SF Opera's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Steve-jobs-2023* Notes * 
Mason Bates' The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, opened at San Francisco Opera last night, after being postponed for three years because of the pandemic. The opera has a propellent energy and lots of great singing.

This opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell, about the Apple co-founder and CEO does not seem like it could work, but somehow the circular structure, fast-moving non-linear scenes, and humor pull it together. In certain ways the opera is pretty traditional, there's a hero's journey, a mentor, and a true love that saves the protagonist. There's even some moralizing at the end, which reminded me of the final ensemble of Don Giovanni.

The set, by Vita Tzykun, flows easily from scene to scene as it is mostly segments of walls that can have projections on them plus props that are rolled on and off or picked by singers or stagehands. Kevin Newbury's direction is straightforward. There were times when the projections were slightly tiresome, like the moving motherboard  ones (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), which reminded me of The PeopleMover Thru The World Of Tron ride at Disneyland back in the 1980s and 90s.

The music is percussion heavy, there are lots of mallets and seven timpani drums. The composer performs electronics in the piece using two MacBook Pros with the orchestra in the pit. There is also an acoustic guitar. Everything is amplified, including the singers, which is not unexpected but does somehow flatten the sound for me.

The chorus sounded very much together. Members of the chorus would have soli as Apple employees but would seamlessly rejoin the group. The principals were all quite strong as well. Adler mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag was startlingly beautiful as she sang about calligraphy as a teacher at Reed College and Adler soprano Olivia Smith's Chrisann Brennan was crystalline yet flexible. Tenor Bille Bruley was convincing as Steve Wozniak, his bright sound is pleasing.

Steve-jobs-principals-2023Baritone John Moore also has a bright, resonant voice, portraying Steve Jobs as a cruel megalomanic and a vulnerable human being. His interactions with bass Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs) were best. Wu had the most entertaining lines as the Zen priest and spiritual mentor of Jobs, though Moore has a pretty good one about Bach and mosquitos in Scene 10. Cooke was radiant, her voice is ethereal but well-supported.

* Tattling * 
The orchestra audience did not whisper or talk, but I did hear some cellophane being rustled by someone around Row G Seat 6. Worse yet was the cellular phone that rang in the middle of Row H during Scene 17. It was very loud, but at least the phone was shut off right away.

SF Opera's Il Trovatore

_74A2548* Notes * 
Il Trovatore, the first opera at San Francisco Opera this season opened last night with lots of varied and beautiful playing from the orchestra. There was strong singing from the chorus and from the principals.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim continues to impress, her tempi hold my attention. The tradeoff is that there are moments when the free quality of the rubato causes a certain fuzziness. The orchestra does sound very full and fiery but it is always very easy to hear each individual line of the music.

This is a revival of David McVicar's elegant production (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) but directed here by Roy Rallo. It works well and the huge rotating set from Charles Edwards is surprisingly quiet.

The chorus is robust, "Vedi le fosche notturne" in Act II was rousing. The beginning of Act III showcased these singers well too. I found bass Robert Pomakov (Ferrando) creaky at first, but his voice opened up over the course of the evening. Baritone George Petean had a strong San Francisco Opera debut as Count di Luna. His voice has a pleasant roundness and his "Il balen del suo sorriso...Per me ora fatale" in Act II was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sounded weirdly ethereal as Azucena, it was not an interpretation I had considered before. Her voice doesn't have a lot of earthiness to it, but is very pretty and can be creepy.

_75A8856Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz makes for a handsome Manrico and though he hits all the notes, his timbre has a hollow quality. He seemed almost to be shrieking "Deserto sulla terra" offstage in Act I. I also could not hear him at the end of Act II Scene 1 at all, even though he and Semenchuk were all the way downstage and the mezzo was not overpowering him. He did sound better in the second half of the opera. On the other hand, soprano Angel Blue (pictured in Act IV, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a resonant sound from top to bottom. She conveys the text very clearly, and I felt all the emotions that poor Leonora experienced. Her Act IV "D'amor sull'ali rosee" was particularly moving.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was well-behaved, there was very little talking around us, and only when there was no music happening. I did hear a cellular phone at the beginning of Act IV when Leonora is brought before the dungeon keep.

I tried to keep my inappropriate giggling to a minimum, but this opera's plot is so convoluted and incomprehensible that I did feel some mirth bubbling up at times.

Opera San José's Roméo et Juliette

IMG_3054* Notes *
Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (Sunday matinée ovation pictured, photograph by Charlise Tiee) opened Opera San José's fortieth season last weekend. The singing yesterday was very lovely and lyrical. It was well worth the drive to the South Bay to hear.

General Director Shawna Lucey directed this new production, which did not seem to be of a particular time or place. The costumes had elements of historic and contemporary clothing. It was difficult to tell if we were inside or outside, as there were numerous walls of greenery and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It was interesting to see a crumbling cathedral window in the background of Acts IV and V, I feel like it was repurposed from Opera San José's elaborate production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The scene changes were simple and transitions were very smooth.

The direction included an alarming sword fight between Montagues and Capulets during the Prologue. While it did keep the audience engaged, the action involved a young girl being accidentally killed, which was distressing to watch and also a bit on the nose as far as the plot of this opera and Shakespeare's play. Antara Bhardwaj's choreography did work with this out-of-time production, the kathak meets ballet was elegant and it was great to hear some of the ballet music for this opera, which often gets cut from modern performances. Bhardwaj was also one of the four dancers to perform.

Gounod's music is tuneful and fun to listen to. As is often the case at Opera San José though, the singers were the main attraction of the afternoon. There were so many young singers, no less than a dozen soloists. I liked how they utilized the cast for the choruses as well, it did fill things out. But it was also clear that they were accustomed to being principal singers, and not everyone blended in exactly. I could very distinctly hear tenor WooYoung Yoon (Benvolio), for instance.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg exuded both exasperation and authority as The Duke of Verona while baritone Robert Balonek was a ostentatious Count Capulet. Tenor Alex Boyer makes for a villainous Tybalt and one could not help but feel badly for baritone Efraín Solís as Mercutio.

The title roles were splendidly cast. Tenor Joshua Sanders was believable as Romeo, he sounded reedy and plaintive. He has impressive control and was able to hit all his high notes without sounding strained. Soprano Jasmine Habersham (who shares the role of Juliette with Melissa Sondhi) started off a bit on the harsh side, though her "Je veux vivre" was exciting. Her voice really bloomed in the second half of the performance, I loved how round and full she sounded, and her character is certainly  the most sympathetic.

*Tattling *
There were all kinds of noises from hearing aid feedback to cellular phone rings in the first half of the show. There was also loud snoring from more than one person in the center orchestra section.

In the second half, there was less snoring but a person on the aisle of Row D or E kept rustling food in some kind of plastic wrap and seemed to drop several objects on the ground.

Festival Opera's Carmen

Carmen_stefancohen_021* Notes *
Festival Opera put on a visceral production of Carmen at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek last weekend. The staging was effective and there was a lot of great singing.

The small orchestra was conducted by Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff at San Francisco Opera and was a Merolino back in 2011.

The staging relied heavily on projections to set the scenes, it looked to be a contemporary urban environment, replete with graffiti, highway overpasses, and the like. It did seem like the projections were on a loop, there seemed to be constant clouds of smoke in the background, which was unsettling.

Michael Mohammed's direction included two dancers, Stuck Sanders and Anthéa Colot (pictured with the chorus in Act IV, photograph by Stefan Cohen) who were very impressive. I loved how fluidly Sanders was able to move in particular, and there was such joy to the movement. They really drew me into the piece.

The cast for this was likewise engaging. Bass-baritone Matthew Lovell was suitably brutal as Zuniga. The quintet "Nous avons en tete una affaire" was memorable, baritone Daniel Cilli as the Le Dancaïre, tenor Taylor Thompson, mezzo-soprano Lily Bogas as Mercédès, and soprano Lila Khazoum as Frasquita were all very distinct but also cohesive. Baritone Young-Kwang Yoo was a charming Escamillo and soprano Hope Briggs a very sweet Micaëla.

Carmen_stefancohen_025Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is convincing as Carmen, they certainly are seductive. But most appealing was tenor Dane Suarez as the otherwise fairly repellant Don José. Suarez's voice has plaintiveness and bright warmth, but also an interesting rawness that works for this role.

*Tattling * 
I haven't been to a Festival Opera performance since 2015, and I was surprised how easy it was to get to the theater from the BART station. I brought Axel Feldheim with me to the performance and managed not only to get on the same train as him but also found the exact car he was on. We got there so early that we were able to go to a nearby farmers market and to a boba tea place beforehand. There were also activities happening outside the theater that involved many children.

There was some pretty loud talking from some audience members but it was usually about the performance. It's always very funny to me that people need to express their thoughts aloud about how beautiful something is and they interrupt other people's experience of that very beautiful thing.

Merola Grand Finale 2023

8.18.23-2674-1-scaled * Notes *
The Merola Grand Finale (participants pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) was held Saturday night on the main stage of the War Memorial Opera House. It was great to hear the singers with the full orchestra conducted by Kelly Kuo.

The set looked to be a scene from Il Trovatore, which opens the San Francisco Opera season next month and consisted of a tilted grey concrete structure with rows of windows. The background was illuminated with different colored lights depending on the piece. I enjoyed the direction from Tania Arazi Coambs, there were lots of arm gestures, dancing, and the like. It was especially effective for the sextet "Siete voi...Questo è un nodo avviluppato" from Rossini's La Cenerentola.

There were many charming moments in this concert. It was great to hear "Ai capricci della sorte" from L'Italiana in Algeri also by Rossini, though the patter was not completely effortless, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Steffen McKinley as Isabella and bass-baritone Finn Sagal as Taddeo sang nicely and clearly can act. I felt the text was obvious and did not need to look at the supertitles to know what was happening.

8.18.23-1505-1-scaledThere were some interesting choices as far as repertoire, I liked the contrast of the duet "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles with the one from Gregory Spears' Fellow Travelers "I should take you to Bermuda." Both have to do with with love and feature a tenor and a baritone, though in Bizet the two characters are romantically interested in the same woman rather than each other. Tenor Sahel Salam has a reedy sound that works well for Nadir and tenor Demetrious Sampson, Jr. (pictured with baritone Cameron Rolling, photograph by Kristen Loken) has an effective voice for Timothy Laughlin. Sampson's sound has very pleasing resonances and was equally lovely in his duet in the second half of the performance, "In un coupé... O Mimì tu più non torni" from La Bohème.

It does seem that many of the Merolini have exceedingly powerful voices. We started the performance with soprano Georgiana Adams singing "Dich teure Halle" from Tannhäuser, and her icy sound is very strong. When she came back for "Sola, sola in bui loco" as Donna Anna, her voice was most prominent, though soprano Simona Genga was also pretty loud as Donna Elvira. After the intermission we heard these two in "Die selige Morgentraum...Selig, wie die Sonne" with Adams as Eva and Genga as Magdalene, both were impressive. Genga also had a memorable turn in "Carceleras" from Ruperto Chapi's zarzuela Las hijas del Zebedeo.

8.18.23-2524-1-scaledMezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis exuded a certain dignity as Margaret Garner in "A quality of love," from the opera by Richard Danielpour. Lewis showed her dramatic range as Luce in "Sing for your supper" along with soprano Juliette Chauvet as Adriana and Joanne Evans as Luciana (pictured from left to right Chauvet, Evans, and Lewis, photograph by Kristen Loken). This trio from The Boys of Syracuse by Rodgers and Hart could not be more different in tone from Margaret Garner.

The evening ended with "Overhead the moon is beaming" from the 1924 operetta The Student Prince. The piece featured tenor Sahel Salam as the Prince, along with Natalie Lewis, Joanne Evans, and Finn Sagal. It was very entertaining and all of the Merolini joined them as the chorus.

*Tattling * 
Instead of an overture to kick off the performance, current Adler Fellow Moisés Salazar addressed the audience about how being in the Merola Opera Program changed his life.

The audience was fairly quiet but I did hear a cellphone ring during the duet from L'Italiana. There was also some light talking but nothing terribly egregious.

Merola's Metamorphosis Recital

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_1060_Resized-scaled* Notes *
The Merola held a recital entitled Metamorphosis: Recovery, Renewal, and Rebirth last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Curated by Carrie-Ann Matheson and Nicholas Phan (pictured, photograph from Kristen Loken), this evening of art song featured a variety of composers, pianists, and of course, very strong singing from the new batch of Merola participants.

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_2186_Resized-scaledThe recital began with tenor Demetrious Sampson, Jr. (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) singing "Ah Love but a day" by Amy Beach. Sampson has a very powerful, rich voice and exceedingly clear diction. Later in the first half he sang Schumann's "Frühlings Ankunft," which was very pretty and Florence Price's "The Poet and his Song," which he sang with irrepressible joy that made the audience burst into applause although we were asked to only applaud for each section of the themed songs. Sampson showed a lot of charisma in Hugo Wolf's "Storchenbotschaft," he told the story clearly and conveyed the text well.

We heard bass-baritone Finn Sagal sing Samuel Barber's "Invocation to youth," which was robust. He has a good stage presence, my companion for the performance indicated that Sagal seemed like he would be great in musical theater, and in fact he ended the performance with Sondheim's "I know things now," Little Red Riding Hood's song from Into the Woods. He did particularly well though with Errolyn Wallen's "What shall I sing?" and it was adorable to see how much the other two singers sitting on stage with him were into Sagal's rendition.

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_1539_Resized-scaledIt was wonderful to hear soprano Juliette Chauvet (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) sing Messaien's "Resurrection," her crystalline sound seemed perfect for this song. It was obvious that she is a native French speaker, even to my non-Francophone ears. I also liked hearing her duet with mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans, Chausson's "Le réveil."

Mezzo-soprano Simona Genga has an interesting, dramatic voice, very different than Evans. She seemed equally comfortable singing Jocelyn Morelock's "Somewhere Along the Line" and Schubert's "Die junge Nonne." The resonances of her sound were particularly pronounced in Alma Mahler's "Die Stille Stadt."

The baritones Cameron Rolling and Samuel Kidd were also distinct. Rolling has a pleasant, round tone, I especially liked his "Frühlingsglaube" and Kidd is lighter, with a brassy bright sound.

*Tattling * 
There was a lot of program rustling, even though everything was on a single page for each half. I also heard a watch alarm for 9pm, right after Alma Mahler's "Erntelied."

SF Opera's El último sueño de Frida y Diego

_DSC0095* Notes *
The opening of Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera last night was vivid and visually impressive. There was much great singing, especially from the chorus, and the colors of the orchestra were on full display.

This Spanish-language opera premiered at San Diego Opera in October 2022. It is two acts, each about an hour long, and takes place on El Día de los Muertos in 1957. The narrative follows Diego Rivera's summoning of Frida Kahlo from the dead during this liminal time of year. La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead in the Aztec underworld (Mictlān) convinces Kahlo to crossover to the living world. Frank's music features a lot of slippery, sliding chromaticism and percussion. I liked hearing the celeste. I was less keen on Nilo Cruz's libretto, there were many jokes about Rivera's physical appearance, his pot-belly and fear of becoming fat, which seemed so sad given that he's 70 years old in the opera and close to death. This did garner much laughter, perhaps serving to humanize the famous muralist. In addition to the three main characters, there is the young actor Leonardo, who is Kahlo's buddy in Mictlān and wants to return to the living world impersonating Greta Garbo to please a fan of the actress. The character is a bit random but endearing.

Frank handles the chorus well, the 40 choristers sounded cohesive and powerful. All the singing was very fine. Countertenor Jake Ingbar is charming as Leonardo, his bright voice cut through the orchestration without being harsh. Soprano Yaritza Véliz has a lovely otherworldly quality as La Catrina, bird-like and angelic. Baritone Alfredo Daza is an imposing Diego Rivera, his voice is very strong. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack impressed as Frida Kahlo, no small feat given how iconic the painter is. I've heard her many times in a variety of repertoire, but this role really shows off the depths of her voice.

_DSC0168The production, directed by Lorena Maza, is sumptuous with lots of rich details. Jorge Ballina's set makes splendid use of color, the saturated marigold orange in the underworld and intense cobalt blue of La Casa Azul were particularly striking. The scenes switched easily and artfully, whether it was altars of flowers suspended from the ceiling or platforms rolled in to create different spaces. I especially liked how a blank mural wall hid the chorus at the beginning of Act II and then revealed Rivera's Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Of course, the recreations of Kahlo's paintings were also very beautifully done, Eloise Kazan's costumes certainly made that scene that occurs later in Act II work.

* Tattling *
It was great to see that the house was full for the prima of this opera. I situated myself in the middle of balcony standing room right behind two couples and had a great view of the stage where I could easily ignore the OperaVision screens.

There was a cell phone ring right before the music started which made the audience titter. There was a fair amount of light talking and lots of phone screens being checked for the time during Act II.

SF Symphony's Adriana Mater

Saariho* Notes *
Composer Kaija Saariaho (pictured) died last Friday on June 2, and San Francisco Symphony's presentation of her 2005 opera Adriana Mater last night showed what a profound loss this is. Her music is wholly unique and is very much a case for live performance.

Saariaho turned Davies Hall into an instrument, her slow moving music has a physicality that is like being surrounded by a monumental sculpture that gradually appears and then dissipates. Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the orchestra very even and consistent.  The piece has a lot of percussion, more than two dozen instruments, which undoubtedly help create the soundscape that feels so solid and palpable. The brass sounded very clear and the strings shimmered.

The opera, with libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, is set in present day, in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Adriana, a young woman, rebuffs the advances of a young ne'er-do-well Tsargo, and is later raped by him at home when her sister Refka is out. She becomes pregnant and keeps the child, a son she names Yonas, but is tormented by fears that he will be like his father. When Yonas discovers his true paternity, he seeks revenge by taking Tsargo's life, but finds he cannot and thus proves to Adriana that he is indeed her son, and her fears were unfounded.

20230608_AdrianaMater_bhs_059Saariaho dedicated this opera to Peter Sellars, who directed the world premiere seventeen years ago at Opéra Bastille in Paris with Salonen conducting. Sellars is halfway through a four opera series at San Francisco Symphony that will continue next year with Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This new staging for Adriana Mater (Act II pictured, photograph by Brittany Hosea-Small) included four platforms for the four principal vocalists, two downstage, and two upstage. The orchestra is arranged in a diagonal dividing the platforms in half, and the chorus is above but continues the diagonal by being stage right. The lighting switches up from primary colors on different platforms, to fully green or pink depending on the tableau. The singers are all fine actors, I was especially impressed how well mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron (Adriana) was able to hold her body in place for such long periods and how transformed she was from Act I where she is a young adult to Act II when she has a fully grown son. The staging does include four iPads with the music for the singers, and I found this would occasionally take me out of the drama and the music as a singer would turn the page or carry the device to the floor if the choreograph demanded it.

The singing was all very beautiful, an interesting contrast to the dark and disturbing content of the opera. Baritone Christopher Purves is terrifying as the violent Tsargo, but his voice does have.a pretty warmth to it. Tenor Nicholas Phan is wrenching as son Yonas, his sweet, bright sound conveys a lot of emotion. Soprano Axelle Fanyo also has a sweet, full tone and gave a focused performance as Adriana's sister Refka. Barron is devastating in the title role, her deeply burnished mezzo embodied the pain of Adriana and her redemption.

* Tattling *
There was some light talking throughout the performance, which completely didn't make sense to me, as this experience was intense and immersive. A person in Row T Seat 3 of Premier Orchestra kept looking at her phone in the second act.

It seemed like almost everyone I knew who loves opera was at this performance. Even soprano Nina Stemme and baritone Johan Reuter, who are both in Die Frau Ohne Schatten over at San Francisco Opera were in attendance.

SF Opera's Die Frau Ohne Schatten

_DSC2744* Notes *
Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of 34 years. The vibrant production by artist David Hockney premiered at Covent Garden way back in 1992, but still has much to recommend it, and the singing and playing were all wonderful.

The plot of this opera, as with so many of Strauss' operas, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is basically a fairy tale about a magical empress who has no shadow, meaning she is barren, and she must find a shadow or the emperor will turn to stone. She descends to the human realm with her nurse, and tries to gain a shadow from the wife of Barak the Dyer. There is much talk of the unborn. The empress eventually decides it is wrong to harm Barak, as his wife will unable to have children if she gives up her shadow, and in the end she is granted grace and given a shadow. This folktale is consider to be of Aarne-Thompson type 755, about forgiveness and redemption, and has origins in Scandinavia.

Hockney's set is as colorful as the music is, the many scenes are switched up with ease. I really loved how the earthly realm of Barak the Dyer and his wife looked like a rainbow salt mine, even the mortals live in technicolor. The costumes, from Ian Falconer of Olivia fame, looked to be influenced by Rajasthani or Mughal miniature painting.

_DSC2439The cast included 25 principals and not only the regular chorus but a children's chorus. Soprano Nina Stemme (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded as powerful and glittery as ever as Barak's Wife (Die Färberin). It was fun to hear her with soprano Linda Watson (Nurse/Die Amme), since they are both known for performing Brünnhilde. Watson has a more strident tone, but it works for this role, which was written for mezzo-soprano, and the two singers did sound very distinct. The Empress (Die Kaiserin), sung by soprano Camilla Nylund, seemed like a very challenging part, there were dizzying heights that were frankly shrill. But there was no mistaking Nylund for the other two sopranos. Baritone Johan Reuter was a very human Barak, and sang with warmth. Tenor David Butt Philip was certainly more otherworldly as the The Emperor.

The orchestra sounded magnificent under Maestro Donald Runnicles, there were so many colors and textures in the music that came out rather beautifully. This is definitely an opera to return to, and I'm very curious to read the score.

* Tattling *
The people in Box D Seats 7 and 8 arrived slightly late and left a few minutes before the end of the opera. We inconvenienced them by being in their seats at the start, as the person in Seat 4 kept going in and out of the box. The person in Seat 4 also spent a little time texting, but this was relatively brief. The person in Seat 8 smashed her plastic water bottle in order to drink, and this happened 2 or 3 times. She also left the bottle at her seat after leaving the performance.

Otherwise it was pretty quiet, most of the people in attendance very much wanted to be there and were listening intently.

SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

_DSC0444* Notes *
San Francisco Opera resumed its 100th season with a new production of Madama Butterfly (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) directed by Amon Miyamoto and featuring a solid cast. The stars of the show for last night's prima were, however, San Francisco Opera's Music Director Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra.

In this production, we begin in silence with a scene of the elderly Pinkerton in his sick bed. He hands off a letter to his son Trouble and the words bring us back some thirty years to tell us the story of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. I appreciated the reframing of this problematic opera to be through the eyes of mixed race son, I am also a multiethnic Asian American with mixed race children. But the constant presence of actor John Charles Quimpo as the adult Trouble is very distressing and distracting, his movements were erratic and made me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps if he had been a more ghostly observer, it would have worked better, but obviously this was a directorial choice. The spartan set used judicious projections, the exploding flowers in Act II that were projected in the background were appealing. The costumes from Kenzō Takada are elegant.

The cast is strong. The chorus was lovely, as were all the supporting singers. It was nice to see that all the principal Japanese characters are Asian or Asian American and that Chiharu Shibata, who has been in so many San Francisco Opera productions, was the shadow dancer here.

Baritone Lucas Meachem is a perfect Sharpless, the warmth of his voice is sympathetic and kindly. I did like how he was directed to be more forceful than many others in this role, he throws a chair in frustration when Cio-Cio-San refuses to understand her situation in Act II. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, is well-suited vocally and dramatically for Suzuki. Her voice is big and rich.

_DSC0877Tenor Michael Fabiano (pictured in Act I with Karah Son) embodied Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, his bright, bold voice seems made for this music. He sounded equally great in the Act I aria "Dovunque al mondo" and the Act III aria "Addio, fiorito asil" and never overpowered in the many fine duets of the opera. Soprano Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) has a very interesting voice, she has a steel-tinged vibrato with an otherworldliness in her high notes, and her low notes seem deeply anchored. She's very dramatic and moving.

The orchestra sounds splendid under Maestra Kim, the sweep of the music has a distinct clarity and beauty. The brass did particularly well, as did the woodwinds, strings, and harp.

* Tattling *
Latecomers were shuffled into the back of the balcony and not allowed to sit, even though there were plenty of seats in the back rows of the house. I spent a lot of my time in Act I with my eyes closed trying to stay focused on the music, and I was mostly successful, even though I seemed to be surrounded by families with children or adoloscents.

There were some cellphone rings heard during quiet moments and at least two of dropped bottles, as one can bring drinks into the house, apparently.

Before Act III, I was told I could not take a picture of the stage while the curtain was down and there was the message "Please remain at your seats for this brief pause" by one of the ushers who also asked me where my seat was as I stood by myself in balcony standing room. Soon after this I was asked by another patron if I was the one who read the score of operas in the past in standing room, and it reminded me that I should probably attend another performance in this run of Butterfly and do that again.

Opera Parallèle's The Shining

OP-The-Shining-02* Notes *

Opera Parallèle made a triumphant return to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater with a chamber version of  Paul Moravec's 2016 opera The Shining (beginning of Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) last night in San Francisco. The piece is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King and features a lushly creepy score.

Maestra Nicole Paiement conducted with nuance and precision, the tiny chamber orchestra sounded absolutely full and robust. The music references Berlioz and Wagner, and made me curious to hear Paiement conduct a Ring cycle. The pacing of Act I seemed somewhat slow, there was a lot of plot to get through, but Act II was completely engaging. Director Brian Staufenbiel put together a visually rich production, the set moved smoothly, the scenes switching easily with artful use of video projections and set pieces pushed about by ensemble members.

There were about as many singers in the cast as musicians in the pit, it was a bit dizzying. Girl sopranos Perri So and Kiyomi Treanor were particularly chilling as the Grady Girls, their grotesquely large baby bonnets in lurid pink only heightened the scariness. Tenor Nathan Granner sounded great as Bill Watson, Lloyd the Bartender, and part of the vocal ensemble, his diction is always perfectly intelligible and he has a charismatic stage presence even in these supporting parts. Tenor David Walton was also a delight to hear, his bright voice cut through the orchestration and he was able to be distinct in his roles as Stuart Ullman, the general manager of the Overlook Hotel and the ghost of Delbert Grady,  the previous caretaker of the Overlook who murdered his family.

OP-The-Shining-19My favorite singer in this was bass-baritone Kevin Deas as cook Dick Halloran (pictured with Michael Thompson in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver). It's a sympathetic character, to be sure, and Deas brought a warm richness to the role, his rapport with Tenzin Forde as Danny Torrance (who shares the role with Thompson) was clear. Forder does not sing but is very convincing, it is interesting that this child with special powers is the only one who does not have a singing part.

Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (Wendy Torrance) has an icy, flexible voice. She has an effortlessness that never comes off as harsh. Her early seventies outfits were a lot of fun and she rocked bellbottoms and platform shoes with a disarming ease. Baritone Robert Wesley Mason as Jack Torrance has a powerful sound, though not terribly varied. He did unraveled rather dramatically and had impressive stamina for this marathon of a role, he was onstage for nearly all of the opera.

* Tattling *
There was quite a lot of talking at the beginning of Act I, but eventually everyone quieted down as they were drawn into the narrative and stagecraft. Electronic noise was not noted, though a few people did briefly have their mobile phones out and illuminated.

It was nice to see dozens of people I know at this performance, as I hadn't been to this venue since 2017 for Opera Parallèle's Flight.

Aida at the Met

IMG_1411* Notes *
I considered skipping the Saturday evening performance of Aida (Act II ovation pictured), as my flight out of New York left in the morning, but Sonja Frisell's production is being retired, so I'd never have another chance to see it in person. I have attended a performance of this Aida production back in 2009, but I was at a score desk and did not see it. It is nothing sort of spectacular, even without elephants.

Designed by Gianni Quaranta, the set is very grand, with enormous palace halls and watery vistas on the banks of the Nile. There are lots of ballet dancers and horses. Dada Saligeri's costumes look very much in keeping with an Ancient Egyptian setting. It was easy to be caught up in all the drama of such an elaborate staging.

The orchestra sounded just as grand under the baton of Maestro Paolo Carignani. There were some gorgeous oboe and flute playing. I was also impressed by the brass, there was only the slightest hint of fuzziness in the trumpets one time for the whole Triumphal March. I felt a bit bad that the audience kept clapping for the horses as it disrupted the beautifully played music. The chorus also sounded fabulous, very together and potent.

This was perhaps the least inspired cast of the three operas I heard in less than 48 hours. Bass Krzysztof Bączyk (the King) sounded thin and quiet, though bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was robust as Ramfis, all the more impressive given that this was his second show of the day. Baritone George Gagnidze was a gritty Amonasro. 

Tenor Jorge de León (Radamès) has a lot of power and conveys longing well, but there is not much nuance, he basically sounds the same no matter what words he's singing. Mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova is an ethereal Amneris, she did very well with Act II, Scene 1. Hearing her voice in the last part of the opera was haunting, I really liked how the stage lowered with her on it, as the two lovers are buried alive below. Soprano Angela Meade was the star of the evening, and as Aida that seems perfectly appropriate. Her voice has rich, earthy tones, and there is something about her vibrato that is interestingly textural rather than painful. Her duet with de León at the end of the opera, ""Invan! Tutto e finito ... O terra addio" was incredible.

* Tattling *
This time I was back in Family Circle, but in an aisle seat with a partially obstructed view. It only meant that there was a railing in part of the stage for me, but this easy enough to ignore. There was no one directly in front of me, and the lady to my right was adamant about finding a better seat at intermission. She insisted that the man she was with come sit with her in better seats after the second intermission as well, and it was so clear to me that i simply stayed standing so he could get by more easily.

There were a few lozenges unwrapped during the music, but less coughing. No watch alarms were noted, or cell phone rings. Someone in Balcony Box 11 took a video of the Triumphal March with his phone.

La Bohème at the Met

IMG_1392* Notes *
La Bohème (ovation pictured) isn't an opera I go out of my way to see, but since I was already in town for the new Don Giovanni, I attended yesterday's matinée of the Puccini work. The staging is over-the-top, completely delightful, and certainly what people expect from the Met. But my favorite part was hearing Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the orchestra, he really brings out the lushness of this score.

Franco Zeffirelli's set is absolutely maximalist, everything is described in elaborate detail. The garret the Bohemians live in has a chimney with smoke coming out of it in the first scene and even has a tiny balcony. The pause between set changes in the first two acts is smooth, and the way the Cafe Momus is revealed is ingenious. Act II is filled to the brim with spectacle: there is a stilt walker, a dancing bear, and Parpignol's toy cart is drawn by a donkey. The waiters at Momus dive on the ground to see Musetta's hurt foot. Act III is also very pretty, an icy February with glittery snow.

Maestro Nézet-Séguin had the orchestra well in hand, everything was very much together. Puccini has never been my favorite composer, but the music was sweeping and very clear. I only wish they did not chose to bring down the curtain before the orchestra stops playing, so that we can savor the beauty and not rush off to applaud.

The youthful cast sang well. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a fine Colline, he jokes well with baritone Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard. Their physical humor and chemistry were palpable, and they were particularly great in the Cafe Momus scene and when they dance in Act IV. Likewise baritone Davide Luciano made for a perfectly good Marcello and played off the others.

Soprano Sylvia D’Eramo is a sassy Musetta, her voice is a bit shrill and cold for my tastes, but you could never mistake her for the other soprano, Eleonora Buratto as Mimì, which is always nice. Buratto is much more bird-like, and she's well-cast for her role. She's a perfect match for her Rodolfo, tenor Stephen Costello, whose powerful, warm sound did not overwhelm hers. They blended prettily, and their duets were all lovely. Costello was very moving, especially in the last act, which had me in tears.

* Tattling *
I was not able to get rush tickets for this performance, so I sat in the rear orchestra. In many was it was ideal, there was no one in front of me or directly next to me. Unfortunately there was someone who chose to use his phone to take a video of Act III, at least no one was singing. There also was a cell phone that rang one and a half times during Mimì's "Donde lieta uscì" in this same act.

Don Giovanni at the Met

IMG_1359* Notes *
Director Ivo van Hove's debut production at The Met, Don Giovanni (ovation pictured), opened last night. The direction is sleek and contemporary, but best of all was baritone Peter Mattei in the title role.

Essentially the set is part of a square with five grey, brutalist buildings. There are lots of rectangular openings, arches, and stairs. It looks like a stripped down piazza. Nothing much changes for the first act and most of the second, which makes Don Giovanni's descent to hell all the more stark and surprising. This part of the production really does work well. 

The staging is contemporary, the men are in suits and dress shirts and the women in cocktail dresses. Everything is very black, white, and grey. This also means there are no swords, and the duel in the first scene involves a gunshot. It also means that the Commendatore is not a statue, but simply the singer wearing his bloodied shirt.

Maestra Nathalie Stutzmann made her debut with yesterday's performance as well, and the orchestra sounded very clear, and there were only the slightest synchronicity issues of getting ahead of the singers. Woodwinds and brass were lovely. The low strings were particularly beautiful in "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” and the mandolin solo from John Lenti for "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was gorgeous. I very much enjoyed the continuo, it was jaunty and playful, especially Jonathan C. Kelly's fortepiano playing.

The cast is solid. The three sopranos all sounded really distinct. Ying Fang has a light, bright voiced Zerlina, while Ana María Martínez is icy and histrionic as Donna Elvira. Federica Lombardi was somewhere in the middle of these extremes, she certainly conveyed the feelings of her character Donna Anna. She has a big, dramatic voice, but sounded almost angelic in "Non mi dir."

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker is a grounded Masetto, bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk is a powerful Commendatore whose low notes are still audible over the orchestra, and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is charming enough as Leporello. Tenor Ben Bliss gave the stiff and formal character of Don Ottavio some freshness, his arias were sweet and effortless but full of feeling as well. But best of all was baritone Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni, he struck the right balance of seductiveness and lack of empathy to play this rake. Sometimes it's difficult to see the appeal of this character, but Mattei really sells it, his voice has warmth and nuance. His "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa" was appropriately light and frothy, while his "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was plaintive.

* Tattling *
I flew in to New York at 7 in the morning for this performance, but only figured out there isn't standing room this season at 10am when the box office opens. I was surrounded by unmasked coughing ladies in Row F Seat 7 of Family Circle, which I'm just not used to anymore. It might have been fine, but there was a lot of rifling through purses for cough drops, offering of cough drops, declining of cough drops, and ultimately unwrapping of cough drops that was all rather loud and happening during the music. I hightailed it to the back of Family Circle, which was much nicer for me.

Someone was even more upset than I was near the score desks, house right, for he called out "Quiet" right before "Ho capito! Signor, sì." I guess I'm glad to see that we are all back to normal after the pandemic days of no opera performances. There were the usual watch alarms at the hour, of course.

A Night At The Overlook Hotel

Opera Parallèle held a fundraiser at The Lodge at The Regency Center yesterday night in San Francisco. The theme has to do with the company's next offering, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell's The Shining, which opens on June 2 at the YCBA Theater.

Emceed by L. Peter Callender, who kept the proceedings together, we heard soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, who is Wendy Torrance in the production and tenor Nathan Granner (Bill Watson / Lloyd the Bartender). They were accompanied by Kevin Korth on the keyboard and Marcus Shelby on the bass.

The music started with Bernstein's Tonight. Then we heard from General and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement who honored Founder & Executive Artistic Director of SFJazz Randall Kline, who collaborated with Opera Parellèle on Terence Blanchard's Champion back in 2016. Blanchard appeared in a video to express gratitude to Kline, but is in New York as this very opera is at The Met right now.

The high point of the evening was jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater singing "Don't Touch Me Tomato" and Sacha Distel's "La Belle Vie." She's a very warm and funny performer, and I'm sure her upcoming dates at SFJAZZ will be incredible.

There was a live auction with tenor Michael Tate as hotel concierge, keeping with the Overlook Hotel conceit. On offer were a Maui vacation and Seattle Opera's Das Rheingold, which OP Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel is directing in August.

We heard more from our opera singers, some pieces from The Shining, an aria from Champion, and some modified Elvis. It was good to get a sense of the music for the upcoming opera, and the beginning of June looks to be jam-packed, as San Francisco Opera's 2022-2023 also resumes with Madama Butterfly and Die Frau Ohne Schatten that same weekend.