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August 2008
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October 2008

Steven Pinker at JCCSF

Pinker * Notes *
Yesterday Steven Pinker gave a talk on the topics covered in his latest book, The Stuff of Thought as a part of the Arts & Ideas lecture series at JCCSF. Essentially, Pinker's argument seems to be that language reflects how humans think about time, matter, and space. Personally, I think it would be pretty strange if this were not the case. At any rate, Pinker speaks well, he is charismatic and funny, unlike many other academics in his field. He discussed grammar, swearing, and innuendo, using a slide show to polished effect. His examples were entertaining, particularly the audience-participation Stroop test that was given.

* Tattling * 
The audience was very respectful and asked some thoughtful questions that were answered nicely by Pinker. He recommended the work of Deborah Tannen.

I did manage to finally finish reading Pinker's The Language Instinct just a few hours before the talk. After hearing him, my interest in reading this latest book is piqued, but I really should study up on music instead.

The Bonesetter's Daughter Final Dress Rehearsal

Bonesetter-rehearsal I'm afraid that final dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's The Bonesetter's Daughter has left me nearly speechless, and considered summing up my reaction in exactly two words. But I certainly don't want to ruin it for you, gentle readers. Instead, I offer some images that came to mind whilst watching the production.






Ana María Martínez in Simon Boccanegra

Boccanegra-acti * Notes *
The second performance of Simon Boccanegra featured a different soprano as Amelia, one Ana María Martínez. She last appeared at San Francisco Opera when she shared the role of Micaëla in the 2006 performances of Carmen. Martínez gave a more even performance than Barbara Frittoli, the former's voice is bird-like and metallic, she reminded me of the mechanical nightingale from Andersen's fairy tale. Though more accurate, perhaps Martínez's voice lacks the beauty of Frittoli's.

* Tattling * 
The audience was well-behaved, though there were scattered watch alarms as usual. However, some aspect of the set was rattling quite a lot just before the recognition scene, it almost sounded like percussion and this was rather strange. Also, electric drills were heard during the set change for Act I Scene 2, so perhaps this is one of the reasons why the curtain needed to come down between scenes.

The Bonesetter's Daughter Panel Discussion

Bonesetters-daughter Kip Cranna moderated a panel discussion on the new opera The Bonesetter's Daughter yesterday evening at Herbst Theatre. The panelists included composer Stewart Wallace, bass Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffin Maker), and suona-player/rock star Wu Tong (Chef, Taoist Priest). There is much excitement surrounding the impending world premiere of the work at San Francisco Opera, only the ninth in the company's history. The evening began with a bunch of plugs for the book the opera is based on, the memoir of the bass, and most interestingly, the book on the making of this opera, Fate! Luck! Chance! by Ken Smith. The latter includes the libretto.

Most of the discussion focused on Wallace, how the project started, how the musical idiom for this particular opera was found, and so forth. Wallace had an interesting quote about how an American audience might think the music sounds Chinese, but that a Chinese audience would find the music rather American. He insisted that the music is American without being Chinoiserie.

We also got to hear how the opera was cast, and how Hao Jiang Tian and Wu Tong were found. We heard a recording of one of Tian's arias, which was promising. There was also a live demonstration of the suona from Wu. The instrument is incredibly loud, piercing, and wobbly. It fit my intial impressions of being much like the zurna, though it was again compared to the oboe, of course.

Opera in the Park 2008

Runnicles * Notes *
San Francisco Opera's 35th Opera in the Park event was conductor Donald Runnicles' last as music director. The performance was delightful and the orchestra sounded lovely. The afternoon began with Korngold's music from the film Captain Blood. This music was played well, but it was a bit silly out of context.

Various Adler Fellows were featured, first Daniela Mack in "Non so più," followed by "D'Oreste, d'Ajace" from Tamara Wapinsky. In both cases the singers seemed to be working a bit too hard, they were somewhat shrill. Perhaps the amplification was throwing them off. Mack sounded better in "Dunque io son?" with Lucas Meachem. When Wapinsky returned she sounded very metallic as Musetta, and I'm quite curious how she'll do in La Bohème. She was, however, in tune, so that is a good sign. The audience was rather enthused by Adler Alek Shrader. He sang "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!" and his high C's were dead on, though his voice sounds rather constrained up in that range.

The audience was also especially excited by Adler Heidi Melton. Ms. Melton has certainly improved. Her powerful "Ozean! Du Ungeheuer!" was impressive, but her "Vissi d'arte" was simply ravishing. None of the ugly edges we've heard in previous years were in evidence.

One cannot help but have high hopes for Die Tote Stadt, as all three principals sound very nice. Lucas Meachem sang "Mein sehnen, mein wähnen," then Torsten Kerl and Emily Magee sang "Glück das mir verblieb." Meachem was wonderful, he had a fine effortlessness. Magee has a nice creamy voice and Kerl likewise was not bad.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky was supposed to have been the main draw of this year's Opera in the Park, but he was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Barbara Frittoli, whose name was also used in the promotional materials earlier this year. Instead, their fellow cast-members Marcus Haddock and Vitalij Kowaljow sang, and very well too. Kowaljow sang Gremin's aria beautifully, and Haddock was fine in "Ah, lève-toi soleil!" Haddock's duet with Meachem in "Au fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers was also good.

* Tattling * 
One could not help notice that General Director David Gockley has a habit of mouthing the words of the tenor and baritone arias as they are being sung. He was on stage much of the time as he would periodically introduce the pieces.

The audience was quite enthusiastic, though naturally not terribly well-behaved. This is acceptable for an informal outdoor concert, of course. However, I was particularly amazed by the couple in front of me, they must have gotten their seats early in the morning, for they were just in the second row of people. The female half of the couple very quietly flipped through a magazine for most of the performance, and the male half wore headphones and was making incredible progress with the New York Times crossword puzzle. Such multitasking skills are dumbfounding to me.

Gheorghiu Recital at Zellerbach

Gheorghiu * Notes *
Soprano Angela Gheorghiu gave a recital yesterday evening with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Marco Armiliato. The orchestra sounded fine, the overture to Le Nozze was spirited, and the overture to Cenerentola was absolutely adorable. However, Gheorghiu was overwhelmed by the orchestra, especially near the end. Though one could always hear her voice, the words were simply lost.

Unsurprisingly, the recital was not unlike the one at Los Angeles Opera from last year. Many of the pieces were exactly the same, and Gheorghiu is very consistent, if nothing else. She has the most perfect restraint, a beautiful control of her voice, and it is too bad she is not singing Amelia in the current production of Simon Boccanegra at San Francisco Opera. She started the concert with Giordani's Caro mio ben, which she sang with ease and delicacy. Next came two big Puccini arias, the one from Rondine that we all heard from her last season and "Un bel di." The former she sang in pretty much exactly the same way as she did on stage last year, evidently one of her trademark gestures is to extend an arm above her head at the end of a piece. The Butterfly aria was less convincing, Gheorghiu sang it cleanly and well, but without passion. The first half ended, however, on a high note, with a piercing rendition of "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from La Forza.

The second half consisted of songs rather than arias, some of these were sung nicely, and others were simply not appropriate for Gheorghiu's voice. For example, she sang Les Filles de Cadiz well, but sounded foolish singing "I Could Have Danced All Night." Gheorghiu must really like the latter piece, for she attempted it in Los Angeles as well. Unfortunately, it does not show off her talents and one could not make out the lyrics over the orchestra. Despite this, the audience clapped enthusiastically, and Gheorghiu gave three encores. She sang "O mio babbino caro" and two art songs (as far as style, one sounded Cuban, the other Spanish).

* Tattling * 
The audience loved Gheorghiu, and was much more excited than the opening night crowd at the opera. There was whispering and at least three watch alarms, but no cellular phones rang. Gheorghiu had three costume changes, and she certainly is easy on the eyes. Her first dress, a white sleeveless flowing number with silver sequins at the top, would have looked better if it had been fitted at the waist. The second dress was either black or navy and had a fishtail skirt, an open back, and cap sleeves. The red satin gown at the end was most flattering, though the transparent back with silver sequined details probably should not have been hidden under Gheorghiu's loose hair. One was a bit concerned that Ms. Gheorghiu did not have enough support in any of these gowns.

Simon Boccanegra Opening at San Francisco Opera

Simon-boccanegra * Notes *
Though lovely, San Francisco Opera's opening night performance of Simon Boccanegra did not quite catch on fire, despite the heat and an apparent earthquake. The production, directed by David Edwards, is pleasantly simple and Michael Yeargan's serviceable set is both attractive and quiet. Peter J. Hall's period costumes are gorgeous, but best of all is the lighting design from Christopher Maravich. Light is very much a unifying aspect of the production, pulling together the set, the music, and the text.

The orchestra sounded lucid under the direction of Donald Runnicles, and for the most part they were synchronized with the singers. There was a moment when the chorus was not quite on beat in the prologue, but the finale of Act I "Sia maledetto!" was perfect. The brass and woodwind solos were all strong and in tune.

For the most part the singing was very good. Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo) was a fine villian, his acting was convincing and his voice is appealing, but still conveys a certain unctuousness necessary for this role. Vitalij Kowaljow was likewise solid as Fiesco, his voice unflinching but also beautiful. Marcus Haddock (Gabriele) has a strong voice though a bit stiff. He did sing "Sento avvampar nell'anima" well. Barbara Frittoli's San Francisco Opera debut was shaky during the cavatina "Come in quest'ora bruna." Her voice has a nice timbre, a pretty warmth, but her vibrato can be overwhelming. She did sound splendidly lyrical during the recognition duet between Amelia and Boccanegra. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was impressive in the title role, displaying the range of his acting ability and singing well throughout. His breaths were somewhat loud, but this is, of course, a minor quibble.

* Tattling * 
The audience whispered too much during the scene changes, but not a phone nor watch alarm was heard. A woman in Row Z Seat 4 of the orchestra was fiddling with her mobile phone during Boccanegra's Act III "M'ardon le tempia." The light from the device was distracting, and she was asked to put it away.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was in attendance, and I walked right by her during intermission on the box level. As for other brushes with fame, I met opera lecturer Evan Baker, who was signing autographs after his pre-opera talk. I also finally had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Hirsch of Iron Tongue of Midnight.

SF Opera's Opening Night Standing Room Line 2008-2009

This morning I got to the standing room line in front of the War Memorial Opera House at 5:15am and I was still second in line. Bested yet again by Deidra of the Opera Standees Association. The next person arrived at 7:30am, but by the time the box office opened there were about 15 people in line. Next year I will try sleeping in more.

As I waited I wrote emails to friends in the Netherlands and Germany. One of them suggested that my phone should "use the slightly obsolete irregular past participle from of senden, i.e. gesandt" when sending emails. The other one suggested I should be ashamed about my place in line and that "all of [my] opera blog fans are disappointed!"

Simon Boccanegra Final Dress Rehearsal

* Notes *
The final dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's Simon Boccanegra was impressive. Elijah Moshinsky's Covent Garden production is the one that premiered at San Francisco in 2001 during the Verdi Festival. The sillier parts of the production were removed, Verdi does not appear, and no one is wrapped in blue fabric. The transitions between scenes are smooth and quiet. The set, from Michael Yeargan, does look a bit worse for wear, some of the walls are warped in places.

The orchestra sounded fairly clear, particularly the trumpet and bassoon. There were times when the orchestra was overly loud or not with the singers, but by Friday they should have it together. All of the singing is very fine.

* Tattling *
There was a strange altercation between two women in the Grand Tier. I was looking for a place and was told by one woman that the empty seats in the second row were all saved. The woman behind her told me that I should sit there anyway, and they argued back and forth. In any case, I sat where I was not directly in front of anyone, and this way I did not have to remove my rather fancy topper. After everyone was seated, I noted that I was acquainted with a few of the people whose seats were being saved.