Opera Review

Opera Parallèle's The Little Prince

Lp_dress1_3895* Notes * 
Opera Parallèle revived last year's production of The Little Prince this weekend at the Marines' Memorial Theatre. The opera is perfectly charming and the feminist twist of having mostly female principals worked well.

I had a better appreciation for Nicholas Wright's libretto this time around -- it is concise -- condensing some 90 pages of text into showing us the story rather than telling it to us. Composer Rachel Portman is instrumental in all of this, naturally, and the music is both lovely and engaging. 

It is always a joy to hear conductor Nicole Paiement, even if the ensemble only had a pianist and percussionist, it never felt anything less than lithe and completely together.

The members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus as stars and birds sounded otherworldly, as did our title role Little Prince, Erin Enriquez (pictured with Christabel Nunoo as the Snake, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo). Enriquez has a bell-like sweetness that was only occasionally marred by staticky feedback from her microphone. In contrast, it is not surprising at all to see that mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti (The Pilot) is singing Siegrune in Die Walküre at The Met this spring, she has a fabulously dramatic voice.

Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich is a delight as The Fox, her warm, supple sound suits the role. Soprano Sabrina Romero-Wilson sang the vain, silly but lovable Rose with clarity, while soprano Maggie Finnegan was quite haunting as The Water. Soprano Christabel Nunoo sang The Snake with both beauty and menace.

Of the quartet of male singers, all of whom sang various grownups found on neighboring asteroids 325 to 330, tenor J. Raymond Meyers is most memorable, partially because he plays a catchy kazoo tune, and partially because he is dressed as Elvis. Baritone Zachary Lenox is funny as The Businessman counting his stars, as is bass-baritone Philip Skinner as a King who doesn't have much power at all. Tenor Samuel Faustine is endearing as The Drunkard and the hapless Lamplighter who suggests Earth to the Little Prince.

Hats off to director Brian Staufenbiel for a very attractive production that doesn't try to slavishly mimic Saint-Exupéry's illustrations. The visuals are courtesy of Matt Kish (best known for his Moby-Dick monograph) and David Murakami, the look is much more urban and contemporary than the original book.

* Tattling * 
This was my four year old son's first full opera performance excluding those he was present for in utero. He is a nervous little boy with sensory processing sensitivity (in fact, he hid during a rendition of "Happy Birthday" earlier that day) so we did a lot of preparation, including reading the book and watching the opera beforehand on YouTube. He seemed to like the experience and was very quiet and still for the full 95 minutes.

A couple near the front and middle of the orchestra level brought their toddler and baby, but got to the performance late and had to leave early, as the baby was crying during Act II.


SF Opera's It's a Wonderful Life

_37A8140_edit* Notes *
The West Coast premiere of It's a Wonderful Life (Act II pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera on November 17. Based on Frank Capra's holiday film, the music here by Jake Heggie is sugary sweet, and though reminiscent of Bernstein is very much his own. There was fine stagecraft and beautiful singing as well.

The opera is set in 1916 to 1945 and has a certain earnestness. It is just on the edge of being cloying, but both composer Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer infuse the drama with enough humor to avoid the sickening saccharine. The repetition of themes such as "Dancing the Mekee Mekee" or Uncle Billy Bailey's "O boy, o boy, o boy" are funny rather than annoying. The set design from Robert Brill is appealing with dozens of screens in the air and on the ground, all the scene changes go very smoothly.

Maestro Patrick Summer conducted a fluid orchestra that never overwhelmed the singers. There are more than 30 characters in this piece, and many of the soloists are from the ranks of the talented San Francisco Opera Chorus. The Angels First Class is comprised of four current Adler Fellows: soprano Sarah Cambidge, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell.

They did sound angelic, as did soprano Golda Schultz, who plays guardian angel Clara (changed from Clarence in the movie) Odbody. Schultz is sympathetic and her high notes floated quite nicely. Evidently the role is meant for a woman of color. Schultz, a mixed-race South African, shares her duties at San Francisco Opera with Kearstin Piper Brown, who is African-American, as is Trevigne Talise, who sang Clara for the world premiere in Houston.

Baritone Rod Gilfrey is a perfectly evil Mr. Potter, while soprano Andriana Chuchman sang Mary Hatch with vim and lyricism. As George Bailey, tenor William Burden sounds as good as ever, warm and lovely.

* Tattling * 
Unlike with many recent operas, I could easily hum a bar or two of the music, even though I've only heard it the once. I couldn't bring myself to sing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of the opera though Maestro Summers turned around to conduct us. Perhaps it was because I was crying an embarrassing amount. I've really gone soft in my old age.

I only made it to the fourth performance of the run, since I missed the premiere to escape the unhealthy air quality in the Bay Area due to the Camp Fire up in Butte County. I also did not manage to see the 1946 film version of It's a Wonderful Life before attending the opera, even though it is currently available on Amazon.


SF Opera's Arabella

_T8A0778* Notes *
An elegant co-production of Arabella (Act III pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The orchestra and singers were all very strong in Strauss' glittering Viennese comedy.

The huge cast for this opera boasted many familiar faces, from mezzo-soprano Jill Grove (Merola 1995) as the fortune-teller to soprano Hye Jung Lee (Merola 2010) as the Fiakermilli. The only new singer to the War Memorial stage was tenor Daniel Johanssen as the melodramatic Matteo who loves Arabella but is loved by her sister Zdenka who lives as a boy. Johanssen looks the part and sounds terribly plaintive as he longs for even a glance from his beloved.

It was a pleasure to hear mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens (Countess Waldner) again singing something rather less grave than Cassandre from 2015 or Klytemnestra last year. Baritone Richard Paul Fink was perfect as Count Waldner, his diction is clear and he's very funny, so different than his Edward Teller in Doctor Atomic or his Alberich.

Soprano Heidi Stober is a great Zdenka, I remember loving her in this role when I heard it in Santa Fe back in 2012. Her physicality is tomboyish and completely convincing, her voice sparkles and has a beautiful flexibility. Baritone Brian Mulligan too is wonderfully cast as Mandryka, his robust voice is velvety and he is a fine actor. He looks like he could wrestle a bear, as he is purports to do just after receiving Count Waldner's letter. Soprano Ellie Dehn has a white, clean sound as Arabella herself, and  looks as alluring as one would expect for someone sought after by no less than five suitors.

Director Tim Albery's production is very pretty, not least of all because of the set, designed by Tobias Hoheisel. The stylish grey interiors look great with the pops of color from flowers or the bright red jacket of the Fiakermilli.

Maestro Marc Albrecht had a promising debut. The orchestra gleamed, staying together without overwhelming the singers or being too square. I particularly loved hearing all the viola music in Act I.

* Tattling * 
This was poorly attended, and I got standing room ticket 22 only 15 minutes before curtain. The young man in Row J Seat 103 of the balcony blinded me with his phone at one point during Act I, and the young woman next to him in Seat 105 looked at her Apple Watch throughout the performance.


Opera Parallèle's In the Penal Colony

In-the-penal-colony-glass-2018* Notes *
This weekend Opera Parallèle is in Carmel for In the Penal Colony as part of the Days and Nights Festival. Philip Glass' potent chamber opera from 2000 is a perfect match for this company and the production gets to the nightmarish core of the short story from Kafka.

Maestra Nicole Paiement conducted the string quintet with her usual vim. Though the musicians were regulated over to the right front corner of the stage, they were balanced with the singers and were easy to hear without being overwhelming.

Brian Staufenbiel's direction is anything but static, there's so much going on even though we only have two singers and two actors. The set has two concentric turntables that can move at different rates and three jagged screens -- one in the middle and one for each side. It is just able the right amount of realism -- the torture machine is menacingly spiked -- mixed with off-kilter weirdness such as a portrait of the previous commandant which shows him with waving pink tentacles rather than a head.

The opera is in English and much of Rudolph Wurlitzer's text hews closely with Kafka but obviously is much shorter to accommodate the singing. There were no titles, and I really liked this as it forces the audience to play close attention to the singers. Tenor Javier Abreu has a sweet, sympathetic voice as The Visitor, making for a good proxy for the audience. Robert Orth has a great authority as The Officer, his bright, high baritone is convincing.

* Tattling * 
There was some scattered talking during the opera. I heard a familiar tiny, muffled sound behind me near the end of the opera, which turned out to be a newborn who was nursing as I left the hall.


SF Opera's Tosca

_37A5746* Notes * 
The new production of Tosca (Act II with Scott Hendricks as Scarpia, Joel Sorensen as Spoletta, and Carmen Giannattasio as Tosca pictured left; photograph by Cory Weaver) that opened last night at San Francisco Opera is an ideal first opera. The set looks like a meticulous reproduction of the places featured within Rome and the singing is strong. The young cast looks very convincing.

I don't think I've ever seen a Tosca that didn't try to recreate Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, and Castel Sant'Angelo, since they are such specific locales. This offering, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is no exception, but it was impressive how real everything looked. The costumes also look very genuine, there are no gratuitous wardrobe changes, Tosca doesn't even put on a coat to fetch Cavaradossi before their would-be escape. Shawna Lucey's direction is straightforward and effective. Act II was especially disturbing, Scarpia's sexual violence against Tosca is all the more palpable in light of current events and I winced from those scenes, even at the back of the balcony.

The cast is uniformly fine both vocally and dramatically. I was able to spot Hadleigh Adams (Angelotti), Dale Travis (a sacristan) and Joel Sorensen (Spoletta) right away, even without looking at the program, so often have I heard these singers from the War Memorial stage. Tenor Brian Jadge has also performed Cavaradossi here many times, and did well. His voice is as loud as ever, and his arias sounded great. His fall in Act III looked alarmingly authentic.

Soprano Carmen Giannattasio has a lovely vulnerablity as Tosca, her "Vissi d'arte" alone is worth the price of admission and she sang prostrate on the stage, but this did not seem to have any influence on the volume of her voice at all. She did sound shrill at times at first, but that suits the jealous questioning and nagging of her part in Act I. Scott Hendricks completely embodied Scarpia, he was slick and repulsive, his voice sounded suitably powerful.

Maestro Leo Hussain conducted the orchestra with vigor that bordered on chaos in Act I, but improved over time. There was a gorgeous solo from the harp and the brass played out with clarity.

* Tattling * 
The audience was sparse, and the latecomers in the last row north of center were terribly ill-behaved and talked so much that I had to move to the other side of the balcony to get away from them. Because there were not many people back there, they were even audible from that distance.

I don't know if it is because I have two little kids of my own, but children's voices in opera often creep me out now. Zachary Zele as the shepherd boy made me completely uncomfortable.


Opera San José's Entführung aus dem Serail

Abduction_opera-san-jose1* Notes *
A winsome cast (Matthew Grills as Belmonte and Rebecca Davis as Konstanze pictured, photograph by Pat Kirk) opened the Opera San José 2018-2019 season with the delightful music of Die Entführung aus dem Serail yesterday night. Mozart's jaunty Singspiel is a joy to experience with the young soloists, the sprightly orchestra, and gorgeous set, despite the muddled staging.

The quality of Opera San José's soloists always is solid and this was no exception, the singers are appealing and can both sing and act. The music of Entführung is challenging to pull off, and I was especially impressed by soprano Rebecca Davis as Konstanze, her incisive sound is strong and beautiful. I am astounded every time Konstanze has to sing the back to back arias in Act II, and Davis did not disappoint. Tenor Matthew Grills (Belmonte) also gave a pleasing, lovely performance, making only a few errors. He swallowed a note in his first aria and may have been under pitch for one or two notes in "Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke," but did great in "Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen" of Act II and in all the ensembles.

Abduction_opera-san-jose3Tenor Michael Dailey is endearing as Belmonte's valet Pedrillo and soprano Katrina Galka is perfectly sassy as maid Blonde. Both (pictured left, photograph by Pat Kirk) were very distinct from the other tenor and soprano, Dailey's voice has texture to it and Galka's has a hard edge. Both are excellent actors and are ridiculously attractive, especially for opera singers.

Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam is an amusing as the grumpy Osmin. His clowning had to compete with a lot of silliness from nearly everyone on stage, of course from Pedrillo but there was much buffoonery from Belmonte and even Bassa Selim, the speaking role portrayed here by bass Nathan Stark.

My least favorite element of the performance was the English dialogue coupled with the singing in German, I wish they simply sang in English as much as I like hearing the sung German text. Dramatically it doesn't make sense, and an opera is artificial enough already without having to overcome this too. I appreciated the many details of Michael Shell's direction and the wonderful physical humor, but some gravity was missing for Bassa Selim, I don't see how he goes from his crass antics to becoming the enlightened person who lets his enemy's son go in the end.

This was saved by a splendid set from Steven C. Kemp, which looks better than both productions at San Francisco Opera right now and provides a fine spectacle. It did not surprise me at all that the audience clapped for the last act's set design as it was revealed, it simply looks like a seraglio.

In the end though, Mozart's music shines. I love this opera and I loved hearing it here. Though there were inconsistencies in intonation from the strings, Maestro George Manahan kept the orchestra together and the sound was buoyant. The chorus was powerful and bright as well.

Tattling *
"Your" replaced "you" in a supertitle announcement about silencing electronic devices at second intermission. A cellular phone did ring in Row D, around Seat 5 and 7. More distracting were the loud comments from the man in Row F Seat 1, who talked regardless if the orchestra was playing alone or people were singing.


SF Opera's Roberto Devereux

_T8A7380_crop* Notes *
A magnificently cast Roberto Devereux (opening scene pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is the second offering in San Francisco Opera's 96th season. Though somewhat marred by a tepid staging, the tragic opera by Donizetti is a fine vehicle for vocal fireworks and held together by a confident orchestra and chorus.

Maestro Riccardo Frizza had the orchestra well in hand, clear and synchronized. From the first notes, the sound was declarative and bright, but never overwhelmed the singers. Frizza was never in a rush but also did not drag in the least.

Stephen Lawless's production from the Canadian Opera Company is set in the Globe Theatre, in fact we see Shakespeare pop up out of a trunk during the overture, along with lots of explanatory notes on the supertitle screen setting the context for us about Queen Elizabeth's time. It was odd, given that the piece is not historically accurate, and it was a lot of reading to do before the singing even started. Then again, I am not much of a fan of Donizetti's music, the overture refers to "God Save The Queen," which of course sounds like "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to us Americans, so a distraction was welcome enough.

There were some weird elements to the staging, for instance Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and a young Elizabeth appear in glass cases during the overture, Elizabeth thrashes around for a bit and then the cases move off the stage to be replaced by a new scenes. All of these were perfectly seamless, which made the set changes between actual scenes and acts all the more irritating. A red curtain came down as the stairways were moved or a bed was placed to indicate Sara's apartments while a note read "Please stay in your seats during this scene change" on the screen. This takes the audience out of the drama, giving them time to chat or look at their phones, and even though the changes were quick, the damage was done.

But the real reason for mounting this opera is certainly for the singers. Tenor Russell Thomas did not disappoint in the title role. His Act I "Nascondi, frena i palpiti" where Roberto Devereux denies loving anyone is convincing. He also sang "Come uno spirto angelico... Bagnato il sen di lagrime" with great beauty. I found the music here incongruously cheerful for the scene, in which Devereux is imprisoned in the Tower of London and awaiting death.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is the hapless Sara, beloved by Devereux and married off to the Duke of Nottingham through the machinations of Elizabeth I. Barton has a lovely, rich voice and she sings with utter ease. If memory serves, she nearly upstaged lead soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last time they sang together at San Francisco opera in Norma four years ago.

That was definitively untrue here. Radvanovsky is devastating as Elizabeth I, and it made you wonder why Donizetti didn't keep the title of the source text, Elisabeth d'Angleterre. Radvanovsky takes chances, her notes aren't perfectly clean and white, her voice crackles with emotion when necessary. Her voice is powerful and her rage is unmistakable. At times she seemed completely unhinged, yet she is able to show vulnerability, especially in the last scene.

* Tattling *
The opera was sparsely attended, at least in the balcony, quite undeserved given how strong the cast is. Standing room was even more empty than the night before, perhaps because rush tickets were available.

There many people using their devices in the upper balcony and more than one person was scolded by the ushers.


West Edge Opera's Quartett

Weo-quartett-2018* Notes * 
West Edge Opera's third production this summer is Luca Francesconi's Quartett, based on the 1980 play by Heiner Müller, which in turn is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both music and drama here are utterly disturbing.

The piece debuted at La Scala a scant seven years ago, but has seen great success, and has been done in Vienna, London, and even Buenos Aires. The work requires only two singers playing ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, but they role-play each other as well as virtuous Madame de Tourvel and virginal Cécile de Volanges, victims manipulated by the pair.

Director Elkhanah Pulitzer keeps everything clear by use of onstage costume changes, even though there are many scenes in this one act opera, and the English text can get lost in the layers of music. Chad Owens' set is unique: there are two dressing rooms on the left and right above two showers, the dressing rooms can be assessed by either ladders or a steeply raked platform. In the center is a long dining table for eight and around the orchestra runs a strip of stage as well.

The characters go around and around in circles, repeating the same patterns several times in the 85 minute piece. They are powdered white from head to toe, but the physical demands of the staging which include sliding down, climbing up, and running on that steep incline definitely wore the makeup off. The costumes, almost all white, had a lot of impact. I especially liked the imposing Marquise's nearly vertical tulle and ostrich feather head dress.

Pulitzer highlights the vanity and cruelty of the pair, the Marquise has a phone that she takes photos with that are projected onto the incline and often garishly reappear in the negative. There is much sex and violence, it is all highly artificial in this staging, but somehow the grotesqueness is very effective.

The music seems difficult, Francesconi studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and the piece requires electronics, a live orchestra, and a pre-recorded one with a chorus. There was a lot of shimmers, buzzes, and elaborate percussion. I spent a lot of time looking at the supertitles, as it could be quite hard to understand the words, which come from the play but translated into English and expounded on by the composer. The musicians, lead by Maestro John Kennedy, looked like they were concentrating intensely, and as far as I could tell everything came off the way it was supposed to. Soprano Heather Buck and baritone Hadleigh Adams both sounded and looked great. Buck's voice could be angelic or dangerous, while Adams has a pleasant, lyrical tone.

* Tattling * 
Someone outside the theater was having a loud conversation on her cell phone right before the music started, causing a few giggles from the audience members, otherwise they hardly made a peep, so intent were they on the opera.


West Edge Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande

Weo-pandm2018 * Notes * 
Nomadic West Edge Opera is performing this summer in yet another alternative space, this time in Richmond at the Craneway Conference Center, once a Ford plant. The opening show is Debussy's very wonderfully weird Pelléas et Mélisande. The music is utterly beautiful, the singing was very good, and the production sleek and inventive.

The Craneway is right on the water, and has a glorious view of San Francisco. The building houses the Rosie the Riveter Museum, as it was the site of shipyards with female workers during World War II. A space upstairs was transformed into a theater with much black fabric, platforms, and extensive structures for lighting, which needed its own generator as the building's electrical system was inadequate for this. Unlike previous venues in the last few years, this one does have running water and real bathrooms.

Director Keturah Stickann, very much in keeping with this opera company, did a lot with very little, and her production worked incredibly well. The set (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Chad Owens, is a wall with five openings, and it was impressive how these were used as places to project onto screens or serve as doors or bring in props to the scene. The costumes had a medieval look but were often festooned with rivets.

Maestro Jonathan Khuner kept the small orchestra together, and created a big sound. The singing was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom is an otherworldly Mélisande, her high notes soar and her low ones are deeply rooted. She also was mysterious and nymph-like in her acting. Her Pelléas, tenor David Blalock, may have been a bit more wooden, but his voice is bright and strong. In contrast, baritone Efraín Solís truly embodied the role of Golaud. From grave and sad to crazed and jealous, Solís was completely convincing, and he sounded great, very warm and sympathetic.

* Tattling * 
There were technical difficulties with one of the four supertitle screens which made the opera start late. It was not resolved and those in that area had to move to see the titles.

A young woman in Row D 26 took a picture of Act III, Scene 1, when Mélisande's hair spilled out of the tower. The young man behind her texted. The woman next to me fell asleep during an intense moment of the opera in Act II.

I wish I could go to this opera again, there are two more performances on August 12 and 17, but am overbooked and will be out of town.


Merola's Il Re Pastore

Merola-il-re-pastore-2018* Notes * 
The first of two operas from the Merola Opera Program this summer is the rarity Il Re Pastore at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on July 19 and 21. The lighthearted production directed by Tara Faircloth suits the early Mozart very well, as do the young singers (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken). Maestro Stephen Stubbs conducted with warmth and kept everyone together.

The absurd plot of Il Re Pastore involves Alexander the Great (Alessandro) conquering the kingdom of Sidon, deposing a tyrant named Stratone, and reinstating the rightful heir Aminta, who has lived as a shepherd and has no idea that he is royalty. Alessandro wants the tyrant's daughter Tamiri to marry our titular pastoral king Aminta, but unfortunately he loves shepherdess Elisa, while Tamiri loves Agenore, a Sidonian aristocrat.

The cheery music is unmistakably Mozart's, even if he wrote it when he was only 19. The small orchestra is exposed, and there was a violin out of tune, but the conductor did a fine job keeping the singers and musicians together without being square and dull.

The set is essentially a staircase and two big curved walls covered in greenery on one side and stripes on the other. These were moved by male supernumeraries who were security for Alesssandro. Everything seemed to be mid-century, and the costumes very cunning. There were many sight gags, including topiary sheep, dancing with umbrellas, and throwing petals with deadly seriousness.

The singers, all with high, bright voices, were ebuillent. The part of Aminta was originally cast for a soprano castrato but was played here by female soprano Cheyanne Coss in men's wear. Coss has a clear sound that is well-grounded and her "L'amerò, sarò costante" in Act II was especially beautiful. Her Elisa, soprano Patricia Westley has a very different voice, though also sweet, has a metallic tang, and she both looked and sounded exceedingly girly. Mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh's Tamiri was winsome, her voice is brilliant and crystalline. Her Act II aria ""Se tu di me fai dono," in which she scolds Agenore for giving her away was one of the highlights of the evening.

Tenor Charles Sy has a plaintive voice which works for long-suffering Agenore, he is physically attacked in this production by both Elisa and Tamiri. Tenor Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro) also has a pretty voice, but definitely sounds different than Sy, more robust and with a great openness.

* Tattling *
A prominent Bay Area music critic had to be re-seated next to me in J 3 because his original seat was broken. Unfortunately, the people next to him in J 5 and 7 talked to the couple in front of them. He moved to another seat so that he could sit with his date after intermission, but so did the noisy pair that had been next to him.

A man in Row F Seat 101 put an earbud into his ear at some point in Act II and looked at his cellular phone for several minutes.


SF Opera's Götterdämmerung Cycle 1

_37A5168* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's first Ring cycle this summer came to a glorious end with Götterdämmerung (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) this evening. The singing was strong and the playing exquisite.

Maestro Donald Runnicles had the glittering orchestra sounding better than ever. The tempi are exciting without being rushed. The brass was vibrant, and the solo horn player deserved being singled out at the final ovation.

In this opera, soprano Iréne Theorin had fewer harsh notes as Brünnhilde. Her quieter singing in Act III could have had more warmth and vulnerability. Tenor Daniel Brenna somehow makes the unlikable character of Siegfried winsome. He pushed his voice somewhat in Act II as he recounts his history, but was otherwise in fine form, light and pleasing.

Baritone Brian Mulligan is a conflicted Gunther, his voice is very pretty and nuanced. The bottomless depths of Andrea Silvestrelli make him a perfect match for the villain Hagen. His scene with bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich) showed off both their voices. Soprano Melissa Citro minced around hilariously as Gutrune, fluffing pillows in Act I and growing more dignified as the dark events of the opera unfold.

Jamie Barton is an appealing Waltraute, her sound has a lot of colors to it. She began the performance splendidly as Second Norn, singing beautifully with Ronnita Miller (First Norn) and Sarah Cambidge (Third Norn). The Rhinemaidens Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum sang brilliantly.

The set changes were remarkably quiet. The staging holds the attention with physical humor and jumbled projections during the instrumental parts of the music. The little girl planting a sapling at the end of the final scene was unnecessary though.

Tattling * 
The house manager clarified that standees save at most two spots at the rail.

There was a lot of audience attrition during the long first third of the opera, there was some talking also. A latecomer forced to wait in orchestra standing room for this part of the opera had a lot of trouble with her purse, it made a lot of metallic sounds.

An alarm rang incessantly during a soft part near the end of the opera.


SF Opera's Siegfried Cycle 1

_37A3596* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's current Ring cycle continued with beautifully played Siegfried (Act II pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) last night. There was also much fine singing.

The orchestra seems more settled than in the previous two performances of the cycle, there were fewer intonation errors in the brass, and the horn solo in Act II was nearly perfect. Donald Runnicles seems to bring out the best in the musicians. I especially loved the harps. The singers were never overwhelmed by the orchestra, and almost always synchronized.

Tenor Daniel Brenna is a confident Siegfried, with a sweet, well-nuanced sound. He projects a youthful aplomb that suits the character. Soprano Iréne Theorin is a powerful Brünnhilde, some of her top notes can be harsh but she has a lot of strength.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley's Wanderer is likewise incisive and the contrast between him and the warm brightness of tenor David Cangelosi (Mime), the richer tones of bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (Alberich), and the lush timbre of mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Erda) all worked well.

Bass Raymond Aceto is effective of Fafner, his death scene conveyed both a sense of wonder and regret. Soprano Stacey Tappan sounds wonderfully bird-like as the Forest Bird, though I still don't think having her be a studious girl that gestures a lot makes much sense.

Other elements of the staging have the same holes as before too. It isn’t clear what Fafner’s hiding place is exactly, Grane is referred to but isn’t represented, and so forth. The colors of the projections — many are of clouds or fire — look much brighter, I noticed a lot more lime, pink, and purple.

Tattling * 
I was scolded for taking all the spaces in orchestra standing room by someone looking for a spot at the rail because I was saving a place for a friend rushing over from work. I could see the woman's point, but on the other hand, I bought two tickets and ran out the door right after nursing my one-year old at 7:30am to secure a good position in line.

There wasn't much talking around us during the performance, and no electronic noise either. I thought I heard a crying infant in the first act at the back of the orchestra level, but it seems the baby was taken out into the lobby fairly quickly. I can only guess this was the child of one of the singers.

I think there were two mishaps onstage. One of Mime's eggs in Act I dropped and bounced off the floor. The Wood Bird tripped near the end of Act II. In both cases, the singers involved handled themselves with admirable calmness.


Boris Godunov at SFS

_T8A8435* Notes * 
The opening of San Francisco Symphony's Boris Godunov was a gratifying way to spend the gap day between San Francisco Opera's Ring performances. The semi-staged production (Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) from James Darrah is sleek and makes efficient use of the space. Most importantly though, the singing and playing was all exceedingly beautiful.

Michael Tilson Thomas had the orchestra in hand, the strings shimmered, the woodwinds were lovely, and the brass was clean. There was only one moment, when the solo trumpet entered from the audience in the last scene, that seemed out of sync. The Russian bells played by Victor Avdienko were especially wonderful and the orchestra did best when playing the jauntiest passages, as with the inn scene.

The cast is strong, the dozen and a half soloists all sang very well, as did the chorus. Bass Philip Skinner (Nikitch) is always a great villain, and he was intimidating as ever here. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook is sympathetic as the Innkeeper. Bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev has an open and bright sound as the scholarly monk Pimen, while tenor Sergei Skorokhodov is pleasantly reedy as the novice and Pretender Grigory.

On the other hand, tenor Yevgeny Akimov used his pretty voice to unsettling effect as Prince Shuisky. His account in Scene 6 of the dead Dimitri was perversely dulcet. Another fine tenor is Stanislav Mostovoy, his plaintive quality is perfect for the Holy Fool.

The only soprano principal is Jennifer Zetlan, who sounded petulant and whiny as Xenia. As her brother Fyodor, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet is rather more winsome. Stanislav Trofimov played the tormented Boris to a tee, his voice is powerful and has a warm richness.

The set includes projections on three odd-shaped circular scrims, all very tasteful with Russian inflected designs. There were also six actors/dancers that ripped books, moved cloths around, and tormented boyar Krushchov and two Jesuits. The last scene was all the more chilling because of them.

* Tattling * 
There was so much talking from the audience in the back of the orchestra, it was unbelievable. I heard both Russian and English at full volume. A woman next to me at the end of Row Y kept looking at her phone to check the time during the first half, and finally left with her companion before the intermission and didn't come back. Someone in one of the side orchestra boxes near the back (probably H) fell asleep and snored audibly during Scene 6

On a happier note, I saw many people take this chance to hear four operas in a row. Even Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) was there.


SF Opera's Die Walküre Cycle 1

T8A6791 * Notes * 
As with the previous installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen at San Francisco Opera, Die Walküre (Act I pictured left, photo by Cory Weaver) has beautiful playing from the orchestra and a powerful cast. Donald Runnicles drove a propulsive performance with very bright and exultant brass. The woodwinds were plaintive, especially the clarinet and bassoon.

The cast for Die Walküre has a lot of new singers compared to Das Rheingold since its last outing in 2011, most notably soprano Iréne Theorin. As Brünnhilde Theorin is able, she is icily strong and has good control of her dynamic range. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Wotan) could match Theorin in volume. While he's very good at sounding angry and authoritative, he did lack tenderness (at least in his voice) in the last scene as he says good-bye to Brünnhilde.

Soprano Karita Mattila's distinctive creamy tones are wonderful, but her voice isn't convincing as Sieglinde, a young woman. This was especially odd when she sang with Brandon Jovanovich (Siegmund), as he sounds sweetly youthful. But I still found her "Du bist der Lenz" moving, and her singing in Act III was poignant. Mattila also played well off of bass Raymond Aceto, who is a menacing Hunding.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was most impressive as Fricka, sounding bold and secure. As with everyone in the cast, she also moves well, every gesture or turn of the head conveying emotion with clarity.

The Walküren reminded me of a chorus from a Merola production, all the singers are great but very loud, and their voices did not cohere into a blended sound. In fact, most are former Merolini, only Lauren McNeese (Rossweise) is not, if memory serves. I could definitely recognize the voice of Melissa Citro as Helmwige, her piercing soprano is unmistakable, even though they are all costumed as paratroopers.

Mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum stood out as Waltraute. Laura Krumm (Siegrune), Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), Sarah Cambidge (Ortlinde), Julie Adams (Gerhilde), and Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite) all were easy to hear and distinct. Their entrance got the most reaction from the audience as they parachute in for the Walkürenritt.

Director Francesca Zambello definitely has a good sense of humor and it is a welcome part of the production. The singers are all very fine actors and the various sight gags have their charm. The projections did not look noticeably different in content to me, the first scene still reminds me of The Blair Witch Project, but the colors do look brighter and more saturated.

* Tattling * 
The audience in standing room on the orchestra level was quiet. I heard some electronic noise during some of the softer parts of Act I.


SF Opera's Das Rheingold Cycle 1

_37A1480* Notes *
An exuberant orchestra and strong cast in Das Rheingold opened a revival of Francesca Zambello's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (Scene 4 pictured, photo by Cory Weaver) last night at San Francisco Opera.

It is a joy to hear Maestro Donald Runnicles conduct the orchestra, which sounded driven and robust. The brass, though not perfectly precise, sounded especially bright and effusive. The harpists and percussionists also did a very fine job.

The cast is solid. Since more than half the soloists are the same as in the premiere of this production (at least as a whole cycle) seven years ago, it is fascinating to compare the different singers. For me, the standouts are still tenor Štefan Margita as Loge and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller as Erda, both of whom had these roles in 2011. Margita’s voice is incisive without being the least bit harsh, he embodies his cunning role as demigod with a graceful ease. Miller is nothing less than a force of nature, the sumptuousness of her sound emerging from the floor of the stage as she rises from below for her entrance is very effective.

Also ably reprising their roles were the lovely Rheinmaidens Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde), Renee Tatum (Flosshilde), and Stacy Tappan (Woglinde). Their last scene with Margita is haunting and gave me chills.

As for those new to the cast, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is particularly promising, her Fricka is lush-voiced. I also look forward to hearing more of both bass-baritones Falk Struckmann (Alberich) and Greer Grimsley (Wotan). Struckmann has a richer tone than Grimsley, but there were heavily orchestrated moments in which I had difficulty hearing him. Grimsley is a secure presence and a good actor.

Zambello's production is wonderfully human, there's lot of great humorous moments, as when Loge tricks Alberich into becoming a toad in Scene 3 or the gods frolic in the beginning of Scene 2 and as they ascend Valhalla in Scene 4.

Revamped by S. Katy Tucker, the overwrought video projections are still the weakest link. It makes sense that visuals are needed between scenes, but it is gratuitous to add in effects that are perfectly handled by the music, as when Alberich curses the Ring. Also the descent into Nibelheim with scenes of moving through mountains paths and into caves looked especially awkward. Images of water, clouds, and fire looked best.

* Tattling *
I definitely annoyed myself the most during the performance and can hardly complain about anyone else, as I have a slight but lingering cough from asthma that's acting up because of a fire we had in our house a few weeks ago.

A woman had a seat in front of us in orchestra standing room, but she has a back condition at the moment and had to stand rather than sit. She was very apologetic when she explained her situation, saying she was the wife of "the main guy" in the opera. I wondered if she was Alberich or Wotan's wife, but it was very clear right away that it was the former.