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The Creation at PBO

Pbo3 * Notes * 
Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra end the season with five performances of The Creation by Haydn. Last night's offering in Berkeley was gratifying and jubilant. McGegan kept the proceedings vivacious, and only a few moments were chaotic, most evident in the end of Part II. The dynamics throughout were distinct. The chorus had a translucent sound.

The three soloists were obviously talented. Baritone Philip Cutlip was easy to understand and could always be heard. His duet with soprano Dominique Labelle in Part III was playful and winsome. Labelle sang pleasantly, and was never shrill. Her sturdy voice was only lost briefly in the "The marv'lous work beholds amaz'd," which is sung with the chorus. Her trills in the first aria of Part II ("O mighty pens") were most impressive. The tenor, Thomas Cooley, sang with ease. His bright voice did not sounded pressed when singing high notes, and his diction was clear. One particularly appreciated his pianissimo in the recitative "And God created man."

* Tattling * 
The audience members in the first three rows seemed rather quiet, only intermittently giggling at the jolly text.

Vänskä conducts Larcher, Mendelssohn, & Vaughan Williams at SFS

Vanska_hi_res * Notes * 
This week Osmo Vänskä conducts San Francisco Symphony in a program of Larcher, Mendelssohn, and Vaughan Williams. Thomas Larcher's eerie, cinematic Red and Green required a large number of instruments, yet was played with tasteful restraint. The sound was never overpowering, even when two of the trombone players hit their instruments with sticks. The brass sounded clear. The dynamic contrasts were impressive. Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64 featured concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who was comfortable playing with the orchestra, and listened to the other musicians intently. It was a subtle, elegant rendering. The two horns and two trumpets were together, and were not muddy. After intermission came A London Symphony from Vaughan Williams. The piece ranges from atmospheric to gaudy, but was played well. The horn solo in the second movement Lento was strong, as was the solo violin in the third movement Scherzo.

* Tattling * 
Last night there was some whispering during the first San Francisco performance of the Larcher, but the composer received hearty applause and even a "bravo" when he came to the stage. A watch alarm was heard at 10pm near the end of the Vaughan Williams. I was particularly ill-behaved during this piece, for some reason, I lack the maturity necessary to control my laughter. The Big Ben references made me titter. Unfortunately, I lost my composure when the person in Section E Seat A 9 of the First Tier put her shoeless (but stockinged) foot up upon the railing.

Das Rheingold at the Met (Lepage)

Met-rheingold An account of the final performance of Das Rheingold this season at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
Director Robert Lepage gave an extensive interview in New York City last fall about his conception of the Ring. He spent considerable time in Iceland, and said that no one who lived in the Icelandic hinterlands for any length of time could ever doubt the existence of gnomes, giants, or mythic Gods. Hearing him speak, it is impossible to doubt his seriousness and integrity.

Unfortunately, the production's stage machinery, designed by Carl Fillion, seemed to overwhelm the evening. The set consists of gigantic, undulating planks, which morph into visually paradoxical, Max Escher-like planes. Complex, computer-generated effects and lighting were projected atop this. Only Wagner's gigantic score seemed unsubjugated by this restless behemoth. Particularly distracting were the all-too-visible cables from which the soloists were suspended as they moved in hazardous sideward and slanted trajectories across the cantilevered components of the set.

The audience applauded and tittered in delight at the cavorting Rhine-mermaids and their taunting of Alberich, and certainly Wagner would have approved of this. The dragon/dinosaur transformation, aided by the Tarnhelm, was also very effective.

Of the cast, Eric Owens' tremendous Alberich dominated the show, even though he seemed to tire during his final curse. It is a rare evening when Alberich is a more powerful dramatic and vocal presence than Wotan. The admirable Bryn Terfel's rendition of the God lacked the heft and thrust required of the dramatic bass-baritone voice type for which this role was conceived.

Stephanie Blythe, a singer in a class unto herself, poured out tremendous waves of sound, yet failed to capture the hectoring character of Fricka, as she agonizes about the fate of her sister Freia (sung with steely power by soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer), who is held as a downpayment by the giants Fafner and Fasolt for their building of Valhalla. Ms. Blythe seemed to fashion her vocal expression according to the surface contours of Fricka's vocal line, and not to the underlying text. Beautifully, in fact, overwhelmingly well sung, her rendition seemed lacking in dramatic comprehension of the character.

On the other hand, Bayreuth veterans Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and Hans-Peter Koenig (Fafner) inhabited their roles in such a fashion that one never thought of vocalism. They performed their roles with a perfect unison of text, powerful vocalism and dramatic intent. Patricia Bardon's dark-hued, threatening rendition of Erda's "Weiche Wotan" was, for this reviewer, the highlight of the evening.

Another Bayreuth veteran, Arnold Bezuyen, captured the essence of Loge, part scheming diplomat, part crooked lawyer, although one was often distracted and concerned for him as he slid down and then scaled backwards the steeply angled set. Tethered by a cable, his freedom to gesture and act with his body was severely inhibited. Possessed of a solid character tenor voice, he seemed somewhat underpowered in the large Met auditorium.

Having heard many performances of the Ring conducted by James Levine, it is difficult for this reviewer to make a fair assessment of Fabio Luisi's reading. Luisi drew from the Met orchestra an almost chamber music-like, transparent performance that served the singers well, but one missed the elusive combination of weight, grandeur and forward momentum that Levine achieved in this music. The brass section was uncharacteristically fraught with mishaps.

No doubt the composer would have been delighted to have had at his disposal the modern machinery used in the Lepage Ring, machinery which would have freed him from the two-dimensionality of the set design and lighting available to him at the time. One wonders, however, if he would not have employed these resources in such a way that the protagonists of his music-dramas were not relegated to the visual and dramatic background. One awaits eagerly the upcoming Walküre for a further assessment of the new Met Ring.

ABS performs Bach and Telemann

ABS2_W * Notes *
The American Bach Soloists performed secular works from Bach and Telemann last Saturday in San Francisco. The evening began with the "Wedding Cantata," with soprano Yulia Van Doren as the soloist. Her voice as a darkness to it, yet maintains a clarity of tone. She was pleasant to hear, though she did not always cut through the orchestration, and her German was not particularly comprehensible. The ensemble was clean, if not a bit dry, with Jeffrey Thomas at the helm as usual. The basso continuo (cello, harpsichord, and bass) was exceedingly together and pristine. The Telemann that followed, the Concerto in G Minor for Recorder, was fleetly lucid. Cantata oder Trauer-Music eines kunsterfahrenen Cararienvogels was sung with deadpan seriousness by baritone Joshua Copeland, whose diction was fine, and whose voice was robust and warm. The unison of the orchestra was especially pleasing during the fifth aria.

After the intermission we heard the fourth Brandenburg Concerto, a piece I must have played on the modern viola, for the tuning of this historically informed performance was unsettling to me. The final piece was the charming Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht ("Coffee Cantata"). Thomas did well with the tenor part of the Erzähler, though the musicians may have not been perfectly together in the last trio. Van Doren (Lieschen) had lovely phrasing, but her vowel quality was noticeable compared to both Thomas and Copeland (Schlendrian). That said, the three singers played well off each other, and the performance was even fun.

* Tattling *
The woman in Row P 201 of the balcony was one of the most disruptive audience members encountered in recent memory. Not only were we regaled with tales of her 1.5 month long summer romance with a 25-year-old named Brian (apparently too immature) and adventures in purchasing gas (apparently too expensive), we learned she applied to a position at ABS and was there as a guest.

Naturally, her mobile phone rang during "Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten." She also talked during most of the first piece, until a glare reduced this to whispering. At intermission she stepped over me twice, and she and her companion (a coworker) moved to the side balcony to be more comfortable. The woman used her phone during the music, though did not speak into it, at least. At one point she bounded up, and stamped out of the hall, and after a few minutes she returned to stamp back to her seat.

SFCM's Dialogue of the Carmelites

Dialogue-of-the-carmelites * Notes *
SFCM Opera Theatre presented Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites, in English translation, last weekend. Michael Morgan held the orchestra together, and for the most part, the orchestra and singers were on beat. There was some raggedness in the brass and woodwinds, and the music certainly did not sound easy. Whatever was used for the scored guillotine noises at the end was not convincing, and were inappropriate to the grave proceedings.

However, the Saturday performance was ambitious, and even moving. Much of the singing was strong, and everyone was clearly working hard. The direction, from Richard Harrell, had nearly every moment filled with some sort of movement. Peter Crompton's sets moved easily to switch out the scenes, and Kate Boyd's lighting also helped out with this. The costumes from Maggie Whitaker fit the narrative.

* Tattling * 
There was some whispering, but the worst offenders left at one of the two intermissions. At the first intermission, a rather loud man started off a conversation with "I am not a racist but" and then went on to say he could not accept person in one of the contralto roles because of her race, it did not make sense to him how she could be cast. He went on to say he could not imagine San Francisco Opera making such a casting "error," but was corrected by his companion, who gently said that casting does have to do with vocal type. One wonders what this person would have thought of Jessye Norman as the New Prioress, which she has sung to no small acclaim.