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Alex Ross at JCCSF

Alex_ross * Notes * 
Alex Ross was interviewed yesterday by San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman as part of the JCCSF's Arts & Ideas series. We heard about how Ross was surprised by a phone call from Chicago one Monday, and his concern it was about the repossession of his cats. Of course, it was the MacArthur Foundation, letting him know he had was one of the 2008 MacArthur Fellows. It was an entertaining conversation, we learned that The New Yorker offices are not filled with doddering alcoholic writers spouting witticisms and that Ross' first draft of The Rest is Noise was 1,200 pages long and took two years to cut down. It certainly was fun to hear about how Ross came to 20th century music as college student, and how he didn't know that one was not supposed to like Stockhausen, Ligeti, Britten, and Vaughan Williams all at the same time. Read a more complete account of what happened over here.

* Tattling * 
Fisher Hall was sold out and the crowd was exceedingly respectful. Ross took questions from the audience, and we were treated to an anecdote about Jackie Kennedy's response to Aaron Copland's Connotations.

I had my copy of The Rest is Noise signed by Mr. Ross, and I was too shy to mention The Opera Tattler to him. Thankfully, the author of Not For Fun Only piped up about it, so I got to be completely abashed, etc. I also had the pleasure of meeting Joshua Kosman, who regaled me with a fine tattle about loud snoring at a recent symphony performance.

Opening of L'elisir d'amore

Vargas-mula * Notes * 
The new production of L'elisir d'amore at San Francisco Opera is quite winning. Adapted from a co-production with Opera Colorado, Boston Lyric Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Fort Worth Opera, here
the setting was moved to a small town in the Napa Valley during World War I. James Robinson's direction was strong, and all of the acting was convincing and even funny. The set, from Allen Moyer, is simple without being stark, and has no large moving parts. Perhaps a change of scenery between acts would have been nice, but nonetheless, the gazebo used is versitile enough for all the scenes. Martin Pakledinaz used a pastel palette for the costumes, for the most part they were lovely, though the print of Adina's second costume did not read well from afar. Paul Palazzo's lighting was unobstrusive, there might have been one mishap as far as the lights, just as Giannetta and the female chorus come onstage for Act II Scene 4, the transition from a full lights to something more dim was not smooth.

Bruno Campanella took the overture a bit sluggishly, and though orchestra sounded in tune and together with each other, they were somewhat slow. The chorus did a splendid job, as usual. As for the soloists, they fit their roles well. Ji Young Yang (Giannetta) sang effortlessly, and was especially good in Act II. Alessandro Corbelli was a hilarious Dulcamara, his parlando is crisp, though he was a bit faster than the orchestra a few times. Giorgio Caoduro was likewise very good at the physical humor required for this opera, his Belcore was suitably full of himself. Caoduro's voice is pleasant and somewhat husky. Inva Mula's debut was impressive, her voice has good volume and can be quite beautiful. She does have moments of shrillness, at times her control is not completely perfect. Her Adina played off of Ramón Vargas' Nemorino very well, both moved well. Vargas sounded absolutely lovely, his "Una furtiva lagrima" was gorgeous.

* Tattling * 
The audience was somewhat sparse and there were very few late-comers. Some whispering was noted in Act I, but the beginning of Act II was worse, at least for me, as a rather uncouth couple sat near where I was standing in Row ZZ. Not only did they talk during the music, the female half of the couple opened her phone and read a text message. At least they were silent when hushed.

The Bonesetter's Cupcake


Though the Fall portion of the San Francisco Opera season is half over, I'm still slowly working my way through an opera cupcake painting project based on what we've seen so far. This is a rendering of Act II Scene 2 of The Bonesetter's Daughter. Precious Cupcake was the most fun to paint, for obvious reasons.

Details of Painting | Performance Review of The Bonesetter's Daughter

Final Dress Rehearsal of Boris Godunov

This account of the final dress of Boris comes from Upstairs Tenor, who is an usher and supernumerary at San Francicsco Opera.

  * Notes * 
After sitting through both the dress rehearsal and premiere, and being lulled nearly to sleep by both, I can say without hesitation that this production of Boris Godunov is one of the dullest I've ever seen, partially due to the very version of the opera performed. I question the choice of the 1869 edition of the opera, without Mussogorsky's effective rewrites. I suspect the choice of edition was due partially to showcase Sam Ramey (who fared significantly better on the dress than he did on opening night, both vocally and dramatically) and partially to spare the expenditure of hiring a mezzo to sing Marina. In any case, the production itself needs a firmer hand at the wheel than Julia Pevzner, who allowed the dramatic tension (of which, when the opera is done right, there is plenty) to lag almost constantly. Reports from friends and involved in the production indicated that the rehearsal period was extremely chaotic, and it showed. The Coronation scene needed to be re-thought entirely, as did the scene between the Tsar's children and the nurse. (I hated the use of the giant map.) On the positive side, the inn scene crackled with energy, and I for one enjoyed the "build-up" of the Simpleton as an observer; He is such an important character that seems to come from nowhere in the opera, having him as a silent observer actually made sense.

I share everyone's enthusiasm for Andrew Bidlack, who I have been impressed with in the past, especially in The Little Prince. His performance was exemplary Vladimir Ognovenko was another obvious standout; his years of experience with the part, which he does often with the Kirov Opera, paid off gloriously. One must credit Vitalij Kowalijow and Vsevolod Grivnov for doing what they could with the dramatically dead Cloister scene, a prime example of what I call "Gurnemanz Syndrome," in which a bass gives exposition for about twenty minutes. Both sang well, Grivnov marking slightly, as did Kenneth Kellogg as the Police Officer. Jack Gorlin, the treble singing Fyodor was amplified unobtrusively on opening night but left to hold his own at the dress, which he was unable to do.

I noticed one change in staging between dress and performance: at the dress, both of Boris' children came onstage to say their farewells, and Xenia (who does not sing in the scene), spent her time onstage quietly sobbing. This was cut on opening night, and only Fyodor was present for his father's last address.

* Tattling * 
I heard a watch alarm or two in the orchestra, but no cell phones went off. That is not to say they weren't on, as a man sitting a few seats down from me kept looking at his messages or getting the time or checking his mail or something. Whatever it was, it was irritating, and no matter how long I gave him a look, he kept doing it. He finally stopped in the middle of Act II, which turned out not to be enthralling enough for a man several rows behind me, who fell asleep and let out a loud snore before being nudged awake by a small girl sitting a seat down from him.

There were plenty of onstage mishaps and errors: a super's hat fell off during the inn scene and the lighting effect for the Simpleton's aria didn't work correctly when one of the floor panels containing light banks didn't pop up in time. To the enjoyment of the entire audience, when Mr. Ramey died with a tremendous fall to the stage, he did not account for the stage's slope and fell too far downstage, and was forced to roll upstage after the music stopped so they could bring down the curtain. During the curtain call, Ognovenko bowed out of costume and Grivnov emerged without his wig.

An error in the program noticed both at dress and performance: Matthew O'Neill plays two roles, Missail and the Boyar-in-attendance, but is only listed as playing Missail.

Stravinsky at Oakland Opera Theater

Renard-oakland-opera  * Notes * 
Last night's press opening of L'Histoire du Soldat and Renard at Oakland Opera Theater was highly entertaining. Both pieces are based on Russian folk tales but were translated into English for this production. This works well, especially for L'Histoire du Soldat, which does not include any singing. Reset to the present day by Rebecca Lenkewicz, the work is meant to be "lue, jouée et dansée," and it certainly was. Some of the text did sound slightly ridiculous, there was much rhyming that seemed forced and somewhat ungainly. Also, the updating is inexact, one doubts very much, for instance, that the General could really offer up his daughter in marriage as a reward in 2008. However, the players did well with it, Kirya Traber displayed her acting talents as the Narrator, speaking the words of many of the characters. Her enunciation was strong, though I wish she had been a bit more down stage whilst the orchestra played as the brass instruments did make her difficult to hear. Mattias Bossi was suitably unctous as the Devil, and provided fine comic relief. Ben Jones gave a perfectly good performance as the titular Soldier, his dancing with Abigail Munn (Princess) was impressive. Munn's movements were all very clear, and she was the best of the dancers. The dancing in the finale was remarkably unsexy, perhaps the heels worn by the dancers were to blame. The orchestra sounded jaunty under the direction of Deidre McClure, and the violin solos were quite beautiful.

The orchestra was perfectly together during the second half of the evening as well, though there was much competition for attention. Soprano Kimarie Torre sang Stravinsky's "Pastorale" (1907) before Renard, her voice is cold but pleasant, not at all shrill. Renard, Histoire burlesque chantée et jouée was utterly delightful, including both burlesque dancing and all manner of circus arts. The singers sat with the orchestra, up stage, but for the most part they were audible. Tenor Ben Jones has a warm, clear voice with good volume, while tenor Darron Flagg has perhaps a prettier voice but was less loud. They were quite distinct, in any case. Igor Vieira's baritone is quite rich, and the percussiveness of his singing was apparent. Bass Richard Mix seemed a bit quiet at first, but his volume improved during the course of the piece.

The dancing was very cute, and the costumes were completely adorable. David Hunt juggled knives, walked a slack rope, and spun hoops around his limbs with aplomb as the Rooster. Erin Schrader (Cat) did well with the hula hoop and the aerial hoop. Breonna Noack acted well as Renard, her contortions showed her incredible flexibility and her work on aerial silks was certainly fun to watch.

* Tattling * 
There was a little whispering during the music, but no electronic noise whatsoever. The house looked entirely full, and the seats are set close together and tied for fire code purposes, so it was not terribly comfortable. The person to my left did elbow me in the arm several times. He also managed to kick me in the shin, though he did apologize aloud for this. As marvelous as circus arts are at the opera, it was annoying that the audience applauded for the juggling during the music.

William Eddins Conducts Berkeley Symphony

Eddins  * Notes * 
Last Thursday William Eddins conducted the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in a program that included three short pieces written between the years 1910-1921 by French composers, an American premiere of contemporary music, and Martinů's first symphony. The evening began with the frilly Valse des dépêches by Germaine Tailleferre. The piece sounded suitable for an ice skating number, perhaps. Debussy's La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin scored for orchestra came next, it was quite dreamy and shimmery. Rounding off the French portion of the performance was Lili Boulanger's very pretty D'un matin de printemps.

The highlight of the evening was certainly the American premiere of Allan Gilliland's Dreaming of the Masters II - Rhapsody GEB, not least of all because Eddins was both the piano soloist and conductor. Eddins spoke a bit about the genesis of the piece and explained that the "GEB" of the title refers to Gershwin, Ellington, and Bernstein. What followed was a cheerful, likable synthesis of classical and jazz.

Berkeley Symphony ended with Martinů's Symphony No. 1. The work is rather lush and sweeping, having a rather cinematic sound. They played beautifully throughout, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season.

* Tattling * 
There was much coughing and talking during the performance. The audience clapped in between the first and second movements and the second and third movements of
the Martinů.

William Eddins referred to Ferde Grofé's 1942 orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue as the "wallowing-cow version that you are familiar with."

Opening of Boris Godunov

Boris-godunov-coronation    * Notes * 
The opening performance of Boris Godunov last night at San Francisco Opera was decidedly lackluster. Stein Winge's production, originally for the Grand Théâtre de Genève, is thoroughly undramatic. For the most part the singers simply wandered aimlessly or just stood and sang. The crowd in Scene 2 was especially pathetic. When Boris threw gold at them, they barely made an effort to pick it off the ground. In Scene 4 when Grigory was to make his escape, one of the supernumeraries got into place too soon, he could have easily caught Grigory if he had wanted to, and it was all very unconvincing. Also, having the Simpleton on stage so much was confusing. For one thing, the figure of the Holy Fool is not familiar to the Western audience, and was just a distraction given how many holes there are in the libretto and how many characters there were.

The set, by Göran Wassberg, looked like a rooftop with numerous trap doors. The scene changes were quite simple and not noisy. However, they were all so transparent, and it was difficult to become immersed in the world of this opera. For example in the transition between Scenes 3 and 4, the monks of the former scene take off their robes and become the revelers at the inn. This is, perhaps, intellectually interesting, but is dramatically weak. Kari Gravklev's period costumes were attractive enough, though Xenia's empire-waisted white dress with pink hem was unflattering.

Vassily Sinaisky's debut conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was not particularly striking. There were times when the orchestra and singers were not quite synchronized, but this will probably improve as time goes on. The chorus sounded lovely, and more engaged with the work than many of the principals, though again there were times when they were not quite with the orchestra.

In general, the singing was pretty though not captivating. Catherine Cook was brash as the Innkeeper, she started off a bit harshly but did settle down by the end of her scene. Though his voice is beautiful, Vitalij Kowaljow was not terribly commanding as Pimen. Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam) sounded a bit constrained but was fine. Likewise John Uhlenhopp (Prince Shuisky) and Vsevolod Grivnov (Grigory) gave perfectly good performances.

The Adlers all did well, Kenneth Kellogg made the most of his small role as Nikitch, and Daveda Karanas had a strong debut as the Nurse. Ji Young Yang's bright tones were appealing for her role as Xenia. Best of all was Andrew Bidlack as the Simpleton, this is the first time he has really shone on the main-stage. His sensitive vocal portrayal was the most gorgeous part of the entire opera.

Samuel Ramey was a fairly wobbly Boris, though the warm resonance of his voice can be effective. The stage directions for him were laughable, he throws himself to the ground more than once and even rolls down the raked stage. He did seem committed to his character, at least.

* Tattling * 
The audience whispered and talked during the music. There were no cellular phone rings, but at least one watch alarm on the hour near the back of the orchestra. Also, at least one person in Row X of the orchestra level was using a flashlight to read the program during the opera.

In the program, Scene 2 of the synopsis is missing a period at the end of the last sentence.

Eugene Onegin at Unter den Linden

Here is the Opernphrenologe's review of the new Eugene Onegin production at the Berliner Staatsoper. I admit I did some heavy editing to get it closer to the style of the Opera Tattler, but there was only so much I could do. We'll get to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.

   * Notes *
After seeing this opera, it can only be concluded that the director Achim Freyer is a gay man with a fetish for mimes. You, dear reader, need not read any further. The rest is only some boring details about the singers and the set and so on. The only important thing to know is that Mr. Freyer loves mimes A Bit Too Much.

On to the boring details for those of you who like pain. Yes, the entire cast was composed of mimes.  These mimes did various things. One mime simulated giving birth three times, and pulled the same baby out of her unmentionables three times. In fact, everything happened three times, except for a yellow man and a red man. The mimes went through the same routine.

Most of the mimes were of average size, but there was one mime that was quite round. That was my favorite. What else did the mimes do? There was the regular mime stuff like spinning chairs and moving around quite slowly. They also did mime yoga (downward dog, triangle, half shoulder stand, and warrior). I also liked the part where all of the mimes bounce up and down quite lewdly when Tatjana (and others) sang about love.

The opera was broken up into two parts, with the cut right after Lenski and Onegin challenge each other to a duel. During the first part, the entire stage is white with black "distance lines" on the ground. When Tatjana was weeping over Onegin's rejection, a bunch of little red balls were released to roll down the stage, but they kept on hitting mimes and getting stuck along the way, so it took around 5 minutes for all of the little balls to disappear. Monsieur Trinquet was yellow, and he had to sing his entire solo while doing a complicated shuffling step. He did his part quite well. There were lighted happy face balls at the dance party. At one point, the entire stage was lit in a rainbow, which I believe means that Mr. Freyer is gay.

During the second part, Lenski is shot and the stage turns black. Before he's shot, some man in red stands behind Onegin, a profound statement about something or another I'm sure. Lenski is lit in red, which I'm sure also means something very deep. Then there is a lovely music interlude which is supposed to be Prince Gremin's ball. During most of this time, Lenski is slowly dying. At least, he stands there lit in red as mimes do things. It took a long time. Finally, he keeled over with a loud plop and that was the end of him thank goodness. The mimes went through the third revolution of their yoga, chairs, whatever. Yawn.

I would have been satisfied with this if the singing had been better. Tatjana (Anna Samuil) had too much vibrato. Olga (Maria Gortsevskaya) was quite good, except she was somewhat hesitant on higher notes. Lenski (Rolando Villazón) was nice, except that he was quite nasal (which I wouldn't have noticed if I didn't speak any Russian). He was good for a few chuckles, since I repeated the "I love you" in Russian for the rest of the evening, except through my nose. It sounded just like him! Onegin (Roman Trekel) had absolutely awful pronunciation of Russian and he wasn't very noteworthy one way or the other. Monsieur Trinquet (Stephan Ruegamer) did an excellent job, in fact I think I found his solo the most beautiful out of the entire thing.

* Tattling * 
My my, what laughs I had! When the red balls appeared, a man in front of me said very loudly, "Schweine Sinn." Normally I don't like it when people talk, but it was so funny! Unfortunately, the German couple next to me kept on talking until I shushed them. The male half of the couple also kept on squirming, and he made me uncomfortable. Fortunately, he switched places with his (very talkative) female half during the second part.

And there was so much booing! It made me so happy! The Schweinesinn Mann booed quite loudly at the start of the second half, and the conductor responded to the booers by saying something which I didn't understand. Unfortunately, my lovely Schweinesinn Mann left with his Frau five minutes after the start of the second part.

SF Opera Futures

So far, the 2009-2010 season at San Francisco Opera is rumored to include:
Die Entführung aus dem Seraglio
La Fanciulla del West with Deborah Voigt and Salvatore Licitra
La Fille du Régiment with Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau
The Makropoulos Case with Karita Mattila
Mefistofele directed by William Friedkin with René Pape
Peter Grimes directed by John Copley with Ben Heppner and Heidi Melton
Il Trittico with Patricia Racette and Paolo Gavanelli
Il Trovatore with Sondra Radvanovsky, Dmitri Hvorovstovsky, and Stephanie Blythe
Die Walküre

Beyond next season:
with Ramón Vargas
Nixon in China

Much of this was either mentioned by David Gockley at various events, found in programs or press releases, or comes from Janos Gereben over at San Francisco Classical Voice.

Tosca at Unter den Linden

The Opernphrenologe was recently in Berlin and what follows is her rather entertaining review of Tosca. A review of Eugene Onegin is forthcoming.

   * Notes *
The set was boring, so boring. Are these people on a budget or something?  I can't even describe it, it was so dull.

As for the cast, Tosca (Micaele Carosi) was flat on the high notes and sometimes had too much trill.  Cavaradossi (Burkhard Fritz) was a weak, quiet singer. He also was raspy at the start of words (except when he sang a duet with Tosca, in which he was decent). It sounded like over-enunciation. Scarpia (Gerd Grochowski) was pretty good, but sometimes he was drowned out by the orchestra.  But my favorite was der Mesner der Kirche (Bernd Zettisch), who was just the cutest little hunchback with such adorable comic facial expressions!

During Act I, a bunch of little kids fell down when Scarpia entered. The kids were dressed as choirboys. Then at the end of Act I, there's some weird Catholic ceremony scene as Scarpia sang his solo about how he's lecherous. I think we've all heard enough about paedophilia in the Catholic church, do we really have to see it represented in opera?

During the second act, the set became much more exciting because of the addition of a bowl of fruit. I sincerely hoped that Scarpia would be stabbed to death with a fruit, but alas the director did not share my views on what makes good opera. I liked Tosca's dress, which was some red velvet thing.

Finally in the third act, the opera improved. Cavardossi was severely beaten and they evidently stuck red tape on his face to show this. It was so absurd! Scarpia died so badly, it was funny! I laughed so much. He squirmed around quite a bit before finally dying properly. The best part of the opera came when Cavardossi died and we didn't have to hear him sing anymore.

* Tattling * 
Lots to tell, dear readers. An opera coot in the second tier was glued to her binoculars in the pauses immediately before the opera resumed. I've never seen anyone stare so blatantly at other opera patrons! It was so bad that I felt compelled to photograph her, she was such a novelty! During the pause between the second and third acts, this coot evidently found something titillating in the center of the second tier, because she became quite agitated and then tried to hide her binocularitis behind a giant black fan. Her attempts were totally pointless though, since it was still obvious what she was doing.

I sat behind six French people, and I'm sorry to report that I have a very bad impression of French opera-goers. These people talked and talked and talked! My goodness. On my left was a German mother-daughter pair. The daughter dressed up for the opera by wearing some powder blue fur thing around her neck and fancy white gloves, which I liked quite a bit. Unfortunately, they talked too.

I saw an abnormally large amount of what I will politely refer to as "sucky-face" at the opera.  Fortunately it was mostly during the intermission, but I have to wonder, is Tosca the sucky-face opera?

Partenope at Det Kongelige Teater

Here is the promised review from the Opernphrenologe. I must say that I'm quite jealous that she got to attend a performance of this production. However, I hear there is to be a DVD release, so at least there is that to look forward to.

   * Notes *
The recent production of Händel's Partenope at Copenhagen's Royal Theatre was wonderful! No, really! It was really that good! I traveled all the way to Copenhagen for this one measly opera, and it was worth it.

Andreas Scholl as Arsace was so exceedingly funny! He had these marvelous comic facial expressions as he vacillated between two women. At one point, he crawls after the queen on his knees, then on his stomach, then he lifts his leg as if urinating. It was so silly! He made grunting sounds when the women abused him, and they were so utterly absurd that I kept on laughing aloud.

Then there was the Barbie doll of the queen. Armindo first fondles the Barbie doll as he sings about his true love for the queen. Later, Arsace got into what appeared to be a fist fight with the queen Barbie, and it seemed as if the Barbie was winning.

During the "fight scene", the two sides first played musical chairs, then rock-paper-scissors. Fight scenes are usually dumb in the opera, and I enjoyed how this one poked fun at itself!

As for the singing, Andreas Scholl (Arsace) was a bit weak at first but then sang beautifully. Inger Dam-Jensen (Partenope) and Christophe Dumaux (Armindo) were spectacularly good. Only Tuva Semmingsen (Rosmira) was not too good, but considering that she was too sick to sing and that some mysterious woman in black was singing for her in the orchestra pit, it is not that surprising. On the other hand, her acting was good.

Indeed, the opera cast has been plagued with the cold since opening night. When I saw it, Andreas Scholl had recovered but poor Tuva Semmingsen was in no shape to sing. According to some others, the opera director Francisco Negrin was the origin of the cold (according to himself in an interview). Very naughty, Mr. Negrin!

The stage was a simple rotating stage with what appeared to be tilework. I found it quite dull, until it rotated and exposed an octopus and seven fish, all done up in fake tilework. It was lovely! But that was it, it became boring after that.

During a discussion with some people with a Scholl Problem (tm), it was noted that Negrin made some hefty changes to Acts 2 and 3. The Arsace-Rosmira duet "E vuoi con dure tempre" from the 4th scene in Act 2 is missing, perhaps because Rosmira couldn't sing. Ormonte sings "La gloria in nobil alma" at the beginning of Act 3, which was originally sung by Emilio earlier in Act 2. When Arsace dreams, he is not awakened by Rosmira (this has been cut) but instead sings the terzetto in his sleep. It may be possible that Arsace's aria "Fatto è Amor un dio d'inferno" in Act 3 was also cut.

* Tattling * 
The audience was reasonably well-behaved. In fact, they would probably tattle on me, since I kept on cackling with laughter (though I tried to be quiet, but is quiet shaking from laughter much better?). I suspect that there were a lot of nutty opera people there. The woman on my left talked about how she was going to travel to London to see Partenope performed there (with mezzo-sopranos, though, she discovered that I was a Scholl fan and looked down upon me I think). The woman on my right kept on clicking her eyeglasses and sighing. Perhaps she was bored. She also dropped things twice, with a loud clang.