Opera Review

SF Opera's Rusalka

_37A7618* Notes * 
The hit of the summer at San Francisco Opera is Rusalka (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), which opened a week ago on Father's Day. Right out the gate, the orchestra sounds utterly lush, the set is mysteriously beautiful, the costumes elaborate, and best of all, the singing is fantastic all around.

David McVicar's production is all you could want, a dark fairy tale come to life. The set has visual impact, but the scenes switch seamlessly, there are no pauses. My only quibble was that some of the set changes are slightly loud. The choreography from Andrew George is nicely integrated with the opera, working equally well on the singers and dancers.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim conducted an energetic orchestra.  The brass is quite clear. The harp certainly gets a work out and sounded absolutely lovely. The piece is rather sweeping and Wagnerian, but the singers were never drowned out by the orchestration.

_T8A7773It was difficult for me not to compare this opera with Pelléas et Mélisande, as they are from the same time period and both deal with enigmatic women found near water. As much as I love Debussy's work, many of the characters in Rusalka are rather more human, showing a range of emotions.

The powerhouse cast is splendid and has a lot of volume. The wood nymphs, soprano Natalie Image, mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon were charming.  Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is a delightfully grotesque Jezibaba. Her low notes ring out as clearly as her upper range.

As water goblin Vodnik, Kristinn Sigmundsson shows emotional scope often absent from the performance of a bass, all those dads just sound authoritative. Sigmundsson can, to be sure, sound angry, but has a more mournful side too. His singing in Act II was particularly plaintive. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a beautifully nuanced performance as the Prince. He went from in love to deceitful to desperate, and showed all manner of colors and shades in his voice.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver) made me question how this part could have suited Renée Fleming so well, the singers are just so different. Willis-Sørensen is not delicate, she has a dark power and a lot of volume. Her voice can be brilliantly ethereal. Her "Song to the Moon" is gorgeous, her anguish in Act II so palpable, and her deep empathy in Act III heartbreaking.

* Tattling * 
After yet another weekend of coughing fits, wheezing, and lethargy that caused me to miss the opening of Rusalka, it turns out I have bronchitis. It felt amazing to be at the opera this past Saturday night without having to choke back coughs, since I am now on the appropriate medications after seeing the doctor last Monday morning.

Standing room back in the balcony was much more crowded than usual. There was some light humming and watch alarms. Especially annoying was a mobile phone ringing when Willis-Sørensen sings toward the start of Act III.


SF Opera's Orlando

_37A0773* Notes * 
It is a joy to hear Händel's beautiful music live in San Francisco Opera's latest production (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) of Orlando, which opened this afternoon. Set in the early autumn of 1940, in a hospital in West London, the staging turns out to be fairly dull though the singing is all very lovely.

The set is based on a real hospital from 1933, and has green floors and basically three different configurations. Mostly they simply turn the stage around. The scenes move quickly but don't have much visual impact, people aimlessly wander through. There are projections, but all are rather literal. We see a diamond ring and Angelica's eyes many times. For the most part it was tame, but I was outright annoyed by the bombing that took place at the end of Act II during Orlando's music. It didn't add anything to the drama and only got in the way of experiencing the opera.

Maestro Christopher Moulds seemed very relaxed in conducting the orchestra, it was all very pretty but perhaps could have used a bit more sharpness and precision. The singing too was attractive on all sides. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has some glorious high notes, very warm and legato. Some of her lower range was swallowed up by the orchestration, but she sounded great in her Act III aria "Gia l'ebro mia ciglio."

Both sopranos, Christina Gansch as Dorinda and Heidi Stober as Angelica, are splendid. Gansch has a tawny brightness while Stober is more icy. The contrast works well. Gansch's Act III aria about love ("Amore è qual vento") was particularly charming.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a powerful Zoroastro, while countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is a tender Medoro. Nussbaum Cohen has a brilliant, strong, and smooth voice, one can hardly believe he is only twenty-five. His trio with the sopranos at the end of Act I ("Consolati o bella") was memorable as was his Act III aria "Vorrei poterti amar."

* Tattling * 
I am just getting over a bad cough, and took something to suppress it just so I could make it through the opera along with six lozenges and some hot mint tea. While I managed to get through the three hours and twenty minutes without a coughing fit, I did notice a lot of unwrapping of drops and not a small amount of outright coughing.

I really enjoyed the standee to my right, he was adamant about shushing a man in front of us who was rifling through a bag during the overture, and he asked the usher and a latecomer to "please stop talking." He also tattled on a woman in front of him who was resting her bare feet on one of the chairs. I wish I had the wherewithal these days to confront people about their bad behavior, but sadly simply can't muster the energy for it!


SF Opera's Carmen

37A8979* Notes * 
"Enjoy your hundredth Carmen!" teased my husband as I left for the opening of the latest production of this opera at San Francisco Opera last night. Quite an exaggeration, at best I've seen this opera twenty-five times, though I have seen this staging by Francesca Zambello way back in 2007 at Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London.

As it turns out, the performance was enjoyable. The playing was lovely, there was lots of good singing, and the production is attractive and sleek. I very much remembered the warm orange-reds of the stage and the orange tree in the middle of the stage in Act I. The set is efficient, there's no dead time in-between acts, and the performance clocks in under three hours since is only one intermission and cuts to the dialogue.

I always like Zambello's humanistic details, as with Captain Zuniga's struggle to get free when he is bound at the end of Act II and the possible observers to Carmen's tragic end up at the top of the arena. It was clear she was able to engage the audience.

Maestro James Gaffigan conducted a sprightly orchestra. The overture had a fine transparency. There were brief unfocused moments, as when the children's chorus entered or in the smugglers quintet in Act II. However, the many soli throughout the piece were all very nice, particularly the clarinet solo at the beginning of the last act.

The cast is youthful and attractive. The Adlers all were great, I especially liked mezzo Ashley Dixon and soprano Natalie Image as Mercédès and Frasquita, they are well matched and charming.

Bridges is remarkably consistent, her voice had only the slightest few catches at first. Otherwise she gave a strong, vital performance. Though her dancing lacks verve, she moves with a lank grace, and her Carmen is robust. Her Don José, tenor Matthew Polenzani, has a depth of emotional range that is palpable in his voice. In his last aria, he moves from imploring to cajoling to demanding, every phrase with a different color with an immediacy that doesn't require knowledge of French to understand.

* Tattling * 
This is a great first opera, and I hope the production brings out lots of new people, as it seems to have so far. The only problem with this is there were quite a lot of whispering and phone screens out during the music at yesterday's opening, so you won't see me at Carmen again this summer.


Opera Parallèle's Today It Rains

Tir9079 * Notes * 
Opera Parallèle is presenting the world premiere of Laura Kaminsky's Today It Rains this weekend at Z Space. This chamber opera based on Georgia O'Keefe's first trip to Santa Fe is contemplative and features some beautiful singing and stagecraft.

Conductor Nicole Paiement had the 11 orchestra members well in hand. Kaminsky's music can be disquieting, there's quite a lot of instruments shared by the two percussionists including a rain stick, cocktail shakers, and vibraphone. There were times that I had visceral reactions to the brittle, jarring sounds of wine glasses and bottles being used as percussion.

Kaminsky seems to like low strings, there were some beautiful lines for cello, though the solo for violin in Scene 5 when O'Keefe is dreaming is particularly lively and memorable as well. The clarinet solo in Scene 10, when porter Aubrey Wells is practicing on the caboose platform (pictured, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) is lovely too.

The libretto, by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, stays out of Kaminsky's way, and manages to be humorous without being embarrassing or stilted, even the lines about penetration and genitalia in Scene 3 as O'Keefe and fellow painter Rebecca "Beck" Salsbury Strand sneak drink and play cards.

This piece is the third new opera I've seen in less than six months at includes a role specifically for an African American; angel Clara Odbody in Jake Heggie's It's A Wonderful Life and Leonard Bast in Allen Shearer's Howards End, America both are recast from the original works. Here we have a clarinet-playing porter Aubrey Wells, who worries about lynching in Kansas, and perhaps plays on the trope of "Magical Negro," helping O'Keefe see that she should go to Santa Fe despite her doubts. On the other hand, it encouraging to see people of color get chances to be in contemporary work. In this case, tenor Nathan Granner as Aubrey Wells was a stand out, his voice is smooth, clear, and vivid. He also moves with intention, his choreography crisp and precise.

Tir8912The singing all around was fine. The four ensemble members had a ton to do moving the set for the eleven scenes, but still managed to sound great, especially when they sang the words of art critics in Scene 3 and even in the nightmare scene as rowdy partiers at Lake George (Scene 7). Soprano Marnie Breckenridge (pictured, photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo) is amusing as Beck, her piercing quality very much a contrast to the throaty tones of mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert as Georgia O'Keefe. Gaissert's voice seemed bottomless, her deep low notes betrayed no effort.

The production is immersive, Kimberly Reed's evocative projections of water and paint on glass are effective and Brian Staufenbiel's production design kept everything moving without the slightest awkwardness. I loved how O'Keefe and Beck got on their train seats and were pushed into place by the other characters, and all the artful transformations of the set design such as the train windows turning into frames for a gallery exhibition.

* Tattling * 
The seats at Z Space can create a lot of noise if people shift just so, the squeaks are alarming at times. There also seemed to be a problems with people dropping things in the audience, and a smattering of chatter once in awhile during last night's performance.


LA Opera's Clemenza di Tito Review

Clemenza-di-tito-la-opera-2019* Notes * 
Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is nearly through a run at Los Angeles Opera. The singing is top-notch with strong support from the orchestra and a sumptuous staging.

The new production, directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, who also designed the scenery, is recalls the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Frederic Leighton. There are many projections, and this helps to move the scenes along without fuss or noise. It was all very nice to look at though not necessarily that engaging, but certainly the direction did not get in the way of the music.

Maestro James Conlon kept the orchestra going with a lot of energy and a fair amount of crispness. The overture was lively and the brass clear. The clarinet has a lot of beautiful soli and did very well with all his exposed music. The middle of Act II lost a bit of decisiveness, but everything got back in focus by the end.

The cast is very fine indeed. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven (Annio) has a fresh sound. Both of her duets (one with Sesto and another with Servilia) in Act I were balanced. As Servilia, soprano Janai Brugger is sweet, with an airy breathiness. Soprano Guanqun Yu has some acting chops, she plays the villainess Vitellia well, and her change of heart at the end (“Non piu di fiori” ) seems sincere. She has a warm sound, with only a few slight gasps at first.

In the title role, tenor Russell Thomas has a lovely delicacy with his pianissimo parts. Coupled with his authoritativeness, he seemed ideal for the merciful Tito. Best of all though is mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto. Her voice is incandescent, and she was utterly riveting in “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” in Act I. Her Act II aria “Deh, per questo istante solo” was also a highlight of the evening. I felt lucky to hear DeShong sing this gorgeous music right in front of me.

Tattling * 
I intentionally got a front row seat for this performance, as I find it easier to ignore the ill-behaved Los Angeles Opera audience when I can at least see the musicians and conductor without impediment. Of course, the woman in B 35 talked at full volume during the overture, and her husband dropped his phone toward the end of the act.

They also could not stop touching each other or themselves, for instance, the woman rubbed her tattooed arms for a long time at the beginning of Act II. Nonetheless, they were easy enough to ignore, as were the people behind me in Row C, who got into an amusing conversation about Chicago during intermission and may have whispered a bit during the performance.

My experience of this opera, which I have only heard once before, was enriched by having heard Cecilia Bartoli's Mozart Arias recording about a thousand times in the last three years because is my five-year old son's favorite CD.


Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met

ADL_1779a* Notes * 
Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur had a final performance this season last night at the Metropolitan Opera. There was much prettiness in the music, staging, and singing.

The new David McVicar production is very droll, everything looks nice and Rococo, as the piece is set in 1730. There is one long pause between Acts I and II, but McVicar puts in a sight-gag to draw the audience back in before the music starts up again.

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the orchestra reveled in the loveliness of Cilea's music. It is not at all a surprise to read that Cilea admired Bellini. The opera has some fun Neo-baroque music, and I especially liked the ballet in Act III (Act III pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard).

The cast had many strong singers. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri as stage manager Michonnet was endearing, he loves Adriana and is both funny and kind, the warmth of his voice was very nice for this. As Adriana's murderous rival, the Princess of Bouillon, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili is simply a malevolent force. Her sound is deliciously dark and passionately evil, she's the perfect villain.

ADLJR_0307aTenor Piotr Beczala is dashing as love-interest Maurizio, with a sunny, sweet tone. I was not initially impressed by soprano Jennifer Rowley, who shared the title role with Anna Netrebko. Rowley struck me as shrill, she has a lot of vibrato. She did win me over though, Act II was definitely better. Her Act IV aria "Poveri fiori" was moving.

* Tattling * 
We will be seeing this at the War Memorial at some point, as this is a co-production of the Met; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona; Wiener Staatsoper; San Francisco Opera; and L'Opéra National de Paris.

I was in standing room on the orchestra level, and was struck by how nice everyone was to each other. I was offered seats on no less than three occasions, which, of course, I turned down.


Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

Pelleas_3036_A* Notes * 
Debussy's mysterious Pelléas et Mélisande (pictured left, photograph by Karen Almond) had a splendid fourth performance this season at the Metropolitan Opera yesterday. Though the singing was lovely, the real stars of the show was conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

The production is straight-forward enough, the revolving set is made of walls that can be rearranged to change the scenes. There were two short pauses for this (and two intermissions) but considering that the performance is 4 hours long, this was pretty efficient. The scene changes were impressively quiet.

The direction did take some of the dramatic effect out of Pelléas' death by having the couple kiss ardently, rationalizing Golaud's response perhaps, and certainly making him sound silly when he sings "Ils s'étaient embrassés comme des petits enfants...Ils étaient frère et soeur..." in Act V.

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin had the orchestra sounding utterly transparent and vibrant. All the lushness of the score was on full display.

The cast is solid. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen seemed wooden in Act I and II, but perhaps that is how Golaud should be, as the evening progressed he got more and more erratic and downright scary.

Pelleas_2685_CTenor Paul Appleby is a fine, youthful Pelléas. He showed his range from tender to passionate in his last scene in Act IV. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gave a convincing portrayal of Mélisande. Her pure sound tends toward the ethereal which is perfect for this role.

Most distinctive was bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice is gorgeously resonant and his Arkel the most sympathetic of all the characters. His singing in Act IV Scene 2 was especially appealing.

* Tattling * 
Someone appeared onstage before the performance to announce a casting change. The relief of the audience that it was the role of Yniold, the young son of Golaud, that was replaced was palpable.

Since I was able to convince my dear friend to come to New York to see this opera with me -- she lives in Colorado, has two toddlers, and is 7 months pregnant -- I sprang for first row seats. My view was "obstructed" by the conductor, but I did not mind in the least.


Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle at the Met

Iolanta_03002-s* Notes * 
Mariusz Treliński's 2015 striking production of Iolanta (pictured left, photograph by Marty Sohl) and Bluebeard's Castle at the Metropolitan Opera was revived last night. The singing in both operas is wonderful, and conductor Henrik Nánási had a fine Met debut.

The production is highly-detailed, with an attractive set. There are lots of projections. The narration and sound-effects for Bluebeard seem unnecessary, pointlessly dragging out the performance when Bartók's music should be more than sufficient. The scenes changes did pack a lot of punch and I did like that both operas inhabited the same creepy forest.

Maestro Henrik Nánási and the orchestra gave a fluid, shapely account of both operas. The brass had some fuzziness in Iolanta but was clear for Bluebeard. Tchaikovsky certainly had the two harps working hard in the second half of Iolanta, and the playing was very impressive.

Bluebeard_0520sThe contrast of the two lead sopranos is remarkable. As plaintive Iolanta, Sonya Yoncheva has a warm resonance, she always sounds very comfortable in her voice and grounded. Angela Denoke has a penetrating quality as Judith in Bluebeard, but is never shrill, with a creamy iciness.

Bass Vitalij Kowaljow projected power as King René in Iolanta. I liked baritone Alexey Markov's brightness as Robert, and the fresh, open sound of tenor Alexey Dolgov, who filled in for an ailing Matthew Polenzani as Vaudémont.

Baritone Gerald Finley has a lovely voice, which was surprisingly appealing for Bluebeard. His sound has a good weight and brilliance, but he was grim enough as well.

* Tattling * 
I was surprised to see that the former house manager at San Francisco Opera now is a performance manager for the Met.

Standing room in Family Circle was empty, as were most of the back rows of the house, so very little to report on that front.


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.