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Merola's Metamorphosis Recital

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_1060_Resized-scaled* Notes *
The Merola held a recital entitled Metamorphosis: Recovery, Renewal, and Rebirth last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Curated by Carrie-Ann Matheson and Nicholas Phan (pictured, photograph from Kristen Loken), this evening of art song featured a variety of composers, pianists, and of course, very strong singing from the new batch of Merola participants.

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_2186_Resized-scaledThe recital began with tenor Demetrious Sampson, Jr. (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) singing "Ah Love but a day" by Amy Beach. Sampson has a very powerful, rich voice and exceedingly clear diction. Later in the first half he sang Schumann's "Frühlings Ankunft," which was very pretty and Florence Price's "The Poet and his Song," which he sang with irrepressible joy that made the audience burst into applause although we were asked to only applaud for each section of the themed songs. Sampson showed a lot of charisma in Hugo Wolf's "Storchenbotschaft," he told the story clearly and conveyed the text well.

We heard bass-baritone Finn Sagal sing Samuel Barber's "Invocation to youth," which was robust. He has a good stage presence, my companion for the performance indicated that Sagal seemed like he would be great in musical theater, and in fact he ended the performance with Sondheim's "I know things now," Little Red Riding Hood's song from Into the Woods. He did particularly well though with Errolyn Wallen's "What shall I sing?" and it was adorable to see how much the other two singers sitting on stage with him were into Sagal's rendition.

Merola-Opera-Program_Metamorphosis_Credit-Kristen-Loken_1539_Resized-scaledIt was wonderful to hear soprano Juliette Chauvet (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) sing Messaien's "Resurrection," her crystalline sound seemed perfect for this song. It was obvious that she is a native French speaker, even to my non-Francophone ears. I also liked hearing her duet with mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans, Chausson's "Le réveil."

Mezzo-soprano Simona Genga has an interesting, dramatic voice, very different than Evans. She seemed equally comfortable singing Jocelyn Morelock's "Somewhere Along the Line" and Schubert's "Die junge Nonne." The resonances of her sound were particularly pronounced in Alma Mahler's "Die Stille Stadt."

The baritones Cameron Rolling and Samuel Kidd were also distinct. Rolling has a pleasant, round tone, I especially liked his "Frühlingsglaube" and Kidd is lighter, with a brassy bright sound.

*Tattling * 
There was a lot of program rustling, even though everything was on a single page for each half. I also heard a watch alarm for 9pm, right after Alma Mahler's "Erntelied."

SF Opera's El último sueño de Frida y Diego

_DSC0095* Notes *
The opening of Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera last night was vivid and visually impressive. There was much great singing, especially from the chorus, and the colors of the orchestra were on full display.

This Spanish-language opera premiered at San Diego Opera in October 2022. It is two acts, each about an hour long, and takes place on El Día de los Muertos in 1957. The narrative follows Diego Rivera's summoning of Frida Kahlo from the dead during this liminal time of year. La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead in the Aztec underworld (Mictlān) convinces Kahlo to crossover to the living world. Frank's music features a lot of slippery, sliding chromaticism and percussion. I liked hearing the celeste. I was less keen on Nilo Cruz's libretto, there were many jokes about Rivera's physical appearance, his pot-belly and fear of becoming fat, which seemed so sad given that he's 70 years old in the opera and close to death. This did garner much laughter, perhaps serving to humanize the famous muralist. In addition to the three main characters, there is the young actor Leonardo, who is Kahlo's buddy in Mictlān and wants to return to the living world impersonating Greta Garbo to please a fan of the actress. The character is a bit random but endearing.

Frank handles the chorus well, the 40 choristers sounded cohesive and powerful. All the singing was very fine. Countertenor Jake Ingbar is charming as Leonardo, his bright voice cut through the orchestration without being harsh. Soprano Yaritza Véliz has a lovely otherworldly quality as La Catrina, bird-like and angelic. Baritone Alfredo Daza is an imposing Diego Rivera, his voice is very strong. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack impressed as Frida Kahlo, no small feat given how iconic the painter is. I've heard her many times in a variety of repertoire, but this role really shows off the depths of her voice.

_DSC0168The production, directed by Lorena Maza, is sumptuous with lots of rich details. Jorge Ballina's set makes splendid use of color, the saturated marigold orange in the underworld and intense cobalt blue of La Casa Azul were particularly striking. The scenes switched easily and artfully, whether it was altars of flowers suspended from the ceiling or platforms rolled in to create different spaces. I especially liked how a blank mural wall hid the chorus at the beginning of Act II and then revealed Rivera's Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Of course, the recreations of Kahlo's paintings were also very beautifully done, Eloise Kazan's costumes certainly made that scene that occurs later in Act II work.

* Tattling *
It was great to see that the house was full for the prima of this opera. I situated myself in the middle of balcony standing room right behind two couples and had a great view of the stage where I could easily ignore the OperaVision screens.

There was a cell phone ring right before the music started which made the audience titter. There was a fair amount of light talking and lots of phone screens being checked for the time during Act II.

SF Symphony's Adriana Mater

Saariho* Notes *
Composer Kaija Saariaho (pictured) died last Friday on June 2, and San Francisco Symphony's presentation of her 2005 opera Adriana Mater last night showed what a profound loss this is. Her music is wholly unique and is very much a case for live performance.

Saariaho turned Davies Hall into an instrument, her slow moving music has a physicality that is like being surrounded by a monumental sculpture that gradually appears and then dissipates. Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the orchestra very even and consistent.  The piece has a lot of percussion, more than two dozen instruments, which undoubtedly help create the soundscape that feels so solid and palpable. The brass sounded very clear and the strings shimmered.

The opera, with libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, is set in present day, in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Adriana, a young woman, rebuffs the advances of a young ne'er-do-well Tsargo, and is later raped by him at home when her sister Refka is out. She becomes pregnant and keeps the child, a son she names Yonas, but is tormented by fears that he will be like his father. When Yonas discovers his true paternity, he seeks revenge by taking Tsargo's life, but finds he cannot and thus proves to Adriana that he is indeed her son, and her fears were unfounded.

20230608_AdrianaMater_bhs_059Saariaho dedicated this opera to Peter Sellars, who directed the world premiere seventeen years ago at Opéra Bastille in Paris with Salonen conducting. Sellars is halfway through a four opera series at San Francisco Symphony that will continue next year with Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This new staging for Adriana Mater (Act II pictured, photograph by Brittany Hosea-Small) included four platforms for the four principal vocalists, two downstage, and two upstage. The orchestra is arranged in a diagonal dividing the platforms in half, and the chorus is above but continues the diagonal by being stage right. The lighting switches up from primary colors on different platforms, to fully green or pink depending on the tableau. The singers are all fine actors, I was especially impressed how well mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron (Adriana) was able to hold her body in place for such long periods and how transformed she was from Act I where she is a young adult to Act II when she has a fully grown son. The staging does include four iPads with the music for the singers, and I found this would occasionally take me out of the drama and the music as a singer would turn the page or carry the device to the floor if the choreograph demanded it.

The singing was all very beautiful, an interesting contrast to the dark and disturbing content of the opera. Baritone Christopher Purves is terrifying as the violent Tsargo, but his voice does have.a pretty warmth to it. Tenor Nicholas Phan is wrenching as son Yonas, his sweet, bright sound conveys a lot of emotion. Soprano Axelle Fanyo also has a sweet, full tone and gave a focused performance as Adriana's sister Refka. Barron is devastating in the title role, her deeply burnished mezzo embodied the pain of Adriana and her redemption.

* Tattling *
There was some light talking throughout the performance, which completely didn't make sense to me, as this experience was intense and immersive. A person in Row T Seat 3 of Premier Orchestra kept looking at her phone in the second act.

It seemed like almost everyone I knew who loves opera was at this performance. Even soprano Nina Stemme and baritone Johan Reuter, who are both in Die Frau Ohne Schatten over at San Francisco Opera were in attendance.

SF Opera's Die Frau Ohne Schatten

_DSC2744* Notes *
Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of 34 years. The vibrant production by artist David Hockney premiered at Covent Garden way back in 1992, but still has much to recommend it, and the singing and playing were all wonderful.

The plot of this opera, as with so many of Strauss' operas, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is basically a fairy tale about a magical empress who has no shadow, meaning she is barren, and she must find a shadow or the emperor will turn to stone. She descends to the human realm with her nurse, and tries to gain a shadow from the wife of Barak the Dyer. There is much talk of the unborn. The empress eventually decides it is wrong to harm Barak, as his wife will unable to have children if she gives up her shadow, and in the end she is granted grace and given a shadow. This folktale is consider to be of Aarne-Thompson type 755, about forgiveness and redemption, and has origins in Scandinavia.

Hockney's set is as colorful as the music is, the many scenes are switched up with ease. I really loved how the earthly realm of Barak the Dyer and his wife looked like a rainbow salt mine, even the mortals live in technicolor. The costumes, from Ian Falconer of Olivia fame, looked to be influenced by Rajasthani or Mughal miniature painting.

_DSC2439The cast included 25 principals and not only the regular chorus but a children's chorus. Soprano Nina Stemme (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded as powerful and glittery as ever as Barak's Wife (Die Färberin). It was fun to hear her with soprano Linda Watson (Nurse/Die Amme), since they are both known for performing Brünnhilde. Watson has a more strident tone, but it works for this role, which was written for mezzo-soprano, and the two singers did sound very distinct. The Empress (Die Kaiserin), sung by soprano Camilla Nylund, seemed like a very challenging part, there were dizzying heights that were frankly shrill. But there was no mistaking Nylund for the other two sopranos. Baritone Johan Reuter was a very human Barak, and sang with warmth. Tenor David Butt Philip was certainly more otherworldly as the The Emperor.

The orchestra sounded magnificent under Maestro Donald Runnicles, there were so many colors and textures in the music that came out rather beautifully. This is definitely an opera to return to, and I'm very curious to read the score.

* Tattling *
The people in Box D Seats 7 and 8 arrived slightly late and left a few minutes before the end of the opera. We inconvenienced them by being in their seats at the start, as the person in Seat 4 kept going in and out of the box. The person in Seat 4 also spent a little time texting, but this was relatively brief. The person in Seat 8 smashed her plastic water bottle in order to drink, and this happened 2 or 3 times. She also left the bottle at her seat after leaving the performance.

Otherwise it was pretty quiet, most of the people in attendance very much wanted to be there and were listening intently.

SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

_DSC0444* Notes *
San Francisco Opera resumed its 100th season with a new production of Madama Butterfly (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) directed by Amon Miyamoto and featuring a solid cast. The stars of the show for last night's prima were, however, San Francisco Opera's Music Director Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra.

In this production, we begin in silence with a scene of the elderly Pinkerton in his sick bed. He hands off a letter to his son Trouble and the words bring us back some thirty years to tell us the story of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. I appreciated the reframing of this problematic opera to be through the eyes of mixed race son, I am also a multiethnic Asian American with mixed race children. But the constant presence of actor John Charles Quimpo as the adult Trouble is very distressing and distracting, his movements were erratic and made me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps if he had been a more ghostly observer, it would have worked better, but obviously this was a directorial choice. The spartan set used judicious projections, the exploding flowers in Act II that were projected in the background were appealing. The costumes from Kenzō Takada are elegant.

The cast is strong. The chorus was lovely, as were all the supporting singers. It was nice to see that all the principal Japanese characters are Asian or Asian American and that Chiharu Shibata, who has been in so many San Francisco Opera productions, was the shadow dancer here.

Baritone Lucas Meachem is a perfect Sharpless, the warmth of his voice is sympathetic and kindly. I did like how he was directed to be more forceful than many others in this role, he throws a chair in frustration when Cio-Cio-San refuses to understand her situation in Act II. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, is well-suited vocally and dramatically for Suzuki. Her voice is big and rich.

_DSC0877Tenor Michael Fabiano (pictured in Act I with Karah Son) embodied Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, his bright, bold voice seems made for this music. He sounded equally great in the Act I aria "Dovunque al mondo" and the Act III aria "Addio, fiorito asil" and never overpowered in the many fine duets of the opera. Soprano Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) has a very interesting voice, she has a steel-tinged vibrato with an otherworldliness in her high notes, and her low notes seem deeply anchored. She's very dramatic and moving.

The orchestra sounds splendid under Maestra Kim, the sweep of the music has a distinct clarity and beauty. The brass did particularly well, as did the woodwinds, strings, and harp.

* Tattling *
Latecomers were shuffled into the back of the balcony and not allowed to sit, even though there were plenty of seats in the back rows of the house. I spent a lot of my time in Act I with my eyes closed trying to stay focused on the music, and I was mostly successful, even though I seemed to be surrounded by families with children or adoloscents.

There were some cellphone rings heard during quiet moments and at least two of dropped bottles, as one can bring drinks into the house, apparently.

Before Act III, I was told I could not take a picture of the stage while the curtain was down and there was the message "Please remain at your seats for this brief pause" by one of the ushers who also asked me where my seat was as I stood by myself in balcony standing room. Soon after this I was asked by another patron if I was the one who read the score of operas in the past in standing room, and it reminded me that I should probably attend another performance in this run of Butterfly and do that again.

Opera Parallèle's The Shining

OP-The-Shining-02* Notes *

Opera Parallèle made a triumphant return to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater with a chamber version of  Paul Moravec's 2016 opera The Shining (beginning of Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) last night in San Francisco. The piece is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King and features a lushly creepy score.

Maestra Nicole Paiement conducted with nuance and precision, the tiny chamber orchestra sounded absolutely full and robust. The music references Berlioz and Wagner, and made me curious to hear Paiement conduct a Ring cycle. The pacing of Act I seemed somewhat slow, there was a lot of plot to get through, but Act II was completely engaging. Director Brian Staufenbiel put together a visually rich production, the set moved smoothly, the scenes switching easily with artful use of video projections and set pieces pushed about by ensemble members.

There were about as many singers in the cast as musicians in the pit, it was a bit dizzying. Girl sopranos Perri So and Kiyomi Treanor were particularly chilling as the Grady Girls, their grotesquely large baby bonnets in lurid pink only heightened the scariness. Tenor Nathan Granner sounded great as Bill Watson, Lloyd the Bartender, and part of the vocal ensemble, his diction is always perfectly intelligible and he has a charismatic stage presence even in these supporting parts. Tenor David Walton was also a delight to hear, his bright voice cut through the orchestration and he was able to be distinct in his roles as Stuart Ullman, the general manager of the Overlook Hotel and the ghost of Delbert Grady,  the previous caretaker of the Overlook who murdered his family.

OP-The-Shining-19My favorite singer in this was bass-baritone Kevin Deas as cook Dick Halloran (pictured with Michael Thompson in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver). It's a sympathetic character, to be sure, and Deas brought a warm richness to the role, his rapport with Tenzin Forde as Danny Torrance (who shares the role with Thompson) was clear. Forder does not sing but is very convincing, it is interesting that this child with special powers is the only one who does not have a singing part.

Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (Wendy Torrance) has an icy, flexible voice. She has an effortlessness that never comes off as harsh. Her early seventies outfits were a lot of fun and she rocked bellbottoms and platform shoes with a disarming ease. Baritone Robert Wesley Mason as Jack Torrance has a powerful sound, though not terribly varied. He did unraveled rather dramatically and had impressive stamina for this marathon of a role, he was onstage for nearly all of the opera.

* Tattling *
There was quite a lot of talking at the beginning of Act I, but eventually everyone quieted down as they were drawn into the narrative and stagecraft. Electronic noise was not noted, though a few people did briefly have their mobile phones out and illuminated.

It was nice to see dozens of people I know at this performance, as I hadn't been to this venue since 2017 for Opera Parallèle's Flight.