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The Magic Flute at SF Opera

_75A0387* Notes * 
Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade's delightful and clever production of Die Zauberflöte (end of Act I Scene 3 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night. Eun Sun Kim conducted a beautifully transparent performance with much lovely singing.

This 2012 production originates from Komische Oper Berlin and stages the opera in the silent film era. All the spoken text is cut, instead there are intertitles with Mozart's Fantasia in D minor K. 397 and Fantasia in C minor K. 475 played on fortepiano as accompaniment.

The stage is basically a large white surface with six revolving doors, all but one are situated high up, with little ledges for the singers to stand on. There are many animations to propel the story forward, all the scene changes are instantaneous. It was startling how many animation cues there were, some 729, all done by a dedicated stage manager, and they all appeared to go perfectly smoothly. The draw back of this elaborate scheme is that the singers have to be extremely exact in their positions and movements, and are hemmed in by the stage, often standing in a confined space for quite a long time as the projections move around them. But it certainly was an immersive experience, so much was happening and it was difficult to resist being drawn in to all the many sight gags and entertaining theatrical jokes and references.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim had the orchestra sounding completely transparent, I felt like I could hear every musical line and even feel where certain instruments were doubled. It was very nice to hear Mozart played with so much clarity. The soloists all did well, Julie McKenzie (flute), Stephanie McNab (pan flute), and Bryndon Hassman (glockenspiel) all played cleanly.

The chorus sounded strong, even if they were often hidden in two triple=tiered towers on either side of the projecting surface, we could always hear them.

The three boy sopranos Niko Min, Solah Malik and Jacob Rainow are suitably eerie as the the three spirits. Soprano Arianna Rodriguez is adorable as Papagena. The three ladies, sung by soprano Olivia Smith and mezzo-sopranos Ashley Dixon and Maire Therese Carmack, started off a bit hesitant but were fine by the end. Their scene mooning over Tamino was very much played for laughs. Tenor Zhengyi Bai's Monostatos was dressed as Count Orlok from Nosferatu, which was also very funny.

_75A7111Bass Kwangchul Youn is a solid and powerful Sarastro, while soprano Anna Simińska was a more delicate and ethereal Queen of the Night. She hit all her notes, sounding very fluttery and birdlike. Bass-baritone Lauri Vasar has a darker timbre than any Papageno I've ever heard, he has a breathiness to his sound as well, and a winsome manner. His duet with Christina Gansch (Pamina) in Act I, Scene 2 (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded great. Gansch has a robust, well-rounded sound but also a certain brilliance. Tenor Amitai Pati has a very pretty voice, and his Tamino is sweet.

* Tattling * 
There were some lozenges loudly unwrapped toward the beginning of the performance, but not a lot of electronic noise. The audience did seem very engaged and reacted to the misogyny of the text. I also was bothered by the light of someone's phone in Row Q, in the center section, right on the aisle.

There were also a few pen clicks from the journalist behind me, who was clearly taking notes for a review. This person was asked to give an opinion of the opera at intermission by an audience member, which seemed quite inappropriate. I understand the audience member was just curious but it seems unkind to interrupt someone at work.

Víkingur Ólafsson Plays Goldberg Variations

Cal-performances-vikingur-olafsson-by-ari-magg-3 * Notes *
Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson (pictured, photograph by Ari Magg) is playing Bach's Goldberg Variations all over the world in the 2023-2024 season and came to Cal Performances last Saturday afternoon. The recital he gave was potent and focused, getting all sorts of colors out of the instrument.

He started off very sedately with the aria and proceeded to explore the wide range the thirty variations have to offer. His playing is always crystal clear and yet not bland in the least, there were always nuance and a varied array emotions that were palpable. He was never needlessly flashy, which one always does appreciate.

It definitely took the listener on a journey though the world of this piece. There were times in which I was flooded with the purest joy and other moments when I was close to tears. The clarity of Bach's music was a near religious experience.

* Tattling *
As is often the case with a performance without an intermission, this recital started 12 minutes late. Someone's cellular phone rang during the aria and Ólafsson stopped playing until the ringing stopped, and started again at the beginning. Somehow we made it through the 80 minutes without more phones ringing, though I did hear a watch alarm chime at 3pm and some doors slamming shut. There were also a lot of weird feedback sounds in Zellerbach, lots of loud buzzing and humming.

Ólafsson declined to do an encore, since the piece is so complete in and of itself, finishing with the Aria again at the end. He spoke to us instead, forgiving the cellular phone owner and praising Bach as the greatest composer in history while excusing himself to John Adams, who was in attendance, and whose new piano concerto After the Fall will premiere next season at San Francisco Symphony with Ólafsson as the soloist.

Pocket Opera's Cunning Little Vixen

Cunning-little-vixen-2024* Notes *
In April Pocket Opera did a charming run of Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) and I managed to catch the last performance at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco last weekend. It was the premiere of this translation from Pocket Opera's late founder Donald Pippin.

Janacek's opera was done in a new chamber version by the tiny orchestra that was seated on the stage behind singers. Maestro Jonathan Khuner had the musicians going at a fast clip, but the vivid music came through well and has stuck in my head for several days now.

Stage director Nicolas A. Garcia's production is very sweet and moves easily through the many scenes. The choreography, by Lissa Resnick, employs two talented dancers that portray a pair of insects and the human couple of Terenka and the Forester. I appreciated their movement through the lush instrumental interludes. The costumes were very cute, for the most part they suggested which animal they were to represent without being completely literal. The vixen wears a stylish sweatsuit in orange plus ears and a tail and the chickens have fifties dresses in black and white with red headbands and shoes (pictured), and it's just enough to feel intentional and cool rather than simply being on a shoestring budget.

The singing was all very strong. Contralto Sara Couden sounded great as both the Badger and the Parson, her rich voice is surprisingly well suited to these roles. The contrast of her with the tenor Erich Buchholz as the Mosquito and the Schoolmaster was very pleasing, they can hit the same notes and they sound totally different. Bass-baritone Robert Stafford did fine as Harašta the Poacher, as did mezzo-soprano Hope Nelson as GoldStripe the Fox, who was appealing and incisive.

Baritone Spencer Dodd also sounded plaintive as the Forester, a nice reedy sound. Best of all was soprano Amy Foote in the title role, her icy flexible sound and physical embodiment of SharpEars the Vixen was heartrending.

* Tattling * 
There was a lot of back and forth with one of the ushers as people were being seated during the beginning of Act I Scene 1, it was loud and hard to ignore. There was also one watch alarm at 4pm.

It's been about twenty years since I first heard this piece done at San Francisco Opera, and almost eight since I heard it at West Edge Opera in Oakland (also with Amy Foote, incidentally). It's embarrassing to remember how much I disliked it the first time, but I'm glad I've been able to come to appreciate Janáček so much more.