky, sensuous sound of mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre as Junon is completely at odds with her spare frame and a beautiful contrast with tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen's pure clarity in the title role of Actéon. Soprano Elodie Fonnard was bright and light as Diane.

The second half of the performance was Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Both the leads, Desandre as Dido and Dolcini as Aeneas, sang beautifully. The baritone, being the only one, also had to sing with the chorus and would take off his jacket to do so and perhaps overdid it with the acting to distinguish his characters. Desandre, on the other hand, was more understated. Her "When I am laid in Earth" was nothing short of gorgeous.

Most of the singers are French or Italian, and not native English speakers, but this was only noticeable in a few cases. Unsurprisingly, Scottish soprano Rachel Redmond (Belinda) was the most easily understood. Her voice gleams but has a rich and mellow tones to it.

Sophie Daneman's direction for both operas was uncluttered and simple, but effective. The scene in the sorceress' cave was certainly the funniest as the naughty spirits teased the instrumentalists, especially William Christie himself.

* Tattling * 
My Cal Performances subscription for the three Baroque opera performances this season has me in the second row, which I did not realize until I found my seat on Thursday evening. I was able to see the singers almost a little bit too well since there was no one in front of me.


SF Opera's Manon Review

Sf-opera-manon-balloons* Notes * 
The latest Manon at San Francisco Opera is visually striking and has some fine singing and playing.

The opera hasn't been seen on the War Memorial stage since 1998, and Vincent Boussard's direction is a welcome departure from the very traditional stagings of the past.

The set (Act III, Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) seems to use the same shiny floor as seen in I Capuleti e i Montecchi five years ago, and has a similar wall in the background, but this one is curved with an uneven, slanted top. The direction produces some gorgeous images, the lighting is atmospheric and the play of shadows works very nicely. However, the acting, especially for our two leads, can feel stilted and bloodless. There was even a cringe-worthy moment at the end of Act III, Scene 2 when Des Grieux tears open his cassock and shirt out of passion for Manon, which garnered both gasps and giggles.

The much of the other acting and singing was charming. Monica Dewey (Poussette), Laura Krumm (Javotte), and Renée Rapier (Rosette) were adorable together, very minxish and almost sounded like Rheinmaidens. It is no surprise that mezzos Krumm and Rapier will both be in San Francisco Opera's Ring next summer. Tenor Robert Brubaker was perfect as lascivious Guillot de Morfontaine. His eager skips across the stage in pursuit of the ladies had a cuteness, and his anger at being snubbed by Manon is believable. Baritone David Pershall also had an attractive roguish quality as Lescaut, and a pleasant enough voice.

Vocally, our lovebirds sparkled. Soprano Ellie Dehn has a beautiful voice that has a lightness but is also seems deeply rooted and resonant. Her Manon glittered, from beginning to end. Michael Fabiano sang Des Grieux with a lot of power, and his voice is also very lovely from top to bottom.

Maestro Patrick Fournillier had the orchestra in hand, the music sounded clear without being square. The chorus shone, sounding very strong and cohesive.

* Tattling * 
Though I only arrived at 7pm, I got standing room ticket 18. It was easy to find a place at the rail downstairs. This may have been the first opening performance I've attended at San Francisco Opera this year, and I saw many familiar faces in the audience.

There were some noisy latecomers during Act I, but for the most part the audience was pretty quiet, though there was some electronic noise from devices from time to time.


LA Opera's La Belle et la Bête

Laopera-belle-bete* Notes *
LA Opera just did a short but sweet run of Philip Glass' La Belle et la Bête with the Jean Cocteau film at the ACE Hotel Theatre. It is hard to imagine a cooler venue for the production, the flagship movie house of United Artists is glorious in its 1920s splendor, decked out in Halloween finery.

Seven members of the accomplished Philip Glass Ensemble, including music director and conductor Michael Riesman, played from the stage along with the four fine singers. There were moments when the singing of the score did not synchronize with the lips of the actors, but this is to be expected, since speaking and singing take different amounts of time. Perhaps Cocteau's 1946 film hasn't aged very gracefully, there is a bit of a kitsch factor here and this produced a fair amount of giggles from the audience, especially the first glimpse we get of the Beast and his transformation to Price Ardent at the end.

The singers navigated the difficult music very nicely, everyone but La Belle has to sing more than one role. I liked the contrast of the two female singers and the parallel contrast of the two male ones as well, even though it was hard judge the weight of their voices given all the amplification. Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn had a honeyed sound as La Belle, with throaty richness and ethereal high notes. Soprano Marie Mascari was suitably shrewish as mean sisters Félicie and Adélaïde, but her voice was not too shrill or unpleasant. Baritone Gregory Purnhagen (La Bête, Officiel du Port, Avenant, and Ardent) sounded bright and flexible, while baritone Peter Stewart (La Père and Ludovic) sounded plusher and mellower.

This was certainly immersive theater, and it is easy to see why LA Opera chose the piece for its Off Grand series, which aims to attract new audiences.

* Tattling *
I only barely made it to DTLA in time for the Sunday matinée, as the Burbank airport was fogged in. My morning flight from Oakland was in a holding pattern for about an hour, then diverted to Las Vegas where more people were boarded, and arrived where we needed to be around noon.

The audience was much more well-behaved than at the opera house, I heard hardly any talking at all.


SF Opera's La Traviata Review

_B5A8025* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's recent La Traviata is very pretty both in the orchestra pit and on stage.

This is Maestro Luisotti's last series of performances as music director, and the orchestra sounded spirited during the Sunday matinée last weekend. I felt like I could hear every individual instrument from the back of the balcony. Though not always with the singers, the effect was still strong.

The production, from John Copley (lovingly known by many as "Uncle John"), is traditional, though has been livened up by Shawna Lucey and includes quite a spanking by Flora of the Marquis d’Obigny in Act II Scene 2 that I don't remember from before.

The singing had much to recommend it, and certainly was not dull. The Adlers all did well, from Amina Edris' sympathetic Annina to Anthony Reed's despairing Doctor Grenvil. Amitai Pati was particularly tantalizing as Gastone, one would love to hear him in a major role, his voice is just so beautiful.

It was fascinating to hear each of the three major principals, all of whom are new to the War Memorial stage. Artur Ruciński may have lacked a certain gravity for Giorgio Germont, he really seemed no older than his son, but his reedy, plaintive sound was lovely. Atalla Ayan (Alfredo Germont) had a wonderful rich warmth, though there were times when his voice did seem to disappear into the orchestra, as at the end of Act II, Scene 1.

Aurelia Florian has a bright, though bordering on shrill voice, but her Violetta is convincing, and she has an appealing, delicate quality that works nicely for a consumptive. She does express a lot of emotion through her sound, and could channel a wounded animal or a sweet angel depending on what was required.

* Tattling * 
One definitely missed the seriousness of the Elektra audience during this performance. Many people were late as it was Fleet Week and the last day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and traffic getting into San Francisco must have been bad.

Then again, standing room upstairs was nearly empty and I could place myself away from those who needed to chatter during the music.


SF Opera's Elektra Review

_37A6151* Notes * 
Despite glowing reviews, I was apprehensive about hearing San Francisco Opera latest Elektra yesterday afternoon because I have never much liked the music of Richard Strauss. My doubts were dispelled almost at once, this stylish production has an excellent cast and conductor, and works both theatrically and musically.

Originally directed by Keith Warner in Prague last year, Anja Kühnhold has taken the reins here to fine effect. The opera is set in a museum, and looks very convincing. People wander around the exhibits before the music begins and even the announcement asking patrons to turn off devices has been switched to one for a museum rather than a performance. I really enjoyed the artfulness in the direction, the eye is drawn around the stage and there are surprises as far as the space and the entrances of singers.

The look of the set matches the singing and playing, everything is clean and crisp. Maestro Henrik Nánási had a promising San Francisco Opera debut, though the orchestra included 100 musicians, the music did not blare or overwhelm. The brass played neatly and the woodwinds sounded absolutely lovely.

The cast is top notch. Though I was disappointed that Stephanie Blythe was replaced by Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in these performances, Martens was commanding in the role. Tenor Robert Brubaker simpered perfectly as Aegisth, while bass-baritone Alfred Walker (Orest) sang with power. The recognition scene of Orest and Elektra was incredibly creepy, and Walker definitely can act and sing.

In the title role, soprano Christine Goerke likewise is a respectable singing actor, though there isn't really a dance for her at the end, and this works perfectly well. Goerke has some beautiful deep rich low notes and a ton of endurance. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka's sound as Chrysothemis is a very pretty counterpoint to Goerke, her high notes are so shimmery.

* Tattling * 
I loved how quiet the balcony level audience was for this performance.

The end of the Elektra program (and I'm going to guess it is in the Turandot one also) has a "Postlude" from General Director Matthew Shivlock that addresses "Inclusion, Equity, and Opera." I liked that it recognized orientalism in opera and addressed building dialogue with new audiences, but remain vaguely skeptical as always. It will be interesting to observe what happens.


Ars Minerva's La Circe Review

La-circe-2017* Notes * 
Ars Minerva gave the modern premiere of Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe last night at ODC Theater. It is almost alarming how pretty all the unknown music the group has uncovered is, this being the third Baroque Venetian opera the company has staged. It is clear that there is simply a ton of lovely pieces that languish in obscurity, as with Rameau's Le Temple de la Gloire that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra did in April and Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana recently at West Edge Opera.

Ziani was the organist at Basilica di San Marco and then worked for Eleonor Magdalene of Neuburg in Vienna. He's a generation after Monteverdi and one before Handel, and operas in this period are not at all in the standard opera repertoire.

The music is perfectly attractive, and the plot of La Circe is a standard sort of convoluted Baroque opera inspired by a few lines from Ovid, which involves multiple overlapping love triangles. There is a gorgeous duet at the end of Act I between Pyrrhus and Andromaca, but mostly it is da capo aria after da capo aria for the various voices that highlight a certain low female or high male vocal range.

The breadth of Bay Area musical talent was on full display here and the diversity of sound was impressive. Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, also the leader of Ars Minerva and stage director of this opera, sang a focused and really quite frightening Circe. Her incisive, precise delivery is such a contrast with fellow mezzo Kindra Scharich's smooth, rich tones as Andromaca, not to mention Jasmine Johnson's vivid near baritone as Aegle (who pretends to be the male gardener Floreno for most of the show). The lone soprano was Aurélie Veruni as the hapless Scylla, so carefree and coquettish, wrongfully hated by Circe, who turns her into a sea monster.

Countertenor Ryan Belongie sang Pyrrhus with sweetness, while tenor Kyle Stegall was a charmingly rakish Glauco. Tenor Jonathan Smucker got many laughs as the clownish Gligoro. Rounding out the cast was baritone Igor Vieira, who sang three small roles (Custode del Porto, Tissandro, and Creonte) with ease.

The small orchestra included a harpsichord, two violins, a viola, and a theorbo. The playing was neat and astringent. My miswired brain tasted unripe persimmon after Glauco sees his love Scylla transformed, and oddly my teeth ached for the rest of the opera.

 The staging featured the dancer Katherine Hutchinson. Her work with aerial silks was a wonderful spectacle. Her strength in her first dance and her skin-matching unitard got an audible gasp from the audience.

* Tattling * 
I was mildly surprised about how many of my friends were in the audience, skipping the San Francisco Opera opening for this obscure gem. The audience was attentive and quiet, those that received flower crowns from Scylla in Act I wore them with pride.

The end of this opera was very abrupt.


West Edge Opera's L'arbore di Diana

Arbore-di-diana-2017* Notes * 
West Edge Opera has found a new home at Pacific Pipe, an abandoned warehouse in Oakland this year, after the City of Oakland denied permits public events at the 16th Street Station, where the company performed the previous two seasons. Since I had a baby a scant 12 weeks ago, I decided to attend only one of the three productions, choosing Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana. It turned out very well for me, the music is delightful, the production amusing, the conducting crisp, and the singers fantastic.

Martín, a contemporary of Mozart, is best known today for the quote of "O quanto in sì bel giubilo" from Una cosa rara at the second act of Don Giovanni. Interestingly, both these works and L'arbore di Diana are by the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The music of L'arbore di Diana is jaunty and attractive, and the small orchestra played nicely under the direction of Maestro Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff of San Francisco Opera and was an Adler Fellow. The fortepiano, played by Mollicone, was amplified, and this was disorienting (especially at first) because the sound came from a different direction than the instrument. There were times when the singers and orchestra were slightly off from each other, but for the most part, the playing was pretty clean.

Director Mark Streshinsky is at his best with this sort of divinely silly opera. The tree of the title is made of ladders and pink tulle, complete with fruit to pelt unchaste nymphs. The fruit are the dancers of the Sarah Berges Dance Company, and their costumes, emerald lame leotards each emblazoned with a single golden breast, pink areola, and multicolored flashing light as a nipple, are hilarious. The dancers mutely comment on the action, their expressions and gestures are priceless.

The singing was likewise excellent. The trio of nymphs (pictured above with dancers) included soprano Maya Kherani (Britomarte), mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney (Clizia), and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss (Chloe), who all have beautiful voices and sang wonderfully together. Tenor Kyle Stegall's voice rang out clearly, even though the venue doesn't have ideal acoustics at all, hardly having walls. His Endimione, love interest of Diana, is convincing, as Stegall is tall and handsome.

The dueling sopranos Christine Brandes (Cupid) and Nikki Einfeld (Diana) were no less appealing. While I'm not a fan of Brandes' incisive sound, it works in this space, and was a good foil for Einfeld, whose flexible voice is nothing short of gorgeous. Einfeld can also pull off wearing a floor length blue sequined gown with fluffy blonde wig and still look slim and perfectly self-possessed. I was impressed by her coloratura and happy to hear her in something so different from Opera Parallèle's Flight earlier in the year.

 

* Tattling * 
I bought an expensive ticket for this opera so that I could have an assigned seat rather than being in the general admission section. It was worth the price for me, as I was not next to anyone in Row B Seat 24 and did not have to get to the venue early to stake out a good seat.


Merola's La Cenerentola

Merola_cenerentola_2017_loken_2400x1800* Notes * 
The second set of opera performances from the Merola Opera Program this year was Rossini's La Cenerentola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on August 3 and 5. The sugary sweet staging from Chuck Hudson showcased a plethora of fine young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) supported by conductor Mark Morash and a mostly competent orchestra.

The production featured three wardrobes moved around the stage by the male chorus, meant to look like the doors of various edifices. The costumes were slightly baffling, the male chorus members wore moto jeans splattered with paint and none of the women's clothing seemed to have sleeves. The choreography involved a lot of voguing.

But as usual for Merola, the voices were preeminent, and even the smallest roles are filled by very strong talents. Soprano Natalie Image, Clorinda, one of the step-sisters, has an especially gorgeous voice, and one would love to hear her sing more. The trio of bass-baritones were all strong. Szymon Wach sounded lovely as Alidoro, Christian Pursell made for a dashing, pretty voiced Dandini, and Andrew Hiers was a perfectly silly Don Magnifico.

Anthony Ciaramitaro has a sweet-toned tenor suited for Prince Ramiro, contrasting well with mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey's dusky sound. Hankey has a fabulous physicality that Ciaramitaro obviously lacks, she moves in an elastic and adorable way that made the cloying title role much more sympathetic.

* Tattling *
I was so sad to learn that long-time opera supporter John Lindstrom died a few weeks before the performances, which were dedicated to his memory.


Merola's Triple Bill

Merola-the-bear-2017* Notes * 
The Merola Opera Program presented a triple bill of Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, Holst's Sāvitri, and Walton's The Bear at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 20 and 22. It came off as a deadly boring tragedy sandwiched by cutesy frills, perhaps because of Peter Kazaras' staging. But as always, the singers were almost all great.

La Serva Padrona ("The Servant Turned Mistress") is a light, bubbly piece, only 45 minutes long. Full of sight gags, the production did get a lot of laughs, from the popcorn eating of mute Vespone (played by David Wiegel) at the start to the fake parrot on his shoulder when he pretends to be a very pirate-like Tempesta near the end. Jana McIntyre's Serpina was sassy and stylish, her sound is bright. As Uberto, Daniel Noyola was perfectly hapless, and his voice has a pleasant weight to it.

Sāvitri was staged in a stark, static manner, it dragged a bit for being so short, a mere 40 minutes or so. The title role sounded challenging for Kelsea Webb, though she has a big voice. The men, David Wiegel as Death and Addison Marlor as Satyavān, fared better. Wiegel's sound is deep and grave, and such a stark contrast to his role in the previous opera.

Of the three pieces, The Bear (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken) was most successful, though also staged in a silly and quaint way. Daniel Noyola was hardly recognizable as servant Luka. Bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum has an impressive stage presence, and delighted as Smirnov, while mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was a convincing Popova.

* Tattling *
The audience was fairly quiet, though the person on my right elbowed me many times during the first opera as he took notes (he was left-handed), and I had nowhere to shift away, until the next opera, when the lady next to me was notably absent.


Temple of Glory at Cal Performances

PBOTempleGloire3711_4x6_FrankWing* Notes *
It is a shame that Rameau's Le Temple de la Gloire at Cal Performances (Prologue pictured left with Aaron Sheehan as Apollo and his muses from New York Baroque Dance Company, photograph by Frank Wing) only has three performances this weekend. The music is delightful, and I could have happily gone again today after hearing the first two on Friday and Saturday nights.

The pretty production is historically informed, lead by Artistic Director of the New York Baroque Dance Company, Catherine Turocy. It is a nice contrast between the usual contemporary versions of Baroque operas I've seen from Mark Morris or Pina Bausch, but it becomes very clear very quickly why traditional stagings aren't the norm. It is a lot of ballet music, and Turocy's dancers are tame compared to the acrobatics and antics we've grown accustomed to.

The movements are understated, lots of swaying and swishing, and what I'm guessing is the precursor to petit battement. For myself, I liked that the dancing didn't compete with the playing, I would rather listen to PBO play Rameau's beautiful music without any elaborate distractions.

Nonetheless, there was a lot to look at, the costumes are eye-poppingly bright and feature lots of feathers. A dancer dressed as an ostrich in Act III was a hit. The set uses tasteful projections of painted scenes within a painted proscenium. I enjoyed very much that the UC Berkeley mascot, Ursus arctos californicus, was painted on the shield at the top.

Nicholas McGegan conducted with his characteristic bouncy cheer, the orchestra sounded clean but lively. Even the horns were mostly in tune. The flutes had some gorgeous, exposed moments. The chorus was off to the side, stage left, but sounded robust. There were a few brief moment of asynchrony, but mostly on the first night rather than the second.

The soloists, mostly from the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, have lovely voices, very light and flexible. Of the two haute-contres, I preferred Aaron Sheehan (Apollon, Trajan) to Artavazd Sargsyan (Un Berger, Bacchus, Premier Roi) though both were nice, the latter did sound more fragile. The standout was definitely soprano Chantal Santon Jeffery who sang Lydie, Une Bacchante, and La Glorie herself. Her sound is absolutely clarion.

* Tattling * 
On Friday night, my date had me sit on the aisle of Row S so that I didn't have to hear the two chatty Germans in Row T Seats 104 and 105. He did giggle a lot at the dancing though. Also, someone near us wore a watch that was 10 minutes fast and chimed on the hour.

For the second performance, the first half was fine but during the second, a woman in Row J Seat 4 could not stop fidgeting (she also briefly talked to her companion on the aisle). She tapped her fingers to parts that did not have percussion and repeatedly rustled the paper in her Altoid box. Many pointed glances were shot her way but she seemed mostly oblivious to this. At least she did keep quiet for the last five minutes of the show. I felt badly for the man directly in front of her, he was obviously bothered and trying hard to focus on the performance instead.

Either she or her neighbor pressed and kicked my seat more than once as well, but it was easy to ignore since I'm being pressed and kicked internally by a 37 week old fetus. I expected the woman behind me to be infirm or elderly, but she was simply a slim middle-aged person with a blond bob and fringe.


Anna Caterina Antonacci at SF Opera Lab

37A0329* Notes *
Last night the arresting soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera) gave the first of three performances of songs by Berlioz, Debussy, and Poulenc paired with a piano version La Voix Humane at SF Opera Lab. Antonacci gave a compelling renditions of the various French songs, all the more impressive since it was only her voice and the spare accompaniment of Donald Sulzen's piano.

Part of her appeal is certainly her voice, which is far from your garden variety clean, pure soprano, and in fact Antonacci started her career singing mezzo roles, especially Rossini, which doesn't seem particularly well suited to her sensual sound. She did great with Berlioz's "La mort d'Ophélie", very emotionally on point and haunting. Likewise her "Le tombeau des Naïades" from Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis was particularly strong.

37A0382Poulenc's 1958 La Voix humane is essentially a monologue of a suicidal woman on the telephone with her former lover. Its success as a piece of drama rests heavily on the the one singer, and Antonacci delivered, she is an incredible actress and it was hard to look away.

Simple and concise, the 40 minutes flew by, and we experience everything from the petty annoyances of being on a party line to the utter depths of despair of being abandoned and unloved.

The plain, stripped down staging of a simple rain drop covered window with a view of Paris with only a table, chair, and a few pillows was perfect and matched the simplicity of the opera itself.

Antonacci's costume was a bit odd, it looked like a 70s floral house dress, with panels that opened in the front and a cut-out in the back. I was also confused by (though also enjoyed) her gown for the songs, which looked to be a long grey leotard-inspired tunic whose sleeves covered her hands and had the saddest tulle tutu-like skirt.

Tattling *
Many audience members were mostly quiet, though a few people had to exit during the music.


Ted Hearne's The Source at SF Opera Lab

Thesource_stefancohen016* Notes *
Yesterday SF Opera Lab opened a second season with Ted Hearne's disturbing oratorio The Source. The 2012 piece concerns Chelsea Manning's disclosure to WikiLeaks of classified material about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unconventionally staged with the four singers dispersed in the audience (Isaiah Robinson pictured left, photograph by Stefan Cohen) and with enormous video projections on each side, the experience was completely immersive.

Mark Doten's libretto uses primary source texts, tweets from Manning and Adrian Lamo (the former hacker that ultimately turned Manning in), chat logs from Manning and Lamo, interview questions posed to Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, and random cultural artifacts from the time period ranging from an interview of Steven Hawking to Big Boi's "Shutterbugg." The collection is unsettling, and all the more so because the repetitive vocals are highly processed by Philip White in real time.

The music is often loud and cacophonous, and the ensemble hidden above, behind one of the video screens, consisted of what amounts to a string trio plus keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. The playing and singing seemed to come off tightly together, most impressive given the lack of conductor. It wasn't at all clear to me how this was accomplished.

Most of the videos used were of people's faces as they watched the leaks, gleaned from footage of nearly 100 people taken by director Daniel Fish and production designer Jim Findlay. It is all very unsettling. When we finally see the gunsight footage of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, known as "Collateral Murder," we understand all too well what these people have been reacting to and experience it for ourselves. The dead silence at the end lasted an uncomfortable and imposing amount of time.

Tattling *
Many audience members (I saw at least five at one time) fell asleep despite the volume of the music and fact that they may have been next to one of the vocalists. This was all the more obvious because the two halves of the audience faced one another.


Opera San José's Silent Night

Silent-night-2017* Notes *
The Pulitzer Prize winning Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell is a fine choice for Opera San José, which gave the West Coast premiere last night. It was a worthy challenge for the company, which has a many youthful repertory members, all of whom seemed to rise to the occasion.

Campbell's libretto is based on the screenplay for the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, which in turn is based on a World War I Christmas truce of December 1914 between Scottish, German, and French soldiers. It's a good story, the horrors of war is a serious topic, but has some great humor as well.

The tender portrayals of the various characters, and there are a lot, no less than 14 principals, were convincing. I could hardly even recognize some of the resident company members, even from the fourth row, so much did the singers embody their roles.

The quality of the singing was certainly up there. Soprano Julie Adams played opera singer Anna Sørensen to a tee, her Act II Scene 2 aria was beautiful. Likewise tenor Kirk Dougherty seemed natural in the role of opera singer/German soldier Nikolaus Sprink.

Puts' music sounds very cinematic and sweeping, it definitely is not challenging or dissonant, aside from perhaps the bagpipe featured in Act I Scene 5. Ricardo Rivera (Lt. Audebert) and Brian James Myer (Ponchel) had some of the most lovely music in the middle of Act I. It was not clear to me how well the orchestra played under Maestro Joseph Marcheso, sometimes it sounded a bit off-kilter, the strings sounded out of tune in Act I Scene 4, but this could have been written this way. The brass wasn't always perfectly clean. The woodwinds did have some gorgeous exposed moments.

The production, directed by Michael Shell and designed by Steven Kemp makes excellent use of the space. There are ten scenes and Kemp employs three moveable rectangular wooden frames as each of the camps to keep the action going and this is very effective.

* Tattling * 
The audience absolutely loved this opera. There was hardly a seat open in the whole orchestra section, and the whole run is close to being completely full. Given that Minnesota Opera sold-out the world premiere in 2012, Opera San José looks to do just as well.


Opera Parallèle's Flight

Flight2616_captioned* Notes *
Opera Parallèle has opened another near impeccable production with Jonathan Dove's Flight, which has a three performance run this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Featuring an ensemble of 10 vocalists, the cast, mostly alumni of the Merola Opera Program, is incredibly strong. The small orchestra of 29 musicians also played with precision and verve.

The piece, though based on the true story of Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri and his extended stay in the Charles de Gaulle airport, is both comedic and tragic. British playwright April de Angelis' narrative is taut and the most of characters are compellingly human, having very understandable emotions that come through the music. The Older Woman, played by San Francisco Conservatory of Music faculty member and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, is both very funny as she recounts her romance with a young man, yet beautifully vulnerable. As the heavily pregnant Minskwoman who refuses to board her airplane, mezzo Renée Rapier sings a gorgeous confessional aria about how much has changed and how she would like to be free again.

Dove's vocal writing is lyric and he deftly handles the ensembles, the overlapping conversations seem natural and flow together nicely. Duets between the bickering couple of Bill and Tina were especially great, as were the contrasting passionate Steward and Stewardess. Tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali (Bill) had a wonderful warmth and soprano Amina Edris (Tina) got to show off some fiery and hilarious coloratura when she became angry with him.

More otherworldly are the top billed characters of the Controller, sung here by soprano Nikki Einfeld, and the Refugee, countertenor Tai Oney. Einfeld spends most of her time up in a room by herself observing and commenting on the action from above. Her voice is clear and biting. Oney's vocal type lends itself to a certain mysticism, as the most defenseless person of the opera, he tries to charm others into helping him, telling them what they want to hear. Oney had a few hooty notes at the beginning, but really sounded lovely for the rest of the evening.

Maestra Nicole Paiement is nothing if not consistent, and again proved herself to be truly one of the best opera conductors in the Bay Area. The orchestra played Dove's music, which is clearly influenced by minimalism, with ease. The orchestra never seemed head of the singers, but also never sounded slack.

Director Brian Staufenbiel employs a wall of 15 square screens at the back of what looks like a typical airport lounge. The video projections develop the story in a literal way by showing airplanes or rain and also try to heighten certain more mysterious passages with abstraction, such as swirling purple smoke. There is much movement both with those on stage and in the projections, driving in the fact that we are in a space for transit, except for the hapless Refugee.

* Tattling * 
The announcement to turn off cellular telephones and locate emergency exits before the performance sounded like something out of one would hear at an airport.


LA Opera's Akhnaten

Akhnaten* Notes *
Los Angeles Opera's recent Akhnaten, which closed last Sunday with a matinee performance, was nothing short of spectacular. With Philip Glass' hypnotic score, an excellent cast, and a grand production featuring acrobats and a flexible, multi-level set, it was hard to look away from the stage for even a second.

This is the third of three biographical operas by Glass, the first two being Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, which focus on Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. This opera deals with the life of pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned polytheism in favor of worshipping Aten, a sun deity. The text of the opera is in Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian.

The music features many arpeggios and no violins, it is not as surreal as Einstein and not as austere as Satyagraha. The music does seem difficult to perform, and though not perfectly precise, the LA Opera orchestra did admirably under the direction of Matthew Aucoin. The chorus members looked like they were all concentrating very hard as well, especially when they had to throw balls as they sang.

The main character is sung by a countertenor, in this case by the very talented Anthony Roth Constanzo, who is a regular at the Met and also had a star turn in San Francisco Opera's Partenope a few years ago. Constanzo has a beautiful, pure tone. He did sound somewhat shrill in Act II Scene 2, his duet with Nefertiti, but he was incredible in the rest of the piece. The epilogue was especially gorgeous, and certainly soprano Stacey Tappan (Queen Tye) and mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges (Nefertiti) made strong contributions here as well. Tappan has a clear, sweet sound and Bridges is powerful without dominating the other voices.

The smaller roles were all beautifully cast. Baritone Kihun Yoon (Horemhab), bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell (Aye), and tenor Frederick Ballentine (High Priest of Amon) sang with an unparalleled cohesion. The six daughters of Akhnaten sounded elegant and lovely, particularly sopranos So Young Park and Summer Hassan. Even the non-singing role of the scribe, who narrates the scenes in lieu of supertitles, was expertly performed by bass Zachary James, a imposing presence with an attractive voice, even if he didn't sing here.

The striking co-production with English National Opera opened at that opera house last March. The set, which looks to be made of metal and is designed by Tom Pye, features three levels and sliding doors, it is contemporary and easily moved but still formidable, especially when populated by the chorus and the supers. Kevin Pollard's costumes make nods at Ancient Egypt but also reference other eras. The look is a bit Steampunk and also a bit H.R. Giger. Akhnaten's robes have baby doll heads on them, for instance.

Director Phelim McDermott makes use of ten jugglers, an acknowledgement of the earliest known depiction of juggling being found in Egypt and of Philip Glass' music, which requires similar adroit, well-timed skill. The jugglers, dressed for the most part as cracked statues, add to both the spectacle and otherworldly quality of the piece. McDermott never lacks for ideas, there was a huge hamster wheel in Act I and Contanzo is completely naked for much of this act as he is slowly maneuvered into his pharaoh clothing. Act II Scene 4 has a giant balloon aloft mid-stage, prettily lit different colors until it clearly represents the sun. The six daughters have blue dreadlocks that all tie together, and the scene in which they are drawn into the crowd is very effective and disturbing. The production has a coherence that never detracts from the music.

* Tattling *
This final performance looked completely full, and I made a point of trying to sit near the stage, as I had heard the visual aspect of the production was very compelling. Also, one would think being so close to the performers would make one embarrassed to talk. This was not completely true, the women in Row C Seats 9 and 10, the second row, made a lot of comments, but at least they were about the action, however uninsightful ("Pretty" or "Like Cirque du Soleil") they sometimes were.