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Opera San José's Entführung aus dem Serail

Abduction_opera-san-jose1* Notes *
A winsome cast (Matthew Grills as Belmonte and Rebecca Davis as Konstanze pictured, photograph by Pat Kirk) opened the Opera San José 2018-2019 season with the delightful music of Die Entführung aus dem Serail yesterday night. Mozart's jaunty Singspiel is a joy to experience with the young soloists, the sprightly orchestra, and gorgeous set, despite the muddled staging.

The quality of Opera San José's soloists always is solid and this was no exception, the singers are appealing and can both sing and act. The music of Entführung is challenging to pull off, and I was especially impressed by soprano Rebecca Davis as Konstanze, her incisive sound is strong and beautiful. I am astounded every time Konstanze has to sing the back to back arias in Act II, and Davis did not disappoint. Tenor Matthew Grills (Belmonte) also gave a pleasing, lovely performance, making only a few errors. He swallowed a note in his first aria and may have been under pitch for one or two notes in "Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke," but did great in "Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen" of Act II and in all the ensembles.

Abduction_opera-san-jose3Tenor Michael Dailey is endearing as Belmonte's valet Pedrillo and soprano Katrina Galka is perfectly sassy as maid Blonde. Both (pictured left, photograph by Pat Kirk) were very distinct from the other tenor and soprano, Dailey's voice has texture to it and Galka's has a hard edge. Both are excellent actors and are ridiculously attractive, especially for opera singers.

Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam is an amusing as the grumpy Osmin. His clowning had to compete with a lot of silliness from nearly everyone on stage, of course from Pedrillo but there was much buffoonery from Belmonte and even Bassa Selim, the speaking role portrayed here by bass Nathan Stark.

My least favorite element of the performance was the English dialogue coupled with the singing in German, I wish they simply sang in English as much as I like hearing the sung German text. Dramatically it doesn't make sense, and an opera is artificial enough already without having to overcome this too. I appreciated the many details of Michael Shell's direction and the wonderful physical humor, but some gravity was missing for Bassa Selim, I don't see how he goes from his crass antics to becoming the enlightened person who lets his enemy's son go in the end.

This was saved by a splendid set from Steven C. Kemp, which looks better than both productions at San Francisco Opera right now and provides a fine spectacle. It did not surprise me at all that the audience clapped for the last act's set design as it was revealed, it simply looks like a seraglio.

In the end though, Mozart's music shines. I love this opera and I loved hearing it here. Though there were inconsistencies in intonation from the strings, Maestro George Manahan kept the orchestra together and the sound was buoyant. The chorus was powerful and bright as well.

Tattling *
"Your" replaced "you" in a supertitle announcement about silencing electronic devices at second intermission. A cellular phone did ring in Row D, around Seat 5 and 7. More distracting were the loud comments from the man in Row F Seat 1, who talked regardless if the orchestra was playing alone or people were singing.

SF Opera's Roberto Devereux

_T8A7380_crop* Notes *
A magnificently cast Roberto Devereux (opening scene pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is the second offering in San Francisco Opera's 96th season. Though somewhat marred by a tepid staging, the tragic opera by Donizetti is a fine vehicle for vocal fireworks and held together by a confident orchestra and chorus.

Maestro Riccardo Frizza had the orchestra well in hand, clear and synchronized. From the first notes, the sound was declarative and bright, but never overwhelmed the singers. Frizza was never in a rush but also did not drag in the least.

Stephen Lawless's production from the Canadian Opera Company is set in the Globe Theatre, in fact we see Shakespeare pop up out of a trunk during the overture, along with lots of explanatory notes on the supertitle screen setting the context for us about Queen Elizabeth's time. It was odd, given that the piece is not historically accurate, and it was a lot of reading to do before the singing even started. Then again, I am not much of a fan of Donizetti's music, the overture refers to "God Save The Queen," which of course sounds like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to us Americans, so a distraction was welcome enough.

There were some weird elements to the staging, for instance Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and a young Elizabeth appear in glass cases during the overture, Elizabeth thrashes around for a bit and then the cases move off the stage to be replaced by a new scenes. All of these were perfectly seamless, which made the set changes between actual scenes and acts all the more irritating. A red curtain came down as the stairways were moved or a bed was placed to indicate Sara's apartments while a note read "Please stay in your seats during this scene change" on the screen. This takes the audience out of the drama, giving them time to chat or look at their phones, and even though the changes were quick, the damage was done.

But the real reason for mounting this opera is certainly for the singers. Tenor Russell Thomas did not disappoint in the title role. His Act I "Nascondi, frena i palpiti" where Roberto Devereux denies loving anyone is convincing. He also sang "Come uno spirto angelico... Bagnato il sen di lagrime" with great beauty. I found the music here incongruously cheerful for the scene, in which Devereux is imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting death.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is the hapless Sara, beloved by Devereux and married off to the Duke of Nottingham through the machinations of Elizabeth I. Barton has a lovely, rich voice and she sings with utter ease. If memory serves, she nearly upstaged lead soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last time they sang together at San Francisco opera in Norma four years ago.

That was definitively untrue here. Radvanovsky is devastating as Elizabeth I, and it made you wonder why Donizetti didn't keep the title of the source text, Elisabeth d'Angleterre. Radvanovsky takes chances, her notes aren't perfectly clean and white, her voice crackles with emotion when necessary. Her voice is powerful and her rage is unmistakable. At times she seemed completely unhinged, yet she is able to show vulnerability, especially in the last scene.

* Tattling *
The opera was sparsely attended, at least in the balcony, quite undeserved given how strong the cast is. Standing room was even more empty than the night before, perhaps because rush tickets were available.

There many people using their devices in the upper balcony and more than one person was scolded by the ushers.

SF Opera's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

37A7113* Notes *
The standard double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci opened the latest season at San Francisco Opera last night with a colorful production (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) from tenor turned director José Cura.

With the departure of Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera is looking for a new music director and Maestro Daniele Callegari is the first of many conductors making a debut at San Francisco Opera this season. The orchestra sounded transparent, particularly the harp and strings.

Because of the orchestra, the Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana was the best moment of that opera, despite the surreal dance choreography at odds with the realistic production. Likewise, the chorus did a great job throughout the two operas, singing with cohesion and gamely depicting the busy neighborhood denizens.

The leading ladies are powerful here and both sang with much emotion. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk's Santuzza has much pathos, even when she used a shrill edge, it was not inappropriate to her role. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian is secure and lovely, she makes a pretty little Nedda and the violence against her was especially pronounced because of her small stature. Her singing with David Pershall as lover Silvio was beautiful.

The men were more of a mixed bag. The off stage singing of tenor Roberto Aronica (Turiddu) was warbly but his drinking song ”Viva, il vino spumeggiante" was strong. Baritone Dimitri Platanias was serviceable as Alfio in Cav and more gripping in Pag both in the Prologue as Leoncavallo and Tonio, the buffoon who tries to force himself on Nedda. Most compelling was tenor Marco Berti as the betrayed Canio, his anger is palpable. “Vesti la giubba” was a high point of the performance. 

José Cura's production, directed here by Jose Maria Condemi, is at once static, just the one street scene in Buenos Aires in the Italian neighborhood La Boca, and fiddly, with people constantly walking through, peering out their windows and the like. The idea has its appeal, why not have these two operas, so often done together, inhabit the same world? In practice, it was forced, and confusing unless one consulted the program as characters from Cavalleria Rusticana showed up in Pagliacci. I ended up feeling very sorry for Mamma Lucia (played by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove) who mourns for not only her son Turiddu but for Silvio as well, since he is a waiter at her tavern.

* Tattling *
Standing room was not competitive at all this year, I arrived at the opera house at 9:52am and got tickets 8 and 9. The opening night crowd was raucous, applauding and cheering Nancy Pelosi, who was in attendance.

There was the usual talking and inattention, particularly after the intermission as many people did not make it back to their seats in time and were stuck at the back of the orchestra level. Someone in this area talked loudly on his cell phone during Pagliacci. I also heard someone's device ring with the sound of crickets during a quiet part of this opera, which seemed terribly inappropriate.