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Kitka's BABA

Full ensemble in BABA. Photo by Peter Ruocco* Notes *

Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble gave the world premiere of Karmina Šilec's opera BABA: The Life and Death of Stana (Act I pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) last weekend at Z Space in San Francisco. The opera is based on the lives of women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy in the Balkans, known as "sworn virgins" or virdžina in Serbo-Croatian and burrnesha in Albanian.

This tech-heavy production involved many projections and recorded sounds, but also live accordion and the human voices of the ensemble. There was much speaking and dancing as well, and it was a very full theatrical experience. I must say, I really didn't know exactly what was going on, but I couldn't look away and I certainly was not bored. I always get drawn into the complex rhythms of Balkan music and the interesting sliding notes and harmonizations.

The piece is rather abstract, there isn't really a narrative, but we hear a lot about Stana Cerović, one of the last known "sworn virgins" of Montenegro. The opera begins with Kelly Atkins enunciating many sentences about Cerović at different points of his biography, alternating pronouns and jumping around in time. An example would be something like "Stana is 45 and says he is happy." We do get to hear some startling singing, the various vocal techniques from these talented performers could be both ethereal and disturbing.

There were snippets of stories, Act I has a disquieting depiction of a woman giving birth to triplets outside in the cold as to not wake the rest of the household. One of the babies, a girl, is snatched away by a dog. When told about this, the husband of the woman is heartless, misogyny on full display, unconcerned by the loss. There's also a whole scene that involves Stana training to be a man with Erin Lashnits Herman undressing, binding her breasts, and putting on a suit. She later dresses Maclovia Quintana as a bride and they end the act by playing a game of calling out body parts and doing choreography based on this.

From left  Erin Lashnits Herman  Shira Kammen  Leslie Bonnet  Briget Boyle  Maclovia Quintana and Shira Cion in BABA. Photo by Peter RuoccoThe second half (pictured, photograph by Peter Ruocco) was shorter, and had ten white skirts standing up by themselves on the stage that were projected on and anchored the choreography. Again, much of the focus was on Stana, but were heard a bit about other "sworn virgins," or at least, explore some imagined stories about them. At the end we hear one last song from Herzegovina, "Otkad, seke nismo zapjevale," the only one not in English as sentences flash on a screen above.

* Tattling *
For the most part it seemed that the audience was very engaged in the piece, nearly every seat looked taken. There was not much whispering and the only electronic noise I heard was from a person on the aisle of the right section taking pictures of the skirts in Act II as the music was happening.

They did open the house rather close to curtain, and since there was not assigned seating, only general and premium sections, there was a lot of confusion on which seats were free or not. It was a bit of a mad rush, but everyone did get seated and things only went over the billed 2 hours and 15 minutes by another 15 minutes.

LA Opera's Le nozze di Figaro

IMG_0441* Notes * 
Los Angeles Opera is nearly done with a run of a new Le nozze di Figaro, with a final performance this Sunday. The charming co-production with Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Opéra national de Lorraine, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, and Opéra de Lausanne features a ladder into the orchestra pit and ramps on either side of the stage so that many entrances and exits happen right next to the audience.

The staging, directed by James Gray, has a great immediacy to it, the physicality of all the singers is impressive, everyone was very believable in their roles. The singing was especially good in the ensembles and I like how distinct the voices were. Last night's performance was the first opera I've gone to outside of the Bay Area since 2019, and I questioned myself why I was there until Maestro James Conlon started up the overture. It was so lovely to hear this music played by a fine orchestra, there were some breathtaking tempi but everything seemed well in hand and controlled too.

Soprano Janai Brugger is a sweet sounding Susanna, her voice is warm and round. Her face and body are both expressive, she did a rather lot of hitting, especially of Figaro when he pretends he thinks she is the Countess. Soprano Ana María Martínez (Countess) is the perfect contrast to Brugger, with an icy, incisive tone that is unmistakable. She has the appropriate gravity for this role and while her "Dove sono" wasn't the most beautiful I've heard, it was very moving.

Bass-baritone Craig Colclough is winsome as Figaro, his voice has power and grit. His Act IV "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" was heartfelt. Baritone Lucas Meachem did well, his smooth, strong sound suited the Count and it was hilarious when he tried using a crowbar to open the Countess' closet in Act II. He looked so uncomfortable and inept, the staging was really done perfectly. I was shocked when Meachem tried to hit Cherubino with a bottle in Act IV but struck Figaro instead, shattering glass on the stage. It was funny when he gingerly threw the neck of the bottle into some plants.

Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is a wonderfully breathless Cherubino, terribly in love with love. Chaieb has an especially good physical presence, boyishly imitating the Count and committing fully to the various sight gags she was assigned. It was amusing to see that the Barbarina here was the Cherubino up at Opera San José last fall, mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny. Her full, pretty sound is resonant, and she sang her mournful "L'ho perduta, me meschina" was touching. She didn't seem to have any problems singing the role, even though it is normally cast with a soprano.

Soprano Marie McLaughlin made for an almost over-the-top Marcellina, and got a lot of laughs, as did the flamboyant Don Basilio played by tenor Rodell Aure Rosel. He missed most of Act III, as the Count doesn't let him make an entrance at the beginning. It was a good way to make the transition to Act IV, Basilio comes back onstage and realizes the festivities are over, which gives the audience a bit of narrative to watch as the set is changed. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was also amusing as Dr. Bartolo.

* Tattling * 
I got an aisle seat in the first row of the Dorothy Chandler, so I was right at one of the ramps onto the stage. Everyone around me was very quiet and I did not hear any talking or electronic noise near me. I was glad that the person behind me asked if I would deal with my unruly puffer coat before the music started, it really did impinge on his personal space and I need to remember to fold it away properly next time.

Just before the second half started, a man realized he had come in the wrong door and ran up a ramp and across the stage to get to his seat. He got light applause for this feat and the staff seemed concerned he might have gone backstage.

The Met 2023-2024 Season

MetoperaSeptember 26- October 21 2023: Dead Man Walking
September 28 2023- January 26 2024: Nabucco
October 10 2023- January 13 2024: La Bohème
October 20- November 18 2023: Un Ballo in Maschera
November 3- December 2 2023: X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
November 16- December 14 2023: Florencia en el Amazonas
November 30-December 23 2023: Tannhäuser
December 8-30 2023: The Magic Flute
December 31 2023- May 25 2024: Carmen
January 11- May 11 2024: Madama Butterfly
February 26- March 29 2024: La Forza del Destino
February 28- June 7 2024: Turandot
March 7-30 2024: Roméo et Juliette
March 26- April 20 2024: La Rondine
April 8- May 2 2024: Fire Shut Up in My Bones
April 23- May 17 2024: El Niño
May 5-31 2024: The Hours
May 16- June 8 2024: Orfeo ed Euridice

The Met announced the 2023-2024 season, which includes new productions of Carmen, Dead Man Walking, Florencia en el Amazonas, La Forza del Destino, El Niño, and X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

Press Release | Official Site

Opera San José's Falstaff

Opera-San-Jose_Falstaff-2023_Credit-David-Allen_2184_Resized-scaled* Notes *
A 2013 production of Falstaff (Act II pictured, photograph by David Allen) set in a wine cask returned to Opera San José last weekend. There was much lovely singing and comedic physicality.

Based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes that Falstaff appears in from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, this work has a lot of fat jokes, which I found alienating.

Obviously this is because of the source material and what Arrigo Boito chose for the libretto, but the director, José Maria Condemi, seems to simply go with this without question. Falstaff is vain, gluttonous, and lustful, and not self-aware, every reference to his big belly and fatness garnered laughter in the audience, even if it was not yet sung and just in the supertitles. For me this was unsettling, are we really still in a place in the culture where it's acceptable to laugh at the shape of people's bodies? It highlighted for me how deeply entrenched anti-fatness is in our society and how old it is, even in opera, which famously features many people in larger bodies.

Opera-San-Jose_Falstaff-2023_Credit-David-Allen_2644_Resized-scaledThe production does have a lot of entertaining physical comedy, which the singers are very adept at, especially our title character, baritone Darren Drone (pictured with Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, photograph by David Allen). All his movements were clear and he was, indeed, very funny. He was pompous yet remained lovable. His voice has warmth and depth. Tenor Marc Molomot as Bardolfo and bass-baritone Andrew Allan Hiers as Pistola expertly played off of Drone, and all were able to nicely blend their voices together.

Contralto Megan Esther Grey was a sprightly Dame Quickly, and my curiosity was again piqued, I would love to hear her in a meatier role.  Mezzo-soprano Shanley Horvitz (Meg Page) and tenor Zhengyi Bai (Dr. Caius) supported the other voices well.

Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was a delight as the jealous, conniving Ford, his sound rich and robust. He definitely found his match in soprano Chanáe Curtis (Alice Ford), her voice is hefty, she can reach some effortless soaring notes but sounds grounded at the same time. They were a pleasing contrast to the young lovers, tenor Jonghyun Park as Fenton and soprano Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, whose light, bright voices are sweet and pleasant.

The set, designed by Steven C. Kemp, is charming, the round arches make it obvious that we are inside a barrel. The shorter scene changes with the curtain up between Act I Scene 1 and 2 and Act III Scenes 1 and 2 were more successful than the two longer changes with the curtain down before and in the middle of Act II. People lose interest quickly and start talking when they have nothing to watch, and often that conversation doesn't end when the music starts again.

The orchestra, lead by Maestro Joseph Marcheso, had some lucid soli in the brass and woodwind sections. The music was rollicking and fun, and seemed on the verge of spilling over into utter chaos without actually doing so.

*Tattling *
The scene change in Act II had a title that updated us on the Super Bowl, stating that the game had not yet started.

There was light talking from the audience but most egregious was a cell phone that rang in Act III, Scene 1 when Falstaff was singing. The phone rang a full three times and someone loudly protested, asking the person with the offending phone turn it off.

Opera Parallèle's Everest

Operaparallele_everest_stefancohen_010* Notes *

Back in 2021, still deep in the pandemic, Opera Parallèle created an animated film version of Joby Talbot's 2015 one-act opera Everest, which was released online by Dallas Opera. The work is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Last night an installation of this film (pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) opened at Z Space in San Francisco. Billed as "an immersive experience," it certainly was a full and arresting piece of theater.

Conductor Nicole Paiement usually is the star of an Opera Parallèle production, but here the music was recorded. Director Brian Staufenbiel was at the forefront of this ambitious production, and it all felt very real despite the fact that it is not a live performance in the usual sense. Sound engineer Miles Lassi did a lot of the heavy lifting here to surround us with sound. It was very effective in creating the ambiance, I liked feeling the music in the floor, it very much felt like we were inside a world. It was much more interesting than watching at home, something that truly I could not get into, even when it was the only option for performances until pretty recently.

Operaparallele_everest_stefancohen_012The set, designed by Jacquelyn Scott, is on all sides, made up of 9 projectors on various surfaces, some flat and some that look more like mountains. The audience was asked to either wear white or cover up with white ponchos, I very much enjoy a directive like this and kept thinking to myself that "I am snow!" The graphic novel aesthetic provided by illustrator Mark Simmons is pleasing, even the supertitles are done in lettering that looks like it is from a comic strip. The production makes use of motion capture to animate the faces of the singers, and this works well, though occasionally things do feel a little creepy. Sometimes the eyes are too unwavering, the lack of blinking unnerving somehow. The Projection Designer and Director of Photography David Murakami did a good job making sure everything was as seamless as possible.

The opera focuses on three climbers caught in a blizzard on Mount Everest on May 10 and 11, 1996. Joby Talbot's atmospheric and ghostly music did not make a huge impact on me, though usually I am more interested in this aspect of opera, this one very much was more about the drama of the narrative. Librettist Gene Scheer's words involved a lot of numbers, there were many references to what time of day it was exactly.

The cast has many fine singers, and that much was very evident. There is a vocal quartet that acts as a chorus on a smaller scale and includes soprano Shawnette Sulker, mezzo soprano Whitney Steele, tenor Kevin Gino, and bass Matt Boehler (who also plays guides Mike Groom and Guy Cotter). It was great to hear Charlotte Fanvu sing as the daughter of one of the climbers, as she appeared in a non-singing role in Sophia's Forest last year.

Baritone Hadleigh Adams gave a heartfelt performance as Doug Hansen, a postal worker and amateur mountain climber. Bass Kevin Burdette sang Beck Weathers, another client on this Everest expedition, with much warmth. As the expedition leader Rob Hall, tenor Nathan Granner was very sympathetic and sang well with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who played his wife Jan Arnold. Cooke's voice is beautifully clean, it isn't a surprise to learn she created this role in the 2015 live production of this opera in Dallas.

Tattling *
This performance was proceeded by Nepalese appetizers that included momo (dumplings), chow mein, and samosas. Kheer (rice pudding) was served afterwards.

There was a land acknowledgement not only to the Ramaytush Ohlone (the indigenous people of the San Francisco peninsula), but also to the Sherpa people, who are native to the Himalayas, where the opera takes place.

The audience was entirely quiet and engaged during the performance. Perhaps being part of the opera and inside of it made people behave well.

Midori at SF Performances

SFP-Midori-01 * Notes *
Violinist Midori (pictured, photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) played a solo performance of Bach, Thierry Escaich, and Annie Gosfield at Herbst Theatre Friday night at SF Performances. She plays another program of Bach, Jessie Montgomery, and John Zorn on Sunday, and I'm horribly tempted to attend, as Midori is such a singular talent.

The evening began with Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BMV 1003, Midori seemed so vulnerable as she started with the Grave. Her playing is not flashy, very precise but still nuanced and expressive. The quiet passages of the Fuga were lovely and it was impressive how she made the violin simply sing, as if the sound was simply emanating from the instrument. The double-stops in the Andante were incredible, so smooth and effortless with nary the hint of a crunch. The Allegro was rapid without being breathless.

Next was Escaich's Nun Komm, a piece less than 5 minutes long but obviously very difficult. It sounded rather buzzy and frenetic to me, and it was dumbfounding how Midori managed to pluck and bow the violin at the same time.

The first half of the show came to an end with Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BMV 1005. The contrasts in dynamics were delightful, and Adagio, Fuga, and Largo all were smooth and sedate, and the final Allegro assai felt light and effortless.

After the intermission came Gosfield's Long Waves and Random Pulses, which was very descriptive of what we heard. I found the high notes to be screechy and bone chilling, and found the slides up and down to be rather fun, as were some of the percussive bits that showed up toward the end of the piece. It had a good sense of playfulness.

Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004 was truly wonderful. I know this piece well but in Midori's hands it was entirely engaging and fresh. She never seems to run out of bow, she's always moving and playing clearly. It was humbling to be in the presence of such mastery, and it was hard to take any notes about what was happening, I just wanted to stay in the moment of hearing Bach's music.

* Tattling *
For the most part, the audience was very attentive to the Bach. There was some sort of electronic disturbance during the first piece in the center section of the orchestra level, Row H. There was a loud bang from Row B or C during the third piece that didn't register with Midori at all, she seemed completely in her own universe. Otherwise it was mostly sniffles and coughs, people did seem restless for the contemporary pieces in particular.