Berkeley West Edge Opera

Serse at Berkeley West Edge Opera

Serse-el-cerrito * Notes *
The production of Serse that recently completed a run at Berkeley West Edge Opera turned Händel's opera seria on its head, to amusing effect. Though I was reluctant to go to this, as I had just heard and seen a fantastic Serse in Houston only 7 months ago, the experience in El Cerrito was not without rewards.

Mark Streshinsky did a fine job with the production, the stage looked clean, the branches woven into the shape of a plane tree were attractive, and the opera managed to be rather funny without being stupid. Though the orchestra was together under conductor Alan Curtis, there were consistent intonation problems, especially in the strings. The chorus had trouble staying with the orchestra, perhaps because they were so far upstage.

The cast acted well. Donald Sherrill was hilarious as Elviro, especially when pretending to peddle flowers. Anna Slate was also very entertaining as the ridiculous Atalanta. Ryan Belongie sounded wonderfully warm and clear as Arsamene. Angela Cadelago made for a winsome Romilda, though her singing was not perfectly clean and her vibrato was somewhat distracting. Cadelago was lovely in the finale, as was the chorus. Paula Rasmussen sounded lucid and strong throughout in the title role.

* Tattling * 
The audience was engaged by the performance, though somewhat confused by the convoluted plot. There was much talking during the first half of the opera from the people in Row U Seats 24-26 in the balcony. Thankfully, I had the good fortune to not be seated next to anyone, and was able to move away from them.

The Tender Land at Berkeley Opera

Tenderland-berkeley * Notes *
The production of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land at Berkeley Opera is both lively and heartfelt. The music was quite cute and rather transparent, and the thirteen musicians sounded together under Philip Kuttner. The singing was consistent and the acting was convincing. The chorus sounded nice during the party scene in Act II.

Of the principals, contralto Julianne Booth (Ma Moss) was perhaps the weakest, she only sang the one performance on April 16, and she seemed off from the music at first. She also tripped at one point during the Act I. Paul Cheak sounded confident as Grandpa Moss, and even his lowest notes were not obscured by the orchestra. Lee Steward and Paul Murray were believable as the two strangers, Martin and Top, respectively. Their voices blended nicely together. Steward had some trouble with his highest notes, but managed to be heard. Amy Foote was darling as the heroine Laurie. She has a lovely voice, that has a wonderful ease until she gets to her upper register, where she does sound a bit strained. It seems that she needs to use a lot of vibrato to project her voice up at the top.

The production, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, was tasteful and simple. Chad Owens' set was elegant, and the one major scene change in Act II was quite clever. Jeremy Knight's projections were for the most part not too cumbersome, and the switch from black and white to color near the end was effective.

* Tattling * 
The much of the audience was inattentive, talking despite being hushed many times, and generally acted as if they were in their living rooms at home. The cynical woman in Row M Seat 30 was particularly obnoxious. In the second half she spent the whole time crumpling a cellophane packet of biscuits, which she never seemed to open or to put away. Before the end of the opera, when we could hear the exposed woodwinds still clearly playing, she declared, at full volume "Is that all?" to her companion, who did not respond audibly.

Don Giovanni at Berkeley Opera

Berkeleyoperagiovanni * Notes *
Berkeley Opera's inaugural production at El Cerrito Performing Arts Theatre, Don Giovanni, is a great success. The new venue features an actual orchestra pit, a balcony, and 450 seats compared to the 328-seat Julia Morgan, where Berkeley Opera performed for the last 12 years. The second performance last night looked quite full, and it is possible the whole run sold out. The opera company needs a new name, as El Cerrito is not even in the same county as Berkeley. In fact, there is a contest on to submit suggestions, and the winner will receive a subscription for next season.

Alexander Katsman did not quite have the orchestra in hand, the musicians and singers were not entirely together, and there were intonation errors from the violins. The woodwinds were a bit squeaky, and the brass also made a few mistakes. The overture did go fairly well, and the brass did especially nicely. In any case, there were many pretty voices in the cast. William O'Neill was convincing as Masetto, his voice suits the role, but his accent in Italian could use some work. Elyse Nakajima (Zerlina) sounded vulnerable, light, and young. Aimée Puentes was hilarious as Donna Elvira, her comic timing was perfect, and she did not push her voice too hard.

Michael Desnoyers was warm and bright as Don Ottavio, and he sang "Il mio tesoro" with beauty. "Dalla sua pace" was not used in this version. Kaileen Miller (Donna Anna) started off somewhat quietly, but warmed up over time. Her voice is icy and has perhaps too much vibrato at the top, but still is appealing. Igor Vieira was amusing as Leporello and has a lovely voice, though he did get a little ahead of the music more than once. Eugene Brancoveanu was a cartoon of a Don Giovanni, completely excessive in his portrayal. It was funny, and certainly Brancoveanu has a gorgeous voice, rich and hefty.

The light-hearted production, directed by the new artistic director of Berkeley Opera, Mark Streshinsky, had its moments, but missed the mark at crucial points. There were many original and diverting aspects, certainly. Having a yoga class for "Ah, chi mi dice mai" was exceedingly entertaining, and Puentes did a fantastic job of pulling this off. Having racks of costumes descend during "Fin ch'han dal vino" set us up nicely for the following scenes. The rubber chicken at the end of one of the racks was a fine touch.

Projections were used to good effect for the "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," but the falling rose petals for the marriage procession certainly must be a screensaver on some ancient desktop somewhere, and the way the statue of the Commendatore was handled simply looked like a video game. Projection is quite tricky, especially because they tend to be behind the singers, rendering the interaction between the two rather artificial. Technology aside, the real problems were in the stage direction. How exactly is Don Giovanni keeping his attackers at bay at the end of Act I, when he has no weapons and is simply dancing around? What prompts Don Giovanni to get on the upstage platform in the finale, besides the fact that he has to descend?

* Tattling * 
The audience was enthused, and talked very little during the music. The patrons on the right side of Orchestra Level Row P were indulgent, and put up with my crawling over them to get to my seat, which of course was nearly in the middle of the row. Next time one should be sure to arrive earlier, as the line for will call was extensive. Both Aaron Copland's The Tender Land and the adaptation of Wagner's Ring by David Seaman sound worthy of attendance.

Baby Doe at Berkeley Opera

Baby_Doe_Tabor * Notes * 
The Ballad of Baby Doe opened at Berkeley Opera last Saturday. Jonathan Khuner's production, with sets and projections from Jeremy Knight, is sweetly simple. The video art included some rather silly red curtains that would fall after the many scenes, and there seemed to be a glitch near the end, but otherwise they were effective. The use of Leda and the Swan as a painting in one of the scenes was an interesting choice.

The orchestra, again lead by Jonathan Khuner, had some roughness, the brass in particular had some intonation problems. The opera features quite a lot of singers, including a chorus and some ensembles. Everyone did quite well and was generally together. Jillian Khuner had some lovely, delicate moments as Baby Doe, but she does have quite a lot of vibrato, and can sound shrill. Torlef Borsting was robust as Horace Tabor, though not terribly nuanced until the last scene. Lisa Houston was convincing as Augusta Tabor, the coldness, bitterness, and even tenderness of the character came through.

As for the music itself, Douglas Moore did compose some pretty, likable music. However, his ensembles were a bit too transparent, basically he would have one person sing a line, then another, yet another, and then have the quartet sing all together. Overall, the effect was droll, and the performance very cute. One must commend Berkeley Opera for having innovative programming.

* Tattling * 
The audience was fairly quiet, but one did hear some talking. Lots of photographs were taken, and mobile phones, while silent, were clearly in use during the performance.

Tosca at Berkeley Opera

Tosca_Berkeley_Opera * Notes *
 Yesterday's matinée performance of Tosca ended Berkeley Opera's 2008 season. The main conceit of the production, directed by Barbara Heroux, was an upstage pentagon screen on which images were projected. The images alternated between representing the physical scene and showing the internal state of the characters. The latter were invariably paintings from famous Italians, including Titian, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio. The costumes were attractive, especially Tosca's Act II red gown, which was flattering and well-made.

The orchestra sounded fairly good under Jonathan Khuner, though there were a few times when the singers were just a hair ahead of the players. The singing and acting from Michael Crozier (Jailer), Steven Hoffmann (Angelotti), and Nicolas Aliaga (Sciarrone) were all fine. Bass John Bischoff (Sacristan) was particularly good, not only was he funny, his voice is quite nice. José Hernández was a touch quiet as Spoletta, though his voice is not unpleasant. John Minàgro (Scarpia) lacked heft, and at times one could not hear the actual words he was singing, though the notes were discernable.

Tenor Kevin Courtemanche did not make for a dashing Cavaradossi, but his voice was beautifully lucid. His Act III aria "E lucevan le stelle" was the strongest moment of the performance. As for Tosca herself, soprano Jillian Khuner sounded both heartbreaking and lovely during "Vissi d'arte." However, she had a rather wide vibrato and did occasionally sound painfully shrill.

* Tattling *
For the most part, the audience was well-behaved, no watch alarms were able to sound because of the two intermissions, and no cellular phones rang. There was much cellophane unwrapped during the beginning of Act II.
However, I was bullied out of my seat for the last act. I was over in the left side section, in the last row, and it was rather splendid as there were only 4 or 5 people in these seats, so everyone was nicely spread out. Also, the supertitles were half-obscured, so I was able to ignore them with ease.

An obese woman had been sitting near the back, three seats in on the left. She was not comfortable as she had a cough and did not exactly fit in her seat. In fact, a person next to her tried to make more room by trading seats with a smaller companion. Just before Act III, the woman in question was speaking to her companion and pointed at me, then sat directly in front of me in the left side section, as the seats here had no arms. I could tell that she was not going to be considerate, so I moved to the last row in the middle section. The woman moved into the seat I had been in, moved the chairs around, and unwrapped cough drops.

Bluebeard's Castle and L'enfant et les sortilèges at Berkeley Opera

Lenfantbo * Notes *
Berkeley Opera is midway through a run of Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Maurice Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges.
The double bill makes for a short evening, a mere 2 hours and 10 minutes including an intermission. I was skeptical of the "unique multi-media staging," as both productions involved projections on an upstage screen. The Bartók used Naomie Kremer's videography, which at best looked like an animated version of Dave McKean's Sandman covers. At other times the images were a bit psychedelic, particularly when Door 4 is opened, the overlay of a human eye, flowers, and water. Door 7 looked like something out of a video game, Legend of Zelda, perhaps.

However, the music was wonderful. The orchestra, under the direction of Jonathan Khuner, sounded quite good. I did not like Kathleen Moss' voice at first, it was harsh and somewhat wobbly. But once she warmed up she sounded both crystalline and expressive. Paul Murray was more stoic as Bluebeard, but his singing toward the end of the opera was lovely. 

The projections for L'enfant et les sortilèges were the work of Ariel Parkinson, and were more like digital backdrops rather than the videography of the previous piece. This complemented the both the dancing and the music. Misha Brooks was the petulant child, he acted well, but I was too distracted by the amplification to get an impression about his voice. The other singers sang from the sides of the theater and were represented on stage by either dancers or puppets. The 4 young dancers were clearly talented, and were well-synchronized.

Musically, I preferred Bartók to Ravel, but the latter had many more singers and because of the staging, the sound was unbalanced. Mezzo-soprano Paula Chacon sang especially well as the Chinese Cup and the Shepherd, she also sang the roles of Mama and the Dragonfly quite nicely. Baritone Anders Froehlich was hilarious as the Grandfather Clock.

* Tattling *
Yesterday's performance looked like it was sold-out. People were better behaved for the Bartók, but spoke during the Ravel.

Cass Mann took over the parts of the Shepherdess, the Bergère, the Owl, and the Bat for an indisposed Raiña Simons.

Plethora of Opera in the East Bay this Month

April 25- June 8 2008: Figaro (Inspired by Mozart and Beaumarchais) at Berkeley Rep
May 2-11 2008: San Francisco Opera's The Little Prince at UC Berkeley
May 3-11 2008: Bluebeard's Castle and L'enfant et les sortilèges at Berkeley Opera
May 9-25 2008: Queenie Pie at Oakland Opera

Also, Sacramento Opera's Tosca closes tonight. This weekend, instead of going to see any of these performances, I'll probably head off to Seattle to hear I Puritani. To add to the hilarity, please note who will be performing at the War Memorial Opera House this Saturday.

L'Elisir d'Amore at Berkeley Opera

* Notes *
The 2008 season of Berkeley Opera opened last Saturday with a performance of the very silly opera L'Elisir d'Amore. The production is sweet, and the set only seemed to have two modes, one with one arch in the background and a few feet of stone wall, and another with three arches and a few feet less of stone wall. Of course, this was perfectly fine, elaborate scene changes are not necessary for L'Elisir. The costumes were pretty good, but the wigs were distractingly poor. Gianetta's dark red wig was styled à la Farrah Fawcett circa 1977, and Adina's ponyfall was too blond for the rest of her hair.

Angela Cadelago screeched a little in her first aria as Adina, but twittered along nicely for the rest of the opera. Andrew Truett acted the part of Nemorino very well, but his voice was a little quiet. He was especially funny when dancing around the stage in Act I Scene 2, when he moonwalked for a few seconds. Torlef Borsting (Belcore) was weak in his higher range, but his voice was pretty otherwise. Paul Cheak was quite amusing as Dulcamara, though his voice is a bit breathy. It was an altogether entertaining evening.

* Tattling *
The fake ficus tree was knocked over in Act I, Scene 1, but was promptly put back up by a chorus member. I overheard a hilarious conversation during intermission which covered the Ring (large women wearing breastplates shrieking in German) and Funny Games (one would be concerned if it was recommended by a friend because of what would that might mean about that person).