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August 2022

Antony and Cleopatra (Again)

_DSC0371* Notes * 
I started going to San Francisco Opera in 1996, and over the years I've gained many opera going friends, with whom I've traveled to see operas all over the place, from Seattle to Berlin. It has been sad to not be able to attend performances for the last few years, so when my opera buddy based in Brooklyn said he would like to go to John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Amina Edris as Cleopatra and Gerald Finley as Antony in Act I Scene 5 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) on September 18, I did my best to rouse up some of our friends to go as well. As I did not know standing room would be back or if I'd be able to get press tickets for this date, I purchased four tickets for the last row of the house. I was fortunate enough to be able to get press tickets, and thus asked two more friends to join us. Much merriment was had, though sadly no one else seemed to like this opera as much as I did.

It was agreed that all the voices were beautiful and that the music in between scenes in Act I was strong. From the orchestra level, I felt I could hear tenor Paul Appleby as Caesar more clearly, his voice is nice and light, perfect for Mozart, but also lovely here. His music in Act II Scene 2 made my hair stand on end. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sounded more powerful from the balcony. I still liked his aria in Act I Scene 2, but it was even more noticeable to me this time how declamatory the vocal lines were throughout the opera. Soprano Amina Edris (Cleopatra) gave me chills though, especially in her death scene at the end of the opera.

I really loved hearing Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra. I confirmed for myself that it was between Act I Scenes 4 and 5 that sounded particularly Wagnerian, like the end of Das Rheingold, something very Valhalla-esque to the music here. Again, I enjoyed the textures of cimalom and celesta, and am looking forward to seeing the orchestra when I attend this opera again on Friday as part of my subscription.

* Tattling * 
I made a reservation for the North Box Restaurant, but somehow bungled it by only having a table for 2 rather than 6. Thankfully we got there early enough that it seemed to get sorted out quickly, the people that work there are very kind and professional. I noted that most of the group present had been at the French Laundry back in 2010, the very evening our local baseball team won the World Series, and we had done The Wave at the table and three of our party sang part of Nixon in China. We did The Wave at our table, convincing our one compatriot that was not there last time to take a video of us.

Our press tickets were in Row S and there was a "famous opera dog" next to us who was very quiet and well-behaved. I noted a loud cell phone with an 80s arcade sound near the beginning of the opera and a few watch beeps at each hour. I also heard a few people being hushed. My opera companion fell asleep during Act I Scene 2.

My friends were not very happy with me at the end of the opera, as they felt the second act dragged on too long. At 3 hours and 17 minutes, perhaps some cuts would be helpful. Anyway, one of our party threatened to strangle me, and another mentioned they might want to stand outside the opera next time with signs protesting my lack of taste and possible spousal abuse in bringing my partner to such a boring performance. I apologized to them all, giggled heartily, and invited them to do standing room for Eugene Onegin next Sunday.


Opera San José's Le Nozze di Figaro

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen14* Notes *
Le nozze di Figaro (Efraín Solís as Figaro and Maya Kherani as Susanna in Act IV pictured, photograph by David Allen) opened at Opera San José last weekend with a joyous and very human production set in colonial India.

I was skeptical about moving this piece from Seville to South Asia, as a person with multiple marginalized identities, I'm always wary of using other cultures for some exotic flair. But it definitely worked well, and Mozart's work was more alive than ever, and felt like it could belong to anyone.

It was great that there were many opportunities for the South Asian diaspora in this production and not just the singers. I was happy to see that choreographer Antara Bhardwaj was a cultural consultant as was the costume designer Deepsikha Chatterjee. The stage looked gorgeous, as did the clothing, and it was great to see Bhardwaj dancing in a quartet, the geometric lines were very lovely. Director Brad Dalton seemed to have everyone on the same page, it was impressive that not only the trained dancers but the whole cast was able to move so nicely (pictured, photograph by David Allen).

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen17Conductor Viswa Subbaraman kept the orchestra going at a frenetic pace, occasionally going off the rails but certainly never a dull moment. The singers were most wonderful, however. Even silly Don Basilio -- tenor Zhengyi Bai -- was sung with absolute delight and beauty. Soprano Melissa Sondhi was an adorable Barbarina, and gave an effortless performance of "L'ho perduta... me meschina." Mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny was likewise sweet as Cherubino, her first aria, "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio" perfectly fluttery and light and her second ("Voi che sapete che cosa è amor") simply lovely. She was one of the tallest people on stage so the jokes about Cherubino's size were all the funnier.

Soprano Maria Natale was convincing as the Countess, her notes have a brass-like quality that is distinctive. As the Count, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu's sound is more rounded and warm, he's suitably puffed up but not a buffoon. His Act III aria "Hai già vinta la causa – Vedrò mentr'io sospiro" was moving.

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen12-1This pair was a fine contrast to soprano Maya Kherani as Susanna and baritone Efraín Solís in the titular role. Kherani has a pure sound not unlike a bell and Solís is bright with textural nuances. They both have wonderful physicality and were excellent with the comic timing.

Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp's set matched the embellishments of the California Theatre itself and was very detailed and ornate. There were rather long pauses between Acts I and II and Acts III and IV, but the trade off of having such opulence seems fair.

* Tattling *
The 89-year-0ld lady next to me was very chatty and genial. She had a friend behind her and another one across the aisle but promised to behave herself, and she was quiet during the music and conscientious about letting me get around her when I needed to.

I cried during the wedding scene in Act III (pictured, photograph by David Allen) and at the end of the opera. I love this music so much and it was nice to feel like the people who put this opera on were making space for people like me.


SF Opera's Antony and Cleopatra

_DSC1405* Notes * 
The world premiere of John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Act II Scene 3 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera featured powerful voices and lushly textured music. The piece has a certain glittery yet dark quality to it, and the production leaned into that, to be sure.

The libretto for this work was by the composer, but based mostly on the play by Shakespeare with flourishes from classical texts by Plutarch, Virgil, and others. This was more successful dramatically than other libretti of Adams' recent operas, but perhaps there were fewer chances for the weird but charming outbursts about pigs or chocolate cake.

The orchestra sounded splendid, Maestra Eun Sun Kim has precision with dynamism. The orchestration has two harps which very much called to mind Wagner to me, especially near the end of Act I. I was also quite taken by the use of celesta (or bell piano), which I could hear very clearly up in the back balcony. Somehow it didn't remind me of the Sugar Plum Fairy at all, and I look forward to hearing the opera again to focus in on this and the cimbalom, which I immediately responded to, as I was obsessed with dulcimers as an adolescent. The chorus also sounded great, very much together and full.

The singing was strong, there were quite a lot of characters, but they were all distinct. It was lovely to hear mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Deshong as Octavia, sister of Caesar. Her voice is wonderfully rich and deep. I also really liked mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Charmian, Cleopatra's attendant, who radiated calm reasonableness in contrast to Cleopatra's wild rages.

_DSC9485The most evocative aria for me was in Act I Scene 2, "Age cannot wither her, no custom stale her infinite variety" sung by Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker details the appeal of Cleopatra in front of a scrim with projections of the character, as she lounges upstage (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Walker is sympathetic and his voice effectively conveys how alluring and magnetic Cleopatra is.

The three principal singers were also quite vigorous. Tenor Paul Appleby is an unctuous Caesar, his voice is very bright and pretty. At times his sound may have lacked heft, but I think it might have had to do with the staging, he was dampened by being upstage and boxed in by scenery in Act II Scene 2, for instance.

Bass-baritone Gerald Finley makes for a charismatic leading man, singing Antony with much sweetness. But best of all was soprano Amina Edris as Cleopatra, her voice has an intense vitality to it, and she was downright frightening when it was called for, implacable and domineering.

The production, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, is stylish and stark. The scene changes are seamless, there were many moving stage elements that could hide and reveal different settings. The projections were elegant, often black and white, and employed thoughtfully.

* Tattling * 
I had a ticket for the very last row of the opera house, but since standing room is back, I decided to stand near the center aisle, especially since the performance was not sold out and it was easier to see from that vantage point without anyone directly in front of me.

I was asked if this was my first John Adams opera, which I was so amused by, I could hardly respond. It was clear that the pandemic has made my social skills even worse. Otherwise, the audience around me was quiet and respectful, though there might have been some inappropriate giggling when Eros, follower of Antony, stabbed himself in Act II Scene 3.

My 8-year-old child loves Nixon in China, and I had thought maybe I could bring him to hear this. His review of Doctor Atomic (not a very child-appropriate work, we only heard the first 15 minutes) was that it sounded "like Nixon in China but bad and noisy," so I was curious if the music here would be something he would be interested in. The themes of Antony and Cleopatra seem a little too adult for a third grader though.