Festival Opera

Festival Opera's Carmen

Carmen_stefancohen_021* Notes *
Festival Opera put on a visceral production of Carmen at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek last weekend. The staging was effective and there was a lot of great singing.

The small orchestra was conducted by Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff at San Francisco Opera and was a Merolino back in 2011.

The staging relied heavily on projections to set the scenes, it looked to be a contemporary urban environment, replete with graffiti, highway overpasses, and the like. It did seem like the projections were on a loop, there seemed to be constant clouds of smoke in the background, which was unsettling.

Michael Mohammed's direction included two dancers, Stuck Sanders and Anthéa Colot (pictured with the chorus in Act IV, photograph by Stefan Cohen) who were very impressive. I loved how fluidly Sanders was able to move in particular, and there was such joy to the movement. They really drew me into the piece.

The cast for this was likewise engaging. Bass-baritone Matthew Lovell was suitably brutal as Zuniga. The quintet "Nous avons en tete una affaire" was memorable, baritone Daniel Cilli as the Le Dancaïre, tenor Taylor Thompson, mezzo-soprano Lily Bogas as Mercédès, and soprano Lila Khazoum as Frasquita were all very distinct but also cohesive. Baritone Young-Kwang Yoo was a charming Escamillo and soprano Hope Briggs a very sweet Micaëla.

Carmen_stefancohen_025Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is convincing as Carmen, they certainly are seductive. But most appealing was tenor Dane Suarez as the otherwise fairly repellant Don José. Suarez's voice has plaintiveness and bright warmth, but also an interesting rawness that works for this role.

*Tattling * 
I haven't been to a Festival Opera performance since 2015, and I was surprised how easy it was to get to the theater from the BART station. I brought Axel Feldheim with me to the performance and managed not only to get on the same train as him but also found the exact car he was on. We got there so early that we were able to go to a nearby farmers market and to a boba tea place beforehand. There were also activities happening outside the theater that involved many children.

There was some pretty loud talking from some audience members but it was usually about the performance. It's always very funny to me that people need to express their thoughts aloud about how beautiful something is and they interrupt other people's experience of that very beautiful thing.

Festival Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos

Festival-opera-ariadne-2015* Notes *
My review of Festival Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos is on San Francisco Classical Voice.

* Tattling *
It did not seem appropriate to mention this in a review, but at this performance I realized that Richard Strauss' music really does make me feel a little queasy. I also got an inkling of why not everyone likes bird-like high voices, but only for a few seconds.

The English translation of the Prologue was amusing and I especially liked it when Zerbinetta says "Opera is easy if you just pay attention."

Festival Opera's La Traviata

FO11-traviata * Notes *
Festival Opera's 2011 season opened with La Traviata last night in Walnut Creek. Conducted by Maestro Michael Morgan, the orchestra sounded enthusiastic and full, but there were some glaring intonation problems. The chorus was likewise sounded eager, though not perfectly together.

The cast boasted many familiar faces, and the singing and acting was fine all around. Nicolai Janitzky's Germont was fatherly, his sound has volume and a certain buzziness. Andrew Whitfield sounded downright scared in his vocal entrance as Alfredo, which was odd as his voice is quite pretty and warm. He did have difficulties with the high notes, and occasionally his voice would nearly disappear. In contrast, Rebecca Davis (Violetta) sang with much more ease. Her voice is flexible and well-supported. Some of the notes in her lower range are not perfectly clear, but Davis did sing beautifully, and with fragile delicacy in the last act.

The production, directed by Mark Foehringer, was entirely reasonable. The set suggests richness without being clunky or monolithic. The costumes were exactly as one would expect, reminding one of attire seen in Ingres portraits.

* Tattling *
A fire alarm sounded before the performance, and everyone in the building filed out onto the sidewalk outside. No one appeared hurt, and we were allowed inside again before the 8pm curtain time.

There was much talking in the audience, which was otherwise very supportive and excited to be there.

Festival Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

Angela Cadelago (Lucia) and Thomas Glenn (Edgardo), Photo ©2010 by Robert Shomler * Notes *
Festival Opera's second production this season was Lucia di Lammermoor, which closed yesterday. The orchestra sounded robust under Michael Morgan, though the brass was out of tune at times.

Overall the singing was very good. "Chi mi frena in tal momento," featuring Angela Cadelago (Lucia), Thomas Glenn (Arturo), Brian Leerhuber (Enrico), Kirk Eichelberger (Raimondo), Michael Foreman (Arturo), and Patrice Houston (Alisa), was beautiful and moving. Cadelago blended nicely with the other singers here, she could be heard, but did not sound shrill. At other times she did not impress me as much, her voice is very piercing. Thomas Glenn's voice has taken on more heft, he sounded quite lovely.

The production, directed by Mark Foehringer, was inoffensive. The aesthetics of the set design did remind one of Design Toscano. The contrast of this with the costumes, which looked straight out of a Van Dyck painting, was slightly jarring. The acting throughout made sense, and everyone looked appropriate for their roles.

* Tattling *
Due to rather poor planning on my part, I was about 10 minutes late to Friday's performance. It was the second time I was unintentionally late for an opera this season (out of 65 opera performances).

There was some whispering from the audience, but nothing that could not be easily ignored.

Festival Opera's Madama Butterfly

Madama-butterfly-poster * Notes *
Festival Opera's of latest production of Madama Butterfly opened last night in Walnut Creek. The orchestra sounded full and loud under Joseph Marcheso, although there were only thirty-six musicians. The brass was surprisingly clear and tuneful, but the strings fared less well. One of the celli was noticeably out of tune throughout the performance.

The singing was all perfectly appropriate and fine, though there were times when the singers did not quite keep up with the orchestra. John Bischoff was convincing as the Bonze, as was Elizabeth O'Neill as Kate Pinkerton. Nicole Takesono was a bit breathy as Suzuki, but her movements were graceful.

Philip Skinner (Sharpless) was strong, sounding completely in command of his voice and acting. As Pinkerton, Christopher Bengochea was slightly tentative in Act I, his voice sounded pretty at certain points, and strained in others. He sounded better in Act III, especially at the end. In the title role, Teresa Eickel looked young and vulnerable, and sounded robust. Her voice is penetrating, and was somewhat shrill in Act I. Her "Un bel dì" was vocally effective, though she checked to see that the fan in her belt was secure more than once as she sang.

The costumes were incoherent and distracting. The chorus looked like goths at Ren Faire, since they all had black hair, heavy makeup, and elaborately gathered skirts. The costume that Kurt Krikorian (Prince Yamadori) was so puzzling it was difficult to assess his voice. It looked like he forgot to wear part of his costume, or that his attire was inspired by burlesque belly dancers. Andrew Whitfield, likewise, was dressed rather oddly for Goro, and seemed to have wandered in from Dickens Fair. The set, in contrast, was clean and simple, consisting of a few different levels and large screens. Shadows play was used during the overtures and other opportune moments. Sometimes this worked, and was even beautiful, but at other times the effect was grotesque rather than elegant.

* Tattling *
Some kind friends were generous enough to have given me tickets for this performance, and Herr Feldheim indulgently accompanied me. There was some talking from the audience, but no electronic noise. The person behind me in Row J Seat 112 of the orchestra snapped her gum during much of Acts II and III, but was mercifully quiet during the big numbers, including the Humming Chorus.

A stage hand came in in the two-minute pause between the last two acts and placed a cushion on the stage, pulling us out of the opera just for that moment.

Festival Opera's Faust

 * Notes * 
Festival Opera's production of Faust opened last Saturday at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. The orchestra, under Michael Morgan, sounded jaunty all evening long, though there were some issues with the horns. The chorus did not fare quite as well, at times they lacked confidence, particularly the men's chorus in "Déposons les armes."

The cast in the smaller roles were pretty good: Zachary Gordin (Wagner), Erin Neff (Siébel), and Patrice Houston (Marthe) were all perfectly appropriate vocally. Eugene Brancoveanu was incredible as Valentin, his presence commanded the stage and his voice is beautiful.

As for the main characters, Kirk Eichelberger was an interestingly vain Méphistophélès, his acting is perhaps stronger than his singing. Kristin Clayton did well as Marguerite, though her voice is not overly sweet, she does have a good heft and volume. On the other hand, Brian Thorsett (Faust) sounded very pretty and clear in the middle of his tessitura. He did have a terrible cracking cough on one of the notes just before the chorus is heard in Act I, and showed some signs of strain throughout the evening.

The production, designed by Matthew Antaky, was not a distraction. There were two screens suspended from the ceiling which seemed to have rather static photographs on them. They resembled the images that come with one's computer as choices for desktop background. However, there was a scene with a giant beach ball being tossed around upstage that was worth the price of admission.

* Tattling * 
There was some scattered talking, and one watch alarm was heard at 11pm.

Festival Opera 2009

Festival Opera's 2009 season opens July 11th with Turandot, and ends August 16th with Faust.

Turandot: Othalie Graham
Calaf: Christopher Jackson
Liù: Rebecca Sjöwall
Timur: Kirk Eichelberger
Ping: Igor Vieira
Pang: Adam Flowers
Pong: Michael Mendelsohn
Mandarin: Ted Weis
Emperor Altoum: Jonathan Nadel

Faust: Brian Thorsett
Marguerite: Kristin Clayton
Méphistophélès: Kirk Eichelberger
Valentin: Eugene Brancoveanu
Wagner: Zachary Gordin
Siébel: Erin Neff
Marthe: Patrice Houston

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Festival Opera

Maldjian-sauerland  * Notes *
Festival Opera's delightful production of A Midsummer Night's Dream opened last Saturday in Walnut Creek. Michael Morgan and Mark Foeringer did a fine job with the direction, the choreography never lagged and fit the music well. The sinuous dancing was not perfectly synchronized, but was enchanting nonetheless. The flying effects used for Puck were perfect for the role, and could have stolen the whole show had the singing and acting been weak. Peter Crompton's set is simple but charming, consisting of large upstage constellation map, many pieces of cloth with the same print hanging from the ceiling, and various platforms again with this design on them. The costumes, by Susanna Douthit, dated from the early seventies. The fairies looked like they came off of the playa in their wings, sequins, and shiny tights. Denise Gutierrez complimented this with glittery makeup and a few candy-colored wigs. I was reminded of the Om Shanti Om, perhaps only because that was the last movie I've seen set in the seventies. It was a bit funny when the singers made reference to Athens, as they were all dolled up for the disco, but this was not terribly distracting.

The orchestra sounded fine to me, but I do not know this particular opera at all, and the music occasionally made my joints hurt. There were a few moments when the singers and orchestra were not together, but these were mostly in Act I. The chorus sang nicely, and the four soloists were all solid. Katie Behnke was exceedingly bell-like as Mustardseed.

The rest of the rather large cast was fairly good. Igor Vieira and Lauren Groff were well-matched vocally in the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta. Vieira was overwhelmed by the orchestra, but he ended well. Groff certainly looked like an Amazonian queen, even in a beaded-fringe gown. The rustics were completely wonderful, the voices of Joshua Elder (Starveling), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug), Jonathan Smucker (Flute), John Minágro (Quince), and Kirk Eichelberger (Bottom) blended nicely and the comic timing was perfect. Bischoff was particularly resonant, he drew out his words well. Eichelberger was again rather loud, as he was for Il Trovatore, but this brashness suited the role of Bottom better than Ferrando. His acting was impeccable.

The four lovers were not evenly matched, Stacey Cornell was quieter as Helena than Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius and Jessica Mariko Deardorff was louder as Hermia than Jorge Garza as Lysander. Cornell was shrill and shaky at the beginning but had some lovely moments later on. The role of Hermia sat better in Deardorff's voice than Ines (Il Trovatore).

I was most disappointed by Willam Sauerland as Oberon. His voice is sweet and pleasingly girlish, but he was quiet. His voice cracked during Act II, but besides this his transitions between head voice and chest voice were smooth. Thankfully, Ani Maldjian was a splendid Tytania. Not only did she somehow look gorgeous in a fuchsia sequined tube-top, she sounded lucid and ethereal.

* Tattling *
For the second performance, the house had a few empty seats, so I assume getting tickets, should you want them, will not be a problem. The audience was rude, there was much talking and a loud cellular phone rang during Act II on the right aisle of the center section, sixth row back.

I had the misfortune of being in front of two very noisy men of a certain age, who began the evening by exclaiming about all the grey-hair in the audience. I did try to hush them when they spoke during the music, but they could not be quiet. Apparently they were friends of John Minágro, and one of them kept pointing him out every time he appeared on stage. I learned that Minágro made the sword used in the production, as this was stated more than once.

* Reviews *
Civic Center | The Reverberate Hills | Saturday Matinee | Contra Costa Times | San Francisco Classical Voice | San Francisco Chronicle

Il Trovatore at Festival Opera

Il Trovatore at Festival Opera * Notes *
Festival Opera, the third largest opera company in the Bay Area, opened the 2008 season with Il Trovatore yesterday at the Hofmann Theatre. Giulio Cesare Perrone's production is straightforward, his set design is simple but evocative, only small changes are made for the different scenes. The only obvious weak point was in Act I Scene 4,  when Leonora mistakes Di Luna for Manrico. Everyone was quite visible during the scene, so in Act I Scene 5 (pictured above, photo by Robert Shomler), when Leonora realizes she was wrong and sings "Ah, dalle tenebre tratta in errore io fui," one must work hard at suspending disbelief. Naturally, this was not helped by the fact that the Count di Luna, Scott Bearden (on the right), could hardly look more distinct from Noah Stewart (on the left) as Manrico. So when the supertitles flashed something like "the darkness deceived me," the audience tittered, and the woman next to me commented that "it must have been very dark."

The period costumes from Susanna Douthit were attractive, though I was confused by the gypsies at first, for some of them looked like normal citizens of Berkeley on any given day. I thought the gypsies were dressed in contemporary clothing, but after a second look, I realized it was because just a few of the women's exposed hairstyles looked fairly modern. Likewise Azucena could have been in a tribal belly dance troupe, particularly because of the designs painted on her face.

Michael Morgan conducted at a good clip, and the orchestra sounded fine. There were a few strange notes from the French horn, but only near the beginning. There were times when the chorus was not quite with the orchestra, undoubtedly this will improve with time. The anvils were played by choristers, and they were not all exactly on the beat. The organ in Act III Scene 2 sounded rather canned, it came out of the speakers, one of which sputtered for half a second.

In the smaller roles, tenor Alexander Taite (Ruiz) and mezzo-soprano Jessica Mariko Deardorff (Ines) both sang well and fit the look of their parts. Kirk Eichelberger had a rather big-voiced Ferrando, at least for this space, his bass is somewhat gravelly but not unpleasant. Mezzo Patrice Houston had some deep, lovely tones as Azucena, but she could also be rather terrifying. Her breathing was noticeable and some of her pitches were not convincing, but for the most part she did well. Scott Bearden was slightly off key in his Act II Scene 2 aria "Il balen del suo sorriso," but his voice has good heft and warmth.

I was most interested in soprano Hope Briggs (Leonora), as she was to sing Donna Anna last summer at San Francisco Opera, but was, to her dismay, replaced by Elza Van den Heever at the last moment. Briggs started off with a distinctly nasal sound, her voice strong, strident, and muscular. A couple of her arpeggios were strained, but for the most part, she sang well. She was moving in her last scene, fully convincing as the self-sacrificing heroine.

In the title role, former Adler Fellow Noah Stewart had a great deal of vibrato for his first high notes off stage. He also seemed to run out of breath at the end of the famous "Di quella pira." Otherwise Stewart sang admirably, he was plaintive in  "Sconto col sangue mio," this has a bone-chilling beauty. Stewart will be covering at the Met next season, certainly he is one to watch.

* Tattling *
I was dreadfully late as I find Walnut Creek difficult to navigate. Although I have been to the Lesher Center for the Arts before and it is only half a mile south of the Walnut Creek Bart station, I still managed to become lost. In my flustered state, there was a bit of a mix up at the box office, so I only took my seat at 8:00pm exactly.

The orchestra level looked very full, but the audience was fairly polite. The talking was limited to the aforementioned scene, whispering was at a minimum and not during the singing. No watch alarms were noted, but unfortunately, there was a phone ring at the beginning of Act IV. At least it was during the recicative. During the quieter moments, some speaking was audible from the lighting booth, though this was less disruptive during the second half of the performance.

Many of the usual suspects attended this performance, and afterwards I cornered Merolino apprentice coach Allen Perriello during the reception. Albert Herring, which opens next Friday, sounds like it is going well. Noah Stewart and Hope Briggs were inundated with fans and supporters, but I did manage to speak briefly with the former.