Today It Rains Preview

TodayItRainsShoot5243Tons of new operas are being performed everyday, the most successful perhaps are Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (recently at Opera San José) and Mason Bates’ Grammy-winning The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Closer to home, Howards End, America by Allen Shearer had a world premiere only last month in San Francisco.

Opera Parallèle, devoted to contemporary works with social relevance, is presenting a world premiere about Georgia O'Keefe called Today It Rains (Blythe Gaissert as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marnie Breckenridge as Beck, pictured) next week at Z Space in San Francisco. The music is written by Laura Kaminsky, who is fast becoming one of the most prominent composers today. Her first opera, As One (2014), about a transgender woman, has been produced dozens of times, everywhere from Honolulu to Berlin, including in Oakland by West Edge Opera in 2015. She's also working on an opera about an ICE raid in Postville which will premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2020.

It is interesting that though so many popular operas are centered around female characters - La Traviata, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly - nearly all are written by men. Here in the progressive Bay Area, San Francisco Opera has only presented three operas by women in its 96 year history. Notably none of these were mainstage performances at the War Memorial.

Things are changing. Kaminsky sees this as a faculty member of Purchase College/SUNY, where she is the head of the composition department. "The 15 to 18 composition students are not all male now, and the applications are pretty even" she says when I speak to her and her librettist, Mark Campbell, during an early rehearsal of Today It Rains. "We have to redefine opera" adds Campbell, "otherwise it won’t have a chance to survive."

14932552237_846ae0aef3_o1Kaminsky came up with the idea of an opera about O'Keefe and brought the idea to Campbell (also the co-librettist with Kimberly Reed for As One, pictured together: Reed left, Campbell middle, Kaminsky right) and Opera Parallèle, whose Anya17, an opera about sex trafficking, deeply moved her. "I want to tell the stories of strong women," explains the composer, "No losers."

This opera takes place in 1929, when O'Keefe takes a train from New York to Santa Fe, a defining moment for her as an artist. The title comes from the end of a letter O’Keefe wrote to her husband Alfred Stieglitz. "She still loves him but is finding herself. The name conveys the feeling of the opera, though really it could have been called O’Keefe on a Train or Georgia on my Mind," jokes Campbell.

Opera Parallèle, run by music director Nicole Paiement and creative director Brian Staufenbiel, of course, is no stranger to powerful women. Paiement is a rarity as a female conductor and a force of nature, who came to rehearsal straight from the airport after being at Seattle Opera where she was leading performances of  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. "It has been the best working with Nicole and Brian," says Kaminsky. "The visual component so important to Opera Parallèle," adds Campbell, which is essential in this piece about a painter and includes film work from Reed who has been given permission to use O’Keefe’s work, no small feat.

The chamber opera is only 80 minutes, scored for 11 musicians and 8 singers, without an intermission. "The music is meditative and reflective," says Paiement in a quick interview with me during a rehearsal break. "Laura’s music doesn’t shy away from being textural, she is almost European in sensibility. It is very detailed work."


LA Opera's Clemenza di Tito Review

Clemenza-di-tito-la-opera-2019* Notes * 
Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is nearly through a run at Los Angeles Opera. The singing is top-notch with strong support from the orchestra and a sumptuous staging.

The new production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, who also designed the scenery, is recalls the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Frederic Leighton. There are many projections, and this helps to move the scenes along without fuss or noise. It was all very nice to look at though not necessarily that engaging, but certainly the direction did not get in the way of the music.

Maestro James Conlon kept the orchestra going with a lot of energy and a fair amount of crispness. The overture was lively and the brass clear. The clarinet has a lot of beautiful soli and did very well with all his exposed music. The middle of Act II lost a bit of decisiveness, but everything got back in focus by the end.

The cast is very fine indeed. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven (Annio) has a fresh sound. Both of her duets (one with Sesto and another with Servilia) in Act I were balanced. As Servilia, soprano Janai Brugger is sweet, with an airy breathiness. Soprano Guanqun Yu has some acting chops, she plays the villainess Vitellia well, and her change of heart at the end (“Non piu di fiori” ) seems sincere. She has a warm sound, with only a few slight gasps at first.

In the title role, tenor Russell Thomas has a lovely delicacy with his pianissimo parts. Coupled with his authoritativeness, he seemed ideal for the merciful Tito. Best of all though is mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto. Her voice is incandescent, and she was utterly riveting in “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” in Act I. Her Act II aria “Deh, per questo istante solo” was also a highlight of the evening. I felt lucky to hear DeShong sing this gorgeous music right in front of me.

Tattling * 
I intentionally got a front row seat for this performance, as I find it easier to ignore the ill-behaved Los Angeles Opera audience when I can at least see the musicians and conductor without impediment. Of course, the woman in B 35 talked at full volume during the overture, and her husband dropped his phone toward the end of the act.

They also could not stop touching each other or themselves, for instance, the woman rubbed her tattooed arms for a long time at the beginning of Act II. Nonetheless, they were easy enough to ignore, as were the people behind me in Row C, who got into an amusing conversation about Chicago during intermission and may have whispered a bit during the performance.

My experience of this opera, which I have only heard once before, was enriched by having heard Cecilia Bartoli's Mozart Arias recording about a thousand times in the last three years because is my five-year old son's favorite CD.


The Met's 2019-2020 Season

MetoperaSeptember 23 2019- February 1 2020: Porgy and Bess
September 24- October 26 2019: Manon
September 25- October 12 2019: Macbeth
October 3 2019- April 25 2020: Turandot
October 11 2019- April 11 2020: Madama Butterfly
October 20- November 10 2019: Orfeo ed Euridice
October 25 2019- May 7 2020: La Bohème
November 8- December 7 2019: Akhnaten
November 16 2019- February 22 2020: Le Nozze di Figaro
November 29- December 21 2019: The Queen of Spades
December 13 2019- January 4 2020: Der Rosenkavalier
December 15 2019- January 4 2020: The Magic Flute
December 27 2019- January 22 2020: Wozzeck
January 10- March 19 2020: La Traviata
January 25- February 15 2020: La Damnation de Faust
February 6- March 7 2020: Agrippina
February 15- March 14 2020: Così fan tutte
March 2-27 2020: Der fliegende Holländer
March 12- April 3 2020: La Cenerentola
March 16- April 4 2020: Werther
March 26- April 18 2020: Tosca
April 10-25 2020: Simon Boccanegra
April 28- May 8 2020: Manon Lescaut
May 2-9 2020: Káťa Kabanová

The Met announced the 2019-2020 season today. The new productions are Porgy and Bess, Der fliegende Holländer, Wozzeck, Agrippina, and Akhnaten. Sunday matinee performances are being offered for the first time.

Press Release | Official Site


SF Opera's Summer 2019 Cast Changes

NUSSBAUM COHEN_AryehThis summer there are changes for all three operas on offer at San Francisco Opera. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (pictured) makes his San Francisco Opera debut as Medoro in Orlando, replacing David Daniels who was fired last November after serious allegations of sexual assault. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson is Vodník in Rusalka instead of Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has decided against adding the role to his repertory. Maestra Michelle Merrill takes the place of James Gaffigan conducting Carmen on June 20, though Gaffigan will be here for the rest of the performances.

Orlando | Rusalka | Carmen |San Francisco Opera Press Release


Other Minds Shostakovich Preview

Other-minds-shostakovich-2019New music proponent Other Minds is presenting a West Coast premiere of two piano arrangements by Shostakovich, one of his Symphony No. 4 and the other of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. The performers are pianists Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies (who is also a well-known conductor).

The concert promotes their February album release of Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4. The piece in question was long neglected, as at the time Shostakovich's music was essentially banned, and the original score lost during World War II. In 1946, Shostakovich created the piano version for four hands with the orchestral parts that survived from the 1936 rehearsals, the full symphony did not premiere until 1961.

The performance is this Sunday afternoon, February 10, 4pm at Taube Atrium Theater in the San Francisco War Memorial Veterans Building.


LA Opera's 2019-2020 Season

Chandler_balconiesSeptember 14- October 6 2019: La Bohème
October 12–20 2019: The Light in the Piazza
November 16–December 15 2019: The Magic Flute
February 1–23 2020: Matthew Aucoin's Eurydice
February 22- March 14 2020: Roberto Devereux
May 1-3 2020: Du Yun's Angel's Bone
May 2-23 2020: Pelléas et Mélisande
May 8 2020: Rodelinda (concert version)
June 6–28 2020: The Marriage of Figaro

Los Angeles Opera announced its next season last Sunday. Renée Fleming sings in the musical The Light in the Piazza while Placido Domingo takes is the Duke of Nottingham in Roberto Devereux.

Official Site


Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met

ADL_1779a* Notes * 
Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur had a final performance this season last night at the Metropolitan Opera. There was much prettiness in the music, staging, and singing.

The new David McVicar production is very droll, everything looks nice and Rococo, as the piece is set in 1730. There is one long pause between Acts I and II, but McVicar puts in a sight-gag to draw the audience back in before the music starts up again.

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the orchestra reveled in the loveliness of Cilea's music. It is not at all a surprise to read that Cilea admired Bellini. The opera has some fun Neo-baroque music, and I especially liked the ballet in Act III (Act III pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard).

The cast had many strong singers. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri as stage manager Michonnet was endearing, he loves Adriana and is both funny and kind, the warmth of his voice was very nice for this. As Adriana's murderous rival, the Princess of Bouillon, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili is simply a malevolent force. Her sound is deliciously dark and passionately evil, she's the perfect villain.

ADLJR_0307aTenor Piotr Beczala is dashing as love-interest Maurizio, with a sunny, sweet tone. I was not initially impressed by soprano Jennifer Rowley, who shared the title role with Anna Netrebko. Rowley struck me as shrill, she has a lot of vibrato. She did win me over though, Act II was definitely better. Her Act IV aria "Poveri fiori" was moving.

* Tattling * 
We will be seeing this at the War Memorial at some point, as this is a co-production of the Met; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona; Wiener Staatsoper; San Francisco Opera; and L'Opéra National de Paris.

I was in standing room on the orchestra level, and was struck by how nice everyone was to each other. I was offered seats on no less than three occasions, which, of course, I turned down.


Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

Pelleas_3036_A* Notes * 
Debussy's mysterious Pelléas et Mélisande (pictured left, photograph by Karen Almond) had a splendid fourth performance this season at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday. Though the singing was lovely, the real stars of the show was conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

The production is straight-forward enough, the revolving set is made of walls that can be rearranged to change the scenes. There were two short pauses for this (and two intermissions) but considering that the performance is 4 hours long, this was pretty efficient. The scene changes were impressively quiet.

The direction did take some of the dramatic effect out of Pelléas' death by having the couple kiss ardently, rationalizing Golaud's response perhaps, and certainly making him sound silly when he sings "Ils s'étaient embrassés comme des petits enfants...Ils étaient frère et soeur..." in Act V.

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin had the orchestra sounding utterly transparent and vibrant. All the lushness of the score was on full display.

The cast is solid. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen seemed wooden in Act I and II, but perhaps that is how Golaud should be, as the evening progressed he got more and more erratic and downright scary.

Pelleas_2685_CTenor Paul Appleby is a fine, youthful Pelléas. He showed his range from tender to passionate in his last scene in Act IV. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gave a convincing portrayal of Mélisande. Her pure sound tends toward the ethereal which is perfect for this role.

Most distinctive was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice is gorgeously resonant and his Arkel the most sympathetic of all the characters. His singing in Act IV Scene 2 was especially appealing.

* Tattling * 
Someone appeared onstage before the performance to announce a casting change. The relief of the audience that it was the role of Yniold, the young son of Golaud, that was replaced was palpable.

Since I was able to convince my dear friend to come to New York to see this opera with me -- she lives in Colorado, has two toddlers, and is 7 months pregnant -- I sprang for first row seats. My view was "obstructed" by the conductor, but I did not mind in the least.


Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle at the Met

Iolanta_03002-s* Notes * 
Mariusz Treliński's 2015 striking production of Iolanta (pictured left, photograph by Marty Sohl) and Bluebeard's Castle at the Metropolitan Opera was revived last night. The singing in both operas is wonderful, and conductor Henrik Nánási had a fine Met debut.

The production is highly-detailed, with an attractive set. There are lots of projections. The narration and sound-effects for Bluebeard seem unnecessary, pointlessly dragging out the performance when Bartók's music should be more than sufficient. The scenes changes did pack a lot of punch and I did like that both operas inhabited the same creepy forest.

Maestro Henrik Nánási and the orchestra gave a fluid, shapely account of both operas. The brass had some fuzziness in Iolanta but was clear for Bluebeard. Tchaikovsky certainly had the two harps working hard in the second half of Iolanta, and the playing was very impressive.

Bluebeard_0520sThe contrast of the two lead sopranos is remarkable. As plaintive Iolanta, Sonya Yoncheva has a warm resonance, she always sounds very comfortable in her voice and grounded. Angela Denoke has a penetrating quality as Judith in Bluebeard, but is never shrill, with a creamy iciness.

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow projected power as King René in Iolanta. I liked baritone Alexey Markov's brightness as Robert, and the fresh, open sound of tenor Alexey Dolgov, who filled in for an ailing Matthew Polenzani as Vaudémont.

Baritone Gerald Finley has a lovely voice, which was surprisingly appealing for Bluebeard. His sound has a good weight and brilliance, but he was grim enough as well.

* Tattling * 
I was surprised to see that the former house manager at San Francisco Opera now is a performance manager for the Met.

Standing room in Family Circle was empty, as were most of the back rows of the house, so very little to report on that front.


SF Opera's 2019-2020 Season

WMOH9_JoelPuliattiSeptember 6– October 1 2019: Romeo et Juliette
September 7–22 2019: Billy Budd
October 11– November 1 2019: Le Nozze di Figaro
November 8–26 2019: Manon Lescaut
November 15–December 7 2019: Hansel und Gretel
June 7- July 2 2020: Ernani
June 12-27 2020: Partenope
June 20- July 3 2020: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

General Director Matthew Shilvock announced the 2019-2020 season for San Francisco Opera today. Tenor Bryan Hymel and soprano Nadine Sierra sing the lead roles in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette; tenor William Burden is Edward Fairfax Vere in Billy Budd; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel is Figaro; soprano Lianna Haroutounian is Manon; and tenor Russell Thomas is Ernani.

Press Release | Official Site


Opera Parallèle's The Little Prince

Lp_dress1_3895* Notes * 
Opera Parallèle revived last year's production of The Little Prince this weekend at the Marines' Memorial Theatre. The opera is perfectly charming and the feminist twist of having mostly female principals worked well.

I had a better appreciation for Nicholas Wright's libretto this time around -- it is concise -- condensing some 90 pages of text into showing us the story rather than telling it to us. Composer Rachel Portman is instrumental in all of this, naturally, and the music is both lovely and engaging. 

It is always a joy to hear conductor Nicole Paiement, even if the ensemble only had a pianist and percussionist, it never felt anything less than lithe and completely together.

The members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as stars and birds sounded otherworldly, as did our title role Little Prince, Erin Enriquez (pictured with Christabel Nunoo as the Snake, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo). Enriquez has a bell-like sweetness that was only occasionally marred by staticky feedback from her microphone. In contrast, it is not surprising at all to see that mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti (The Pilot) is singing Siegrune in Die Walküre at The Met this spring, she has a fabulously dramatic voice.

Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich is a delight as The Fox, her warm, supple sound suits the role. Soprano Sabrina Romero-Wilson sang the vain, silly but lovable Rose with clarity, while soprano Maggie Finnegan was quite haunting as The Water. Soprano Christabel Nunoo sang The Snake with both beauty and menace.

Of the quartet of male singers, all of whom sang various grownups found on neighboring asteroids 325 to 330, tenor J. Raymond Meyers is most memorable, partially because he plays a catchy kazoo tune, and partially because he is dressed as Elvis. Baritone Zachary Lenox is funny as The Businessman counting his stars, as is bass-baritone Philip Skinner as a King who doesn't have much power at all. Tenor Samuel Faustine is endearing as The Drunkard and the hapless Lamplighter who suggests Earth to the Little Prince.

Hats off to director Brian Staufenbiel for a very attractive production that doesn't try to slavishly mimic Saint-Exupéry's illustrations. The visuals are courtesy of Matt Kish (best known for his Moby-Dick monograph) and David Murakami, the look is much more urban and contemporary than the original book.

* Tattling * 
This was my four year old son's first full opera performance excluding those he was present for in utero. He is a nervous little boy with sensory processing sensitivity (in fact, he hid during a rendition of "Happy Birthday" earlier that day) so we did a lot of preparation, including reading the book and watching the opera beforehand on YouTube. He seemed to like the experience and was very quiet and still for the full 95 minutes.

A couple near the front and middle of the orchestra level brought their toddler and baby, but got to the performance late and had to leave early, as the baby was crying during Act II.


Ars Minerva's Ifigenia in Aulide Review

Ifigenia-2018* Notes * 
Ars Minerva was back at ODC with Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide last weekend. This opera, premiered in 1738 at Shrovetide in Munich, is in many ways the typical Baroque opera with an elaborate plot based on a classical subject. The music certainly is beautiful and was vibrantly performed here.

The most famous opera using Euripides original drama is of course Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, and Porta's version also changes the tragic ending, but the music (written more than three decades before) is rather frilly in comparison.

The music is pretty and the small orchestra, lead by Derek Tam, played with a fresh brightness. There was much lovely singing from the eight soloists, including artistic director and founder of Ars Minerva Céline Ricci, whose mezzo-soprano is clear and powerful as Achille. Countertenor Matheus Coura makes for a very sensible Teucro, while soprano Cara Gabrielson is a robust and very emotional Elisena. Tenor Kevin Gino had the slightest strain at the top of his voice, but otherwise is quite a convincing Ulisse, doggedly after Agamennone to sacrifice his own daughter for the greater good.

Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz in turn was a strong Agamennone, with lots of color to her voice and some gorgeous low notes. Her singing with sopranos Shawnette Sulker (Clitennestra) and Aura Veruni (Ifigenia) was particularly good. Sulker has never struck me as a natural fit for Baroque opera, perhaps because I've heard her in more contemporary pieces, but her bird-like sound works well in this. She is a fine actress, her mastery of side-eye got a few laughs in Act II as she comes upon her daughter's supposed rival. Veruni has a clean, light voice and makes for a noble Ifigenia.

Ricci's production used all the characters plus a supernumerary in purple robes and tragic masks as a near constant presence. It was effective, and the semi-staging seems to refer to the lack of set besides the background video projections and a large rock in one scene of Act III.

I enjoyed the pleated velour athleisure worn by the male characters, the women's one-sleeved velour gowns were somehow less fun. There were also a lot of sequined capes.

* Tattling * 
I attended the Saturday performance with a group of young people that was coordinated by the secretary of the board of Ars Minerva. Somehow many of us managed to wear dresses that matched the dark red and black program.

The woman in B 13 spoke to both of the people next to her throughout the performance, but otherwise it was a fairly quiet audience. There was noticeable attrition after Act II, perhaps because the opera was three hours and 15 minutes long.


SF Opera's It's a Wonderful Life

_37A8140_edit* Notes *
The West Coast premiere of It's a Wonderful Life (Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera on November 17. Based on Frank Capra's holiday film, the music here by Jake Heggie is sugary sweet, and though reminiscent of Bernstein is very much his own. There was fine stagecraft and beautiful singing as well.

The opera is set in 1916 to 1945 and has a certain earnestness. It is just on the edge of being cloying, but both composer Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer infuse the drama with enough humor to avoid the sickening saccharine. The repetition of themes such as "Dancing the Mekee Mekee" or Uncle Billy Bailey's "O boy, o boy, o boy" are funny rather than annoying. The set design from Robert Brill is appealing with dozens of screens in the air and on the ground, all the scene changes go very smoothly.

Maestro Patrick Summer conducted a fluid orchestra that never overwhelmed the singers. There are more than 30 characters in this piece, and many of the soloists are from the ranks of the talented San Francisco Opera Chorus. The Angels First Class is comprised of four current Adler Fellows: soprano Sarah Cambidge, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell.

They did sound angelic, as did soprano Golda Schultz, who plays guardian angel Clara (changed from Clarence in the movie) Odbody. Schultz is sympathetic and her high notes floated quite nicely. Evidently the role is meant for a woman of color. Schultz, a mixed-race South African, shares her duties at San Francisco Opera with Kearstin Piper Brown, who is African-American, as is Trevigne Talise, who sang Clara for the world premiere in Houston.

Baritone Rod Gilfrey is a perfectly evil Mr. Potter, while soprano Andriana Chuchman sang Mary Hatch with vim and lyricism. As George Bailey, tenor William Burden sounds as good as ever, warm and lovely.

* Tattling * 
Unlike with many recent operas, I could easily hum a bar or two of the music, even though I've only heard it the once. I couldn't bring myself to sing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of the opera though Maestro Summers turned around to conduct us. Perhaps it was because I was crying an embarrassing amount. I've really gone soft in my old age.

I only made it to the fourth performance of the run, since I missed the premiere to escape the unhealthy air quality in the Bay Area due to the Camp Fire up in Butte County. I also did not manage to see the 1946 film version of It's a Wonderful Life before attending the opera, even though it is currently available on Amazon.