SF Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice

_DSC1707* Notes * 
Matthew Ozawa's beautiful new production of Orfeo ed Euridice (Act III pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last week. I attended the second performance last night, and the debuts of Maestro Peter Whelan and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Orfeo were both impressive.

The musicians were laid out in quite an interesting way, with the horns next to the bassoons in the last row close to the prompter's box. The flutes and oboes were just ahead of them, and the clarinet was off to the side, where the basses usually are. Whelan's conducting was crisp but not metronomic. The woodwinds and harp were especially lovely.

The unfussy set, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, was essentially a turntable with projections, which are apparently of brain images. There are swings, making good use of the vertical space without having to take any pauses to switch the scenes. There are also 3 pairs of dancers, meant to represent the title couple in different stages of their life together. Rena Butler's choreography felt comfortingly familiar to me, it was sculptural without being static, and there was athleticism and acrobatics but also elegance. Jessica Jahn's costumes in warm shades for Orfeo and cool tones for Euridice were likewise tasteful, in keeping with the classical plot.

_DSC3225The chorus sounded powerful and together throughout the piece, they supported the principals without overwhelming them and negotiated the spinning set with ease. The principals are all clearly talented. I very much enjoyed the humor-infused performance of soprano Nicole Heaston (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) as Amore. Heaston sang with rich warmth and was charming.

The icier sound of soprano Meigui Zhang was suitable for Euridice. Her voice is clean and graceful, though perhaps not very distinctive, it did contrast with both of the others. Zhang did well with the dancing and did not look out of place among the dancers.

The same could be said of Orliński, the piece opens with him doing handstands and leaps during the overture. I was a little shocked to hear his voice, I had thought he was one of the dancers. His sound is strong and clear, very smooth throughout his range. His "Che farò senza Euridice?" was filled with pathos and very moving.

* Tattling * 
This was part of my subscription, and I loved peering at the orchestra from Box X. I was a bit concerned about the trio of chatty young men in Box Y, but they were very much into the opera and didn't say a word during the 90 minute performance.

In fact, I had such a nice experience, without talking, coughing, mobile phones, or watch alarms, that I'm a bit hesitant to attend this opera again, I'd like to hold on to this pleasant memory. But I will be there at least twice more, as this opera is rare and San Francisco Opera has only performed it in one other season.


Opera San José's Cinderella

Opera-San-Jose_Alma-Deutscher-Cinderella-2022_Credit-David-Allen_9104_Resized-scaled* Notes *
Alma Deutscher's Cinderella (Act IV pictured, photograph by David Allen) returned to Opera San José last weekend with the seventeen-year-old composer in the pit in her international conducting debut. I brought my Kindergartner to the delightful Sunday matinée as her very first opera.

Ms. Deutscher finished this opera when she was only ten years old, and it premiered here at Opera San José five years ago to great acclaim. The music is neo-Romantic and very pretty, Maestra Deutscher conducted well, she kept things moving and it all sounded clear and synchronized. At 2 hours and 45 minutes (with an intermission), it did feel a bit longer, but perhaps I was on edge as my five-year-old is not as good as sitting still as my eight-year-old was at her age. The overture definitely made me think of Wagner, and there were interpolations of Meistersinger into this piece, as there is a singing competition at the Prince's ball. There were also entertaining bits of Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte that probably flew over my child's head, but I laughed heartily.

This version of the Cinderella story has the main character and her step-family in an opera house, Cinderella is a burgeoning composer, the step-sisters are singers. The Prince is an aspiring poet but his father wants him to marry and take over the throne, so they throw a masked ball with a singing competition so he can chose a bride. The fairy godmother is disguised as a poor old woman in the woods, and instead of mice and birds, this opera has an elven children's chorus.

Director Brad Dalton's production is sumptuous, a dream come to life. The set, by scenic designer Steven C. Kemp, has lots of layers and the scenes are easily changed. Only the switch from palace back to woods and opera house (between Acts III and IV) had a big pause, and Deutscher talked us through it, which was a good way to set up the scene without losing momentum.

The singing was all very light and sparkling. Soprano Stacey Tappan and mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson were very funny as the step-sisters Grizelda and Zibaldona, and soprano Rena Harms was cartoonishly evil as the step-mother. It was very charming. I was happy to hear Harms again, her Merola performance as Donna Elvira back 2008 has really stayed with me.

Opera-San-Jose_Alma-Deutscher-Cinderella-2022_Credit-David-Allen_8640_Resized-scaledThe Prince and Cinderella (pictured in Act III, photograph by David Allen) made for an adorable couple. Tenor Joey Hammond-Leppek has a sweet reediness and soprano Natalia Santaliz is a bell-like songbird.

The cast was rounded off by bass-baritone Joshua Hughes as the Minister, contralto Megan Esther Grey as the Fairy, and bass-baritone Ben Brady as the King. They all are fine actors and good enunciators, which was great for my pre-literate daughter. I am very curious to hear Grey again, the depths of her voice are quite appealing.

*Tattling *
I think I must have been utterly discombobulated by the logistics of my trip to San José, as I mistakenly sat on the wrong side of the house in Row F Seat 4 instead of Seat 3. It was pretty embarrassing, and I sincerely apologize to the people whose seats we took for Acts I and II.

There were some cell phone rings noted and some snoring, so again, we seem to be coming out of pandemic times to something more normal.

The audience was full of energy and joy for the performance, and I was glad that my daughter was able to be part of such an engaged group of people. She seemed to like the performance a lot, and enjoyed having time with me without her sibling. She also loved dressing up for the occasion, and was only too glad to make use of the selfie station at the entrance to the theater. She insisted that I switch out my fascinator for a crown.


SF Opera's La Traviata

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A brand new production of Verdi's La Traviata (Act II Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera yesterday evening, kicking off a series of operas by this composer conducted by our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim. The orchestra sounded lovely, but definitely more restrained than in previous outings of this piece in recent memory.

The overture was handled quite well by Maestra Kim, everyone sounded very beautiful, the tempi were not excessively fast. There were moments with the chorus in particular where there were issues with synchrony. The offstage bandas in both Act I and Act III sounded nice and together. The strings were exquisite in Act III, as Violetta dies.

There were six former Merolini in this opera, so a lot of familiar faces and voices. Most notable of these were mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven (2016) as a sympathetic Flora Bervoix and bass-baritone Philip Skinner (1985) as a rather terrifying Baron Dauphol.

_DSC2038For the three most important principals we had three San Francisco Opera debuts. Baritone Simone Piazzola had a lush warmth as Giorgio Germont, the right mixture of sternness and fatherly care. He sang both "Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia" and "Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?" very well, the latter stuck with me as a highlight of the evening. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman (Alfredo) had a very pretty moment in the Act I duet "Un dì, felice, eterea," but had a tendency to yell his high notes otherwise, he doesn't seem to have perfect control of his volume. Most interesting was the Violetta, soprano Pretty Yende. Her singing in Act I seemed a bit delicate and icily metallic, but she brought incredible pathos to Acts II and III, and the resonances of her voice worked very well for her duets with Germont and Alfredo. I found her "Gran Dio!...morir sì giovane" at the very end particularly arresting.

This new staging from director Shawna Lacey looks very much like her Tosca from 2018, and it isn't a surprise that the set designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, is the same. I do wish that they had taken this opportunity to make the scene change in Act II smoother, it really took a lot of time to change the set from Violetta's country house to Flora's party, and the audience did not settle down quickly enough when the music started again. The contrasts between the saturated, almost lurid colors of the party scenes with the others were stark.

The realism of sex, violence, and illness throughout were unsettling. The courtesans do some 19th century version of twerking at Flora's party, the Baron does seem dangerous and scary, and having Violetta cough all throughout the piece was effective. There was some colorful cross dressing in Act II Scene 2 from the Marquis, who wears a pink tutu with his tuxedo tails and from the dancers who had bisected costumes portraying masculine and feminine evening wear on each side. Violetta does look genuinely sick in the last act (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) and this only added to how distressing the end is.

* Tattling * 
The audience was enthusiastic and the fact that this performance was simulcast to the nearby baseball stadium certianly heightened the excitement. I did hear a cellular phone ring house left on the Orchestra Level as Pretty Yende sang "È strano! ... Ah, fors' è lui" in Act I. Also, the person in Row Q Seat 3 kept crinkling a plastic bottle at the beginning of Act II Scene 2. Though I felt annoyed by these disturbances, it is sort of nice that things are so much back to normal.


Ars Minerva's Astianatte

Jasmine-johnson-andromaca-2022* Notes * 
Ars Minerva was back with a seventh modern world premiere last weekend, this time Leonardo Vinci's 1725 Astianatte at ODC Theater in San Francisco. The Sunday matinée featured lots of beautiful singing from some familiar voices. The plot concerns the aftermath of the Trojan War, specifically focusing on Astyanax (Astianatte in Italian), son of Hector and crown prince of Troy. Interestingly though the proceedings have to do with his life and desired death by the Greeks, this character doesn't sing a note, is is portrayed by a silent child.

The basic outline is that Pyrrhus, King of Epirus and son of Achilles is in love with his captive, Hector's widow Andromache. He is supposed to marry the princess of Sparta, Hermione. Orestes, Prince of Mycenae and son of Agamemnon, comes to the court to demand Astyanax 's death. Orestes, of course, is in love with Hermione, who wants to marry Pyrrhus for her honor, rather than out of true afffection. Antics ensue, but everyone gets sorted out in the end and no one dies.

Another tidbit about this piece is that the role of Andromache (Andromaca) was created by Vittoria Tesi, a biracial Florentine opera singer from the 18th century. In this production the role is sung by contralto Jasmine Johnson (pictured), whose incredible range is nothing short of impressive. Her voice is rich and her arias were all strong. Her ability to switch from searing anger at her captor and poignant love for her son was stunning. The contrast of Johnson's deep tones contrasted well with mezzo-soprano Deborah Martinez Rosengaus as Pirro. The latter has a nice heft to her sound but also a lovely brightness. Their duet at the beginning of Act III was a highlight of the afternoon, they complemented each other.

Likewise, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz was powerful as Oreste, they have such great flexibility in the characters they can convincingly portray and such nice control. Of the three sopranos in this piece, the largest role is for Aura Veruni as Ermione. Veruni has a wonderful effortlessness to her sound, which is very clean. She was ferocious here, razor-sharp in her singing.

Ars Minerva's Executive Artistic Director Céline Ricci's production started off with each soloist entering unshod and in underclothes, greeting Maestro Matthew Dirst and each other. The first scenes involve getting dressed, and this works well enough. Marina Polakoff's costumes have a steampunk flair, lots of corsetry, vests, and platform shoes. The two masculine presenting leads had lots of spikes, Pirro's jacket reminded me of a goth Bowser from Super Mario. Ermione's outfit looked very swirly and insectile, while Andromaca's recalled palm fronds.

The orchestra, headed by harpsichordist Matthew Dirst, was on the large side for this ensemble, a whole fourteen musicians. They played well, and it was nice to hear trumpets with all the strings, even if the brass was not always perfectly in tune.

* Tattling * 
I got to my seat, Row D Seat 20, a few minutes before curtain and was surprised to see a video camera there. The person running the camera was surprised to see me there, and as I explained that I had purchased this specific ticket, he remembered that he was supposed to have moved the camera for this performance. He had me sit in Row C Seat 20, and was very apologetic and considerate. I was in the seat of a guest of the Executive Director, but this person was kind enough to simply sit next to me.

As with all ODC performances for the past few years, we heard a land acknowledgement, that the theater is on the unceded land of the Ramaytush Ohlone. I was glad to note that ODC is donating a small portion of each ticket sold to the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone and encouraging us to learn about and donate to this group.


SF Opera's Dialogues of the Carmelites

Carmelites* Notes * 
Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last weekend after an absence of forty years on the War Memorial stage. The stark production from Olivier Py that features a lot of flat cut outs, shadows, and chalk was moving. The music and singing were all very strong.

During last night's performance, the playing from the orchestra was lush and beautiful. Maestra Eun Sun Kim seemed in full control of the musicians, and I enjoyed watching and hearing them all. The woodwinds were particularly great, especially the English horn player Alix DiThomas, who had a solo in Act I. I've only heard this opera one time before, and the thing about it that I remember best is the guillotine sound effect at the end, which was achieved here using a saber box and played by the percussionist Victor Avdienko backstage.

There are a lot of voices in this opera, 24 principals and 38 offstage choristers. They sang well together, and that last scene was viscerally effective. The main singers are sopranos, and they all were quite distinct, which is a feat in casting. Soprano Deanna Breiwick was impressive as Sister Constance, her twittery but incisive sound was convincing. I liked hearing former Adler soprano Melody Moore as Sister Marie, her voice is creamy but powerful. Soprano Michaela Schuster has some dark tones as the old prioress Madame de Croissy and was pretty terrifying in her death scene. Soprano Michelle Bradley as the new prioress Madame Lidoine was likewise strong, very warm and poignant when she sings in Act III as she joins her sisters in a vow of martyrdom. Finally, soprano Heidi Stober seemed to embody Blanche de la Force quite perfectly, her textured, tinselly sound channeled the character's anxiety which made her transformation at the end all the more striking.

_DSC5637The staging, first seen at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 2013 and then at La Monnaie / De Munt in 2017, was directed here by Daniel Izzo. It has a stripped down quality to it, lots of grey and white. The play of light and shadow was pleasing. I liked the four tableaux the nuns depicted with flat cut out props: The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Last Supper, and The Crucifixion. The death scene of Madame de Croissy (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) was depicted on the wall, as if one was looking down into the room, and this was disturbing and very much in keeping with the events that unfold.

* Tattling * 
There were quite a lot of people at the performance, which was heartening. The orchestra level looked almost full. I was surprised that the two other people in Box X abandoned the performance at intermission, and was chagrined that the pair in Box Y returned late. For some reason the latter couple found the end of Act II hilarious and laughed loudly when poor Blanche drops and breaks Baby Jesus. I myself was raised in a very different religion than Catholicism, but can still empathize with this frightened young nun. But perhaps they were just nervous for her and the emotion came out as laughter. They did applaud a great deal for the performance at the ovation.


PBO's Theodora

Julie-roset-2022-david-noles* Notes * 
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale opened the new season with Händel's Theodora last night at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. There was much beautiful singing about fruit and lack there of, though not from the brilliant soprano Julie Roset (pictured, photograph by David Noles) in the title role.

Maestro Richard Egarr has a lot of energy and the overture was rapid but not rushed. The orchestra was not quite as buoyant or jaunty as before Egarr's tenure, but sounded lovely throughout the performance. Likewise, the new chorale director Valérie Sainte-Agathe seems to have a good handle (pun intended) on the choruses of this piece and the singers behind the orchestra sounded strong and together.

The principals were uniformly fine. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton started us off on a grand footing as Valens, the President of Antioch. His voice is very rich and pretty, and his clean lines were wonderful for this music. His air "Racks, gibbets, sword, and fire" in Act I, Scene 1 was powerful and his "Cease, ye slaves, your fruitless pray'r" in Act III was similarly solid. It was a joy to hear tenor Thomas Cooley as the Roman soldier Septimius, his sweet, beautifully-controlled tones were particularly nice for "Dread the fruits of Christian folly" in Act I. Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston was a clear-voiced Irene, the Christian friend of Theodora. She has an impressive and consistent alveolar trill (rolled R for you non-linguists).

I was so happy to hear former Adler countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Theodora's love interest and Roman officer Didymus. His sound is very open and he has some incredible coloratura, he held his own in duets with Ms. Roset. As Theodora, Roset was splendid, and her French accent did not detract from her clarity of tone and effortless sparkle. Every note she sang was beautifully colored.

* Tattling *
It was amusing how animated Maestro Egarr was, he hopped off his bench to conduct and even did two jumps during the chorus "Venus, laughing from the skies."

The program for the performance was minimal, just one folded sheet, but since there weren't supertitles, there was a printed libretto on five pages. Unfortunately this did make for a lot of page turning noise.


SF Opera's Eugene Onegin

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Robert Carsen's 1997 production of Eugene Onegin (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon with a youthful cast of newcomers and the vibrant debut of conductor Vassilis Christopoulos.

The overture sounded stately under Maestro Christopoulos, who had his U.S. debut with this performance. Not everything was completely together, the women's chorus at the begining of Act I Scene 3 seemed off-kilter at first, and there were other moments of small moments of chaos, but nothing terribly egregious. The dance music in Acts II and III were all charming, particularly the Polonaise in the last act. The woodwinds and harp were all very lovely.

There were familiar voices, starting with the first two mezzo-sopranos on stage, Deborah Nansteel as Madame Larina and Ronnita Miller as Filipyevna. I distinctly remember Nansteel from Merola, her nice clear tones and Miller as being an incredible Erda in the Ring Cycle here in San Francisco. Veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was moving as Prince Gremin in his Act III aria.

As for debuts on the War Memorial stage, most were quite strong. Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina (Olga) has a beautiful dark sound but also a fine lucidity and resonance to her voice. Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson was likewise winsome as Lensky, his voice is light and bright but has a pleasant heft to it, his Act I aria was filled with joy and his Act II aria absolutely plaintive.

Soprano Evgenia Muraveva has a delicacy that seems appropriate for Tatyana, shy and bookish, both in stature and in her sound. She was never shrill but the bottom of her voice is underpowered. Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner embodied Eugene Onegin rather well, he seemed so weird and awkward in his first scene, at first it was a bit difficult to see what Tatyana was charmed by, but it was a credible performance. The duel scene of Act II Scene 2 was convincing, as were the shifting feelings of Onegin in Act III. Bintner's last aria as he realizes he loves Tatyana was rich and warm (and maybe somewhat manical).

This production from Robert Carsen has been seen all over the world in its 25 years. The set is clean and open with PVC walls on three sides, and Act I features thousands of polyester birch leaves in many colors. For the most part, the space is defined by arrangements leaves or chairs, and it works well enough and isn't distracting. The revival here was done by director Peter McClintock, and everything went smoothly as far as I could tell.

* Tattling * 
My 8-year-old insisted on attending this opera, as he had learned about Tchaikovsky in music class last school year. To prepare we watched the version on the Met on Demand app, as it is the same production. Oddly enough, I was in the audience for that performance.

At the matinée today he was able to sit mostly still for the 2.5 hour performance, and was quite attentive. He was pleased to be in Row T of the orchestra, as he has two initials that start with this letter. He patiently met all my opera friends and answered their questions despite his shyness. At the end he declared that it was "amazing" and "magnificent."


Antony and Cleopatra (Again)

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I started going to San Francisco Opera in 1996, and over the years I've gained many opera going friends, with whom I've traveled to see operas all over the place, from Seattle to Berlin. It has been sad to not be able to attend performances for the last few years, so when my opera buddy based in Brooklyn said he would like to go to John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Amina Edris as Cleopatra and Gerald Finley as Antony in Act I Scene 5 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) on September 18, I did my best to rouse up some of our friends to go as well. As I did not know standing room would be back or if I'd be able to get press tickets for this date, I purchased four tickets for the last row of the house. I was fortunate enough to be able to get press tickets, and thus asked two more friends to join us. Much merriment was had, though sadly no one else seemed to like this opera as much as I did.

It was agreed that all the voices were beautiful and that the music in between scenes in Act I was strong. From the orchestra level, I felt I could hear tenor Paul Appleby as Caesar more clearly, his voice is nice and light, perfect for Mozart, but also lovely here. His music in Act II Scene 2 made my hair stand on end. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sounded more powerful from the balcony. I still liked his aria in Act I Scene 2, but it was even more noticeable to me this time how declamatory the vocal lines were throughout the opera. Soprano Amina Edris (Cleopatra) gave me chills though, especially in her death scene at the end of the opera.

I really loved hearing Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra. I confirmed for myself that it was between Act I Scenes 4 and 5 that sounded particularly Wagnerian, like the end of Das Rheingold, something very Valhalla-esque to the music here. Again, I enjoyed the textures of cimalom and celesta, and am looking forward to seeing the orchestra when I attend this opera again on Friday as part of my subscription.

* Tattling * 
I made a reservation for the North Box Restaurant, but somehow bungled it by only having a table for 2 rather than 6. Thankfully we got there early enough that it seemed to get sorted out quickly, the people that work there are very kind and professional. I noted that most of the group present had been at the French Laundry back in 2010, the very evening our local baseball team won the World Series, and we had done The Wave at the table and three of our party sang part of Nixon in China. We did The Wave at our table, convincing our one compatriot that was not there last time to take a video of us.

Our press tickets were in Row S and there was a "famous opera dog" next to us who was very quiet and well-behaved. I noted a loud cell phone with an 80s arcade sound near the beginning of the opera and a few watch beeps at each hour. I also heard a few people being hushed. My opera companion fell asleep during Act I Scene 2.

My friends were not very happy with me at the end of the opera, as they felt the second act dragged on too long. At 3 hours and 17 minutes, perhaps some cuts would be helpful. Anyway, one of our party threatened to strangle me, and another mentioned they might want to stand outside the opera next time with signs protesting my lack of taste and possible spousal abuse in bringing my partner to such a boring performance. I apologized to them all, giggled heartily, and invited them to do standing room for Eugene Onegin next Sunday.


Opera San José's Le Nozze di Figaro

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen14* Notes *
Le nozze di Figaro (Efraín Solís as Figaro and Maya Kherani as Susanna in Act IV pictured, photograph by David Allen) opened at Opera San José last weekend with a joyous and very human production set in colonial India.

I was skeptical about moving this piece from Seville to South Asia, as a person with multiple marginalized identities, I'm always wary of using other cultures for some exotic flair. But it definitely worked well, and Mozart's work was more alive than ever, and felt like it could belong to anyone.

It was great that there were many opportunities for the South Asian diaspora in this production and not just the singers. I was happy to see that choreographer Antara Bhardwaj was a cultural consultant as was the costume designer Deepsikha Chatterjee. The stage looked gorgeous, as did the clothing, and it was great to see Bhardwaj dancing in a quartet, the geometric lines were very lovely. Director Brad Dalton seemed to have everyone on the same page, it was impressive that not only the trained dancers but the whole cast was able to move so nicely (pictured, photograph by David Allen).

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen17Conductor Viswa Subbaraman kept the orchestra going at a frenetic pace, occasionally going off the rails but certainly never a dull moment. The singers were most wonderful, however. Even silly Don Basilio -- tenor Zhengyi Bai -- was sung with absolute delight and beauty. Soprano Melissa Sondhi was an adorable Barbarina, and gave an effortless performance of "L'ho perduta... me meschina." Mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny was likewise sweet as Cherubino, her first aria, "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio" perfectly fluttery and light and her second ("Voi che sapete che cosa è amor") simply lovely. She was one of the tallest people on stage so the jokes about Cherubino's size were all the funnier.

Soprano Maria Natale was convincing as the Countess, her notes have a brass-like quality that is distinctive. As the Count, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu's sound is more rounded and warm, he's suitably puffed up but not a buffoon. His Act III aria "Hai già vinta la causa – Vedrò mentr'io sospiro" was moving.

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen12-1This pair was a fine contrast to soprano Maya Kherani as Susanna and baritone Efraín Solís in the titular role. Kherani has a pure sound not unlike a bell and Solís is bright with textural nuances. They both have wonderful physicality and were excellent with the comic timing.

Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp's set matched the embellishments of the California Theatre itself and was very detailed and ornate. There were rather long pauses between Acts I and II and Acts III and IV, but the trade off of having such opulence seems fair.

* Tattling *
The 89-year-0ld lady next to me was very chatty and genial. She had a friend behind her and another one across the aisle but promised to behave herself, and she was quiet during the music and conscientious about letting me get around her when I needed to.

I cried during the wedding scene in Act III (pictured, photograph by David Allen) and at the end of the opera. I love this music so much and it was nice to feel like the people who put this opera on were making space for people like me.


SF Opera's Antony and Cleopatra

_DSC1405* Notes * 
The world premiere of John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Act II Scene 3 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera featured powerful voices and lushly textured music. The piece has a certain glittery yet dark quality to it, and the production leaned into that, to be sure.

The libretto for this work was by the composer, but based mostly on the play by Shakespeare with flourishes from classical texts by Plutarch, Virgil, and others. This was more successful dramatically than other libretti of Adams' recent operas, but perhaps there were fewer chances for the weird but charming outbursts about pigs or chocolate cake.

The orchestra sounded splendid, Maestra Eun Sun Kim has precision with dynamism. The orchestration has two harps which very much called to mind Wagner to me, especially near the end of Act I. I was also quite taken by the use of celesta (or bell piano), which I could hear very clearly up in the back balcony. Somehow it didn't remind me of the Sugar Plum Fairy at all, and I look forward to hearing the opera again to focus in on this and the cimbalom, which I immediately responded to, as I was obsessed with dulcimers as an adolescent. The chorus also sounded great, very much together and full.

The singing was strong, there were quite a lot of characters, but they were all distinct. It was lovely to hear mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Deshong as Octavia, sister of Caesar. Her voice is wonderfully rich and deep. I also really liked mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Charmian, Cleopatra's attendant, who radiated calm reasonableness in contrast to Cleopatra's wild rages.

_DSC9485The most evocative aria for me was in Act I Scene 2, "Age cannot wither her, no custom stale her infinite variety" sung by Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker details the appeal of Cleopatra in front of a scrim with projections of the character, as she lounges upstage (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Walker is sympathetic and his voice effectively conveys how alluring and magnetic Cleopatra is.

The three principal singers were also quite vigorous. Tenor Paul Appleby is an unctuous Caesar, his voice is very bright and pretty. At times his sound may have lacked heft, but I think it might have had to do with the staging, he was dampened by being upstage and boxed in by scenery in Act II Scene 2, for instance.

Bass-baritone Gerald Finley makes for a charismatic leading man, singing Antony with much sweetness. But best of all was soprano Amina Edris as Cleopatra, her voice has an intense vitality to it, and she was downright frightening when it was called for, implacable and domineering.

The production, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, is stylish and stark. The scene changes are seamless, there were many moving stage elements that could hide and reveal different settings. The projections were elegant, often black and white, and employed thoughtfully.

* Tattling * 
I had a ticket for the very last row of the opera house, but since standing room is back, I decided to stand near the center aisle, especially since the performance was not sold out and it was easier to see from that vantage point without anyone directly in front of me.

I was asked if this was my first John Adams opera, which I was so amused by, I could hardly respond. It was clear that the pandemic has made my social skills even worse. Otherwise, the audience around me was quiet and respectful, though there might have been some inappropriate giggling when Eros, follower of Antony, stabbed himself in Act II Scene 3.

My 8-year-old child loves Nixon in China, and I had thought maybe I could bring him to hear this. His review of Doctor Atomic (not a very child-appropriate work, we only heard the first 15 minutes) was that it sounded "like Nixon in China but bad and noisy," so I was curious if the music here would be something he would be interested in. The themes of Antony and Cleopatra seem a little too adult for a third grader though.


Merola Grand Finale 2022

Merola-Grand-Finale_Credit-Kristen-Loken_2695_Resized-scaled * Notes *
The Merola Grand Finale (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) returned to the War Memorial Opera House last night for the first time since 2019. It was a joy to hear all these talented singers in person and in the opera house.

The stage was simple, basically three white screens and different colored lights for the various scenes. Only the duet "Vogliatemi bene" from Act I of Madama Butterfly had some static projections that looked like raindrops or petals. Matthew J. Schultz's stage direction had appeal, it was direct and unfussy.

I liked how mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Kitty Oppenheimer interacted with bass-baritone William Socolof in their aria "Am I in your Light?" (from Dr. Atomic) though he did not sing. It made sense to have Socolof play J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Printz did very well with both singing and acting. Also interesting was Schultz's choice to have the Card Trio from Carmen start with only Frasquita and Mercédès onstage, and then have Carmen join only later.

While there were many strong arias, such as countertenor Cody Bowers singing "D'un sventurato amante...Pena tiranna" from Handel's Amadigi di Gaula and bass-baritone Le Bu in Verdi's "O tu Palermo," the most impressive were the duets. Singers were well-matched and sang pieces nicely suited to their abilities. "Listen, Mary, trust me!" from Highway 1, U.S.A. by William Grant Still was sweeping and beautiful when sung by soprano Adia Evans and baritone Scott Lee. Soprano Maggie Kinabrew as a spunky Adina with bass-baritone Seungyun Kim as a very silly Dulcamara were charming in "Quanto amore!" Strongest of all in the first half of the evening though was undoubtedly soprano Amanda Batista and tenor Moisés Salazar in "Vogliatemi bene," the raw power yet total ease of their voices was arresting. They blended their sounds nicely as well.

In the second half, I found soprano Ariana Rodriguez and tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole very adorable in "Tornami a dir che m'ami" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Rodriguez has some lovely resonances to her voice and Jonas-O'Toole is distinctive, warm and woodwind-like. Also notable was the Puccini duet from La bohème "Dunque è proprio finita" with soprano Adia Evans and tenor Daniel Luis Espinal which was vivid and very loud. As I'm a ridiculous fan of Gounod's Faust, I was very glad to hear soprano Chelsea Lehnea and bass-baritone Seungyun Kim sing "Alerte! Alerte!" with tenor Moisés Salazar acting the part of the title character.

*Tattling * 
It was fun seeing all the supporters of Merola that we've missed in the last two years, even if it was behind masks.

There was a bit of light talking on occasion, and someone's hearing aids made a lot of squeaky sounds during the performance. I must say I wasn't too annoyed by it, as I had sort of forgotten this could be an issue after all these months of pandemic precautions and staying inside. In a way I'm grateful to be able to even hear those high-pitched sounds still.


SF Opera's Don Giovanni

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Don Giovanni, the last installment of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy directed by Michael Cavanagh, opened yesterday evening at San Francisco Opera. It was a joy to hear Maestro Bertrand de Billy conduct this beautiful music and there was much lovely singing.

Post-apocalyptic future felt much like something out of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, though that work is set in the a few years from now rather than the late 2080s for this production. It felt like violence could happen at any moment in the decrepit version of the 18th century manor house that was once so charming for Così fan tutte from the fall.

There were references to the previous two operas, especially in the costuming. One of the funny red gnome hats worn by Dorabella and Fiordiligi show up on a chorus member who is one of the survivors of this dystopian world. The startling physicality of the singers was evident right a way in the death of the Commendatore, who took a disturbingly long time to die. The extensive projections during the overture which included fire and shadows of people were distracting and a bit on the nose.

It is always interesting to see how directors deal with various elements of the plot in a new way. Instead of threatening his guests with a gun in the Act I finale, Don Giovanni puts on sunglasses and has Leperello blind them with the light of his portable projector. This device is used during "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" to show the list of names of Don Giovanni's conquests, and appears throughout the piece.

I really enjoyed "Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m'invitasti," when the Commendatore comes for dinner as a monumental statue (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Usually this is my favorite bit of the opera anyway, because of those wild diminished sevenths and stentorian tones from the bass. Here the giant head that appeared was extremely absurd and surreal and I could not stop laughing, which was probably not the intended response, but certainly was one of the most memorable stagings of Don Giovanni I have ever seen. The descent to hell was particularly great, as the statue broke in half and both real fire and projections overtook our rakish anti-hero.

Instead of the usual mishmash of the two versions of the score, this time San Francisco Opera stuck to Vienna (1788) version. So it had "Dalla sua pace" but not "Il mio Tesoro" for Don Ottavio and "Restati qua... Per queste tue manine" in Act II, a duet for vengeful Zerlina and a rather hapless Leporello. The orchestra was neat and clear, the onstage and offstage musicians for the various bandas all played well. There were a few times when the music was a bit off-kilter, like for "Batti, batti o bel Masetto," as Mozart's music is unforgiving and exposes every flaw. However, conductor de Billy was more sedate than some others in recent memory, and it was nice to feel like the orchestra was secure and not in danger of flying off the rails. This is the first outing for our new chorus director John Keene, and it seemed fine, the chorus was cohesive and especially strong as unseen demons for the aforementioned inferno scene.

The cast is solid, lots of pretty singing and fine acting. As the Commendatore bass Soloman Howard might not have had the gravity of an older man, but his volume was good and his onstage death throes were convincing. Former Merolino bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was slightly wooden as Masetto, but perhaps that works for the role. I do remember him being charming in Walton's The Bear in 2017, but obviously it is very different music. Soprano Christina Gansch sang Zerlina with warmth, particularly lovely in her duet "Là ci darem la mano" and showed a more sadistic side in the duet "Per queste tue manine." I still remember Luca Pisaroni as Masetto back in 2007 because I saw 6 or 7 of the performances, but he is an amiable Leporello and sounded robust. He was excellent at physical humor, and was very funny when he attempted to impersonate his master at the beginning of Act II.

_DSC8346Tenor Amitai Pati cuts a dashing figure as Don Ottavio, though he is a touch underpowered. His "Dalla sua pace" had a longing in it that was lovely. I liked soprano Nicole Car's Donna Elvira, her penetrating, taut sound is just shy of shrill and was perfect contrast to soprano Adela Zaharia's Donna Anna (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). These three singers blended well together, and I loved their trio of Act I ("Protegga il giusto cielo"). Zaharia definitely was the standout of the evening. Her voice is incandescent, the low notes have richness and the high notes very shiny and secure. Her Act II aria "Non mi dir" was revelatory, one of the most beautiful moments of the whole opera. Baritone Etienne Dupuis was no slouch either as Don Giovanni, he is an excellent actor and has a nice, sweet voice that is bright enough to cut through the orchestra. I was impressed by his ability to channel the lankiness of Pisaroni's Leporello though their frames are rather different. He was also brutal with Donna Elvira (who in fact is played by his real life spouse), especially when he threw a dish of fish at her in Act II. Dupuis did well with "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa," light and sparkly and his "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was also very pretty.

Tattling * 
The couple in front of us in Row S Seats 2 and 4 were chatty, but the maskless person next to them in Seat 6 was even louder, he had the sniffles and his breathing was so distinct and in my ear I thought it might be my date that was snarfling so much. The woman in Seat 4 couldn't take it and switched to Row R Seat 2 before Donna Elvira's entrance.

This was good in that her date (whose mask was carefully tucked under his chin) had to lean forward to talk to her, and thus the sound of their voices was further away from me. When I gigglingly suggested to my companion that it was she that had caused all that racket, she was offended and incensed. She rolled up her opera program and hit me as she proclaimed "Batti! Batti!"

None of the three returned to their seats after intermission. I did not notice any electronic noise during the performance but a lot of audience members dropped things.


No Love Allowed at Pocket Opera

Pocket-opera-liebesverbot2022* Notes *
Last month Pocket Opera put on three performances of Wagner's No Love Allowed (Das Liebesverbot). I attended the delightful May 15 matinée at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. The English language production had a lot of charm and some beautiful voices, and though I did miss Pocket Opera's founder Donald Pippin's wry comments, his sense of humor came through translation of the libretto.

The two leads (pictured, photograph courtesy of Pocket Opera) were very strong. As Isabella, soprano Leslie Sandefur has a sprightly, metallic sound, while tenor Michael Dailey (Luzio) was bright and legato.

The rest of the enormous cast was likewise filled with fine voices. Baritone Spencer Dodd was suitably villainous as the hypocritical Viceroy Friedrich, his Act II aria was nuanced and tormented. As his abandoned wife Mariana, soprano Aléxa Anderson sang smoothly and with a delicate prettiness. Her duet with Sandefur at the convent in Act I was very lovely. Tenor Justin Brunette as Isabella's licentious and imperiled brother Claudio had some soaring high notes.

Other notable contributions came from mezzo-soprano Sonia Gariaeff as libertine Dorella who had a saucy good humor and baritone Michael Grammer as Brighella, captain of the watch, whose deep, dark voice embraced the silliness of his role. There are nine other voices that I haven't gone over, but suffice it to say they did well, especially with the raucous carnival scene in Act II.

Music director and conductor Jonathan Khuner lead the Pocket Philharmonic and played the piano. Since there were a less than a dozen musicians, mistakes were rather exposed. But it was great fun to hear this rarity in person nonetheless.

* Tattling * 
One had to show proof of vaccination to attend and most of the audience members were masked. There are distinctly fewer watch alarms at the hour these days, perhaps everyone has switched to smart watches. There was some chatter but no electronic sounds were noted.


Emerson String Quartet at SF Performances

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Last night the Emerson String Quartet (pictured, photograph by Jürgen Frank) played at Herbst Theatre as the penultimate show in the 2021-2022 season at SF Performances.

The performance started with an absolutely lovely String Quartet No. 2 in D Major by Borodin. The Allegro moderato was played with a singing tone by first violinist Philip Setzer, while the Scherzo: Allegro had a more dance-like aspect. The plaintive Noctturno: Andante is very familiar to everyone, but I loved how uniform the playing was, how the solo line started with the cello and moved in turn to the other musicians. The quartet is clearly tight and it is wonderful to hear the four voices combine so elegantly. The Finale: Andante; Vivace was bright and together.

Next was Barber's String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11, which I have never heard but nonetheless has themes in the middle movement Molto adagio that reappear in the well-known Adagio for Strings. There was a certain strident quality to outer movements -- Molto allegro e appassionato and Molto allegro (come prima) --, and an interesting "buzziness" to the music.

After the intermission came Bartók's String Quartet No. 1, Sz. 40, starting with a lyrical Lento. The first violinist was switched to Eugene Drucker, who played gracefully. I enjoyed the aptly named Poco a poco accelerando all'allegretto, the chromaticism sounded lush and the changes in dynamics were distinct. The Introduzione: Allegro; Allegro vivace at times sounded like a swarm of wasps almost, and there was something rather moving about each of the musicians playing a particular line and then playing in unison.

The encore was a Bach chorale, with Philip Setzer back as first violinist. It was a calm, meditative way to end the evening.

* Tattling *
The Emerson String Quartet is disbanding next year, which is why I was prompted to hear the group, as I have not heard them since 2009. I have a soft spot for this quartet as their recording of Complete Beethoven String Quartets was one of the first chamber music CDs I ever purchased.

One of the ushers carried around a "Wear Your Mask" sign up and down the aisles before curtain. People were good about keeping them on throughout the performance. There were no electronic disturbances noted, only a dropped program and a few coughs.