Alek Shrader

The English Concert's Alcina

Cal-performances-english-concert-karina-gauvin-julien-faugere* Notes * 
The English Concert, conducted by Maestro Harry Bicket, has been touring Händel's Alcina with a first-rate cast. Yesterday afternoon the group came to Cal Performances in Berkeley with the splendid soprano Karina Gauvin (pictured, photograph by Julien Faugere) in the title role.

The singing was uniformly wonderful, from bass Wojtek Gierlach's grave, authoritative Melisso to tenor Alek Shrader's pretty and appealing sound as Oronte. Shrader made the most of the concert version presented, and was able to convey humor without being over the top. The two mezzos, Paula Murrihy as Ruggiero and Elizabeth DeShong as Bradamante were nicely distinct. Murrihy has a light, sparkly tone, while DeShong's is almost baritonal, very dark and hardy. It was pretty amusing, given that Bradamante is a lady pretending to be a man and written for a contralto, and Ruggiero was originally played by castrato Giovanni Carestini. Murrihy sang "Verdi prati" in Act II particularly well.

Best of all were the sopranos, also sharply different from one another. Lucy Crowe made for an utterly charming Morgana, hapless sister of witch Alcina. Crowe's voice is truly brilliant, very pleasant on the ears, and her acting is endearing as well. Gauvin has a delicacy that works nicely for Baroque music, her pianissimi were exquisite. She doesn't have much vibrato and managed to fire things up when necessary, as with her Act III aria "Mi restano le lagrime."

The ensemble played neatly under Maestro Bicket's direction. The soli were all very strong, violinist Nadja Zwiener was excellent, as was cellist Joseph Crouch. The horns did were pretty darned good, only a tiny bit of fuzziness once, and I very much enjoyed how much Ursula Paludan Monberg danced to the music as she played. Also impressive was therobo Sergio Bucheli, who broke a string in Act III but managed to discreetly and calmly replace the string on stage.

* Tattling * 
Perhaps people have forgotten how to turn off their devices during the pandemic. There was ringing near me in the mezzanine twice in Act II from two different patrons. Mask compliance was high, there are no concessions at Cal Performances right now, so any refreshments one partook of during the 3 hour 45 minute performance had to be snuck in.

SF Opera Barber Drive-In Review

Barber_stefancohen_328* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera presented a delightful drive-in version of The Barber of Seville (pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at Marin Center starting last Friday. The new production from director Matthew Ozawa is bold and fun.

Maestro Roderick Cox made a fine debut conducting the 18 members of a mostly masked and socially-distanced orchestra from a tent behind the stage. Despite these challenges, the proceedings were lively and bright, only the horn sounded hesitant at the April 24 performance I attended. It made me really look forward to hearing all the musicians again back at the War Memorial, and hopefully Cox gets a chance in a proper orchestra pit with them.

The opera is presented as a rehearsal at our beloved opera house, and we hear Managing Director of Production Jennifer Good as the Stage Manager, threading together the arias and ensembles as they unfold in dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, and on the opera stage. The set was meant for the Fidelio production that was to have been performed last September, and is repurposed here with lots and lots of video projections of the San Francisco opera house. It is definitely busy, there are four screens that can be moved about, but it works. The images read well from afar and make the drive-in aspect of the production feasible.

It was so pleasing to see and hear so many beloved and familiar opera singers in this Barber, nearly the whole cast has been in the Merola Opera Program. I've heard mezzo Catherine Cook as Berta dozens of times, but she always brings verve to the role. Her sound is incisive and completely distinct from any of the Rosinas she's been cast with. Bass Kenneth Kellogg made the most of Don Basilio's "La calunnia," his deep, rich tones are impressive. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner is a very amusing Dr. Bartolo, his voice is reliable.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (Rosina) and tenor Alek Shrader (Almaviva) are adorable little lovebirds on and off stage, and their voices are both well-suited to Rossini. Mack is visibly pregnant, and I felt exhausted for her, but she sang with vivid lightness and warmth throughout. Baritone Lucas Meachem is also completely perfect in the title role, his personable Figaro has a lot of appeal. The diction throughout the performance was clear from everyone, and I did not have to read the supertitles at all.

* Tattling * 
It was 524 days since the last live performance I attended at San Francisco Opera and 419 since the last live performance I've heard, so I was very excited to be there, even if it was in my silly little Prius with a substandard sound system. There was static at times but this was much preferable to the filmed versions of operas I've watched in my car.

I do wish there were a couple of matinee performances of the production, though only 90 minutes long and performed without an intermission, the 8pm start time is too late for my small children, who would have loved the performance with all the sight-gags and color. But perhaps the projections would not have shown up well during daylight.

The Covid protocols were strict: no being outside unless going to the restroom, masks need to be on, and vehicles were physically distanced. There were a few cars whose lights turned on at times unexpectedly, but for the most part there were fewer distractions than from a normal opera audience. I really liked that they asked right away that people not honk their horns after numbers and gave everyone glow sticks to show their appreciation for the music.

The Tempest at the Met

Tempest-met-2012* Notes * 
The Metropolitan Opera, dark for two nights because of Hurricane Sandy, reopened on Halloween with a third performance of The Tempest by Thomas Adès. The production, from Robert Lepage, is enchanting. The piece is set in a version of La Scala, which starts almost as a paper theater, but ends up being rather detailed and substantial. Act I is from the stage, Act II from the audience, and Act III has a scene from backstage, followed by one in cross section (pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera). Projections are used to conjure the tempest and the sea. Entrances and exits are made using the prompter's box, curtains, and even the chandelier. The acrobatics involved make for fine spectacle.

The orchestra was lead by an enthusiastic Adès, the playing was clear and the music rather eerie. Adès eschews sentimentality, but can be somewhat harsh, and some of the singers did sound pushed to their limits. The chorus sounded sturdy and together.

Kevin Burdette (Stefano) and Iestyn Davies (Trinculo) excelled as the comic relief of the evening, moving gracefully. Audrey Luna is an otherworldly Ariel, her notes so high she seemed to be squeaking in a cetacean language. Isabel Leonard was a little acidic, but she is a pretty Miranda, and was plaintive in Act III. Alek Shrader sang Ferdinand with sweetness, and with a characteristic metallic sheen in the high notes.

Caliban is a rather sympathetic creature in this opera, and Alan Oke sang with a certain gentleness when necessary. William Burden gave a nuanced performance as the King of Naples, his voice sounded bright and strong. Toby Spence was a believable Antonio, and his sound is distinct from the aforementioned tenors. Though Simon Keenlyside's voice is not particularly robust, his Prospero has much fire and beauty.

* Tattling *
There were a number of talkative audience members in Family Circle, both in seats and in standing room. Given the lack of public transportation, it was not surprising that the hall was not entirely full. There was also noticeable attrition at the intermission. The ovation was, however, ebullient.

Magic Flute Opening at SF Opera

Sf-opera-magic-flute-act-i-scene3-2012* Notes * 
The Magic Flute (Alek Shrader as Tamino and the animals of the woods in Act I Scene 3 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera Wednesday night. The new production, from artist Jun Kaneko, is an utter delight. Kaneko's use of bright colors and whimsical shapes is charming. The video projection of his designs are integrated with both the music and Harry Silverstein's direction. The lighting, designed by Paul Pyant, helped unify the production into a coherent whole.

Conductor Rory Macdonald chose some fleet tempi at times, but for the most part the orchestra sounded taut and together. Mozart left the brass exposed, which was not always to the advantage of those instruments. The chorus did a fine job, and the last scene of Act I was particularly beautiful.

Greg Fedderly made for a very funny Monostatos and Nadine Sierra was a winsome Papagena. The three ladies, Melody Moore, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum, played nicely off each other. Kristinn Sigmundsson (Sarastro) was imposing. As Pamina, Heidi Stober sounded warm and strong. Alek Shrader (Tamino) was ill, but still sang respectably. Nathan Gunn's light baritone was adequate for Papageno, and his acting skills served him well. Albina Shagimuratova shone as Queen of the Night.

The performances are in English, which is much more sensible than when San Francisco Opera did The Abduction from the Seraglio with sung German and spoken English back in 2009. I did notice that the Three Ladies used "fare thee well" as opposed to Pamina and Tamino, who sang "fare you well." Probably makes more sense to just go with the latter, given that the dialogue references drag, carb requirements, and other contemporary concepts.

* Tattling * 
Renée Tatum tripped in Act I, but recovered quickly, without losing her cool.

The woman in Row R Seat 8 on the orchestra level whispered loudly, but did manage to keep quiet when hushed. Some one in Row S fought with cellophane for several minutes of the second act.

Albert Herring at LA Opera


* Notes *
The fourth performance of Los Angeles Opera's Albert Herring (Act II Scene 1 pictured left, photograph by Robert Millard) on Sunday boasted a balanced ensemble cast and fine musicianship all around. Conducted by Maestro James Conlon, the playing in the pit sounded taut and clear. The horn only made one slight error, but otherwise sounded quite agreeable. The singers all seemed perfect for their roles, and distinct enough from one another in sound. The diction was clear.

Liam Bonner (Sid) and Daniela Mack (Nancy) made for a nice, youthful pair. The various pillars of society sang humorously together, or against one another, as need be. As Superintendent Budd, Richard Bernstein was warm in contrast to Robert McPherson's rather bright Mr. Upfold. Jonathan Michie sang nimbly as Mr. Gedge. Though Stacey Tappan's voice is pretty and bird-like, her Miss Wordsworth still managed to be convincing. Ronnita Miller's acting as Florence Pike was confident, and her singing hearty. Janis Kelly played Lady Billows with the right amount of self-importance and hysteria. Her cold, brilliant voice is piercing. As for Albert Herring himself, Alek Shrader seemed ideal, it is hard to imagine a more suitable tenor for this role. Shrader's voice is lovely.

The production, directed by Paul Curran, was first seen at Santa Fe Opera last summer. The set and costumes, designed by Kevin Knight, are charming and sweet. The use of supernumeraries to change the scenes in various cunning ways made for good laughs.

* Tattling * 
The performance was not particularly full. There was light talking in the Founders Circle, especially in the first half of the opera.

Alek Shrader's Schwabacher Debut Recital

* Notes *
The 2009 Schwabacher Debut Recital Series opened with Alek Shrader, accompanied by the inimitable John Parr, last Sunday. Shrader's voice is clear and pretty, but his upper register is considerably more strained than his lower register. However, he is remarkably consistent. His rendition of various Benjamin Britten songs came off well, but he did not sing Schumann's Dichterliebe with much verve. Perhaps I was comparing him unfavorably with the baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, who sang this work last March.

The Henri Duparc songs and the Liszt's Drei Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell were again sung nicely, but not with much fire. It was very clear that Shrader is much more at ease in the lower part of his voice in "Der Alpenjäger." He came alive when singing bel canto, at the end of the recital. There was some distracting issues of breathing through teeth, but Rossini's "La danza" was absolutely lovely.

Shrader played guitar with his first encore, "Ecco ridente in cielo," and this was rather charming. At one point he did make a rather obvious mistake in playing, but simply played it off by scolding an invisible Figaro.

* Tattling * 
Audience members spoke aloud during the music, there was one watch alarm that went off twice, and some very audible snoring was heard during the Schumann and Liszt.

Adler Fellows Gala Concert 2008

  * Notes *
The Adler Fellows Gala Concert last night was rather Germanic, there were no arias from Verdi or Puccini at all, though the evening started with the overture from Les vêpres siciliennes. Andrew Bidlack was drowned out by the orchestra during Capriccio's "Verraten hab ich meine Gefühle," though Tamara Wapinsky sang well and was perfectly audible. Bidlack was better in "Now you have seen her" from Gordon Getty's Usher House, the sweetness of his voice came through. Kenneth Kellogg sounded fine as well, as usual.

Heidi Melton and Daveda Karanas both have stunning voices, though I found the choice of "Weh, ach wehe, dies zu dulden" from Tristan und Isolde a bit boring. Melton has good volume and a lovely creaminess, she did have a bit of strain in her higher register, especially for the first high note. The pleasantly metallic sound of Karanas was a good foil for Melton. Katharine Tier did not hit the high note in "Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse," though her low notes were beautiful. Likewise, "D'Oreste, d'Ajace" seemed inappropriate for Tamara Wapinsky, the role did not sit well in her voice.

The second half of the concert was better. Ji Young Yang twittered prettily through Act III, Scenes 4 and 5 of Semele with Alek Shrader. Though he was not perfectly with the orchestra, Shrader's voice is strong. Daniela Mack sounded wonderful as Cendrillon when she sang "Ma pauvre enfant chérie!" with Kenneth Kellogg. The evening ended with "Mein Gott! Es war nicht mehr als ein Farce" from Der Rosenkavalier. Heidi Melton was a dignifed Marschallin, Katharine Tier was a bit difficult to hear at times as Octavian. Ji Young Yang (Sophie) and Kenneth Kellogg (Faninal) were perfectly delightful.

* Tattling * 
There was a fair amount of talking and rustling of programs. Many people arrived late.

Opening of Idomeneo at SF Opera


  * Notes *
The opening performance of Idomeneo at San Francisco Opera started off a bit shaky, but did hit its stride by the second act. John Copley's 1999 production has a very similar look to his Ariodante seen at the War Memorial earlier this year. Certainly this is no surprise, as the productions also share the same set designer and costume designer. John Conklin's set for Idomeneo is fairly quiet, there was less banging and such for the scene changes than in Ariodante. One was not quite sure what to make of the spoils of war hanging from ropes with pulleys in the first scene, but the rest of the set is perfectly reasonable, the backdrops are especially lovely. The costumes, from Michael Stennett, recall Tiepolo, not only in style but in palette.

Runnicles conducted the orchestra crisply enough, the only issues seemed to be a few minor pitch problems from the horns and oboes. Adler Alek Shrader sounded nice as Arbace, despite his youth, which is at odds with the role. In her debut at San Francisco Opera, Iano Tamar (Elettra) was overwhelmed by the orchestra in Act I, but was audible for the rest of the evening. Her voice has a certain smoky fragility, but is appealing. Genia Kühmeier's main stage debut as Ilia was more impressive. Though she has the slightest harshness at the top, her voice is beautifully clear and pure. Her "Se il padre perdei" in Act II was gorgeous.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was exceedingly breathy in Act I, almost gasping. She did look convincingly male as Idamante, though she is perhaps a little shorter than Kühmeier. The rest of her performance was smoother, though it was not completely amazing. On the other hand, tenor Kurt Streit was vocally sensational in the title-role. He did have trouble with his train, it got caught on the set at one point and seemed to trip him. However, his performance was engaging nonetheless, and his Act II aria, "Fuor del mar," was gut-wrenching.

* Tattling * 
There was much whispering in Box A, but it did die down as the evening wore on. One watch alarm was heard three times, but there were no mobile phone rings. Someone did take a flash photograph at the beginning of Act II.

I was able to hear the prompter after Idamante first entered. There was very little backstage noise but a walkie talkie was clearly heard in Act III just after the chorus had gotten to place.

I absolutely loved the horse heads at the end of Act II and giggled hysterically during the applause.


Die Tote Stadt at SF Opera

Marietta-emily-magee * Notes *
Nearly 88 years after the world premiere, Die Tote Stadt finally opened in San Francisco yesterday evening. The work is certainly a very pretty synthesis of Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini. It is nostalgic, but also prefigures Korngold's work in film scores. The music sounded effortless under the direction of Donald Runnicles, the orchestra did not overwhelm the singers and the tempi were rigorous. The chorus sounded perfectly lovely as well.

All of the smaller singing roles were filled by Adler Fellows, some familiar to the War Memorial stage, such as tenor Andrew Bidlack, soprano Ji Young Yang, and mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier. The other two, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Alek Shrader, had their main stage debuts. They all did well, sounding and looking the parts. Tier was particularly fine as Brigitta, the maid, her diction was clear and her voice is quite promising.

Former Adler Lucas Meachem was convincing as both Frank and Fritz, his acting strong and his volume good. He sang "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" splendidly and without strain. Tenor Torsten Kerl was palatable enough as Paul, there were times when his voice did not quite cut through the orchestra, though he was always audible. On the other hand, Emily Magee's voice soared over the orchestra, she gave a vocally exquisite performance as Marie/Marietta. For the most part her acting was persuasive, though she does not quite have a dancer's self-possession as far as movement is concerned. However, overall the music was gorgeous and everything seemed to come together beautifully.

As I was unable to see much of the production in the balcony, I have little to say about it. From what I could see, it appeared sleek and tasteful. Clearly the set was meant for a different space, and it was annoying when singers' heads could not be seen. The shrine to Mariette was not in evidence as there was almost no furniture, only scattered and badly cropped reproductions of a portrait by John Singer Sargent. The painting of Miss Elsie Palmer looks rather grotesque when blown up to the dimensions necessary for the stage, but was used effectively in the various nightmare sequences. I very much enjoyed the little houses that were moved around upstage, apparently if such stagecraft is used in a dream, it is not considered Eurotrash.

* Tattling * 
There were many empty seats in the balcony, giving me nothing to tattle about as far as audience behavior. However, I did notice, much to my chagrin, that my name appears in the program.

There was a fair amount of banging and crashing as the set was changed, though the aforementioned houses were silent. Emily Magee lost her wig in Act I as she took off her hat, but remained calm, simply smoothing it back onto her head with aplomb.