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.
San Francisco Opera
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Aida (Act III pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) look positive as far as singing is concerned.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Butterfly (Act I pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) agree on soprano Lianna Haroutounian.
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
* 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.
The 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.
* 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.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Don Pasquale (Act III pictured left with Maurizio Muraro and Lucas Meachem, photograph by Cory Weaver) are positive.
Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | San José Mercury News | San Francisco Examiner | San Francisco Classical Voice | Not For Fun Only | bachtrack | Berkeley Daily Planet | Huffington Post | Bay Area Reporter
* 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.
Reviewers of San Francisco Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber (Pictured left with Pureum Jo as Dai Yu, photograph by Cory Weaver) agree that the singing is great.
Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | Los Angeles Times | Wall Street Journal | Financial Times | San José Mercury News | San Francisco Examiner | San Francisco Classical Voice | Culture Vulture | Classical Voice North America | bachtrack | The Rehearsal Studio | Civic Center | Berkeley Daily Planet | ChinaFile
June 12–July 1, 2018
Evelyn Herlitzius is Brünnhilde, Greer Grimsley is Wotan, Daniel Brenna is Siegfried, and Karita Mattila is Sieglinde. Maestro Donald Runnicles returns to conduct this revival of Francesca Zambello's production, first seen here in 2011.
Reviews of San Francisco Opera's Andrea Chénier (Act II pictured left with Yonghoon Lee in the title role, photograph by Cory Weaver) are mixed so far.
Performance Reviews: San Francisco Chronicle | San José Mercury News | San Francisco Examiner | San Francisco Classical Voice | Not For Fun Only | The Bay Area Reporter | The Huffington Post | Berkeley Daily Planet | The Rehearsal Studio
Charles Workman (pictured left) replaces Scott Quinn as Albert Gregor in San Francisco Opera's The Makropulos Case, which opens October 14, 2016. Tenor Vincenzo Costanzo will make his United States opera debut as Lt. B. F. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly replacing Maxim Aksenov. Butterfly opens November 6, 2016. Both Quinn and Aksenov are withdrawing for personal reasons.
* 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.
* Notes *
The 94th season of San Francisco Opera opened last night with Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano's concise verismo piece about the poet killed in the French Revolution. The opera has a number of gorgeous arias, and the cast assembled (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver) was certainly up to the task.
Especially impressive were the titular character and his beloved, both debuts at San Francisco Opera. Tenor Yonghoon Lee is a dapper Chenier and has an expansive, bright sound. His "Un dì all'azzurro spazio" in Act I was showed much promise, and he really did soar with his Act IV aria " Come un bel dì di maggio." Vocally, soprano Anna Pirozzi (Maddalena) matched Lee, her voice is clear and flexible. Her high notes do not have the slightest hint of strain. Pirozzi's "La mamma morta" in Act III was a show stopper, incredibly wrenching and lovely.
Top to bottom, the cast was strong. Other notable debuts on the War Memorial stage included baritone George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard, a former servant and revolutionary leader, who of course loves Maddalena, and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as Bersi, Maddalena's mulatto servant girl. Gagnidze gave a nuanced turn as the conflicted Gérard while Bridges sang with much power.
The lucid orchestra, conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti, was supportive of the singing, and only rarely got ahead. The volume of the musicians never overwhelmed the singers. The chorus was together and sturdy.
David McVicar's production is straightforward. The sets, from Robert Jones, are attractive but sadly take quite a long time to change. Jenny Tiramani's costumes are very pretty.
* Tattling *
There was no one in the standing room line besides myself until after 9am.
We heard from San Francisco Opera's new General Director for his first opening night in the role. The Chairman of Board of Directors seemed to have momentarily forgotten the Music Director's name. Again, the audience was restrained this year, and cheered Nancy Pelosi when she was acknowledged.