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SF Opera's Billy Budd

_37A9295* Notes *
A new to San Francisco Opera production of Billy Budd opened last night. The performance was dramatically satisfying and had absolutely solid cast.

The Michael Grandage's production comes to us from Glyndebourne and is directed here by Ian Rutherford. The set (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Christopher Oram, is tiered and suggests both a ship and a prison. The seven scenes are handled well, the set changes happen without ever lowering a curtain, though of course it is much easier in this case since all the action happens on the HMS Indomitable.

The male chorus sounded solid and very cohesive. All the singing and acting was strong. From bass-baritone Philip Skinner's gruff but tender Dansker to tenor Matthew O'Neill's bright-voiced Squeak, even the smaller roles are finely cast.

_37A9117Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn made for an excellent villain as John Claggart, and managed to even be almost sympathetic at times in his aria at the end of Act I. Baritone John Chest makes an ideal Billy Budd, he looks and sounds the part, completely embodying the goodness and haplessness of the title role.

Best of all is tenor William Burden (pictured with Christian Van Horn, photograph by Cory Weaver). His wonderfully sweet voice is always consistent, and his Captain Vere is heartbreaking.

* Tattling *
I am not a big fan of Benjamin Britten, but I seem to like this opera, especially Act II's "Don't like the French!" It always makes me chuckle, and I like that there is humor in this otherwise very serious piece.

Sadly, the balcony had rows of empty seats. Nevertheless, the audience members that were there managed to be quite annoying anyway. There was a man in the last row who talked a bunch, and one of companions rustled a plastic packet for what seemed like minutes while Billy Budd sings his last lines in Act II, Scene 3.

SF Opera's Roméo et Juliette

_T8A0455* Notes *
The curtain came up on the latest season of San Francisco Opera with Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) yesterday evening. The youthful cast sounded great, but the production was simply clunky.

From the very first moment there were familiar faces on stage, there are a lot of former Adlers and Merolini throughout the cast, and a lot of other singers that are here regularly. Tenor Daniel Montenegro is well cast as Tybalt, his voice has darkened in the years since he's been here last, and he is a good foil for Roméo. Baritone Timothy Mix is a powerful Capulet and baritone Lucas Meachem a robust Mercutio.

_37A0214Soprano Nadine Sierra is an appealing Juliette. Her clean, bright voice seems tailor-made for the role and her Act I "Je veux vivre dans le rêve" (Juliet's Waltz) was lovely. Tenor Pene Pati, who took over this role from Bryan Hymel, sounded secure. His Act II "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" seemed effortless.

Unfortunately, director Jean-Louis Grinda did not make the best of the fresh-faced cast, and the results are scattershot and incoherent. Carola Volles' costumes are pretty enough, but the hues she chose for Juliette were clearly for fair, pinkish skin and were unflattering on our soprano, even from way back in the balcony. The set, designed by Eric Chevalier, is basically a shallow cube with a raked top surface. It isn't unattractive, but from the balcony, the scenes are not distinct as the upstage scenery isn't visible. The biggest problem is how long the scenes took to set up, the scrim was brought down at least four times and the wait really brought down the focus of the drama.

The sprightly orchestra, conducted by Yves Abel, sounded florid and somewhat fuzzy at first, particularly in the brass. The musicians sounded better as the night wore on, the woodwinds had some beautiful soli.

* Tattling *
Opera standees were not allowed into the auditorium until 7:30pm, and had to wait in ticket number order just outside the orchestra level.

As General Director Matthew Shilvock gave his opening remarks to start the season, a couple of protestors in the balcony started yelling "Impeach Trump now!" and throwing leaflets at the audience. Nancy Pelosi did not seem to be in attendance this year, so I am not sure who this was directed at exactly.

There was a lot of talking during the music, as is normal for the opening night crowd. A cell phone rang during Act II, as Juliette is singing to Roméo about blushing in the dark.

Gregory Taboloff Interview

Gregory-taboloff2019With Michael Tilson Thomas' last season at San Francisco Symphony opening on Wednesday and a full schedule at the San Francisco Opera including Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Britten's Billy Budd, and Opera in the Park, the galas are upon us. For those looking for something more intimate (and with a better-behaved audience), pianist and composer Gregory Taboloff (pictured left) is performing his piano concerto at Herbst Theatre on Sunday afternoon with David Ramadanoff conducting a 45-member orchestra.

How did you start playing piano?
I started playing because we were supposed to, there was a teacher across the street. My older sister went first, then me, then my younger brother. They both lost interest, but I stuck with it, I always came back to music. In junior high I started viola and then played with two youth orchestras, one in Berkeley and other other in Oakland.

You were also a violist! There are secret violists everywhere.
Yes, everyone wanted to play violin, of course, but viola gives you an appreciation for all the different voices in a symphony. We get to play a lot of "oompha oompha."

Is this how you came to composing?
Yes, my first composition was a trio for piano, viola, and clarinet that I wrote for myself and my best friends, who were accomplished musicians. A lot of composers were violists!

Your music has been compared a lot to Russian Romantics. What is it about that type of music that you are drawn to?
My music is neo-romantic, and tends to the passionate and expressive. As a music major, I definitely studied Webern, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen, and I don't want to denigrate atonal or twelve-tone music, it is very interesting and mathematical. I don’t, however, feel like it communicates with my soul.

Tell me about the pieces on the program.
My piano concerto is inspired by Walt Whitman's The Mystic Trumpeter and a painting by my wife, Ann Marie, also entitled The Mystic. The concert starts with the overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute, which fits nicely because it also deals with the spiritual, with all of its Freemasonry themes. We are also playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, which clearly shows a lot of influence from Mozart.

Are you composing anything else?
I am working on an opera based on Dante's La Vita Nuova, which deals with medieval courtly love. It is prose and verse, and is supernatural. Dante stops writing after his beloved Beatrice's death, and has a mystical experience in his study in which a bright red light appears along with Beatrice herself.