Philip Glass

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.


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.


West Edge Opera's Hydrogen Jukebox

Hydrogen-jukebox-west-edge-opera-2014* Notes *
West Edge Opera is currently performing a summer festival at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. Today was the opening of Philip Glass' chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox, with text by Allen Ginsberg. The space is not a typical performance venue, but West Edge Opera was able make suitable arrangements nonetheless. Elkhanah Pulitzer's production did not lack for ideas, in fact, the activity on stage seemed ceaseless. It was especially charming when paper airplanes were thrown at the audience, but there were also moments when it may have been more appropriate to take in the words and music without quite so much movement and busyness. The narrator, Howard Swain, was rather energetic.

For the most part the musicians were above and to the sides of the stage, though conductor David Möschler descended a ladder to play the piano in front of the stage for "Song #6 from Wichita Vortex Sutra." There were times when the balance was slightly off, as when the percussion sounded somewhat anemic in Act I. The singers gave completely committed performances. Tenor Jonathan Blalock sounded sweet and mezzo Nicole Takesono sang prettily. Bass Kenneth Kellogg sounded strong but did not overwhelm. Molly Mahoney (Soprano II) had a nice richness, while the resonances of Sara Duchovnay (Soprano I) were pleasing. Baritone Efrain Solis sang hauntingly. His voice has warmth but was beautifully ethereal at the beginning and ending of the piece.

* Tattling *
I managed to snag a front row seat at the last moment and had little to complain about as far as my adjacent audience members are concerned.


Einstein on the Beach

Einstein-on-the-beach-cristina-caccone* Notes * 
Cal Performances presented the West Coast premiere of Einstein on the Beach (Act I Scene 2 pictured left, photograph by Cristina Caccone) last night in Berkeley. This collaboration between director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, first performed on July 25, 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon, feels like a product of its time. This is noticeable in the cut of the costumes and certain aspects of the scenic design. Nonetheless, the monumental opera, which clocks in just under four and a half hours, has a timeless quality as well, and is rather mesmerizing.

There is never a dull moment, each second seems packed with some combination of tones, words, light, or movement. The surreal humor of the piece keeps the proceedings from dreary pretension. The endurance of all the performers is striking. The Philip Glass Ensemble and the chorus held together under the direction of Michael Riesman. The singing was hauntingly beautiful. Jennifer Koh likewise impressed as Einstein, her violin playing never flagged. The choreography, from Lucinda Childs, fits the music perfectly. The two dance scenes are a riveting visualization of the vocal and instrumental lines.

* Tattling * 
Though Wilson and Glass insist that the audience members may come and go as they please, it was difficult to decide where a good stopping point might be, and several people never left their seats. Somehow the lack of formal intermission made others feel that they could speak whenever they wished.


Satyagraha at the Met

Met-satyagraha-richard-croft* Notes * 
The latest revival of Satyagraha closed Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Phelim McDermott's tasteful production coheres beautifully: the set, lighting, video projections, and direction all come together to intensify the effect of the music. The transitions were skillfully handled, the projections never looked trite, and the choreography always seemed motivated and purposeful. An entire world was evoked, without the least bit of mawkishness. The stilt walking, elaborate puppetry, and tableaux were delightful, never competing with the music itself.

Both the orchestra and chorus achieved a nearly perfect transparency and were impressively synchronized. Most of the singing was also quite strong, including vocal fine contributions Alfred Walker (Parsi Rustomji) and Kim Josephson (Mr. Kallenbach). Rachelle Durkin's notes soared. Molly Fillmore and Maria Zifchak blended their voices nicely in their duet. Only Mary Phillips sounded shrill as Mrs. Alexander. As Gandhi, Richard Croft (pictured above, photograph by Ken Howard) sounded exceedingly lovely, especially in his last aria at the end of the opera.

* Tattling * 
The audience for Philip Glass tends to be rather distinct from the one typically seen at the Met. Most audience members seemed engrossed in the performance, but unfortunately, there was a lot of electronic noise. Cellular telephones rang in every act. Oddly, no watch alarms were heard. As always, the Met audience was vocal about condemning other people's poor behavior. A woman with her illuminated mobile screen was asked twice to turn it off, as was a person whose phone would not stop ringing.

A woman rearranged her purse at the back of a balcony aisle. When the lights went down, she was unable to find her seat, and asked me, at full volume during the music, to help her. I could only shrug in dismay, and she took an empty seat in Row K.

Glass himself was present for the bows, before joining the Occupy Wall Street protesters just outside of Lincoln Center Plaza.


Ensemble Parallèle's Orphée

Orphee5966 * Notes *
Philip Glass' Orphée was performed impressively by Ensemble Parallèle last night in San Francisco. The 14 musicians sounded lush but clean under Maestra Nicole Paiement. Brian Staufenbiel's production involved rather stunning circus art, including Roue Cyr, aerialism, and juggling. However, the video art, especially in the beginning, did not quite work, and people even laughed at the repetition in the introduction. It was used sparingly, and the pleasing retro circus feel was certainly attractive. The vision was carried through all the way from start to finish and the acting was convincing from all sides.

The singing was all very strong. Aglaonice, sung by Brooke Muñoz, sounded sweet. Austin Kness sounded robust in his two roles as a policeman and commissaire. Thomas Glenn was haunting particularly as Cégeste, also singing the role of the Reporter. Philip Skinner (Poet/Judge) was threatening, as was appropriate. Susannah Biller was a characteristically brilliant Euridice. John Duykers (Heurtebise) sang with tenderness, and Marnie Breckenridge (the Princess) was alluring. Breckenridge sounded icy and pure. In the title role, Eugene Brancoveanu was most awe-inspiring, his voice is hearty and sympathetic.

* Tattling * 
The audience was fairly well-behaved, but for some reason, the circus artists brought out the worst in them. The women in G 111 and 112 of the orchestra level could not stop talking during Act II, and one of them insisted on clapping and screaming for the aerealist despite the music.


The Seasons Project at SF Performances

Vbo * Notes * 
The Venice Baroque Orchestra (pictured left) and Robert McDuffie are currently touring the United States in a program entitled "The Seasons Project." Their stop last night at Herbst Theatre was presented by San Francisco Performances. The evening started with Vivaldi's famous Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons), which was played with much energy and joy, but not very cleanly. There were glaring intonation errors. As the soloist and leader, McDuffie hammed it up and certainly was brazen. The second piece, Philip Glass' Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (known as The American Four Seasons) came off better. McDuffie's attack was strong, but when called for, he could float over the other instruments beautifully. The influence of Vivaldi was clear in the work, yet it was distinctly by Philip Glass, hypnotically repetitive and vaguely cinematic.

* Tattling * 
There was much talking during the Vivaldi, but hardly any during the Glass.


BluePrint: Riding the Elevator into the Sky

Breckenridge * Notes *
The ninth season of the BluePrint series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music opened on Saturday night. The performance started with the West Coast premiere of Laura Schwendinger's Chiaroscuro Azzurro, which featured violinist Wei He. The New Music Ensemble sounded tightly together under conductor Nicole Paiement, whose every move seemed carefully noted by the musicians. Schwendinger's music ranged from ghostly to strident to meditative.

After intermission we got a bit of a preview of Ensemble Parallèle's forthcoming Orphée production, first in the form of the selections from the Orphée Suite, arranged for solo piano by Paul Barnes. Keisuke Nakogoshi played movements II, III, IV and VII. The playing was compelling, simply very beautiful. This was followed by the world premiere of David Conte's Sexton Songs, sung by soprano Marnie Breckenridge (pictured above, photograph by Michael Strickland) who is also singing in the aforementioned Orphée. Breckenridge was ill, and there may have been an ugly edge to her voice as a result, but she was arresting in these five poems by Anne Sexton set to music. Again the ensemble sounded clear and coherent.

* Tattling *
Since I sat next to John Marcher and behind SFMike, there is very little to tattle about as far as the audience. The audio system did misbehave and played during the Glass instead of just before the Conte.


Kepler at BAM

image from galileo.phys.virginia.edu * Notes * 
The US premiere of Kepler by Philip Glass was last Wednesday night at BAM. The opera is rather more like an oratorio than an opera, being that of the 7 solo roles, only one was a named character, Kepler himself. All the singers were from the Upper Austrian State Theatre, Linz, and they acquitted themselves rather well, as far as the chorus is concerned. The soloists blended nicely together, but as Kepler, Martin Achrainer was difficult to hear over the heavy orchestration, as was tenor Pedro Velázquez Díaz. The soprano Alaine Rodin replaced Cassandra McConnell, and was somewhat shrill, but was otherwise inoffensive.

The Bruckner Orchester Linz played nicely under Dennis Russell Davies, though they overwhelmed the soloists at times, they were never painfully loud. As for the opera itself, charmingly enough the texts were in German and Latin, especially adorable was when Kepler sang about the polyhedral models of the orbits of various planets. "Ohne echtes Wissen ist das Leben tot" also had a particular beauty.

* Tattling * 
The audience was fairly silent, though there was one watch alarm at each hour, and a few people left early despite there being no intermission.


Music in 12 Parts

Philip-glass-ensemble * Notes *
Yesterday evening the Philip Glass Ensemble played Music in Twelve Parts at Davies Hall. The vocalist, Lisa Bielawa, was unbelievable. The parts without her, 9 and 10, seemed inhuman and overly synthetic. The playing was, with the exception of Mr. Glass', very dexterous. Much stamina must have been required for the performance. Overall, the piece certainly has a hypnotic ethereality, but one could see how the pall of repetition could also inspire mere listlessness.

* Tattling * 
Many of the people in the center terrace seemed bored, as if they were only there out of duty. Though easily ignored, there was much whispering, photograph-taking, and reading of mobile devices during the music.

I was late, not once, but twice. The will call line was utter chaos, and I barely slipped into the hall before the music started. Then I managed to be quite tardy after the dinner break. One could just blame a pernicious Belgian influence, though it is hardly fair.


Appomattox Panel Discussion

AppomattoxKip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on Appomattox yesterday evening. The panelists included composer Philip Glass, librettist Christopher Hampton, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, director Robert Woodruff, baritone Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee), and baritone Andrew Shore (Ulysses S. Grant). Each person was asked about how he became part of this world premiere. We learnt that Christopher Hampton knew little about the American Civil War; that Dennis Russell Davies sent Philip Glass a recording of the "Tenting Tonight," which was included in the opera; that there were two baritones as leads to make it easier for the words to be understood; and that the two baritones were distinguished by a major second.


Interview with an Icon: Philip Glass

Philipglass* Notes *
The word icon is from Greek εἰκών meaning "image."

Last night, Philip Glass was interviewed by David Gockley at the Interview with an Icon donor event. The first half of the interview was devoted to Glass' life, working at his father's record store as a child; going to Peabody, University of Chicago, and Julliard; studying with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar; his operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten; and his work in film. The second half had to do with Appomattox, which opens this Friday in a world premiere. Among the details discussed were the librettist Christopher Hampton and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, both of whom are having their San Francisco Opera debuts with Appomattox. This latest opera has two baritones as leads, Dwayne Croft as Robert E. Lee and Andrew Shore as Ulysses S. Grant. Apparently the costumes are period, the sets minimalistic, and the opera covers not only the Civil War, but comes up to the present day.

* Tattling *
The venue was moved from the opera house to Herbst Theatre, and they did not open the doors until ten minutes before the event. Philip Glass mumbled a great deal, and mistakenly said "Los Angeles" for "San Francisco" at one point, and David Gockley kicked him. Gockley had a cold and also took one of his shoes off during the interview. The audience, however, was very well-behaved.

This interview will probably be made into a podcast.


La Belle et la Bête

The Oakland Opera Theater's production of Philip Glass' La Belle et la Bête was fully-staged instead of using Jean Cocteau film. Tom Dean & Garrett Lowe's set took inspiration from the film, but the staging also had a bit of a circus influence. There was stilt walking and contorting, which may have been my favorite part.

The staging had a few flaws that were inexplicable unless one has seen the film. The part of the white horse, Magnifique, is cut, and Belle goes through a mirror instead. But then how do Avenant and Ludovic find their way to the domain of the Bête? Also, the parts of the Bête and Avenant are played by different people, so the dialogue at the end makes very little sense.

Oakland Opera Theater performances always have a rumpled feel, of being not particularly polished, but honest, at least. The singers seemed to do well in their parts, but in a theater that only held 70 people, one didn't need to project much. Also, the orchestra was behind and above the stage, so one could always hear the singers just fine. I do find it terribly strange that in their two casts, one Belle is a soprano (Marguerite Krull), the other a mezzo (Jennifer Boesing).

Glass' music is rather repetitive and very suitable as a film score. As an opera, it doesn't quite cohere, one feels that the musical line never develops.