Seattle Opera announced the 2018-2019 season today. Bay Area conductor Nicole Paiement conducts Mason Bates' Steve Jobs opera.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Girls of the Golden West (Lorena Feijóo as Lola Montez pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) are not overwhelmingly positive but not without its proponents.
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* Notes *
Last night's world premiere of John Adams' Girls of the Golden West (Act I Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at San Francisco Opera had some gorgeous singing and playing. But neither the music nor the artful, elegant stagecraft could save a stilted and tedious libretto.
Tellingly, the best moment of the opera is without words. The music for Lola Montez's Spider Dance held my attention after the monotony of lines and lines of narration from Gold Rush era primary sources. It helps that ballerina Lorena Feijóo looked fantastic in her red, white, and blue ruffles and danced with absolute conviction.
The playing seemed very much together under the direction of Maestro Grant Gershon, and the woodwinds sounded especially lovely. The chorus too had a cohesiveness to be admired. In fact all of the singing and acting was impressive, from the supernumerary miners and dancing girls up to the youthful leads.
Much, if not all, of the opera's text comes from original sources rather than from librettist/director Peter Sellars, and as such, there is a lot more telling than showing. There is little in the way of dialogue and it isn't always easy to understand what exactly is going on since the characters sing at us rather than interact with each other. This is especially prominent for Dame Shirley, whose words are all her own, drawn from her letters. In this leading role is soprano Julia Bullock and her fine voice seems wasted on lines enumerating mining terms she doesn't understand and the like.
The parts of the libretto that work best are based on songs or poetry, as with the miners' songs sung by the chorus or the Cantonese rhymes brought to life by talented soprano Hye Jung Lee as prostitute Ah Sing. Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges is a dignified Josefa Segovia, a Mexican-American woman who kills her would-be rapist Joe Cannon and is subsequently judged guilty of murder and hanged. Her words come from poems by Alfonsina Storni.
I really wanted to like this opera as it features John Adams, my home state, and a brilliant cast that includes many people of color. But sadly I found myself rather bored, especially during the first act (the one bright spot being Davóne Tines' aria as Ned Peters at the end). It felt more like a discombobulating lecture in a dream than an opera, though I'll give the piece another chance next week, as it is in my subscription.
* Tattling *
The orchestra level and boxes looked very full, and standing room had a respectable crowd at the rail. A standee did collapse during Act I, but was apparently fine and did not need to be taken out of the hall.
The audience was very polite, and tried to clap after some of the main arias, but was most enthused by the Spider Dance. The opera did get a standing ovation, though I might have heard someone mutter that Peter Sellars deserved a pie in the face.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Turandot (Martina Serafin in the title role pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) have not make me reconsider my decision to skip the opening, but the reviews of the second cast are promising.
* Notes *
La Rondine, that funny little Puccini rarity, opened last weekend in a charming production (Act II pictured, photograph by Pat Kirk) at Opera San José. The youthful cast looked perfectly suited for the piece and the playing was a delight.
The production has lovely traditional sets and costumes and I appreciated Candace Evans' sympathetic direction, never heavy-handed but with touching details. She seems to have a certain compassion especially for those in service roles, a servant endures cigar smoke as he holds a humidor in Act I and a waiter in Act II gets an extravagant tip only to have it taken by a superior. These specifics go far in drawing you into the world of this opera, despite its unconventional form.
La Rondine, though it has some similarities to the vastly more popular Butterfly and Bohème, has its big aria in the first ten minutes and a much less dramatic ending (spoiler alert: no one dies). Opera San José does make a fine case for the work, no one more so than the orchestra, lead by Christopher Larkin. It wasn't perfect, there were times when the singers dragged slightly or the brass had a stray note, but the playing was light and had a lot of appeal.
The young singers fully embody their roles, and it was hard not to smile at how cute they all are. Maya Kherani and Katharine Gunnick titter and revel as fashionable Yvette and Bianca, friends of our leading lady. Elena Galván, the maid turned opera singer turned maid again, is lively and funny. Her voice sparkles and she plays off of Mason Gates, whose Prunier is also adorable.
Tenor Jason Slayden is an ideal Ruggero, it is easy to see why Magda falls for him, he's tall and handsome and has a beautiful voice. His earnestness in the Act III aria "Dimmi che vuoi seguirmi" is completely convincing. Soprano Amanda Kingston too looks the part, she is very pretty, slim, and graceful. Her voice is powerful and almost strident, her Magda knows her own mind and isn't dissuaded from her pursuits, whether it is leaving her patron in Act II or deciding to return, like the swallow, in the end.
* Tattling *
The audience at Opera San José is ever supportive and gave the Sunday performance a standing ovation.
* Notes *
The West Coast premiere of William Kentridge's multimedia extravaganza Refuse the Hour (ovation at Saturday's evening performance pictured) was presented at ACT last weekend before heading south to Los Angeles. The frenetic piece is the companion of Kentridge's Refusal of Time, a video installation recently at SFMOMA, and it too contemplates nature of time and colonialism throughout the world.
The work, billed as a chamber opera, is chock-full of ideas and features declamations (some backwards) from Kentridge in his characteristic uniform of white button-down shirt and black slacks along with dance from Dada Masilo and Catherine Meyburgh's video design.
Philip Miller's score probably would not stand well on its own, this is very much opera as theater rather than music, but so much the better, it would be distracting for the images and sounds to compete even more than they already were. The musicians were conducted by Adam Howard (who also played trumpet and flugelhorn) also included percussion -- most notably a drum kit attached to the ceiling -- violin, trombone, tuba, piano, and two vocalists. Joanna Dudley's vocalizations were much more like speech, while Ann Masina sounded rather more rich and operatic.
What I loved most was seeing Dada Masilo in person, it was thrilling to watch her move with such speed, elegance, and beauty through the chaos of sounds and images. Her stillness too was impressive, especially when she posed on a circular platform, holding her arms and one leg in large metal megaphones, as Kentridge slowly spun her around.
* Tattling *
The audience was fairly quiet and in any case, it was hard to hear anything much over the sounds coming from the stage.
There was a reception afterward on the fourth floor of Kensington Park Hotel that many of the cast members attended, including William Kentridge, who, like everyone else, was not in his performance costume.
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.
Reviews for San Francisco Opera's Manon (Act II, Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are trickling in.
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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.
* 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.
Slavyanka Russian Chorus, an a cappella chorus based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is presenting a festival of Russian choral music starting next Sunday in Berkeley. The festival highlights Russian music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and includes works by Tchaikovsky, Sergei Taneyev, Rachmaninov, and Pavel Chesnokov.
Most notably there will be two West Coast premieres by Taneyev (who studied with Tchaikovsky): a choral cantata with full orchestra, Ioann Damaskin, and the choral work Sunrise. Seven different ensembles are joining Slavyanka Russian Chorus in the three performances, each with a different program.
The Sunday, October 15 performance at St. Mark's in Berkeley features the folk traditions of the Moscow region and includes including Oakland-based female vocal group Kitka, Kostroma (San Jose), Silicon Valley's Iskra Etno Vocal Group, Pava from Seattle. The Friday, October 20 concert at Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco includes Slavyanka Russian Chorus with church choirs from Burlingame, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. The Sunday, October 22 at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco is devoted to Taneyev and features countertenor Andrej Nemzer. Tickets are available here.
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.
The theme is electronic dance music (EDM) and opera, and will feature Adler Fellows and Loves Company. I asked co-hosts and Adler Fellows Anthony Reed and Aria Umezawa a few questions about curating this event.
Umezawa is a director who recently had a successful run of Hamlet at West Edge Opera. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of Toronto-based independent opera company Opera 5 and has an online web-series called "Opera Cheats."
How are EDM and opera similar?
Anthony Reed: That is something we have been trying to figure out during this process, and it's been a fun task. I think both forms have the power to seep into people's skin. Opera helps people escape into the lives of the characters on stage. Seeing the characters on stage can reflect and mirror one's own personal experiences and add new insight into whatever it is going on in your life at the moment. EDM helps people escape into sheer sonority. With sweeping pads, incessant rhythms, and undulating melodies it's easy to ride the highs and lows and sometimes even enter into a meditative state.
Aria Umezawa: Opera and EDM are not subtle art forms - they are both about big emotions and big moments, and how the music builds up to them. With both genres it can feel as if you are on a rollercoaster climbing a huge hill, just waiting for the drop on the other side. In many ways, they're a perfect fit!
What are the challenges of blending these genres?
Anthony: Opera by nature is an entirely acoustic art form. The glory of opera is that a single human voice can project over an entire orchestra without the assistance of amplification. There are no electronics required to send the sound into a space and directly touch the listener. EDM is the polar opposite, in most cases doing away with acoustic instruments all together. The hardest part about this event is marrying the acoustic to the electronic.
Aria: Finding repertoire that would work was a bit complicated. Anthony and I both have diverse tastes when it comes to music, and when faced with a dance party themed show, we really had to resist the urge to do more crossover pieces like "Bohemian Rhapsody." We focused on choosing works that have a great beat or that match the emotional arc people look for in electronic music.
What are we to expect from this event? What exactly will the mashups be like?
Anthony: I think people can expect to have a great time experiencing a genre blend they may never get a chance to be a part of again. Some of the singers will get a chance to affect their voices electronically and the DJs will sample some opera singing into their set lists. Ultimately we are striving for something cohesive, but the fact that these two seemingly disparate genres are existing in the same space, simultaneously, is exciting on its own!
Aria: I think you can expect to dance, to party, to hear great singing, and to hear great spinning. The mashups we have planned are going to play with both what technology can do with the operatic voice and seeing what classical music can bring to electronic music.
You have worked together before on a recital that blended art song and romantic comedy. Was that helpful in putting together this event?
Anthony: Doing my Rom-Com recital [The Woods: A Rom-Com Recital, April 9, 2017] was an exercise in thinking outside of the box. One of my biggest fears as an entertainer is to bore people. Meeting expectations is an easy way to manifest that fear. So, in everything I do, I try to approach things from a new angle that gives old forms fresh perspective. The nature of this event is that there is no box, so the challenge is trying to create one to fill.
Aria: Working together on The Woods gave us a chance to get to know each other, which I think was very helpful. I am, frankly, in awe of how creative Anthony is and how thoughtful he is as an artist. I think he's exactly the type of person that you want to partner with on a project like this, because he brings so much to the table while being collaborative.
Sounds like the reviews are mixed for San Francisco Opera's La Traviata (Act II, Scene 2 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver). Interesting, since it's the only offering this October at the War Memorial.
* 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.