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.

PBO's Amadigi di Gaula

IMG_1155 * Notes * 
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Music Director Richard Egarr did a run of Händel's Amadigi di Gaula last weekend at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco. The soloists (pictured) were all really impressive and the small space seemed to focus the attention of the audience.

The piece has a lot of big feelings in it, it is the composer's eleventh opera of over 40 he wrote. I must say it is a bit frustrating that only a handful of Händel's operas are performed regularly, as this one was absolutely lovely and it would be nice to be able to hear more than once. The playing was crisp and together, the woodwinds and trumpet had significant soli.

This co-production between Boston Baroque and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chrorale works well in the tiny theater. There was basically a runway in front of the orchestra with two platforms at each end, plus eight screens for projections behind the musicians. I am not sure I understood what stage director Louisa Muller was trying to say, at one point the sorceress villain takes off her boots and socks, throwing them aside, and then everyone else who came back on stage had no shoes either. It was as if they were just done with footwear, I guess there was too much passion in the music, they needed to expose their feet.

Nor did I find Ian Winters' projection design inspired, the images of the ocean and sky were pretty enough, but there were times when I simply ignored the images and turned my attention to the performers.

The cast was strong. Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter is basically my favorite sort of Baroque singer, a lady baritone. Singing the hapless Prince of Thrace, Dardano, she sounded very clear and smooth. I loved her Act II aria "Pena tiranna io sento al core" with the interplay of the bassoon. The sopranos were both very good and sounded nothing alike. Soprano Deanna Breiwick was very sweet and pretty as the beloved Oriana, but was able to bring an indignation to her sound when she is unfairly accused of betraying Amadigi.

Soprano Nicole Heaston was delightful as the witch Melissa, her singing is nuanced and filled with colors. Her duet with the title character was a highlight of the evening. It was also a joy to hear countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sing Amadigi. His voice is clean and powerful. It was great to hear the finale with all four singers, it was unexpected to me as I've never heard the whole opera before and Dardano dies before the end.

Tattling * 
The audience was very quiet, though the person next to me exclaimed "oops" when the trumpet had a slight misstep in playing.

It was helpful that the piece was played straight through, without an intermission. I loved being able to concentrate on beautiful music for 100 minutes.

Opera San José's Tosca

Opera-San-Jose_Tosca-2023_Credit-David-Allen_0803_Resized-scaled* Notes *
Tosca (Act II pictured, photograph by David Allen) opened at Opera San José in an effective production directed by Tara Branham last weekend. The singing was all very powerful, the action straightforward, and the Sunday matinee was a richly satisfying afternoon of theater.

This is the quintessential opera, the title character is an opera singer after all, and Branham doesn't interfere with much, everything is crystal clear as far as the staging. Perhaps things were a little too spelled out for those who have seen this opera dozens of times, the large knife in the turkey in Act II felt very obvious.

I did like that Branham had Cavaradossi having a tryst with a pretty blonde in the background as the Sacristan sang in the beginning of the opera. It made Tosca's jealous behavior seem less irrational, and I appreciated that Cavaradossi has more than one side to his character.

Puccini's music is flexible enough to sound fine despite some lack of nuance and less than perfect moments in the orchestra. The violins in particular seem to have issues with being in tune with each other, there was one awfully odd moment in Act II after Cavaradossi was brought out, but it was truly only a few seconds. The woodwinds and harp sounded very lovely.

Likewise, the singing, while not ideal at all times, was strong and dramatic. Soprano Maria Natale certainly is striking as Tosca. Her icy and robust voice is distinctive, it just is on the line between pretty and ugly, which is very interesting for this role which isn't quite heroic. Tenor Adrian Kramer is a dashing Cavaradossi, his volume is good, though it's clear he's putting in a ton of effort. This is a contrast to baritone Kidon Choi whose voice is almost too pretty for the slimy Scarpia. Choi was able to be brutish but he was never unctuous.

Baritone Robert Balonek was plaintive as Angelotti, baritone Igor Vieira comic as the Sacristan, and Justin Vives sounded secure as the Shepherd Boy.

The set, designed by Steven C. Kemp, sticks to the libretto, everything looks as one would expect, as the scenes are very specific in place and time. There are no scene changes that occur outside of the intermissions, thus there were no awkward lulls.

The costumes from Elizabeth Poindexter were rather numerous and delightful. Tosca's white and gold performance gown in Act II is very sumptuous, and Christina Martin did an excellent job with Tosca's wigs, she had some very fancy updos.

*Tattling *
Someone in Row C sang along with "E lucevan le stelle" in Act III, but for the most part people didn't talk that much during the singing. We were behind a service dog who was quiet but seemed distressed for the humans in Act II.

William Kentridge's SIBYL at Cal Performances

Cal-performances-william-kentridges-sibyl-by-stella-olivier-1* Notes * 
William Kentridge's SIBYL (scene from Part 2 pictured, photograph by Stella Olivier) had a US premiere at Cal Performances this weekend. The music composed by performer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and pianist Kyle Shephard was nothing short of mesmerizing.

The presentation started with a short 22-minute film by Kentridge entitled The Moment Has Gone with a male chorus (four singers) lead by Mahlangu and Shephard playing the piano. The work showcases charcoal drawings of Kentridge's alter ego Soho Eckstein and has many images of an art museum and of a mining area. A meditation on time, everything eventually collapses and dissolves, the artworks in the museum, various items made from what came from the mines such as a metal coffee pot, and even the museum itself. The chorus sang syllables that were certainly not English or Afrikaans, but I was not sure if these were words in Zulu or another Southern Bantu language, as my skills beyond Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan languages are sadly lacking. There were sections that were entirely clicks, and there were some beautiful and startling harmonies along with the percussiveness of the aforementioned consonants.

The second part of the performance was the chamber opera Waiting for the Sibyl, which premiered at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in 2019. Again, the music pulled everything together, Shephard played piano and nine other performers either sang or danced or both in the case of Mahlangu and Xolisile Bongwana. The six scenes reveal the story of the Cumaean Sibyl, who I remeber best from Ovid's Metamorphoses and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but also shows up in Virgil's Aeneid where she writes her prophecies on oak leaves and in Raphael's fresco in Santa Maria della Pace.

The action never stops, the music continues throughout the scene changes as the front curtain drops and projections continue. The work with shadows, whether made by the bodies of the dancers, by props, or by the videos, are all artful. Sometimes the shadows seemed to take on a solid quality and be three-dimensional.

It was unclear if the vocalizations were in Zulu or were based on the sounds of that language, and there were no translations, but there were plenty of English words written on leaves of books. There was much leaf imagery, books and trees. The some of the sayings were more serious than whimsical. "But no place will resist destruction," "Tie every guilt to your ankle," and "I no longer believe what I once believed" all were dark, though "Resist the third cup of coffee/ the third martini" and the like definitely garnered laughs. The vibrancy of this work that deals with mortality and futility is both very jarring and beautiful.

* Tattling * 
There was not much electronic noise, perhaps it was drowned out by the performance, but it was really nice to be able to focus in on this music. There was some light talking, which I totally did not understand as the performance clock in just over an hour total plus the 20-minute intermission, and there was always so much going on whether it was visual or aural.

William Kentridge's Ursonate at Cal Performances

William-kentridge-ursonate-2023* Notes * 
William Kentridge performed the Dadaist sound poem Ursonate (ovation pictured) at Cal Performances last Friday in Berkeley as part of his UC Berkeley residency this school year. The piece involves Kentridge intoning Kurt Schwitters' nonsense words at a podium as images flash in the background on a large piece of paper. The effect is almost meditative, at least until Kentridge was joined by soprano Ariadne Greif, trombone player Danny Lubin-Laden, and musical saw player David Coulter toward the end of the performance.

Ursonate or "Primeval Sonata" is a poem written by the German artist Kurt Schwitter from 1922 to 1932. It has movements, as with a piece of music, and there are recurrent sound patterns such as "fümmsböwö" or "rakete." As the parent of small children, it reminded me of the insectile language in the 2016 picture book Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis. 

Kentridge's version, which premiered at the Performa 17 festival at the Harlem Parish, features his art, there are images of dancers, soldiers, and even Kentridge himself walking over a chair. There are the words of the piece projected and also the odd sayings that often appear in Kentridge's work. Most of these seem to be projected over various book pages, sometimes we see the pages of a book flipped through from cover to cover.

In the finale soprano Greif and trombonist Lubin-Laden enter from the audience, Greif seems to converse or even argue with Kentridge using the same syllables from Schwitters' libretto. The saw player Coulter enters later, from upstage, it was fun to see him play the saw with a drum stick and a bow.

* Tattling * 
The audience did not talk, but there were two ringtones noted from unsilenced mobile phones, one in the middle of the 45 minute piece that seemed based on "Bad to the Bone" and one closer to the end.

The performance was sold-out and was performed in the intimate Zellerbach Playhouse, which only has 400 seats.

Mells' Symphony No.1 in D Minor

Herbert-franklin-mells* Notes *
One Found Sound, a musician-run orchestra without a conductor, launched its Herbert Franklin Mells Project with a premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor last Saturday night at Heron Arts in San Francisco. Dr. Mells (1908-1953) was prevented from publishing his work in his lifetime, despite the fact that he received a Ph.D. in composition with a focus on orchestral music, the first black man to do so.

The piece, from 1938, is tuneful and comic. Things start off neatly with a Moderato, showing a sense of humor from the beginning. The Adagio that follows is pretty, though I was distracted a bit by the unfocused brass, the space, an art gallery, makes the instruments both very loud and diffuse. I enjoyed the amusing Scherzo, that had lots of pizzicato. The final Allegro was bright. The woodwind and string soli all were strong, I particularly liked hearing the first cello. The orchestra has a great sense of fun and playfulness. It certainly piques one's curiosity, and it's worth the effort to hear Mells' other works in the coming years.

The parts for the orchestra were put together by Dr. R. James Whipple, professor of music theory at Carnegie Mellon University and his students, and they will be published, along with recordings of this piece and future ones as part of this project.

The orchestra also played Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, which was played with both drama and urgency and Quinn Mason's Reflection On A Memorial, which was contemplative and viola-heavy, always of interest to this former violist.

The venue lent the performance a more informal and intimate feel than most classical music settings, we were on the same floor as the standing musicians, and there were almost as many people "on stage" as off. There was paper sculptures on the walls by Zai Divecha, the current exhibition at Heron Arts. One Found Sound also had projections above the orchestra and on the sides, mostly of candle flames for the Mason, and a painting of Mells for his symphony.

* Tattling *
We were encouraged to respond as moved to by Sarah Bonomo, co-founder and clarinetist of the orchestra. So laughing, clapping, taking pictures or video were all allowed.

Dr. Mells' grandson, bass-baritone Eugene Perry, was in attendance, as were other members of the family including a daughter of the composer and a granddaughter. Perry addressed the audience and gave us an introduction to the piece.

Kitka's BABA

Full ensemble in BABA. Photo by Peter Ruocco* Notes *

Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble gave the world premiere of Karmina Šilec's opera BABA: The Life and Death of Stana (Act I pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) last weekend at Z Space in San Francisco. The opera is based on the lives of women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy in the Balkans, known as "sworn virgins" or virdžina in Serbo-Croatian and burrnesha in Albanian.

This tech-heavy production involved many projections and recorded sounds, but also live accordion and the human voices of the ensemble. There was much speaking and dancing as well, and it was a very full theatrical experience. I must say, I really didn't know exactly what was going on, but I couldn't look away and I certainly was not bored. I always get drawn into the complex rhythms of Balkan music and the interesting sliding notes and harmonizations.

The piece is rather abstract, there isn't really a narrative, but we hear a lot about Stana Cerović, one of the last known "sworn virgins" of Montenegro. The opera begins with Kelly Atkins enunciating many sentences about Cerović at different points of his biography, alternating pronouns and jumping around in time. An example would be something like "Stana is 45 and says he is happy." We do get to hear some startling singing, the various vocal techniques from these talented performers could be both ethereal and disturbing.

There were snippets of stories, Act I has a disquieting depiction of a woman giving birth to triplets outside in the cold as to not wake the rest of the household. One of the babies, a girl, is snatched away by a dog. When told about this, the husband of the woman is heartless, misogyny on full display, unconcerned by the loss. There's also a whole scene that involves Stana training to be a man with Erin Lashnits Herman undressing, binding her breasts, and putting on a suit. She later dresses Maclovia Quintana as a bride and they end the act by playing a game of calling out body parts and doing choreography based on this.

From left  Erin Lashnits Herman  Shira Kammen  Leslie Bonnet  Briget Boyle  Maclovia Quintana and Shira Cion in BABA. Photo by Peter RuoccoThe second half (pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) was shorter, and had ten white skirts standing up by themselves on the stage that were projected on and anchored the choreography. Again, much of the focus was on Stana, but were heard a bit about other "sworn virgins," or at least, explore some imagined stories about them. At the end we hear one last song from Herzegovina, "Otkad, seke nismo zapjevale," the only one not in English as sentences flash on a screen above.

* Tattling *
For the most part it seemed that the audience was very engaged in the piece, nearly every seat looked taken. There was not much whispering and the only electronic noise I heard was from a person on the aisle of the right section taking pictures of the skirts in Act II as the music was happening.

They did open the house rather close to curtain, and since there was not assigned seating, only general and premium sections, there was a lot of confusion on which seats were free or not. It was a bit of a mad rush, but everyone did get seated and things only went over the billed 2 hours and 15 minutes by another 15 minutes.

LA Opera's Le nozze di Figaro

IMG_0441* Notes * 
Los Angeles Opera is nearly done with a run of a new Le nozze di Figaro, with a final performance this Sunday. The charming co-production with Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Opéra national de Lorraine, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, and Opéra de Lausanne features a ladder into the orchestra pit and ramps on either side of the stage so that many entrances and exits happen right next to the audience.

The staging, directed by James Gray, has a great immediacy to it, the physicality of all the singers is impressive, everyone was very believable in their roles. The singing was especially good in the ensembles and I like how distinct the voices were. Last night's performance was the first opera I've gone to outside of the Bay Area since 2019, and I questioned myself why I was there until Maestro James Conlon started up the overture. It was so lovely to hear this music played by a fine orchestra, there were some breathtaking tempi but everything seemed well in hand and controlled too.

Soprano Janai Brugger is a sweet sounding Susanna, her voice is warm and round. Her face and body are both expressive, she did a rather lot of hitting, especially of Figaro when he pretends he thinks she is the Countess. Soprano Ana María Martínez (Countess) is the perfect contrast to Brugger, with an icy, incisive tone that is unmistakable. She has the appropriate gravity for this role and while her "Dove sono" wasn't the most beautiful I've heard, it was very moving.

Bass-baritone Craig Colclough is winsome as Figaro, his voice has power and grit. His Act IV "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" was heartfelt. Baritone Lucas Meachem did well, his smooth, strong sound suited the Count and it was hilarious when he tried using a crowbar to open the Countess' closet in Act II. He looked so uncomfortable and inept, the staging was really done perfectly. I was shocked when Meachem tried to hit Cherubino with a bottle in Act IV but struck Figaro instead, shattering glass on the stage. It was funny when he gingerly threw the neck of the bottle into some plants.

Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is a wonderfully breathless Cherubino, terribly in love with love. Chaieb has an especially good physical presence, boyishly imitating the Count and committing fully to the various sight gags she was assigned. It was amusing to see that the Barbarina here was the Cherubino up at Opera San José last fall, mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny. Her full, pretty sound is resonant, and she sang her mournful "L'ho perduta, me meschina" was touching. She didn't seem to have any problems singing the role, even though it is normally cast with a soprano.

Soprano Marie McLaughlin made for an almost over-the-top Marcellina, and got a lot of laughs, as did the flamboyant Don Basilio played by tenor Rodell Aure Rosel. He missed most of Act III, as the Count doesn't let him make an entrance at the beginning. It was a good way to make the transition to Act IV, Basilio comes back onstage and realizes the festivities are over, which gives the audience a bit of narrative to watch as the set is changed. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was also amusing as Dr. Bartolo.

* Tattling * 
I got an aisle seat in the first row of the Dorothy Chandler, so I was right at one of the ramps onto the stage. Everyone around me was very quiet and I did not hear any talking or electronic noise near me. I was glad that the person behind me asked if I would deal with my unruly puffer coat before the music started, it really did impinge on his personal space and I need to remember to fold it away properly next time.

Just before the second half started, a man realized he had come in the wrong door and ran up a ramp and across the stage to get to his seat. He got light applause for this feat and the staff seemed concerned he might have gone backstage.