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Porgy and Bess at San Francisco Opera

Porgybesssf * Notes * 
Porgy and Bess had a strong opening last night at San Francisco Opera. Francesca Zambello's production works well, the set, from Peter J. Davison, is particularly striking. The scene changes were nearly flawless and Mark McCullough's lighting impeccable. Having the opera set in 1955 was not at all a distraction, though one is not sure the audience really noticed. Denni Sayers' choreography fit the singers, though the part at end of the hurricane scene seemed gratuitous.

John DeMain lead the orchestra skillfully, and there were only a few moments in which the singers and musicians were slightly off from each other. The singing was very uniform, everyone was fully engaged, and the chorus sounded lovely. Angel Blue (Clara) sang "Summertime" perfectly cleanly, though perhaps a bit coldly. This did make for a nice contrast when Laquita Mitchell (Bess) reprises this song in Part Two. Mitchell also has a clean, brilliant sound, though with a slight metallic harshness at the top. As Serena, Karen Slack was heartbreaking in "My Man's Gone Now."

Lester Lynch was terrifying as Crown, cruel, and with a powerful voice. Chauncey Packer danced his way through the role of Sportin' Life with aplomb, unctous and charming. His "It Ain't Necessarily So" with the chorus was impressive. Eric Owens (Porgy) had a promising role debut, though he did start off underpowered compared to the sopranos. Perhaps he was pacing himself for the end, which was incredible. The plaintiveness of "Bess, o where's my Bess?" built up to a glorious "Oh Lord, I'm on my way."

* Tattling * 
The music is much more dissonant than one might expect, yet is put together deftly. The audience seemed absorbed by the work, there was only a bit of talking, but no electronic noise.

At intermission I had the pleasure of meeting Amanda Ameer, author of Life's a Pitch, who represents Eric Owens.

Porgy and Bess Panel Discussion

Porgy-panel3 Yesterday evening chorus director Ian Robertson moderated a panel discussion on Porgy and Bess, which opens next Tuesday at San Francisco Opera. The panelists included choreographer Denni Sayers, soprano Angel Blue (Clara), soprano Karen Slack (Serena), baritone Kenneth Overton (Frazier), tenor Calvin Lee (Peter), baritone Eric Greene (Jake), tenor Chauncey Packer (Sportin' Life), bass-baritone Eric Owens (Porgy), and conductor John DeMain.

The panelists were asked to speak about the piece, their roles with in it, and the like. It was interesting to learn where the performers had sung before and how they felt about George Gershwin, authenticity, and the possible demeaning nature of the work. The cast seemed to have a strong commitment to this opera.

Maestro DeMain had much to say about Porgy and Bess, unsurprising given that he has been conducting the work for over thirty years. He compared this opera to Boris Godunov, as it too is a "folk opera," and Carmen, as both have dance rhythms throughout. DeMain also mentioned that Porgy and Bess is both a numbers opera and makes use of Leitmotivs.

The production was described by the choreographer, as she has worked on it since the beginning, with the Washington premiere. The stage director, Francesca Zambello, is concerned, once again, with making the work relevant to the contemporary audience. In this case, she has set the work in 1955, bringing us closer in time to the characters.

There were a few amusing moments during the evening. Chauncey Packer spoke about how after a performance someone told him "It's horrible what you did to that girl!" At another point Angel Blue explained that she could imagine singing Bess, as she had nothing in common with the character, to which someone on stage quipped "Not yet."

Tosca at San Francisco Opera

Tosca-pieczonka * Notes * 
The summer part of San Francisco Opera's season began last night with Tosca. The 1997 production is based on the one that inaugurated the War Memorial Opera House in 1932, and for that reason, is rather old-fashioned. It was interesting to note the differences between the current revival and the last one, for instance, the trompe-l'œil pyramid of cannonballs is gone from Act III, a welcome change.

The orchestra sounded clean and together under the direction of Marco Armiliato, and the tempi moderate. Lado Ataneli was an animated Scarpia, at times he was underpowered vocally, but for the most part, he sounded hale. On the other hand, the tenor, Carlo Ventre, was more delicate. He had a lot of vibrato, which along with his reedy, plaintive qualities, gave him a certain vulnerability. Ventre sounded weak in contrast to the other singers, but was not bad on his own, as in "E lucevan le stelle." Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) had a fine debut, she only had brief moments harshness, her voice is strong and rich. Her "Vissi d'arte" was brilliant.

* Tattling * 
The audience spoke a bit too much for my taste, but were mostly under control. I was standing in front of someone who talked, almost at full volume, to himself. At least he spoke about the performance, commenting on how beautiful the singing was. Standing room was rather full, as were the seats on the orchestra level, but the boxes looked relatively empty.

Nagano conducts Berkeley Akademie

Kent-nagano * Notes * 
The Berkeley Akademie Ensemble gave a concert of Bach, Ives, and Beethoven last Sunday at the First Congregational Church. The evening began with a rather strange version of Bach's Concerto in the Italian style for solo harpsichord in F Major, BMV 971 arranged for chamber orchestra by Joachim F. W. Schneider. The first movement sounded crisp except for the bassoon. The horns also had some intonation issues, but the focus of the whole group was quite strong for the Presto. This was followed by the third symphony from Ives, "The Camp Meeting." The tempi were restrained but the playing was fiery. The violin solo in the first movement was particularly plaintive.

After the intermission we heard Beethoven's Septet in E-flat Major. The violinist tossed off notes with great ease in the Allegro con brio part of the first movement, but sounded more strident and brittle in the fourth movement. The horn was less than accurate at times, but had good moments in the second and fifth movements.

* Tattling * 
The bassist was enthusiastic, his movements were comical, and one must to take care not to look at him, lest an inappropriate giggle-fit should strike.

The audience was packed for Kent Nagano's last performance as conductor and artistic director of Berkeley Symphony. I was surrounded by very nice folks who offered me binoculars to view the performers up close, since we were in the last row.

Nagano did not conduct the last piece, and simply listened from the mezzanine. He thanked the audience at the end, and seemed rather humbled by the standing ovation.

MMDG's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato

MMDG_LAllegroIlPenserosoEdIlModerato * Notes * 
The Mark Morris Dance Group just finished a run of L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato at Cal Performances. It seemed to be a success, the audience was entertained and amused. The dancing struck me, however, as sloppy. Many of the angles as far as arm and leg positions were not consistent on different dancers, and it did not help that the body types were so disparate. Even the running was not clean, at least one person tripped, though she recovered quickly and did not fall. The choreography itself seemed to prolong the music, and except for the very beginning, when everyone dashed around on stage, it was not surprising. Morris goes for all the cheap laughs, so naturally, simulated canine urination, spanking, and the like.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra lilted under the direction of Jane Glover. The woodwinds had some moments of imprecision, but the strings sounded fine. The chorus sounded beautiful and unsullied, in contrast to the soloists, all of whom had issues. Soprano Christine Brandes gasped and was shrill, though her last air was pretty. Soprano Lisa Saffer had too much vibrato at times, but did sing well for the most part. The tenor, Iain Paton, sounded as if he was running out of air, though his timbre was bright and lovely. James Maddalena's baritone was slightly shaky and thin.

* Tattling * 
It seemed that everyone in attendance was having a grand time. There was quite a lot of talking and giggling, but no electronic noise.

For some reason, the lights were left on during the overture, but were turned off once the singing got underway. It was not possible to follow along with the libretto, but at least this meant less noise, as there was less incentive to leaf through the program.