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La Traviata at Det Kongelige Teater

Some months ago I learned that Andreas Scholl was to sing Partenope at the Royal Danish Theatre, and pestered my friend whom we'll call the Opernphrenologe into going, as she is rather closer to Copenhagen than I am. The Opernphrenologe also went to a performance of La Traviata, and what follows are her (edited) observations. The Partenope review is forthcoming.

   * Notes *
"Sehmbreh leebherha deggaoo
Follehggyar dee geeoiha in geeoiha..."

La Traviata at the Copenhagen Opera House was decent. I liked how all of the opera singers were at around the same level, nobody stood out to make the rest sound horrible. Both Violetta (Anne Margrethe Dahl) and Alfredo (Niels Jorgen Riis) started out too quietly, but they gained in strength halfway through the first act. Giorgio Germont (Jorn Pedersen) reminded me more of an automaton rather than an opera singer. He couldn't act and there was almost no emotion in his voice. I kept on seeing a wind-up key in his back every time he sang. On the other hand, everyone was on pitch most of the time, which shocked me!

Violetta, sung by Anne Margrethe Dahl, had extremely poor enunciation. At first, I thought about how much I enjoyed her warm round tone. Considering that I normally hate sopranos, this was surprising! Then I noticed that she was slurring. She couldn't act and her pitch went slightly off somewhere in the middle of the second act, but on the plus side she was hot and she had nice legs.

The staging was absurd. During Act II, they put piles of dirt in the bedroom to show how poor they were. One pile of dirt had some pretty green weeds growing on it, which I thought was a charming touch. During Act III, they made a hole in the floor. That was profound.

Act III was by far my favorite. Shortly after curtain rise, a woman pretending to be drunk threw off her cape and collapsed to the ground. Naked. Her quivering pallid flesh lay on the stage floor until some other extras carried the mound off. Then some man took his shirt off! I don't know why he did that, but he did! Then the de-shirted man pretended to have anal sex with another man who was previously dressed up as a woman. Finally, when Alfredo denounced Violetta, he ripped her dress off so she had to lay on the stage in her underwear. But they weren't any normal underwear. They were so exceedingly cootish that I was jealous.

The Danish people do not seem to cherish their opera singers very much. The program does not contain artist biographies, but instead has a page of all of the opera singers' names with tiny little pictures. It was more like a police line-up than an opera cast list.

* Tattling * 
The audience talked quite a bit. When Violetta had consumption, someone else in the audience joined her. There was lots of rustling. The people in front of me talked to me during the break and seemed surprised when I told them that I always stand at the opera if I have a choice.

There was some high-pitched feedback during the first act on the left side of the opera house. Fortunately, it disappeared by the second act.

The opera house supplied little cups in the bathrooms so that it was easy to get water. I appreciated that very much!

Rock 'n' Roll at ACT


* Notes *
Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll opened the 2008-2009 season at ACT last month and closes tomorrow. The play includes the years between the Prague Spring (1968) and the Velvet Revolution (1989), with a distinct focus on Syd Barrett, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Václav Havel.

The production, directed by Carey Perloff, included Douglas W. Schmidt's attractive set, which worked nicely for the many scene changes. The use of projections was ham-fisted, one did not need the year of a particular scene all over the walls, and certainly have them all spinning around was gratuitous.

The actors were fine, though René Augesen as Eleanor and Older Esme was most impressive. Perhaps this was simply because she was playing two very different characters and her range was evident.

The play itself was quite interesting if one has an interest in Czechoslovakia, or has some sense of that history. One imagines it might have been somewhat dull otherwise, as the dialogue is not as funny as one might expect from Stoppard. Music was used to good effect during the various scenes as well as in between segments.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet and attentive, though there was one person who was turning off her cellular phone after the play had started. Naturally, she had not set her keypad to silent, so there were quite a few electronic beeps.

I had no idea what this play was about The Plastic People of the Universe, and was probably overly excited to find out that this was the case. Despite this, when the main character Jan tells his friend Ferdinand that The Plastics were more important than Havel, I was entirely shocked!

Opening of Idomeneo at SF Opera


  * Notes *
The opening performance of Idomeneo at San Francisco Opera started off a bit shaky, but did hit its stride by the second act. John Copley's 1999 production has a very similar look to his Ariodante seen at the War Memorial earlier this year. Certainly this is no surprise, as the productions also share the same set designer and costume designer. John Conklin's set for Idomeneo is fairly quiet, there was less banging and such for the scene changes than in Ariodante. One was not quite sure what to make of the spoils of war hanging from ropes with pulleys in the first scene, but the rest of the set is perfectly reasonable, the backdrops are especially lovely. The costumes, from Michael Stennett, recall Tiepolo, not only in style but in palette.

Runnicles conducted the orchestra crisply enough, the only issues seemed to be a few minor pitch problems from the horns and oboes. Adler Alek Shrader sounded nice as Arbace, despite his youth, which is at odds with the role. In her debut at San Francisco Opera, Iano Tamar (Elettra) was overwhelmed by the orchestra in Act I, but was audible for the rest of the evening. Her voice has a certain smoky fragility, but is appealing. Genia Kühmeier's main stage debut as Ilia was more impressive. Though she has the slightest harshness at the top, her voice is beautifully clear and pure. Her "Se il padre perdei" in Act II was gorgeous.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was exceedingly breathy in Act I, almost gasping. She did look convincingly male as Idamante, though she is perhaps a little shorter than Kühmeier. The rest of her performance was smoother, though it was not completely amazing. On the other hand, tenor Kurt Streit was vocally sensational in the title-role. He did have trouble with his train, it got caught on the set at one point and seemed to trip him. However, his performance was engaging nonetheless, and his Act II aria, "Fuor del mar," was gut-wrenching.

* Tattling * 
There was much whispering in Box A, but it did die down as the evening wore on. One watch alarm was heard three times, but there were no mobile phone rings. Someone did take a flash photograph at the beginning of Act II.

I was able to hear the prompter after Idamante first entered. There was very little backstage noise but a walkie talkie was clearly heard in Act III just after the chorus had gotten to place.

I absolutely loved the horse heads at the end of Act II and giggled hysterically during the applause.


Final Dress Rehearsal of Idomeneo

The Opera Tattler was not able to attend the final dress for Idomeneo last Saturday, so sent one Dodaro in her stead. Below are Dodaro's comments.

Idomeneo-streit   * Notes *
The final dress rehearsal of San Francisco Opera's Idomeneo was promising. The singing was generally strong.

Neptune's wrath included an awful lot of strobe light flashes. If all the flashes were indeed scripted, the authorities might do well to post a warning, in big red text, on the website.

* Tattling * 
The atmosphere in the Grand Tier was markedly relaxed. Before the performance started, many unfolded newspapers were in evidence. I was surprised, however, when my neighbor opened and began eating a single serving of Häagen Dazs. Looked like vanilla. Possibly yoghurt.

There was some Runnicles-related whispering as the second act started. Other than that, the group was generally well behaved.

The Blue Angels were not as considerate. They made quite a few passes over the opera house during Elettra's "Idol mio" aria and the embarkment scene.

Cupcake Boccanegra


As threatened, I've finally gotten around to combining opera and cupcakes. This is a depiction of Act II Scene 2 of the Simon Boccanegra that opened the San Francisco Opera season. I'll have you know that it took longer to write out those few bars of music than to paint the rest of the scene here.

Details of Painting | Performance Review of Simon Boccanegra

John Copley Interview

Jcopley John Copley directed the revival of San Francisco Opera's Idomeneo, which opens this Wednesday, October 15 and runs until October 31. He has worked on 19 productions for San Francisco Opera since his 1982 debut in Giulio Cesare. The Opera Tattler spoke to Copley on Friday morning in San Francisco.

It has been 60 years this month since you were first a supernumerary for Aida at Covent Garden. How did you get interested in opera?
My mother took me to La bohème when I was 10, and I caught it like the measles. I also studied piano, my father gave me one for my 6th birthday. He only played by ear, so he had me take lessons.

You went on to study ballet, painting, and architecture?
I studied ballet at the Royal Ballet School, but I started too late. Ninette de Valois sent me over to the opera, where I was told I would do better, and I did. I learned about painting, costumes, furniture, and architecture at the Central School of Arts. One of our models for drawing was Quentin Crisp, whose memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, was turned into a movie.

What has changed in the years since you started?
My generation of opera directors insisted on acting, one cannot just stand and sing. So that's one difference.

Also, there aren't as many divas. Perhaps it is just because I'm getting old and people feel they should be nice, since they figure I'll die soon. [Laughs]

Singers do tend to get used up these days, as opera is quite popular. The opera world is littered with causalities. Singers push too hard and take too many roles, they are often pressured by their managers. They need to be more patient if they want to have careers that are more than a few years long.

Mirella Freni had 7 or 8 parts within her voice in her early years, and she was terribly bored with them, but she wanted to keep singing. So she made it to 70 and still could sing. There are those that are very lucky, like Joan Sutherland, who was singing Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Desdemona very early. But she has vocal cords of steel, and that's very rare.

You call yourself a "dinosaur" because of your traditionalism in staging operas. What are the considerations you make in directing an opera?
I try to find a new way of doing what's written, telling the story, and staging the music. I learned from Callas that you must examine what the music tells you. It doesn't have to be old-fashioned, but there are certain settings that do not work for certain operas. For instance, La Traviata doesn't work after women's liberation, Violetta would not have taken all that abuse, she and Alfredo could have just stayed together. Or Le Nozze di Figaro, the opera is very much about the right of primae noctis, it doesn't make sense in today's world. I saw a production in which Susanna was already pregnant, and it missed the whole point of the story, in which Susanna's virginity and purity are of great importance.

So what do you think of all these film directors directing opera?
Good luck! [laughs] That's what I think! Some of them might think it is going to be easy, and it isn't. I've been told that certain film directors are just so clever, so new and brilliant, but I haven't seen much evidence of this. They don't realize how hard the task is, moving that many people around the stage, knowing the music and the text. There are a lot of options, aren't there? Some film directors are good, Anthony Minghella, for instance. His Madama Butterfly was great.

What do you think of the Met simulcasts in movie theaters? What about the emphasis on how singers look?
I don't mind if singers look good as long as they can sing. I haven't seen the simulcasts but they are very important for expanding the audience. You look around at the average opera audience and people are quite elderly. We were at a performance in St. Louis recently and we counted at least 50 Zimmer frames!

A few days ago we went to a rock concert, and though it was an entrancing show, the music was not generally of a very high quality. The text was certainly not great. I'm not sure how to get a younger audience engaged with something like opera, but it needs to be done. Maybe new opera is a good way of doing this, as with The Bonesetter's Daughter bringing in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco.

What did you think of The Bonesetter's Daughter?
It was an incredible effort and a smashing success. I did have some trouble following what was going on, and would buy the recording if they release it. I would have liked to hear the music more. [Singing from Precious Auntie's part from the end of Act I] "Sit on your pot, grunt all you can, you cannot move your bowels."

Getting back to your work, I went to the dress rehearsal of Ariodante last summer and noticed that the horse heads in Ginevra's mad scene were removed in the actual performances. Why?
The horse heads were based on a Tiepolo painting, and are meant to show Ginerva's madness, but they just bothered people, including Ruth Ann Swenson, who sang the role.

I liked them! You also didn't replace them with anything so the stage is fairly placid at that point.
I liked them too, but so many people were confused by the horse heads, I just didn't want that. The music isn't placid, so the madness comes out there.

How about Idomeneo, what is this production like?
It is much in the same vein as Ariodante, inspired by Tiepolo as far as the sets and costumes, particularly in the colors. Mozart understands the human condition, even at age 24. The opera is very much about the father and son relationship, and about the perils of hubris. Idomeneo gets me every time, it is just so moving.

You are coming back next year to direct Peter Grimes in San Diego and San Francisco?
Yes, the San Diego rehearsals are in March, and the San Francisco ones are about this time next year. The production is based on the post-war Covent Garden one that I was actually in, as Peter Grimes' apprentice. Anthony Dean Griffey is singing the title role in San Diego and Ben Heppner will sing it here.

Did you really stand-in for Maria Callas in rehearsal?
Yes, I was Zeffirelli's assistant for Tosca at Covent Garden. Callas was ill and Franco said to me [Italian accent] "John, you do it, the cover isn't here." In those days there were ways of getting into the house, people would make sure they had to make deliveries, and everyone wanted to hear Callas, of course. Tosca starts off-stage, so when they heard me everyone was sure that Callas was finished!

The Opera Dukes

Operadukes   * Notes *
San Francisco Opera's bluegrass band The Opera Dukes played at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass yesterday. The singers included former and current Adler Fellows Matthew O'Neill, Jeremy Galyon, Heidi Melton, Daniela Mack, along with General Director David Gockley. They were accompanied by bandleader O'Neill himself on guitar,
Craig Reiss (violin), Jonathan Lancelle (bass), Alisa Rose (violin), David Zimmerman (mandolin), and David Walker (banjo).

The performance was exceedingly silly and bluegrass versions of various opera tunes were amusing. Melton was particularly great singing a waltzy rendition of "Hojotoho!" Gockley has a pleasant light baritone, though he sang an actual bluegrass song.

Matt O'Neill explained that the state of his facial hair was due to being in Boris Godunov rather than for this festival. He also mentioned that while they might not be the best group at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, they certainly were the weirdest.

* Tattling * 
I was correctly identified as the Opera Tattler by the principal trumpet player of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Der Triumph des Lebens

Totestadtset   * Notes *
The fourth performance of Die Tote Stadt was actually fairly well-attended, though there was noticeable audience attrition after intermission. The set was moved around more quietly and no speaking was heard from backstage, not even from Box Y.

It was easier to appreciate how well all the Adler Fellows did from closer quarters as much of their singing was rather far upstage. Ji Young Yang sang Juliette with great sweetness. I'm quite sad I will miss the last two performances.

* Tattling * 
Everyone was very well-behaved as far as I could tell. Please keep it up.

Banjo + Opera = Hilarity

If one had a burning desire to hear San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley sing, one might head over to the Porch Stage of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert tomorrow at 3:20pm. As an added bonus, all the hipsters will be over at the Rooster Stage hearing Iron & Wine, and thus can easily be avoided.

In other SF Opera news, this year's Interview with an Icon event is happening not just as Yom Kippur starts, as scheduled, but tomorrow at 6pm. Stage director John Copley is the icon this time. I'm terribly disappointed I cannot attend, as Copley is supposedly quite funny. It might have been nicer to know this was going to be switched to an entirely new date a bit earlier.

One will note that the Idomeneo dress rehearsal next Saturday has been moved up so that it conflicts with the Met's simulcast of Salomé. At least we were emailed about that one, and I received the scheduling change in the mail as well, a week before the postcard about Copley arrived.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 8 | Interview with an Icon

Upcoming Seasons at SF Opera

Before I forget, La Fille du Régiment was mentioned as an opera to be performed at San Francisco Opera in the next few years. Also, William Friedkin is to work on a La Scala/San Francisco Opera co-production of Mefistofele. Earlier this year we heard that Peter Grimes, La Fanciulla del West, Il Trovatore, Il Trittico, The Makropoulos Case, Salomé, and Moby-Dick are also on deck.