Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming at SFS

Renee-fleming-2012-decca-andrew-eccles* Notes * 
Last night Michael Tilson Thomas conducted San Francisco Symphony in a program of mostly Debussy with a smattering of Canteloube after the intermission. The evening began with Debussy's textured, fussy ballet, Jeux. This was followed by seven Debussy songs orchestrated by Robin Holloway. Soprano Renée Fleming (pictured left, photograph courtesy of Decca and Andrew Eccles) sounded shimmery and pretty over the orchestra. Occasionally she was a little difficult to hear, but for the most part, this music is well-suited to her voice.

The three Canteloube songs were all selections from his Chants d'Auvergne. "Malurous qu'o uno fenno" is funny and cute, while "Baïlèro" is more ethereal. The symphony ended with Debussy's La mer, which I find somewhat silly, but was played here with vim and spirit.

* Tattling * 
The audience members were fairly silent, at least those seated near the stage.


Rodelinda at the Met

Met-rodelinda-2011* Notes *
A revival of Rodelinda (Act II pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard) is currently underway at the Metropolitan Opera. Since I saw this opera in 2006, I opted to hear this at a score desk on Wednesday. The acoustics are quite flattering to voices at Score Desk 3, and everyone could be easily heard. The orchestra sounded neat and tidy under Harry Bicket, everything seemed in place and rather angular. The chorus was appealing in the last act and sang with clarity.

The singing was fairly lackluster. Joseph Kaiser (Grimoaldo) sang with much vibrato. Shenyang's Garibaldo had richness but was imprecise. Iestyn Davies showed promise as Unulfo, his voice is bright and pretty. Andreas Scholl (Bertarido) was slightly quiet, but also has a sweet, beautiful voice. There was "a small technical difficulty" with the set before Scholl's "Vivi tiranno," which unfortunately interrupted the flow of the music.

As Eduige, Stephanie Blythe gave a strong, steely performance. Renée Fleming seemed more committed to this title role than her recent turn as Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco. Though her vocal line had a fine legato, her intonation is lacking and her coloratura is not impressive. Fleming did not follow any of the da capo or dal segno markings in Act I.

* Tattling *
Besides the aforementioned mishap in the last scene, there seemed to be other struggles with the set. The first intermission ran even longer than the allotted 40 minutes, as putting together that elaborate Baroque library in Act II must present a significant challenge. The cues to the lighting booth were loud, and as the music is not, they were all too audible.


SF Opera's Lucrezia Borgia

Renee-fleming-lucrezia-actiii * Notes * 
Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia opened yesterday evening at San Francisco Opera. The performances mark the return of Renée Fleming, who has not sung in an opera at the War Memorial for more than a decade. John Pascoe's designs for Lucrezia are rather puzzling. The set is oppressive and the different scenes do not always look distinct from one another. The fanciful costumes have often been executed in shiny fabrics. The attire for the diva herself is indeed whimsical, her Act III outfit (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) seems more suitable for a super hero than a Renaissance duchess. Pascoe's direction is consistent with his design aesthetic. The choreography, though synchronized, seemed contrived. The final scene was utterly baffling. The entrance of the chorus was awkward. The motivation for dragging the corpses back onstage was unclear. Why were the five singers carried out through the upstage doors only to be pulled back from the downstage wings?

The orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, played fleetly, and was often ahead of the singers. The volume had a tendency to overwhelm the singing. However, the harp had a beautiful lucidity in Act I, and the brass was clear in Act III. Many of the young cast members showed much promise. In the smaller roles, Brian Jagde (Oloferno Vitellozzo) and Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello) stood out. Jadge's voice has brightened and opened during his Adler Fellowship, and he could be heard in Act I over the orchestra. Though a bit light, Montenegro's voice has a mournful sweetness.

Vitalij Kowaljow made for a fittingly brutal Duke Alfonso, his voice has strength and depth. Also strong was Elizabeth DeShong (Maffio Orsini), who has a gorgeous sound. Her singing was clean, but she dropped out near the end of Act III's "Minacciata è la mia vita" with Michael Fabiano (Gennaro). Fabiano looked visibly confused by this, and also stopped singing until they could both get back on track for the final notes of the duet. Other than this misstep, Fabiano sounded very good. His voice has heft and beauty. In contrast, Renée Fleming was disappointing. She does have a lovely ease and pleasing timbre. However, she seemed a bit tepid. Her relatively minor intonation errors were more glaring than they would have been if she had projected more confidence. She was engaging in the final act, and her soaring high notes were effective. Oddly enough though, at the end, the orchestra seemed to just swallow up her voice.

* Tattling * 
There was whispering and unwrapping of cough drops during the music, but no discernible electronic noise, at least on the orchestra level of the opera house.


Armida at the Met

Fleming_as_Armida An account of the February 18, 2011 performance of Armida at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
The tale of Armida, derived from an 16th Century epic poem by Tasso, has inspired composers from Lully and Händel to Dvořák and the contemporary British composer Judith Weir. The story of the crusader Rinaldo, tricked into love by the sorceress Armida, was also the source for an impressive cantata for men's voices by Brahms.

Rossini's version was composed during a fruitful period in Naples, in which he was assured of the best soloists, chorus and orchestra available at the time. In Armida, he had the luxury of writing for an unusual cast that includes seven tenors. The title role is among the most virtuosic and demanding in the entire dramatic coloratura repertory.

The Metropolitan's production was created by Mary Zimmerman for the 2010 season. Ranging from a painted stage curtain reminiscent of Titian, to Armida's infernal realm with a coffered dome in the style of the Pantheon (complete with an incongruous, huge black spider), to fantasy palm trees bathed in the rich color palette of the post-impressionist Henri Rousseau, the set design was striking.

John Osborn's sang the role of Goffredo, with its stratospheric high notes and demanding coloratura, most impressively, setting a high bar for the evening. The remaining secondary tenor roles were well cast.

The true hero of the evening, both dramatically and vocally, was the Rinaldo of Lawrence Brownlee. He sang with astonishing agility and a rich and varied range of vocal color. Compounding the difficulties of the role are the large ensembles, which require enormous stamina. Brownlee met these challenges with an ease of vocal delivery that was jaw-dropping. All the while scaling height after technical height, he managed to convey the expressive humanity of Rinaldo himself -- a transcendent achievement.

The Met's production of Armida was mounted for Renée Fleming. In the 1996 concert version given by the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler, this reviewer experienced Ms. Fleming's triumphantly fiery delivery at a time when the soprano had begun to shed her nice girl image and had started applying the "diva dust" required to sell this role.

While the intervening 15 years have brought Ms. Fleming many triumphs on the great stages of the world, they have not been kind to her in this impossibly challenging repertory. The artist sounded indisposed. Her singing was characterized by a pallid top, labored coloratura and a lack of vocal presence that bordered on inaudibility. The breathy attacks and scooping that have become a Fleming trademark seemed only to further undermine her technique. One hopes for happier moments in her upcoming performance as the Countess in Strauss's Capriccio, repertory in which this fine artist continues to excel.

Graciela Daniele's choreography, marvelously executed by the Met corps de ballet, featured a solo dance role Rinaldo performed with bravura by Eric Otto. The solo instrumental contributions, especially those of concert master David Chan, cellist Rafael Figueroa and principal harpist Deborah Hoffman, were masterful.

* Tattling * 
Absent a stellar singer in the title role, Rossini's Armida is a very long evening, and the audience thinned noticeably after both intermissions.


Cal Performances' 2009-2010 Season

September 17-20 2009: Mark Morris Dance Group
September 22 2009: Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
September 26-27 2009: A House in Bali 
September 27 2009: Christine Brewer, soprano
September 30 2009: Michael Pollan
October 11 2009: Takács Quartet 
October 17 2009: Wayne Shorter Quartet
October 18 2009: Michael Schade, tenor 
October 24-25 2009: Davitt Moroney, harpsichord
October 24-25 2009: The Suzanne Farrell Ballet
October 28 2009: Garrison Keillor
October 30 2009: Alfred Brendel 
November 1 2009: Louis Lortie, piano
November 1-6 2009: Love's Labour's Lost
November 8 2009: Brentano String Quartet
November 12 2009: Youssou N'Dour
November 15 2009: Nuccia Focile, soprano and David Lomelí, tenor
November 18-22 2009: Druid Ireland
November 19 2009: Mariza
November 21 2009: Taylor Eigsti & Julian Lage Duo
November 22 2009: China Philharmonic Orchestra
December 4 2009: The Tallis Scholars
December 5 2009: Ira Glass
December 6 2009: Renée Fleming, soprano
December 11-20 2009: The Hard Nut
December 13 2009: Kronos Quartet
January 10 2010: Garrick Ohlsson, piano
January 23-24 2010: Peking Acrobats
January 23 2010: Europa Galante
February 13 2010: Masters of Persian Music
February 14 2010: Takács Quartet 
February 19 2010: Russian National Orchestra
February 20 2010: Angélique Kidjo
February 21 2010: Joshua Bell, violin
February 26-27 2010: Lyon Opera Ballet
February 28 2010: Swedish Radio Choir
March 6-7 2010: Dan Zane and Friends
March 9-14 2010: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
March 16 2010: Hespèrion XXI
March 17 2010: Gilberto Gil
March 19 2010: Altan
March 20 2010: Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra
March 21 2010: Ian Bostridge, tenor
March 26-27 2010: Merce Cunningham Dance Company
March 28 2010: Julia Fischer, violin
April 1 2010: Saimir Pirgu, tenor
April 20 2010: Baaba Maal
April 22 2010: Sweet Honey In The Rock 
April 23 2010: Arlo Guthrie 
April 24 2010: Pat Metheny, guitar
May 1 2010: Concerto Köln
May 2 2010: Ballet Folklorico "Quetzalli" de Veracruz
May 7-8 2010: Laurie Anderson

Cal Performances just announced their next season yesterday.

Official Site | Press Release [PDF]


ROH's 2008-2009 Season

September 8- October 4 2008: Don Giovanni
September 16-29 2008: La fanciulla del West
September 23- October 10 2008: La Calisto
October 11-18 2008: La Bohème
October 23- November 11 2008: Matilde di Shabran
November 9-24 2008: Elektra
November 25- December 13 2008: Les Contes d'Hoffmann
December 9 2008- January 1 2009: Hänsel und Gretel
December 22- January 23 2008: Turandot
January 20-31 2009: The Beggar's Opera
January 27- February 17 2009: Die Tote Stadt
February 10 -25 2009: Rigoletto
February 23- March 10 2009: Der fliegende Holländer
March 2- April 11 2009: I Capuleti e i Montecchi
March 31- April 20 2009: Dido and Aeneas/Acis and Galatea
April 13- May 7 2009: Il trovatore
April 27- May 16 2009: Lohengrin
May 12-25 2009: L'elisir d'Amore
June 4-20 2009: Lulu
June 19- July 6 2009: La Traviata
June 26- July 18 2009: Un Ballo en Maschera
July 7-18 2009: Il barbiere di Siviglia
July 9-18 2009: Tosca

Simon Keenlyside and Mariusz Kwiecien share the role of Don Giovanni, and Keenlyside also sings Figaro in Il barbiere. David Alden has his ROH debut directing a production of La Calisto from Bayerische Staatsoper. Bryn Terfel is singing in Holländer and Tosca, while Deborah Voigt sings the title role of the latter. Renée Fleming is singing opposite Joseph Calleja in La Traviata and Thomas Hampson sings Germont. Die Tote Stadt has its UK premiere, Ingo Metzmacher will conduct. The production is from Salzburg and is the one that will be at San Francisco Opera this September. Lucas Meachem will be singing Aeneas in his ROH debut.

Bloomberg Article | Press Release [PDF] |Official Site


La Traviata at Lyric Opera

Chicagolatraviata* Notes *
Every performance of La Traviata has been sold-out at Lyric Opera of Chicago this January. I was unconvinced I could finagle a ticket for yesterday's matinée, as
craigslist only had people who wanted tickets and Lyric Opera does not have standing room. Yesterday the Lyric Opera site still had the warning "Individual tickets will not be available for the January performances of La traviata due to subscriber purchases and exchanges," but did say to call about tickets for the day's performance. It turned out I could not buy a ticket on the telephone, as I am not a subscriber, so I did go down to the box office in person and did not have a problem getting a ticket.

Renée Fleming seemed to be the reason for the sold-out performances, as she has not sung in an opera at Lyric for 5 years. Personally, I had found Ms. Fleming rather overrated, her intonation was poor as Rodelinda and she seemed distant as Tatiana. Also, I thought it a bit ambitious for someone to take on such a vast array of roles, it seems unlikely for anyone to be able to sing both Baroque and Romantic music really well, at least, in the same part of her career. In Act I of La Traviata, Fleming had a few wobbles, but sang "Ah, fors' è lui" beautifully until she inverted herself on the couch. I did not like her rendition of "Sempre libera," her arrpegios were unclear.

The second half, however, was nearly perfect. Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo) sang "De' miei bollenti spiriti" with great tenderness. There were a few times the orchestra overwhelmed him, but on the whole he gave a good performance. Thomas Hampson acted and sang the role of Giorgio Germont quite convincingly, the body-language in his refusal to embrace Violetta was particularly good. His aria "Di Provenza il mar" was one of the best of the performance.

Back to Ms. Fleming, she seemed much more engaged in this role than the others I had heard her in, her voice was laden with emotion, but still was perfectly in tune. Her acting was also fine, going from flirty minx to dying martyr in three acts without missing a beat.

The chorus was good save for a few seconds when the men were just slightly off from the orchestra in Act II Scene 2. The tambourine playing by some female choral members, in the same scene, was not confident. I am not sure why singers are made to do percussion, one would never make percussionists sing.

Desmond Heeley's set and costumes were traditional through and through. Fleming looked prettier in the light green dress of Act II Scene 2 than in the red velvet in Act I. The scene change in Act II took people by surprise, and an usher had to yell into the crowd that it was not an intermission. Also, I believe something went awry in the lighting of Act II Scene 1, when Germont is singing about how Violetta is still young and beautiful. A light in the garden background turned off and on a few times.

* Tattling *
The first balcony is preferable to the ground floor, the sound is better and the way the seats are arranged is such that one's view remains unobstructed by others. I noticed the dress of the audience was as relaxed as in San Francisco, I saw evening gowns and heels, but jeans and sneakers too. A woman in front of me clipped and filed one of her nails before the performance, which I have never seen before.

Audience members were noiser toward the beginning, a woman behind me pointed out the dancers to someone else rather loudly. For the most part, people only whispered, though some female adolescents did make a good deal of noise getting out their gum during the music. Apparently one of these girls knew the couple of older Russian ladies next to her, and was offered some chocolates during the second intermission. In order to eat the chocolates, she took out her gum, placed it on her finger to save it, ate the chocolate, and then put the gum back into her mouth. It was strangely endearing and horrifying at the same time.


Washington National Opera's 2008-2009 Season

September 13- October 5 2008: La Traviata
September 20- October 7 2008: Les Pêcheurs de Perles
November 1-17 2008: Lucrezia Borgia
November 8-19 2008: Carmen
November 21- 22 2008: Petite Messe Solennelle
March 21- April 6 2009: Peter Grimes
May 2-17 2009: Siegfried
May 16- June 4 2009: Turandot

Renée Fleming has her WNO debut in Lucrezia Borgia. Denyce Graves sings the title role of Carmen, in the Zambello production from ROH. The Zandra Rhodes production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles is the one we had here in San Francisco in 2005.


Hansel and Gretel Live in HD Met Simulcast

Hansel and Gretel by Rackham* Notes *
The Met's simulcast of Hansel and Gretel aired today. The production, by Richard Jones, is new to the Met and opened on Christmas Eve. Created for
Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, the staging is rather dark. Act I is nearly all grey, Act II takes place in an oppressive green room meant to be the woods, and Act III has much grey again, though the sweets do add some color. Though many of the costumes look like Tracht, for the most part this is not a storybook come to life, but has a more contemporary and surrealistic aesthetic. The dream sequence in Act II is especially amusing, featuring many chefs and an attendant with a fish head. There are a few weaknesses in the staging, it was a bit odd when Hansel and Gretel smear berries on themselves in Act II, considering that they are supposedly starving. Parts of Act III made little sense, as there is no house, gingerbread or otherwise, representing the Witch's abode. When Hansel and Gretel sing about the tempting house, and they eat from a large cake on top of an enormous tongue sticking out of a mouth painted on a scrim.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski kept things going at a good pace, though the orchestra and singers (Rosalind Plowright and Alan Held as Gertrude and Peter, the parents) were slightly off near the end of Act I. Christine Schäfer had some shrill notes in the beginning as Gretel, but sounded fine once warmed up. I had her pegged as a German from the start, her open-mid front unrounded vowel in "black" and "cap" gave her away. This was, obviously, quite minor, she was perfectly understandable. Alice Coote sounded and looked convincing as Hansel. Philip Landridge was wonderful as the Witch. I was most surprised by Sasha Cooke as the Sandman, her voice was clear and tender.

* Tattling *
Theater 12 at the AMC Bay Street 16 was mostly full, though not sold-out. The image was not clear from the third row, the edges of light objects were not smooth and seemed to move. The effect was strangely watery. The sound was good from this location, though I heard other patrons who had been in the back heard echoes. The image did go fuzzy at one point in Act III, and the sound also was disturbed once after that, both incidences occurred when the Witch was singing.

Renée Fleming hosted the simulcast, she made us aware that there would be some shots from backstage during the overture, she spoke to the lead singers at intermission, and so forth. The simulcast had many close-ups, and one could see the performance in a way one could never experience it at the opera house itself. One could appreciate many details that could not be seen from afar. Most of the time, this was great, but I would have rather not seen Rosalind Plowright spit out her food quite so vividly in Act I. One was even able to see Alice Coote's fillings in Act III.


Eugene Onegin at the Met

Onegin* Notes *
Last Saturday's matinee of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera was sold out, but was broadcast in movie theatres in seven countries. The production was done by Robert Carsen, with sets and costumes by Michael Levine. The sets were rather minimal, the first half has a bunch of autumnal leaves on the ground and these are swept around to suggest rooms. The scene changes were swift, expect in the case of the two last scenes in Act III. This one took more time than the others, perhaps because the chairs that had been brought on stage in the transition between Acts II and III had to be cleared. It was a contrast from the switch between acts that was done without the curtain falling. Valery Gergiev conducted well, it was interesting how slowly he took Monsieur Triquet's aria. The chorus did seem somewhat unwieldy, but the orchestra never did.

Renée Fleming sang Tatiana well enough, but didn't seem engaged with the character. She also nearly tripped in the second scene, but not while she was running around throwing leaves around. Elena Zarembra (Olga) had a bit too much vibrato, even for Tchaikovsky. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was fine in the title role, he was both dashing and sullen. His voice is nice, but not as spectacular as Ramón Vargas'. Vargas had beautiful tone and he acted well. On the whole, the acting and singing was at a high level.

* Tattling *
The standing room line was about 100 people deep by 9:00 am. We arrived at 6:40 am and were fifth and sixth. Josephine was there with a bright blue furry headband on and her green coat.

The audience wasn't great, there was some chatter and the girl next to me kept laughing at poor Eugene.


Regina de' Longobardi

RodalindaactiiWadsworth production of Händel's Rodelinda opened at the Met on Tuesday, May 2, 2006. I was surprised that Thomas Lynch's set was so beautiful, since his Lohengrin was reminiscent of IKEA, though admittedly, his Ring set for Seattle was gorgeous. The library set was particularly impressive to the audience, which gasped when it was revealed in Act II. Act II also featured a horse, this device being a perennial favorite. The scenes changed flawlessly, the set moved both left and right and up and down. It was a bit much though, one did feel that things were always in motion, if not in the set itself, then in the choreography. The singers frenetically dashed around, seemingly without purpose. It was as if they believed the music was just so boring that it was necessary to fidget and fumble all over the stage as a method of distraction.

As for the singing, the lead, Renée Fleming, was somewhat flat, her voice is thin and she seems distant even though her volume is fine. Her voice has not a trace of sensuality, though I am not convinced that is necessary for Baroque music. Mezzo-Soprano Stephanie Blythe (Eduige) had more emotion in her voice, though she can be harsh. Tenor Kobie van Rensburg (Grimoaldo) also had passion, though his arpeggios and trills were weak and muddy. Bass John Relyea was a suitable villain as Garibaldo, the role does not show off how beautiful his voice is. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux (Unulfo) has an exceedingly girlish voice, light and slightly quiet. Andreas Scholl certainly was the star of the show, though his Bertarido was slightly stiff and awkward, vocally he was amazing. He has incredible power and control. His transitions between head voice and chest voice were perfect.