Catherine Naglestad

Casta Diva

NormaThe Canadian Opera Company's production of Norma opened at San Francisco Opera last Sunday. The cast is strong, so it is certainly worth seeing. The production itself is uninspired. Remember those tiny houses you built in 3rd grade with your meticulously saved popsicle sticks? The set, designed by Allen Moyer, is reminiscent of these crafts, but on a larger scale. The haphazard walls made from wooden boards, along with the tree stumps, were apparently metaphor for how the Romans did not care about what the Druids held most dear. I wonder what the dirt-covered hems of Druidic costumes were a metaphor for, also note that the wooden structures were painted black at the bottom, but were light-colored at the top.

The costumes for the Druids were more bizarre than the Roman ones. The priestesses wore gauzy straightjackets that laced up the back and flowing gowns. Some of the Druid men wore loincloths in Act II, which was slightly startling, some put on robes later, others did not. The Romans wore short tunics with breastplates, military belts, and greaves.

Catherine Naglestad is a beautiful Norma, she sang well, though not without great effort. Mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura was more impressive as Adalgisa, her tone is sweet but her voice is powerful.

I spend much of the intermission speaking to the architect-coot from Napa, who introduced himself as Dave. We first met in the standing room line for Rodelinda last month, and he recognized me because of my absurd costume. Dave started going to San Francisco Opera in 1957. His first opera performance was Gounod's Faust, when he was around 20, at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. He asked me if I was a music student, and when I had seen my first opera.

Lo t'abbraccio

Aldenrodelinda1The production of Händel's Rodelinda currently at San Francisco Opera is one from the Bayerische Staatsoper, and I had attended a few performances of it in Munich a few years ago. It is one of the tamer offerings of this particular director, David Alden. The opera is set as 1930s film noir, Buki Shiff's costumes are rather pretty because of this, especially Rodelinda's dashing black evening gown in Act II. The set consisted of various brick walls that were strategically moved about, there was also a recurring black and white image of a man with his arms crossed in front of him. He appears in eight cut-out figures in Act I, the largest being around 16 feet tall, and the smallest about 7 feet. Later he shows up in Act III, but only as a half-length, and only seven pictures this time.

I objected to just how buffoonish they had Unulfo be, when his character is rather noble, he is loyal to Bertarido and is willing to die for him. Instead they have Garibaldo beat him up and stuff wadded up paper down his throat. It was annoying when Garibaldo sings an aria in Act II, Unulfo screams in pain during the music. Then in Act III when Bertarido mistakenly attacks Unulfo with a kitchen knife, the latter runs into a wall, making his wound all the worse. Of course the knife is simply placed under the arm, and this is made extremely obvious.

Another flaw in the staging occurred at the end of Act II, during the very end of the gorgeous duet between Rodelinda and Bertarido, "Lo t'abbraccio." Catherine Naglestad and David Daniels sang brilliantly, but the staging involved putting Bertarido in the trunk of the vintage black Mercedes on stage. This elicited titters from the audience, which is completely inappropriate considering both how moving and ravishing the music is at that point.

The choreography was perhaps too difficult for the singers, I remember choreographer Beate Vollack being quite a favorite in Die Fledermaus in Munich. The choreography, minus drunken staggering, could have worked with just the right cast. It was a stark contrast to the excellent movement in L'Italiana last weekend.

As for singing, Naglestad sounded unsure at the beginning, slightly shrill, her voice cracked a bit during her second aria. She doesn't make it seem effortless. But there were some beautiful moments later in the opera. Daniels had a good performance, his voice is powerful and resonant, no trace of grit today. When he occasionally moved into his chest voice one gets a sense of how much heft his voice has, it is incredible. Tenor Paul Nilon was rather colorless as Grimoaldo, his dancing also did not betray much verve. Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella did not impress either, and her dancing was flat-out bad, her back looks incredibly stiff and she has slumped shoulders. Gerald Thompson showed promise as Unulfo, at least in his voice, his countertenor has a sweet tone.


A production of Händel's Alcina from Stuttgart opened yesterday at San Francisco Opera. It garnered enthusiastic and cheerful (perhaps that was just me) booing at the end when the production designer, Anna Viebrock, came out for her curtain call.

What a self-indulgent, pretentious, inaccessible staging! It wasn't so much the modern dress, or the little junk room with peeling wallpaper, or even the huge and silly frame that was meant to be a mirror that really bothered me. They just made all the characters less than human, doing illogical things like undressing when angry, throwing things while music was going on, scuttling across the stage, and so forth. It made people laugh, when there was beautiful music going on, and seriously detracted from any sort of edification that could be happening.

Catherine Naglestad, as Alcina, had the strongest voice. It has rough edges and her diction isn't the best, but her projection is incredible. She did move like a wounded animal, especially when she first appeared intertwined with Ruggiero, shuffling along the floor. Part of the problem is that Naglestad is an adorably chubby girl with wide hips and skinny calves, so when she was barefoot for most of the production, wearing her innumerable mid-calf length black cocktail dresses, she just looked awkward and inelegant. The line between hip and foot was no good for an enchanting sorceress, however cute. Then they had her shuffling around on the floor for no reason, reminiscent of spiders.

The choreography and staging favored falling or throwing bodies and objects to the ground for no apparent reason, and frenetic stomping, hitting walls, choking, binding, and other such movements.

There were also two gunshots fired, that were quite loud and unnecessary.

Alice Coote was a fine Ruggiero, her voice warm and dark, and her movements utterly boyish. On the other hand, Catriona Smith was a prissy Morgana, and her upper range was absolutely shrill. They had her sing some of her part on the floor, and she doesn't have the voice to carry this at all.

The music was sublime. Roy Goodman conducted well, and it sounded very much together.