Opera Review

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.


SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

_B5A9208* Notes *
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

_B5A8953* Notes *
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

_B5A3983* Notes *
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

_F2A0816* Notes * 
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

Lucia6* Notes *
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

_B5A5145* Notes * 
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.