Das Klagende Lied at SFS

Harvey Cooke* Notes *
Last weekend Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony presented Das Klagende Lied with some wonderful vocal soloists (Joélle Harvey and Sasha Cooke pictured left with dancers, photograph by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Symphony) and a somewhat incoherent but pretty staging. The early Mahler cantata is narrated by four singers and a chorus, since the characters aren't played by the vocalists, having a staging confuses the plot.

The biggest problem with the performance was not James Darrah's direction, which involved four dancers, two children, and lots of tree video art from Adam Larsen. It was the piece itself, which dates from 1880, and is one of the earliest works of Mahler's that still exists. It sounded a lot like substandard Wagner, and while interesting, it did not make for compelling drama.

The singers were great, baritone Brian Mulligan is rich toned, tenor Michael König is robust, and soprano Joélle Harvey is as clear as ever. Best of all is mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, whose ethereal voice has brilliant high and low notes. She also sounded lovely in the Songs of a Wayfarer that was performed before the intermission.

The orchestra sounded shimmery throughout the Sunday afternoon performance and the brass was clear and bright in the beginning Blumine. MTT kept a stately pace.

Tattling *
The audience was patient and silent, giving a standing ovation at the end.


Adler Concert

12.2.16_SFO-1885* Notes *
San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows had an especially impressive annual concert at Herbst Theater last Friday. Supported by the talents of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Maestro Jordi Bernacer, the new resident conductor, the singers gave one electrifying performance after another.

San Francisco Opera has been keeping the Adlers busy this fall, and it was great to hear the likes of tenor Pene Pati and baritone Edward Nelson take center stage for a change. Pati is arresting every time I hear him, and as Tebaldo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, he sang "Che sei tu che ardisci aggirarti furtivo?" with utter conviction, making Nian Wang (Romeo) seem a bit weak in comparison. Pati was charming in a duet with his wife Amina Idris (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken), they sang "Quoi, vous m'aimez? ... De cet aveu si tendre" and were very cute. Pati also did very well with "Quango le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller.

Edward Nelson was another standout, his acting was perfect for the duet he sang with soprano Toni Marie Palmertree from Pagliacci. He was completely engaging in "Look, through the port comes the moonlight astray" and one hopes to hear him cast as Billy Budd sometime in the future.

Julie Adams had my favorite aria of the evening with "Glück das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt, a reminder both of her incredible voice, put to use only in smaller roles like Kate Pinkerton and Kristina lately, and of the amazing run we had of this opera back in 2008. Adams also gave a riveting performance of "The trees on the mountain" from Susannah.

I was most taken aback by hearing bass Anthony Reed in Song of the Viking Guest from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, he sounded really nice. Oftentimes I find it hard to appreciate the Adlers with lower voices, as they tend to be less far along in their development, and it's hard to extrapolate how their voices will be in decades to come. Reed often sounds a little underpowered to me, and his youth is always at odds with the old man roles he plays on the War Memorial stage.

 

* Tattling *
It has been so long since I've been to one of these concerts that I didn't realize it is held in Herbst rather than the War Memorial. I had to scurry over and thank goodness traffic hadn't been worse, or I would not have made it in time.

I sat next to a critic who asked me if Toni Marie Palmertree had to step in as Butterfly for a performance, which I confirmed, she sang the role on November 18. On the other side of me was an enthusiastic man who forgot to turn off his phone, which rang before the singing started for the first aria, but kept making sounds as he tried to disable it.


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.


Simon Rattle and Berliner Philharmoniker

Simonrattle* Notes *
The day before Thanksgiving last week I went to hear Maestro Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic play a second performance at Davies Hall on their current tour. The concerts mark Rattle's farewell as principal conductor as he will not extend his contract when it ends in 2018. The orchestra sounded clean without feeling uptight or frightened, and played with a lot of joy.

The performance began with Rattle speaking about the first pieces about to be played, which were an answer to the previous night's program which featured Mahler's 7th. This evening included Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, which was played as a "14 movement suite or Mahler's fictional 11th Symphony" according to the conductor.

The pieces all had a lot of percussion and the four musicians in charge of this had a lot to do. The Schoenberg was sinuous and graceful, while the Webern was much more spare. It was clear when we got to the Berg because everything became much more lush. The large hammer "with non-metallic tone" used in this piece is comically huge and was very amusing to watch and hear.

The Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major, was wonderful to hear. Played with absolute jubilation, it was one of the only times I have heard this composer without thinking of pastures and cows and was instead engaged with the cheer and vibrancy of the musicians. The horn was especially great, warm and secure without sounding overly loud or sterile.

Tattling *
The audience well-behaved, everyone clearly wanted to be there aside from one or two who left at appropriate times and without making a fuss.

It was a fitting send-off for House Usher of Davies, Horacio Rodriguez, who retired after this performance.


Jake Heggie's Next West Coast Premiere

Jake_heggie_piano[1]It's A Wonderful Life, a new opera by composer Jake Heggie (pictured left, photograph by Art & Clarity) and librettist Gene Scheer is based on Frank Capra's 1946 film and will have a West Coast premiere at San Francisco Opera in the 2018-19 season. The work has a world premiere at Houston Grand Opera this Friday.

Press Release | SF Opera's Official Site | Jake Heggie's Official Site


SF Opera's Makropulos Reviews

_B5A4787Production Web Site | SF Opera's Blog

Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Makropulos (A scene from Act III of pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) are very favorable.

Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | San José Mercury News | San Francisco Examiner | San Francisco Classical Voice | Berkeley Daily Planet | Bay Area Reporter | The Rehearsal Studio | Civic Center


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.


Alonzo King's Art Songs

MayaYujinMichael* Notes *
Alonzo King Lines Ballet opened a new season at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last night. Though I enjoy contemporary dance and have walked past the Lines Ballet space countless times on 7th Street, I had not seen this company until now. It took an opera singer, of course, to get me to this performance. Despite the "ballet" in the name, there was not a tutu in sight, and the dancing eschewed mere prettiness, and it was well worth the effort to experience.

The opening piece, Art Songs, is a world premiere and features live music sung by mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani (pictured left with Yujin Kim and Michael Montgomery, photograph by Quinn B. Wharton) with accompaniment from pianist Efrat Levy and violinist Lisa Lee. The songs include three Baroque pieces -- a Bach cantata and arias by Handel and Purcell -- plus Schumann's "Stille Tränen." It isn't rep I associate with Lahyani, who was an Adler at San Francisco Opera in 2010 and 2011 and is a regular at the Met these days. But she sounded fine, especially in the Dido's Lament that ends the piece. There were a few tiny froggy moments in a low note or two, but Lahyani was ill, and did remarkably well considering.

The choreography has a raw, exposed quality to it that works really nicely with the singer on stage. I loved that there were no supertitles and there was no escaping the music or the dancing. The dancers are alive in the movement, even if they are only standing or walking. The piece was even disturbing, particularly the fourth part with soloists Yujin Kim and Michael Montgomery, there was much falling, and the pair looked more like an awkwardly beautiful many-limbed creature than ballet dancers engaged in a duet.

The second piece was Meyer, with recorded music from bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, and again the dancing had a wonderful brutality at odds with classical ballet. The female dancers wore pointe shoes, yet there were many times when they were not en pointe, or flexed their feet when their legs were aloft. The piece features an elaborate water machine with streaming jets in the background which was used to great effect. It was hard to look away from this one, even when images turned dark, as with the fifth part "Cards," in which a rather frantic dancer piles and moves pieces of paper, at times licking one or two.

* Tattling *
The audience was quiet. Some of my opera fanatic friends left at intermission after hearing Maya, as they were much more interesting in the music rather than the dancing.


2017 Adler Fellows

2016adlers_background_v2The incoming 2017 Adler Fellows are soprano Sarah Cambidge; tenor Amitai Pati and Kyle van Schoonhoven; baritone Andrew Manea; stage director Aria Umezawa; and apprentice coaches John Elam and Jennifer Szeto. They join current Adlers Amina Idris, Toni Marie Palmertree, Pene Pati, Brad Walker, and Ronny Michael Greenberg. The outgoing 2016 Adler Fellows are Julie Adams, Zanda Švēde, Nian Wang, Edward Nelson, Matthew Stump, Anthony Reed, and Noah Lindquist.

Press Releases | Official Site