Opera Review

SF Opera's Eugene Onegin

_DSC2203* Notes * 
Robert Carsen's 1997 production of Eugene Onegin (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon with a youthful cast of newcomers and the vibrant debut of conductor Vassilis Christopoulos.

The overture sounded stately under Maestro Christopoulos, who had his U.S. debut with this performance. Not everything was completely together, the women's chorus at the begining of Act I Scene 3 seemed off-kilter at first, and there were other moments of small moments of chaos, but nothing terribly egregious. The dance music in Acts II and III were all charming, particularly the Polonaise in the last act. The woodwinds and harp were all very lovely.

There were familiar voices, starting with the first two mezzo-sopranos on stage, Deborah Nansteel as Madame Larina and Ronnita Miller as Filipyevna. I distinctly remember Nansteel from Merola, her nice clear tones and Miller as being an incredible Erda in the Ring Cycle here in San Francisco. Veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was moving as Prince Gremin in his Act III aria.

As for debuts on the War Memorial stage, most were quite strong. Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina (Olga) has a beautiful dark sound but also a fine lucidity and resonance to her voice. Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson was likewise winsome as Lensky, his voice is light and bright but has a pleasant heft to it, his Act I aria was filled with joy and his Act II aria absolutely plaintive.

Soprano Evgenia Muraveva has a delicacy that seems appropriate for Tatyana, shy and bookish, both in stature and in her sound. She was never shrill but the bottom of her voice is underpowered. Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner embodied Eugene Onegin rather well, he seemed so weird and awkward in his first scene, at first it was a bit difficult to see what Tatyana was charmed by, but it was a credible performance. The duel scene of Act II Scene 2 was convincing, as were the shifting feelings of Onegin in Act III. Bintner's last aria as he realizes he loves Tatyana was rich and warm (and maybe somewhat manical).

This production from Robert Carsen has been seen all over the world in its 25 years. The set is clean and open with PVC walls on three sides, and Act I features thousands of polyester birch leaves in many colors. For the most part, the space is defined by arrangements leaves or chairs, and it works well enough and isn't distracting. The revival here was done by director Peter McClintock, and everything went smoothly as far as I could tell.

* Tattling * 
My 8-year-old insisted on attending this opera, as he had learned about Tchaikovsky in music class last school year. To prepare we watched the version on the Met on Demand app, as it is the same production. Oddly enough, I was in the audience for that performance.

At the matinée today he was able to sit mostly still for the 2.5 hour performance, and was quite attentive. He was pleased to be in Row T of the orchestra, as he has two initials that start with this letter. He patiently met all my opera friends and answered their questions despite his shyness. At the end he declared that it was "amazing" and "magnificent."


Antony and Cleopatra (Again)

_DSC0371* Notes * 
I started going to San Francisco Opera in 1996, and over the years I've gained many opera going friends, with whom I've traveled to see operas all over the place, from Seattle to Berlin. It has been sad to not be able to attend performances for the last few years, so when my opera buddy based in Brooklyn said he would like to go to John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Amina Edris as Cleopatra and Gerald Finley as Antony in Act I Scene 5 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) on September 18, I did my best to rouse up some of our friends to go as well. As I did not know standing room would be back or if I'd be able to get press tickets for this date, I purchased four tickets for the last row of the house. I was fortunate enough to be able to get press tickets, and thus asked two more friends to join us. Much merriment was had, though sadly no one else seemed to like this opera as much as I did.

It was agreed that all the voices were beautiful and that the music in between scenes in Act I was strong. From the orchestra level, I felt I could hear tenor Paul Appleby as Caesar more clearly, his voice is nice and light, perfect for Mozart, but also lovely here. His music in Act II Scene 2 made my hair stand on end. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker sounded more powerful from the balcony. I still liked his aria in Act I Scene 2, but it was even more noticeable to me this time how declamatory the vocal lines were throughout the opera. Soprano Amina Edris (Cleopatra) gave me chills though, especially in her death scene at the end of the opera.

I really loved hearing Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra. I confirmed for myself that it was between Act I Scenes 4 and 5 that sounded particularly Wagnerian, like the end of Das Rheingold, something very Valhalla-esque to the music here. Again, I enjoyed the textures of cimalom and celesta, and am looking forward to seeing the orchestra when I attend this opera again on Friday as part of my subscription.

* Tattling * 
I made a reservation for the North Box Restaurant, but somehow bungled it by only having a table for 2 rather than 6. Thankfully we got there early enough that it seemed to get sorted out quickly, the people that work there are very kind and professional. I noted that most of the group present had been at the French Laundry back in 2010, the very evening our local baseball team won the World Series, and we had done The Wave at the table and three of our party sang part of Nixon in China. We did The Wave at our table, convincing our one compatriot that was not there last time to take a video of us.

Our press tickets were in Row S and there was a "famous opera dog" next to us who was very quiet and well-behaved. I noted a loud cell phone with an 80s arcade sound near the beginning of the opera and a few watch beeps at each hour. I also heard a few people being hushed. My opera companion fell asleep during Act I Scene 2.

My friends were not very happy with me at the end of the opera, as they felt the second act dragged on too long. At 3 hours and 17 minutes, perhaps some cuts would be helpful. Anyway, one of our party threatened to strangle me, and another mentioned they might want to stand outside the opera next time with signs protesting my lack of taste and possible spousal abuse in bringing my partner to such a boring performance. I apologized to them all, giggled heartily, and invited them to do standing room for Eugene Onegin next Sunday.


Opera San José's Le Nozze di Figaro

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen14* Notes *
Le nozze di Figaro (Efraín Solís as Figaro and Maya Kherani as Susanna in Act IV pictured, photograph by David Allen) opened at Opera San José last weekend with a joyous and very human production set in colonial India.

I was skeptical about moving this piece from Seville to South Asia, as a person with multiple marginalized identities, I'm always wary of using other cultures for some exotic flair. But it definitely worked well, and Mozart's work was more alive than ever, and felt like it could belong to anyone.

It was great that there were many opportunities for the South Asian diaspora in this production and not just the singers. I was happy to see that choreographer Antara Bhardwaj was a cultural consultant as was the costume designer Deepsikha Chatterjee. The stage looked gorgeous, as did the clothing, and it was great to see Bhardwaj dancing in a quartet, the geometric lines were very lovely. Director Brad Dalton seemed to have everyone on the same page, it was impressive that not only the trained dancers but the whole cast was able to move so nicely (pictured, photograph by David Allen).

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen17Conductor Viswa Subbaraman kept the orchestra going at a frenetic pace, occasionally going off the rails but certainly never a dull moment. The singers were most wonderful, however. Even silly Don Basilio -- tenor Zhengyi Bai -- was sung with absolute delight and beauty. Soprano Melissa Sondhi was an adorable Barbarina, and gave an effortless performance of "L'ho perduta... me meschina." Mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny was likewise sweet as Cherubino, her first aria, "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio" perfectly fluttery and light and her second ("Voi che sapete che cosa è amor") simply lovely. She was one of the tallest people on stage so the jokes about Cherubino's size were all the funnier.

Soprano Maria Natale was convincing as the Countess, her notes have a brass-like quality that is distinctive. As the Count, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu's sound is more rounded and warm, he's suitably puffed up but not a buffoon. His Act III aria "Hai già vinta la causa – Vedrò mentr'io sospiro" was moving.

OSJ_TheMarriageOfFigaro_DavidAllen12-1This pair was a fine contrast to soprano Maya Kherani as Susanna and baritone Efraín Solís in the titular role. Kherani has a pure sound not unlike a bell and Solís is bright with textural nuances. They both have wonderful physicality and were excellent with the comic timing.

Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp's set matched the embellishments of the California Theatre itself and was very detailed and ornate. There were rather long pauses between Acts I and II and Acts III and IV, but the trade off of having such opulence seems fair.

* Tattling *
The 89-year-0ld lady next to me was very chatty and genial. She had a friend behind her and another one across the aisle but promised to behave herself, and she was quiet during the music and conscientious about letting me get around her when I needed to.

I cried during the wedding scene in Act III (pictured, photograph by David Allen) and at the end of the opera. I love this music so much and it was nice to feel like the people who put this opera on were making space for people like me.


SF Opera's Antony and Cleopatra

_DSC1405* Notes * 
The world premiere of John Adams' Antony and Cleopatra (Act II Scene 3 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera featured powerful voices and lushly textured music. The piece has a certain glittery yet dark quality to it, and the production leaned into that, to be sure.

The libretto for this work was by the composer, but based mostly on the play by Shakespeare with flourishes from classical texts by Plutarch, Virgil, and others. This was more successful dramatically than other libretti of Adams' recent operas, but perhaps there were fewer chances for the weird but charming outbursts about pigs or chocolate cake.

The orchestra sounded splendid, Maestra Eun Sun Kim has precision with dynamism. The orchestration has two harps which very much called to mind Wagner to me, especially near the end of Act I. I was also quite taken by the use of celesta (or bell piano), which I could hear very clearly up in the back balcony. Somehow it didn't remind me of the Sugar Plum Fairy at all, and I look forward to hearing the opera again to focus in on this and the cimbalom, which I immediately responded to, as I was obsessed with dulcimers as an adolescent. The chorus also sounded great, very much together and full.

The singing was strong, there were quite a lot of characters, but they were all distinct. It was lovely to hear mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Deshong as Octavia, sister of Caesar. Her voice is wonderfully rich and deep. I also really liked mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Charmian, Cleopatra's attendant, who radiated calm reasonableness in contrast to Cleopatra's wild rages.

_DSC9485The most evocative aria for me was in Act I Scene 2, "Age cannot wither her, no custom stale her infinite variety" sung by Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker details the appeal of Cleopatra in front of a scrim with projections of the character, as she lounges upstage (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Walker is sympathetic and his voice effectively conveys how alluring and magnetic Cleopatra is.

The three principal singers were also quite vigorous. Tenor Paul Appleby is an unctuous Caesar, his voice is very bright and pretty. At times his sound may have lacked heft, but I think it might have had to do with the staging, he was dampened by being upstage and boxed in by scenery in Act II Scene 2, for instance.

Bass-baritone Gerald Finley makes for a charismatic leading man, singing Antony with much sweetness. But best of all was soprano Amina Edris as Cleopatra, her voice has an intense vitality to it, and she was downright frightening when it was called for, implacable and domineering.

The production, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, is stylish and stark. The scene changes are seamless, there were many moving stage elements that could hide and reveal different settings. The projections were elegant, often black and white, and employed thoughtfully.

* Tattling * 
I had a ticket for the very last row of the opera house, but since standing room is back, I decided to stand near the center aisle, especially since the performance was not sold out and it was easier to see from that vantage point without anyone directly in front of me.

I was asked if this was my first John Adams opera, which I was so amused by, I could hardly respond. It was clear that the pandemic has made my social skills even worse. Otherwise, the audience around me was quiet and respectful, though there might have been some inappropriate giggling when Eros, follower of Antony, stabbed himself in Act II Scene 3.

My 8-year-old child loves Nixon in China, and I had thought maybe I could bring him to hear this. His review of Doctor Atomic (not a very child-appropriate work, we only heard the first 15 minutes) was that it sounded "like Nixon in China but bad and noisy," so I was curious if the music here would be something he would be interested in. The themes of Antony and Cleopatra seem a little too adult for a third grader though.


SF Opera's Don Giovanni

_DSC4033* Notes * 
Don Giovanni, the last installment of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy directed by Michael Cavanagh, opened yesterday evening at San Francisco Opera. It was a joy to hear Maestro Bertrand de Billy conduct this beautiful music and there was much lovely singing.

Post-apocalyptic future felt much like something out of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, though that work is set in the a few years from now rather than the late 2080s for this production. It felt like violence could happen at any moment in the decrepit version of the 18th century manor house that was once so charming for Così fan tutte from the fall.

There were references to the previous two operas, especially in the costuming. One of the funny red gnome hats worn by Dorabella and Fiordiligi show up on a chorus member who is one of the survivors of this dystopian world. The startling physicality of the singers was evident right a way in the death of the Commendatore, who took a disturbingly long time to die. The extensive projections during the overture which included fire and shadows of people were distracting and a bit on the nose.

It is always interesting to see how directors deal with various elements of the plot in a new way. Instead of threatening his guests with a gun in the Act I finale, Don Giovanni puts on sunglasses and has Leperello blind them with the light of his portable projector. This device is used during "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" to show the list of names of Don Giovanni's conquests, and appears throughout the piece.

I really enjoyed "Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m'invitasti," when the Commendatore comes for dinner as a monumental statue (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Usually this is my favorite bit of the opera anyway, because of those wild diminished sevenths and stentorian tones from the bass. Here the giant head that appeared was extremely absurd and surreal and I could not stop laughing, which was probably not the intended response, but certainly was one of the most memorable stagings of Don Giovanni I have ever seen. The descent to hell was particularly great, as the statue broke in half and both real fire and projections overtook our rakish anti-hero.

Instead of the usual mishmash of the two versions of the score, this time San Francisco Opera stuck to Vienna (1788) version. So it had "Dalla sua pace" but not "Il mio Tesoro" for Don Ottavio and "Restati qua... Per queste tue manine" in Act II, a duet for vengeful Zerlina and a rather hapless Leporello. The orchestra was neat and clear, the onstage and offstage musicians for the various bandas all played well. There were a few times when the music was a bit off-kilter, like for "Batti, batti o bel Masetto," as Mozart's music is unforgiving and exposes every flaw. However, conductor de Billy was more sedate than some others in recent memory, and it was nice to feel like the orchestra was secure and not in danger of flying off the rails. This is the first outing for our new chorus director John Keene, and it seemed fine, the chorus was cohesive and especially strong as unseen demons for the aforementioned inferno scene.

The cast is solid, lots of pretty singing and fine acting. As the Commendatore bass Soloman Howard might not have had the gravity of an older man, but his volume was good and his onstage death throes were convincing. Former Merolino bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum was slightly wooden as Masetto, but perhaps that works for the role. I do remember him being charming in Walton's The Bear in 2017, but obviously it is very different music. Soprano Christina Gansch sang Zerlina with warmth, particularly lovely in her duet "Là ci darem la mano" and showed a more sadistic side in the duet "Per queste tue manine." I still remember Luca Pisaroni as Masetto back in 2007 because I saw 6 or 7 of the performances, but he is an amiable Leporello and sounded robust. He was excellent at physical humor, and was very funny when he attempted to impersonate his master at the beginning of Act II.

_DSC8346Tenor Amitai Pati cuts a dashing figure as Don Ottavio, though he is a touch underpowered. His "Dalla sua pace" had a longing in it that was lovely. I liked soprano Nicole Car's Donna Elvira, her penetrating, taut sound is just shy of shrill and was perfect contrast to soprano Adela Zaharia's Donna Anna (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). These three singers blended well together, and I loved their trio of Act I ("Protegga il giusto cielo"). Zaharia definitely was the standout of the evening. Her voice is incandescent, the low notes have richness and the high notes very shiny and secure. Her Act II aria "Non mi dir" was revelatory, one of the most beautiful moments of the whole opera. Baritone Etienne Dupuis was no slouch either as Don Giovanni, he is an excellent actor and has a nice, sweet voice that is bright enough to cut through the orchestra. I was impressed by his ability to channel the lankiness of Pisaroni's Leporello though their frames are rather different. He was also brutal with Donna Elvira (who in fact is played by his real life spouse), especially when he threw a dish of fish at her in Act II. Dupuis did well with "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa," light and sparkly and his "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was also very pretty.

Tattling * 
The couple in front of us in Row S Seats 2 and 4 were chatty, but the maskless person next to them in Seat 6 was even louder, he had the sniffles and his breathing was so distinct and in my ear I thought it might be my date that was snarfling so much. The woman in Seat 4 couldn't take it and switched to Row R Seat 2 before Donna Elvira's entrance.

This was good in that her date (whose mask was carefully tucked under his chin) had to lean forward to talk to her, and thus the sound of their voices was further away from me. When I gigglingly suggested to my companion that it was she that had caused all that racket, she was offended and incensed. She rolled up her opera program and hit me as she proclaimed "Batti! Batti!"

None of the three returned to their seats after intermission. I did not notice any electronic noise during the performance but a lot of audience members dropped things.


No Love Allowed at Pocket Opera

Pocket-opera-liebesverbot2022* Notes *
Last month Pocket Opera put on three performances of Wagner's No Love Allowed (Das Liebesverbot). I attended the delightful May 15 matinée at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. The English language production had a lot of charm and some beautiful voices, and though I did miss Pocket Opera's founder Donald Pippin's wry comments, his sense of humor came through translation of the libretto.

The two leads (pictured, photograph courtesy of Pocket Opera) were very strong. As Isabella, soprano Leslie Sandefur has a sprightly, metallic sound, while tenor Michael Dailey (Luzio) was bright and legato.

The rest of the enormous cast was likewise filled with fine voices. Baritone Spencer Dodd was suitably villainous as the hypocritical Viceroy Friedrich, his Act II aria was nuanced and tormented. As his abandoned wife Mariana, soprano Aléxa Anderson sang smoothly and with a delicate prettiness. Her duet with Sandefur at the convent in Act I was very lovely. Tenor Justin Brunette as Isabella's licentious and imperiled brother Claudio had some soaring high notes.

Other notable contributions came from mezzo-soprano Sonia Gariaeff as libertine Dorella who had a saucy good humor and baritone Michael Grammer as Brighella, captain of the watch, whose deep, dark voice embraced the silliness of his role. There are nine other voices that I haven't gone over, but suffice it to say they did well, especially with the raucous carnival scene in Act II.

Music director and conductor Jonathan Khuner lead the Pocket Philharmonic and played the piano. Since there were a less than a dozen musicians, mistakes were rather exposed. But it was great fun to hear this rarity in person nonetheless.

* Tattling * 
One had to show proof of vaccination to attend and most of the audience members were masked. There are distinctly fewer watch alarms at the hour these days, perhaps everyone has switched to smart watches. There was some chatter but no electronic sounds were noted.


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.