Opera Review

PBO's Radamisto

Pbo-2022* Notes * 
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and new Music Director Richard Egarr (pictured) ended the 2021-2022 season with Händel's Radamisto last weekend at the Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford campus. The intimate venue proved unflattering, though there certainly was some lovely singing and playing.

I attended the last performance of the run yesterday afternoon, and was able to hear Egarr conduct. He had a foot infection and was at the hospital, and the assistant conductor had lead the first two performances. The overture sounded warm and focused, though there were moments in the 2 hour and 45 minute piece that were off-kilter and chaotic. The trumpets and the flute had some strong soli.

Christophe Gayral's production is staid and serious. The insignia of the Armenians looked much like the logo of a certain German athletic brand, but it was unclear if this was intentionally humorous. There was much use of the different configurations of the Bing's stage to change the set, which could have been interesting, but seemed to change the acoustic for the singers and did not serve the music well. There were a lot of guns and flags. There was much fussing with a navy blue coat in a scene with Radamisto and his wife Zenobia that didn't do much dramatically. A later scene in which Radamisto's sister Polissena is stripped of her queenly gown works better, but effective staging elements were far and few between. The lighting design seemed off at times, at one point in Act I Polissena stepped forward into darkness, and the light only caught up later. If this was done on purpose, it did not seem so.

It was hard to get a good read on some of the voices in the cast, as they sounded different in the various locations of the hall and in its different configurations. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta seemed warm and clear in her first vocal appearance as Prince Tigrane, but later on in the act. Likewise bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock's voice had a light, floaty quality to it in the space, he wasn't very threatening as the villain Tiridate. Soprano Ellie Laugharne stayed on the right side of shrill as unloved Polinessa, her icy sound a nice contrast to the warm, bright tones of soprano Liv Redpath (Zenobia).

Only Redpath and countertenor Iestyn Davies in the title role had a consistent beauty to their voices, it was unclear to me if this was because I happened to be seated in the right place to hear their voices or because the staging was more forgiving to them somehow. Redpath could clearly convey emotion in her voice, sounding especially plaintive and bell-like in her Act II aria "Che farà quest'alma mia." Davies too has a brilliant sound, his "Ombra cara" of Act II was great, as were his duets in Act III with Redpath.

* Tattling * 
Though the hall seemed to amplify the audience members as well as the performers, and I heard some wrappers, zippers, and coughs, there were few if any electronic sounds or talking. Most everyone wore masks, despite the fact that they are no longer required.


Opera San José's West Side Story

West-side-story-opera-san-jose-2022-1* Notes *
West Side Story (Act I pictured, photograph by David Allen) opened at Opera San José last night in a sleek and effective production from director Crystal Manich. It was wonderful to hear Leonard Bernstein's music live with a fresh, youthful cast.

Conductor Christopher James Ray kept the orchestra and singers together, though it could have been bolder and crisper. The drama certainly exuded from the stage, and there was much beauty in the singing and dancing.

Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp's dynamic set worked very well, the scenes seamlessly changed and I liked seeing the different rooms from different angles. It was all quite clever and impressively quiet.

The talented cast is a mix of opera singers, musical theater performers, and dancers. At times I felt a bit disoriented from the difference in singing style and where the sound was coming from, as microphones are used, since it is a musical, after all. Rival baritones Antony Sanchez (Bernardo) and Trevor Martin (Riff) clearly come from the musical theater world, they both moved so effortlessly. Sanchez is a particularly fine dancer and Martin has a lovely, light sound. On the opera singer side we had tenor Jared V. Esguerra as Chino and baritone Philip Skinner as Doc. We didn't get to hear that much of their strong voices, but they ably and sensitively acted their roles.

I very much liked soprano Natalia Santaliz as the soloist in "Somewhere." Her delicate voice singing above the lovers was ethereal and otherworldly.

The ensembles had a lot of spirit. Mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens is a cheeky Anita, she lead the Shark girls in "America" and played off soprano Christine Capsuto-Shulman as Rosalia. Havens was able to show the nuances of her character very clearly, she was completely convincing. She has a splendid, rich voice as well.

The Jets were entertaining in "Gee, Officer Krupke," Jawan Jenkins is endearing as Action. It was all the more disturbing when these same performers harass Anita at Doc's just a little later. The central problems of the piece feel so intractable and realistic.

West-side-story-opera-san-jose-2022-2The leads (pictured, photograph by David Allen) are both powerful singers. Soprano Teresa Castillo is sweet as Maria, she sings with clarity and her duet with Anita in Act II, "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" was moving. The appeal of tenor Noah Stewart as Tony was undeniable, his resonant tones and tender boyishness were perfect for "Maria" and "Tonight."

* Tattling *
The audience was enthusiastic. Most people did keep their masks on as asked. I did see someone in Row G using her iPhone at the beginning of Act II. I also noted some electronic noise, but nothing too close to me.

As I was turning the pages of the program, I was surprised to see that one of the semi-finalists of the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition this year is from Ürümqi. I rarely see Chinese ethnic minorities like myself in an opera program, so this was notable for me. It makes me very curious to hear soprano Nina Mutalifu when she competes on Wednesday, May 18.


Opera Parallèle's Sophia's Forest

Sophias-forest-2022 * Notes *
I was so pleased to be able to hear Opera Parallèle's latest offering, Sophia's Forest by Lembit Beecher, yesterday evening at Grace Cathedral. This 2017 chamber opera deals with the trauma of a nine-year-old immigrant child and features some very beautiful singing and creepy sound sculptures made from wine glasses and bicycle wheels.

Conductor Nicole Paiement had the Del Sol Quartet, plus percussionist Divesh Karamchandani and composer Beecher electronically controlling his nine sound sculptures all well in hand. The playing was taut and impeccable.

The set was on the ground level of the cathedral along with all of the musicians, with the audience seated on three sides. This gave the performance an intense immediacy. The background of menacing trees along with the incredible venue, lighting, and a few props were enough to create the right atmosphere for this harrowing story.

The narrative is revealed retrospectively by an adult Sophia, played by soprano Maggie Finnegan. Her voice is crystalline and ethereal, without a hint of harshness. Her child counterpart, Charlotte Fanvu, does not sing but is clearly a talented actor and is convincing. I was relieved to read that she is twelve and not nine in real life.

Girl soprano Samantha Fung-Lee sounded bright and clean as Sophia's sister Emma and likewise baritone Bradley Kynard (Wes) had a pleasant, light sound. Kynard was sympathetic as Sophia's mom's boyfriend in the States, he didn't have many lines but seemed kindly. Mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich (Emma, Sophia's mother) gave us some contrast with her very warm and deep voice. It was moving when Scharich sings "She's always been the same" about her daughter, and we got to see many different sides of this character, even in the spare 60 minutes of this piece.

Tattling *
Opera Parallèle was sent detailed instructions on what to expect as far as Covid-19 protocols and parking, so I was careful to get to the performance an hour ahead of curtain. I knew I had to show my proof of vaccination and identification, and waited until the line had dissipated before heading inside. This gave me time to wander on the outdoor labyrinth for about ten minutes, which was very soothing.

I really like that I don't have to print out my ticket and can simply bring it up on my phone, but the problem is I have to switch from my digital vaccine record to the ticket and this takes a bit of time. A man at the door mistook my pause doing this and noting that the restrooms are downstairs as a sign of confusion, when truly I was trying to avoid having an awkward time of going into the venue, having to come back out to go to use the restrooms, and not having all my ticket ready to be scanned again. Anyway, he let me know the cathedral was not simply open to the public and that I would have to leave if I wasn't attending the opera, but was apologetic once I explained that I did have a ticket and was trying to make sure it was ready.

The audience was pretty quiet and there weren't any noticeable electronic interruptions. The man next to me did take off his mask several times throughout the performance to blow his nose. He wasn't loud, at least. I have seasonal allergies and still feel shame about being scolded by at least two different women at the gym for working out in public when having symptoms, and that was pre-pandemic. I find it unnerving how much more comfortable other people can be out in the world, seemingly unself-conscious and unafraid of being reprimanded by strangers.


Opera San José's Carmen

CarmenOperaSJ0764_Resized-scaled* Notes *
A colorful production of Carmen opened at Opera San José last weekend with a sharp cast. Director Lillian Groag's staging is lively with supernumeraries and flamenco dancers.

Music Director Joseph Marcheso kept the orchestra fairly neat, only a few moments here and there were off-kilter. The brass were clear and the woodwinds lovely.

The set is clean, stairs and a series of arches for the most part. There were nice details, like the water pump that Carmen washes her feet in during Act I. The heavy lifting for the staging was certainly in the physicality of the performers, whether it was the adorable, dimpled Amalinaltzin De La Cruz (pictured in Act II with Eugene Brancoveanu as Escamillo) as Little Carmen or Carmen herself punching Morales in the face.

The most novel part of the production was the use of supernumerary Jim Ballard as Amor Brujo ("Bewitched Love"). We first see him during the overture cutting Carmen's braid, and he pops up throughout, ghost-like and looking more like a personification of death than love. He is quite a presence and he did many floreos (hand articulations from flamenco) as he moved across the stage.

The inclusion of four real flamenco dancers from The Flamenco Society of San José in Act II was truly exciting, they were great.

OSJ_Carmen_Richard-Trey-Smagur-as-Don-Jose_Nikola-Printz-as-Carmen_Photo-credit_Rapt-Productions_6-scaledThe Sunday matinée performance featured tenor Richard Trey Smagur (pictured with Nikola Printz as Carmen) as Don José, he shares the role with Noah Stewart. Smagur has an open, plaintive sound. Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz embodied Carmen, their voice is clear and acting very strong. My only quibble was with their castanet playing, it was tentative compared to the flamenco dancers. Otherwise, it was an enchanting and convincing performance, it was obvious why Carmen is so arresting and seductive.

I loved hearing soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Michaëla, her sound is so bright and pretty. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu is appealing as Escamillo, there is some texture to his lower range, but he has warm resonances as well.

Bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic was a touch quiet as Zuniga, the character was treated with a startling brutality by the smugglers, all of whom sounded quite nice, however. Soprano Teresa Castillo is a saucy, youthful Frasquita and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Sanchez as Mercédès has a distinct sound from Carmen. The quintet "Quand il s’agit de tromperie" was pleasantly rounded off by tenor Jared V. Esguerra (El Remendado) and bass-baritone Rafael W. Porto (El Dancaïro). Bass-baritone Peter Morgan (Moralès) has a grainy voice that cut through the chorus.

* Tattling *
I was glad to note that the California Theatre requires proof of a booster to attend performances. It was perfectly easy to get through the line within a few minutes.

There was some plastic rustling in Row E at the beginning of the performance, but this did subside pretty quickly. More annoying was a woman who arrived late after the first intermission and had the usher get five people in Row C to stand up during the flamenco dancing to let her to her seat, only to realize this was very disruptive and had her sit in a more accessible seat in Row B.

But the most obnoxious thing was certainly at the end of the tenor's Act II aria "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" when someone's Apple Watch pinged their iPhone.


SF Opera's Così fan Tutte

24.Cosi_Act I scene* Notes * 
Così fan tutte (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), the second installment of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy directed by Michael Cavanagh, opened at San Francisco Opera last weekend. The second performance was Tuesday night, there was lots of pretty singing, Maestro Henrik Nánási kept the orchestra going at a brisk pace, and the production gave us lots to think about.

The set, an 18th century manor house in Le nozze di Figaro, looks largely the same, though it is now a country club in the 1930s. There are a few projections on the scrim during the overture and at the beginning of Act II, but they are minimal, mostly silhouettes of the various characters or details about the world we are about to enter. Later we see water and trees on three panels of the graph paper facade of the building as the scenes are changed.

Don Alfonso is the general manager of the Wolfbridge Country Club and Despina is a maid there, the rest of the characters are apparently guests for a week of fencing and drawing classes, dancing, badminton, and swimming in late spring. All this lends itself to opulent scenes, the one by the pool garnered applause. There are a lot of sight gags throughout, as when we find ourselves in a prettily appointed space with posters depicting lithe, active women declaring this is "how to keep youth and beauty" while the female guests do calisthenics, and promptly help themselves to cocktails and cigarettes.

The production is certainly more interesting than the Le nozze di Figaro from October 2019, though it is clearly in the same world. Part of this is perhaps because Così fan tutte is a more problematic piece, misogyny is in the very title itself. Each of the lovers is shown to be rather childish, there is much melodrama and silliness. One twist in this portrayal is that Despina discovers that the "Albanians" are Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise in right before the Act II duet "Fra gli amplessi." The cunning maid shares her discovery with the sisters as the men sing "Così fan tutte," and it means that Dorabella and Fiordiligi are well aware they are having a sham wedding in the last scene, giving it a very different tone than in a more straightforward rendering of this piece. It is all a lot more ambiguous and heartbreaking.

The orchestra was crisp, the woodwinds and brass sounded particularly fine. Nánási occasionally had the musicians ahead of the singers, he definitely kept things moving. The chorus was powerful and together.

The principals are all very nicely cast. Soprano Nicole Cabell (Fiordiligi) and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Dorabella) sounded like sisters, their voices have similar qualities. Cabell's voice has very lovely and dark low notes, while Roberts has a metallic incisiveness. Cabell navigated the vocal leaps of the Act I aria "Come scoglio" with brilliant ease, and sang an emotional "Fra gli amplessi," her Act II duet with Ferrando. Speaking of which, tenor Ben Bliss had a dazzling San Francisco Opera debut as Ferrando, his voice is sweet and open, sounding wonderful in this same duet and throughout the evening. His Act II aria "Tradito, schernito" was simply beautiful. Baritone John Brancy held his own as Guglielmo, sounding sturdy and warm.

13.Cosi_Ferruccio Furlanetto_Nicole CabellIt is always a joy to hear bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, the role of Don Alfonso seems tailor-made for him. His resonances are striking and he moves well, I loved his little victory dance in Act II Scene 2, after Guglielmo reveals that Dorabella has betrayed Ferrando. Best of all though was soprano Nicole Heaston as Despina. Not only is her voice completely smooth and clear, she is genuinely hilarious. She disguises herself as a golfing doctor (pictured with Furlanetto, photograph by Cory Weaver) and putting on a very funny accent that was completely obvious even if you don't know a word of Italian.

* Tattling * 
There was some occasional light talking around me in Row P of the Orchestra Level and one "ding" from the center section in the first scene of Act II as Fiordiligi sang. Before this someone just behind me loudly remarked that something onstage was "so stupid," I guess it was Guglielmo's feigning illness. It wasn't obvious to me why this needed to be stated, given that the whole plot is pretty darned absurd.

I watched the livestream of the opening Sunday matinée performance of Così with my 4-year old and 7-year old children, it was pretty good and only had a couple technical problems. I had hoped my older child would have been fully-vaccinated so he could attend in person, but sadly that won't happen until next month, so it was excellent to have this option. He was very excited about the doctor scene described above, especially the magnets, and about "È amore un ladroncello," Dorabella's Act II aria, which he's heard about a thousand times because he was obsessed with Cecilia Bartoli's Mozart Arias recording when he was a toddler.


Ars Minerva's Messalina

Ars-minerva-messalina-2021* Notes * 
The inimitable Ars Minerva is presenting the North American premiere of Carlo Pallavicino's Messalina this weekend at ODC Theater in San Francisco. The Saturday performance was a raucous romp through the Roman imperial court around 47 CE focused on Messalina, the third wife of Emperor Claudius. There are many love triangles and mistaken identities, as is so often the case with Baroque opera, and this production wholeheartedly embraces the humor and absurdity of these situations.

As is the case with all of Ars Minerva's operas, this piece by Carlo Pallavicino hasn't been seen in modern times. The opera premiered in 1679 at the Teatro San Salvatore in Venice and features a libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli that deals with martial infidelity, jilted lovers, and moral turpitude. Pallavicino's music is very beautiful and the singing and playing certainly seemed to do it justice.

This opera does feel a bit more serious than some of the others we've seen at Ars Minerva, there is an undercurrent of violence that is more real than some of the sillier plots of many a Baroque drama. Perhaps because the historical figure of Empress Messalina was indeed executed for her sexual licentiousness along with her lover Caius. There are also abductions and rape attempts of Floralba, the wife of Claudio's advisor Tullio.

Executive Artistic Director of Ars Minerva Céline Ricci staged the piece as a boisterous caper. The scenes are changed using projections of paintings and props brought in and out by stagehands. It keeps the momentum going without much disruption. I very much enjoyed Marina Polakoff's costumes, a mash-up of contemporary and classical styles. Male characters (or in one case those disguised as males) wore brightly-colored suits whose jackets might have some toga-like draping on one side and oxford shoes in matching hues. Messalina's gowns were so much fun, lots of pink roses and elaborate headdresses. She had a fantastical collar shaped like a lotus at one point and a fabulous balloon-filled skirt for the final scene.

The music sounded lovely, the orchestra is only six people, basically a string quartet with therorbo and harpsichord. Conductor/harpsichordist Jory Vinikour keeps everyone together, the playing has a bracing, brisk quality that is very pleasing.

The cast boasts a lot of fine singers. The lowest voice featured is Zachary Gordin, whose light baritone has a certain smoky darkness. His Tergisto contrasted nicely with mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, his betrayed erstwhile fiancée Erginda (disguised most of the opera as Alindo). Scharich's sound is warm and solid. She also had the funniest sight-gag of the evening, as she reveals her identity by baring her obviously-fake breasts near the end of Act III. Gordin did have a very amusing scene in Act II when he puts on a bunny tail and ears and hops off stage too. Our other secondary couple Tullio, played by tenor Kevin Gino, and Floralba, portrayed by soprano Shawnette Sulker, were likewise strong. Gino's voice is well-supported and Sulker has a pretty flutey sound. Tenor Marcus Paige as Lismeno is the only character in this story who isn't directly involved in romantic intrigues. His resonant voice stood out, and his sly commentary on the action through his physicality was memorable.

Tenor Patrick Hagen's Caio, the much younger lover of Messalina, was consistent, his voice has a reediness to it that is pleasantly plaintive. As Emperor Claudio mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus sounds icily pristine, an unsettlingly foil to the jealous, violent nature of the character. Soprano Aura Veruni seemed to perfectly embody Messalina, her voice has such a spark to it, so alive and clear. Her movements are also very decisive and conveyed humor well.

* Tattling * 
It really seems that the pandemic has confused some audience members about how to behave. There was so much talking behind me in Row C around Seats 8 and 10 that I didn't know how to react either, I simply froze. Thankfully my 615 days of being in close quarters with chattering children have honed my ability to focus.

I did see many friends at this event, and it was a joy to experience live opera with them again.


Opera San José's Dido and Aeneas

DAP9164-scaled

* Notes *
Opera San José has returned to the California Theatre last night with a beautifully cast Dido and Aeneas. Director Elkhanah Pulitzer's new production is likewise attractive.

Music Director Joseph Marcheso conducted a reduced version of the orchestra suited to this Baroque opera that clocks in at only 55 minutes. The continuo -- played here by harpsichord, two guitars, and cello -- packed a punch. A few times I did find myself focusing more on the continuo than what was happening on stage, though both the choreography by Michael Pappalardo and costumes from Ulises Alcala were pretty.

This staging features a nice, minimal set, essentially a curved white wall with arched double doors in the middle that are plain white on one side and turquoise and ornately decorated when open (pictured, photograph by David Allen). Scenes were switched by the use of elements coming in from above the stage and with artful lighting. I really loved how upside down flowering trees appeared in the middle of Act II.

The small chorus has a lot of spirit, and were great to see and hear. The rest of the youthful cast is comprised of the resident company and boasts many familiar faces. Bass-baritone Nathan Stark makes for a creepy Sorcerer, his commanding voice and strong presence were downright threatening and gave credence to the drama at hand. Soprano Maya Kherani sounded lovely as Belinda, her Act II "Thanks To These Lonesome Vales" had a delicate sweetness.

Baritone Efraín Solís makes for a fine Aeneas, his warm voice has an appealing texture and when he is rejected by Dido it felt very real. Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is imposing as Dido, having depth, warmth, and nice clean lines to their voice. The sublime "When I am laid in Earth" gave me chills and the falling rose petals as Dido laments her fate are very effective.

* Tattling *
To my surprise the evening began with the National Anthem. We were seated quite near General Director Khori Dastoor, and I could easily hear her clear soprano voice.

The process of checking vaccine status and identification was quick and simple. Once inside the building we saw a number of opera friends, which was heartening. People were very good about keeping their masks on throughout, though I did hear some light talking at the beginning and someone definitely had trouble with a lozenge wrapper just before the two witches sing "But ere we this perform."


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's Fidelio


_DSC0704* Notes * 

A brand-new production of Fidelio (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night, a year late and with a splendid cast. Maestra Eun Sun Kim kept the orchestra lively and balanced.

Matthew Ozawa's contemporary production features a startlingly spare set that spins to reveal cages full of people or solitary dungeons as the opera requires. I found the brutality of the layered bars weirdly compelling, especially since the set was also used for the drive-in Barber of Seville up in Marin earlier in the year. It was so different, completely transformed in the space of the War Memorial stage. The set used some creepy projections, mostly of Elza van den Heever's face (though the back of her head is projected before the opera begins), but did not simply rely on video to set the scene.

The orchestra was not always perfectly together, the first note from the brass section was sour, but Maestra Kim draws interesting textures out of the musicians and there were exquisite moments to be sure. John Pearson did a fine job playing the offstage trumpet in Act II. The ensembles were also particularly lovely, and the principal singers are beautifully cast. The chorus sounded strong and cohesive.

Soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh is a sweet and chirpy Marzelline, her pretty tones very distinct from our lead soprano in the title role. Likewise bass James Creswell (Rocco) sounded so different from bass-baritone Greer Grimsley (Don Pizarro). Creswell is endearing, his voice warm and so human. Grimsley in contrast has less prettiness, which suits his role as villian.

_DSC3680Tenor Russell Thomas seemed ideal as Florestan, his voice is so expressive. No less riveting is soprano Elza van den Heever, and her duet with Thomas (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), "O namenlose Freude!" was moving. Van den Heever has a lot of power and an icy clarity that somehow is not harsh. Her Act I aria "Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern" got a huge response from the audience, and for good reason.

* Tattling * 
I brought my good friend Axel Feldheim to this performance, apparently I haven't seen him in person for 586 days. He noted it was very odd to be seated next to me in this house, since we usually are in standing room.

The new seats are more obvious on the Orchestra Level, they have staggered the seats better, though there was no one seated in front of us in Row T.

Audience members around us were very good about keeping their masks on as requested. I did hear a phone alert of some kind as Rocco was singing in Act I.


SF Opera's Tosca

_DSC8720* Notes * 
Live performance returned to the War Memorial stage with San Francisco Opera's Tosca (Act I with Ailyn Pérez as Tosca and Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi pictured left; photograph by Cory Weaver) last weekend, and I managed to get to the second outing yesterday night. The cast is vivid and strong, as is the orchestra, and our new Music Director Eun Sun Kim brought out a lot of dramatic colors from everyone.

This revival of Shawna Lucey's production from 2018 felt even more immediate than the last time. The violence felt very real, from Soloman Howard (Angelotti) limping in Act I to the firing squad in Act III. Again, Scarpia's cruelty and maliciousness against Tosca in Act II turned my stomach, though Alfred Walker has an absolutely lovely voice, so very smooth and flexible. The pretty, detailed sets and costumes are also an interesting contrast to the ugliness of this brutality.

The singing was great all around. Tenor Michael Fabiano is a dashing Cavaradossi with a big, bright voice. His "Vittoria! Vittoria!" in Act II was moving, and his "E lucevan le stelle" had deservedly the longest ovation of the evening. Soprano Ailyn Pérez is quite the coquette in the title role, her voice is warm and full. Her "Vissi d'arte" of Act II was simply beautiful.

Maestra Kim conducted a buoyant and brilliant orchestra. The chaotic scene before Scarpia's entrance was really very much so, and the music did seem to roil along nicely.

* Tattling * 
Everyone 12 and over had to have proof of vaccination, and the process of checking vaccine records and identification was simple.

There was barely any wait at the front entrance. Mask compliance was high where I was in the back of the balcony, I only saw one person slip their mask off for a moment to sip wine, and I was many feet away from everyone in the back row on the aisle. I was pretty uncomfortable being inside with so many people for so long, even masked, vaccinated people. I wore my two masks for the entire time.

During the second intermission someone loudly scolded a young man about his feet being on the back of the chair in front of him. The seats are new, and I guess they are more plush than the ones before, but I'd still rather stand.


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.


Don Giovanni at Pocket Opera

Don-giovanni-pocket-opera-2020* Notes *
Pocket Opera opened the 2020 season with Don Giovanni yesterday afternoon at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. The singing and staging of this English language performance was one of the most engaging I've experienced of Mozart's dark comedy.

Donald Pippin, the Artistic Director Emeritus of Pocket Opera, has retired and this is the first performance of the company I've seen without his whimsical commentary. While I did miss him, his stamp is still certainly seen in the translation of the libretto.

The opera started off more or less as a local company production, some very suspect playing from the tiny orchestra and fine singing from a strong cast. Director Jane Erwin's work is straightforward. Mozart's music leaves the eleven instrumentalists very exposed, every sour note or lack of unison was obvious.

Music director and conductor César Cañón made an earnest effort but there were moments of complete and painful chaos. Cañón's piano playing was sprightly and there were times when the Pocket Philharmonic managed to pull it together.

The cast is talented. Bass Jason Sarten is highly believable as the Commendatore, especially when he is meant to be a statue, his movements were spot on. Baritone Mitchell Jones is charming as Masetto, as is soprano Sara LeMesh as Zerlina. It was very interesting to hear LeMesh in something so different her spectacular turn as Bess in West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves last summer. Her voice has a wonderful vitality to it but is always precise.

Mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos begins with an appropriately hysterical tone as Donna Elvira, her desperation seems real and she grew more and more plaintive by the end. In contrast, Rabihah Davis Dunn was a well-controlled Donna Anna, her soprano is clear and flexible. As Don Ottavio, tenor Kevin Gino is sturdy and open. Baritone Spencer Dodd is a warm and winsome Leporello while baritone Anders Fröhlich radiates danger and menace as Don Giovanni.

By the beginning of the Act I finale I had pretty much heard and seen what I had expected, but when Don Ottavio brandishes a gun (which is in the libretto but I've rarely if ever seen on stage) I was snapped out of my complacency. The stakes seem very genuine, Don Giovanni's use of Leporello as a human shield actually makes sense, as is the latter's anger at the beginning of Act II.

The momentum of the drama wasn't lost after the intermission, and the handling of Don Giovanni's descent to hell was skillful. Fröhlich tears off his shirt as he is tormented by the invisible chorus of demons, then he himself is unseen by the rest of the cast. Leporello picks up the cast-off clothing as he explains himself in the concluding ensemble.

* Tattling * 
There were the usual watch alarms at the hour. The audience looked full, I only saw one empty seat in the sixth row.


Opera San José's Il trovatore

Il-trovatore_David-Allen_8-scaled* Notes *
Opera San José is in the midst of an appealing run of Il trovatore. The traditional production cleanly moves through the scenes and has a hint of humor plus lots of robust singing and playing.

Though the synchrony of the brass-heavy orchestra and the singers was not always focused, the performance yesterday had much charm. The plot of Il trovatore is famously absurd, and there were definitely moments in which director Brad Dalton leaned into this, as seen when the Count di Luna and Manrico fight over Leonora (pictured, photograph by David Allen). Leonora grabs a sword herself and the effect is pretty amusing. The set is simple, stone stairs represent everything from a garden to a dungeon, but it works with the help of super-titles.

There is much powerful singing. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu gave a nuanced performance as the Count di Luna, his rich warmth can sound both angry and plaintive. Likewise mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman impressed as Azucena. Her mad recounting of what happened to her mother and her baby son were chilling, while she had a tender sweetness in her duet with Manrico "Ai nostri monti ritorneremo" in the last act.

Il-trovatore_David-Allen_3-scaledTenor Mackenzie Gotcher cuts a fine figure as Manrico, and his singing is strong, especially in volume. Soprano Kerriann Otaño also has a big voice, with a wide vibrato and drama to spare. Her Leonora is very spirited and her low notes are especially beautiful.

* Tattling *
The audience was very much engaged with the performance, though someone's phone did ring during a quiet moment when the Count di Luna sang near the end of the first half. I had to giggle when the ladies behind us speculated on what would happen next, prognosticating that "someone must die."


PBO's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (Again)

Pbo-aci-galatea-polifemo-31-1-2020* Notes * 
The production of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo that has a final performance tonight at ODC Theater in San Francisco is well worth a second viewing. National Sawdust and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra have successfully pulled off a disquieting and dark vision of Händel's serenata.

This time around I was in the eighth row rather than the first, and it made it easier to appreciate Mark Grey's video art, which starts off with Delft blue tiles depicting sea life and ships and switches to various eye irises, water, earthworms, and blood. While a step up from jewelry advertisements or screensavers, these images could be a bit on the nose, as when the letters of Polifemo's name show up garishly and slowly in gold on the screen as he makes his entrance or when a seagull flaps as Aci sings about birds.

I was, however, able to make more sense of the action on stage from further back, and it was easier to see the internal logic of this world of violence that surrounds a bathtub. I also was better able to see the interplay of shadows, which was very striking at times.

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines (Polifemo) clearly has the hardest role, the range dramatically and vocally required is definitely greatest of the three. He seemed in better voice yesterday than a week ago, he never cracked even in the highest notes and his low ones were less growled. As Aci, soprano Lauren Snouffer gets thrown to the wall rather a lot, but she always sounds perfectly clean and lucid. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo's Galatea is strong, his voice is very smooth from top to bottom. All the parts are physically demanding and all gave committed performances.

I loved hearing Maestro Nicholas McGegan and the orchestra again. There were some lovely soli from the guitar, the violin, and the oboe. It was fun seeing how the dolphin and whale sounds were made, col legno battuto on the cello for the former and a sliding note from the bass for the latter.

* Tattling * 
The young woman next to me in Row H Seat 18, probably a voice student attending with her classmates, laughed quite a bit during the opera and got an intense fit of giggles as the countertenor thrashed against the tub toward the end of the piece. She shook as she suppressed her laughter, but made very little noise.


PBO's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

BySuzanneKarp_8in.wide* Notes * 
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Maestro Nicholas McGegan (pictured, photograph by Suzanne Karp) opened a run of Händel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo last night at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. The fully-staged co-production with the Brooklyn-based National Sawdust is absolutely menacing but beautifully acted, sung, and played.

The short piece is not a proper opera, it only runs 90 minutes, but features the love triangle of nymph Galatea, her beloved shepherd Acis, and the cyclops Polyphemus. These performances use the overture from Agrippina, which was punctuated by combination sweeper-mops.

Our Galatea and Acis are dressed alike in forest green scrubs, white hair caps, yellow gloves, and black clogs. The set is essentially two walls and a claw-footed bath tub. Much cleaning ensues. Characters get in and out of the tub, threaten each other or themselves with a straight razor, and throw objects around. The effect is disquieting and alienating, especially in the intimate space. It's very difficult to tell what is going on, since the action often has nothing to do with the plot and the characters sometimes simply play dead for long periods of time.

BathThankfully, the music is gorgeous and the three voices very lovely. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines has the most challenging role of Polifemo, some of the low notes seemed utterly ridiculous and impossible, particularly in the aria "Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori." His rival, soprano Lauren Snouffer as Aci, has a clean, otherworldly tone. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang Galatea with smooth verve.

Best of all is the orchestra, an ensemble of thirteen musicians including Maestro McGegan playing harpsichord. The jaunty tempi were never sluggish but never too rapid either.

* Tattling * 
There were cetacean sounds when "e l'orche, e le balene" are mentioned and this made me and my companion laugh out loud.

A few people left this performance before the end, and because of how this theater is set up, their exits were in full view of the whole audience and performers.