Opera Review

SF Opera's Fidelio


_DSC0704* Notes * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SF Opera's Tosca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SF Opera Barber Drive-In Review

Barber_stefancohen_328* Notes * 
San Francisco Opera presented a delightful drive-in version of The Barber of Seville (pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at Marin Center starting last Friday. The new production from director Matthew Ozawa is bold and fun.

Maestro Roderick Cox made a fine debut conducting the 18 members of a mostly masked and socially-distanced orchestra from a tent behind the stage. Despite these challenges, the proceedings were lively and bright, only the horn sounded hesitant at the April 24 performance I attended. It made me really look forward to hearing all the musicians again back at the War Memorial, and hopefully Cox gets a chance in a proper orchestra pit with them.

The opera is presented as a rehearsal at our beloved opera house, and we hear Managing Director of Production Jennifer Good as the Stage Manager, threading together the arias and ensembles as they unfold in dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, and on the opera stage. The set was meant for the Fidelio production that was to have been performed last September, and is repurposed here with lots and lots of video projections of the San Francisco opera house. It is definitely busy, there are four screens that can be moved about, but it works. The images read well from afar and make the drive-in aspect of the production feasible.

It was so pleasing to see and hear so many beloved and familiar opera singers in this Barber, nearly the whole cast has been in the Merola Opera Program. I've heard mezzo Catherine Cook as Berta dozens of times, but she always brings verve to the role. Her sound is incisive and completely distinct from any of the Rosinas she's been cast with. Bass Kenneth Kellogg made the most of Don Basilio's "La calunnia," his deep, rich tones are impressive. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner is a very amusing Dr. Bartolo, his voice is reliable.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (Rosina) and tenor Alek Shrader (Almaviva) are adorable little lovebirds on and off stage, and their voices are both well-suited to Rossini. Mack is visibly pregnant, and I felt exhausted for her, but she sang with vivid lightness and warmth throughout. Baritone Lucas Meachem is also completely perfect in the title role, his personable Figaro has a lot of appeal. The diction throughout the performance was clear from everyone, and I did not have to read the supertitles at all.

* Tattling * 
It was 524 days since the last live performance I attended at San Francisco Opera and 419 since the last live performance I've heard, so I was very excited to be there, even if it was in my silly little Prius with a substandard sound system. There was static at times but this was much preferable to the filmed versions of operas I've watched in my car.

I do wish there were a couple of matinee performances of the production, though only 90 minutes long and performed without an intermission, the 8pm start time is too late for my small children, who would have loved the performance with all the sight-gags and color. But perhaps the projections would not have shown up well during daylight.

The Covid protocols were strict: no being outside unless going to the restroom, masks need to be on, and vehicles were physically distanced. There were a few cars whose lights turned on at times unexpectedly, but for the most part there were fewer distractions than from a normal opera audience. I really liked that they asked right away that people not honk their horns after numbers and gave everyone glow sticks to show their appreciation for the music.


Don Giovanni at Pocket Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opera San José's Il trovatore

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

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

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

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

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


PBO's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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


PBO's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wozzeck at the Met

WOZ_1544a* Notes *
William Kentridge's latest production of Wozzeck (pictured, photograph by Ken Howard) at The Met perfectly captures the nightmarish quality of Berg's piece. The opening yesterday evening was one of immersive theater and absolutely beautiful playing from the orchestra.

The set is dark, filled with projected drawings, animations, and video footage of human movement. The beauty of the images really puts to shame much of the screensaver-like video projections we often see on the opera stage.

There are a couple of actors dressed up as soldier/nurse hybrids complete with gas masks, caps with red crosses, and aprons. It was as if Kentridge's images had come to life and the effect is unsettling.

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted a clarion orchestra, the shape of the music apparent and striking. The banda that comes on stage through a wardrobe did particularly well. The chorus also was great, sounding cohesive and embodying the aesthetic of the production.

The cast is strong, as one would expect. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is malicious but still comic as the Doctor, matched well by the incisive tones from tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain. Tenor Christopher Ventris is a bold Drum Major, appealing but his cruelty comes through clearly in Act II, Scene 5, when he taunts Wozzeck.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Margret) has some wonderfully deep low notes, a fine contrast with soprano Elza van den Heever (Marie). Van den Heever showed her range, she could be terrifying, almost harsh and sweet and even close to angelic. Most impressive is baritone Peter Mattei in the title role. His warm sound is engaging, and his pathos made Wozzeck seem very human.

IMG_1901* Tattling *
We sat in Row B, all the way to the right of the house. After 8pm, when the performance was supposed to begin, a woman boldly sat in front of us, where one of the staff usually sits to guard a door to the orchestra pit. The employee directly asked to see the person's ticket, and she made many excuses, even lying that she did have that seat.

There was some light talking, and someone loudly hushed the offenders at least once. Some people definitely left early, even though there was no intermission.


The Magic Flute at the Met

Flute_Final_2567_C* Notes *
The Met's holiday presentation of The Magic Flute (David Portillo as Tamino, photograph by Karen Almond ) is completely charming. The abridged version in English is less than two hours long, and perfect for children.

I saw the full version of this production in German more than twelve years ago, and vividly remember Julie Taymor's cunning use of puppetry. It holds up well, my five-year-old didn't say a word for the entire performance.

He loved the bears dancing when Tamino plays the flute, the sight gags of lobster and spaghetti with Papageno, and the flamingos in "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen." J. D. McClatchy's translation is direct and immediate. The illustrated synopsis was helpful, this might be a good idea for all operas, but really made the action clear to my son, who has seen the DVD version of this production twice, but liked having a refresher on what was going to happen.

Maestro Lothar Koenigs conducted a sprightly and beautiful orchestra, the only fuzzy note coming from the horns during the trial by fire. The chorus was lovely and transparent.

The cast is very good. Tenor Rodell Rosel is very funny as Monostatos, the crowd adored him with his bat wings and eight little claws. The audience also loved baritone Joshua Hopkins as Papageno. He has a very sympathetic presence, and his dance moves are extremely funny. His sound has a delightful lightness. Bass Soloman Howard is a noble Sarastro. He is creaky, but not in an unpleasant way.

Soprano Ying Fang (Pamina) is limpid and bright. Her voice showed no strain at all. Soprano Kathryn Lewek is almost brassy as the Queen of the Night, but not at all shrill. Her metallic sound was pronounced in her first aria and more bird-like in her second. Tenor David Portillo is a fine Tamino, his voice is so open and clear.

Theo-met-2019* Tattling *
When the 2019-2020 season was announced, I was very keen on going to Wozzeck, as the production ins from William Kentridge. Somehow I convinced my spouse that we should have Christmas in New York City, and since our five-year-old (pictured) loves Mozart, I thought it was a good opportunity to go to The Magic Flute with him. Since he was very much into San Francisco Opera's Hansel and Gretel last month, I wasn't too worried about if he could sit still for one hour and 45 minutes. He himself was a bit concerned, but we took the subway to Lincoln Center, had a chocolate chip cookie on the concourse level of the theater, took the elevator to the top of the house, and walked back down to our seats in the front row of the orchestra. I sat in Row A Seat 108, which is obstructed by the conductor and let my child enjoy the better seat.

Theo was nervous about the snake in the beginning, and asked if it was acceptable to close his eyes for that part. I told him it was fine, and this is the first opera performance we've been to together that he hasn't ended up on my lap. It was so sweet to hear him laugh at Papageno and to share this music with him, it had me in tears by the end of the opera. As soon as we got back to the place we are staying in New York, Theo excitedly told his little sister that he had seen "the real Papageno."

Since we were so close to the stage, even the small amount of talking from audience members was easy to ignore. I also noticed some snoring from the person on the other side of Theo, but this was very brief.

There are two more matinee performances this Saturday and next Thursday. The weekend performance also features an open house.


Ars Minerva's Ermelinda

Nikola-Printz-Ermelinda-Valentina-Sadiul-Ars-Minerva-2019* Notes * 
Before leaving for Ars Minerva's Ermelinda last night, my 5-year-old asked what the opera was about, and seeing that I was at a loss, he cheerfully let me off the hook, saying I could tell him today after I had seen it. Even after the delightful performance, the convoluted narrative is rather difficult to sum up, but the production is wonderfully campy and the music absolutely beautiful.

The opera by Domenico Freschi hasn't been performed since its 1680 premiere in Piazzola sul Brenta, and Francesco Maria Piccioli's libretto is absurdly incoherent, even by Baroque opera standards. There are, of course, the standard overlapping love triangles along with deceptions involving madness and reported death. The ending is ridiculously abrupt in its resolution, the titular character attempts suicide and suddenly everyone takes her seriously and all is well.

Stage director Céline Ricci leans into the silliness, there are winks and nods to be sure. The one supernumerary, Elizabeth Flaherty has a mustache she puts on and takes off to indicate which servant she is. The orchestra is included in the fun, the leading man Ormondo, love interest of both Ermelinda and Rosaura, pretends to be crazy by hitting the theorbo player and conductor/harpsichordist with sunflowers.

The costumes designed by Matthew Nash are luridly pink and purple ruffles for Ermelinda (pictured, photograph by Valentina Sadiul), a dress of artificial flowers for her friend Rosaura, and lavish brocades and silks for the males.

The tiny orchestra sounded great, conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour has a jauntiness that is very pleasant with the astringency of all these stringed instruments. The two violins, viola, cello, and therorbo were together and filled the space nicely without being overpowering.

Ermelinda-2019The strong and consistent cast is mezzo-heavy. The one countertenor, Justin Montigne as Ermelinda's father Aristeo, has the highest voice, and though not as uniform as the others, he sounds quite flute-like. He was able to wiggle his eyebrows and twitch his face rather impressively when angered by his daughter. Contralto Sara Couden is a dashing Ormondo, her height and stature work in her favor and she has a physicality that is perfect for the various sight-gags in the production. Her face is expressive. She had perhaps two or three sort of froggy sour notes, but her voice is impressively deep and vibrant. I very much enjoyed her "T'adoro si ma nó" ("I adore you yes, but no I don't") as she pretends to be an insane Clorindo, tormenting poor love-sick Rosaura near the end of Act I.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus is Rosaura's brother Armidoro, also in love with title character Ermelinda, and thus, rival to Ormondo. Her voice is light and pretty, her physical appearance less suitably imposing than Couden's. It was amusing to see mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Ermelinda, she is very often in male drag (she was Agamemnon in last year's Ifigenia at Ars Minerva) so seeing her this femme is fun. All the girly colors and lace and corsets! Her voice is clean and clear.

However, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich stole the show as Rosaura. She sings everything from these obscure Baroque operas to contemporary works such as Missy Mazzoli's Breaking the Waves. Her voice has such beautiful warm resonances and her Rosaura was both uproariously comic and richly radiant.

Tattling * 
I attended this opera as part of a group of young people, though I barely (if at all) qualify as this. I arrived at ODC Theater too early and parked myself in the corner of a bench to read and sip tea as I waited, definitely taking up more than my share of space with my Panda backpack. A young couple sat next to me and I was too focused on La Frantumaglia to make more room for them.

When I entered the hall to find my seat, rather close to curtain, I not only made an elderly lady stand up for me, I wasn't even in the correct spot. Much to my chagrin, the same young couple were in the seats right next to mine and since I didn't want to make them get up for me and my friend was on the other end of Row D, I went around muttering "I'll just bother Michael instead." I was too loud and got teased by the Chronicle's classical music critic, who was heading to his seat on the center aisle of the very same row at the exact same time. To add to my sense of being constantly underfoot and in the wrong place, the person from ODC who asked us to silence our electronic devices and pointed out the exits began the announcement with an acknowledgement of our being on stolen Ohlone land.


SF Opera's Hansel and Gretel (Again)

_T8A4215* Notes *
San Francisco Opera's second performance of Hansel and Gretel (Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober in Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) yesterday afternoon was a fine introduction to opera for young audiences. The title characters are winsome and powerful singers.

Adler Fellow soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley replaced mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Gertrude, the Mother. Hangley stepped in at the last moment, and General Director Matthew Shivlock gave the announcement of the cast change from the stage. She was on the quiet side, but was able to do the scenes with admirable self-possession.

The singers and supernumeraries were all able to avoid making too much noise this time during Act II, though the ballet dancer closed one of the doors a little too hard once.

It is fun hearing Engelbert Humperdinck's music live, he's clearly influenced by Wagner and German folk music. The woodwinds are absolutely lovely, and there were pretty soli from the viola, violin, and harp at various moments.

Theo-orchestra-pit-2019* Tattling *
Though I have a half subscription for San Francisco and usually do standing room otherwise, I requested press tickets for this event, as I felt this would be a good opportunity to bring my five year old (pictured) to the opera and also have an extra push to document the experience. The opera has been advertised as being "perfect for children ages 6 and up" but Theo enjoys both Wagner and polka, and he's good at sitting still and being quiet. Plus he did well with Opera Parallèle's The Little Prince last year and enjoyed the First Act program of Hansel and Gretel that San Francisco Opera held last March, which introduces 3 to 6 year olds to the story and characters.

Theo was nervous about the opera, though we read the version from Sing Me a Story: The Metropolitan Opera's Book of Opera Stories for Children, listened to a recording from 2007, and watched a DVD of a Met performance from 1982. The Witch is particularly frightening to him, so I did my best to prepare him by showing him as many photographs of the production as I could and explaining that she would be played by tenor Robert Brubaker. He was in my lap for all of Act III but he definitely was interested in what was going on, hiding his face once or twice when it became too much for him.

Theo found parts of the overture rather loud, but seemed to enjoy the music, especially the cuckoo in Act II. He loved exploring the War Memorial and eating opera cake at intermission with two aunties and an uncle.

Our seats in Row L were perfectly situated on the aisle so that Theo had no problem seeing. Theo used my cushion for Bayreuth, which I used when I was pregnant with him. I also wore my Siegfried outfit, since it has fairy tale characters on it.

There was a lot of questions from the little girl behind us who was there with her mother and another lady. Her parent tried to quietly answer her and shushed her many times. Theo occasionally would look back at the girl, they are about the same age. There was also commentary on what was going on by the elderly couple next to us. A man on the aisle across from us in Row K looked at his Apple Watch more than once during the music.

There are two more matinee performances the weekend after Thanksgiving and kids tickets are 50% off with a full price ticket purchase. For children that don't read yet, one might consider going to the Family Workshop of Hansel and Gretel on November 30 at 11am or 12:30pm.


SF Opera's Hansel and Gretel

_37A4940* Notes *
An amusingly spooky production of Hansel and Gretel (Act III pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The cast features many lucid, high voices and the orchestra sounded great.

This creepy set is inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, and this works surprisingly well -- the darkness of the original folk tale comes through. All the set changes are smooth, there were only a few awkward loud sounds against the floor in the forest scene of Act II.

Director and production designer Antony McDonald opts to give some of the backstory during the overture, using a cuckoo clock above the stage to indicate the passage of time, and making the mother Gertrude more understandable. His reframing of Act II, which instead of having fourteen angels in a pantomime has characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White and other fairy tales (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) running around the woods together. Their interactions are quite funny and had me giggling.

Dream pantomime tableau from Hansel and Gretel. Photo Cory WeaverAll the singing was strong, from the ethereal sounds of mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as the Sandman and soprano Natalie Image as the Dew Fairy to the pleasant tones of bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father of Hansel and Gretel. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens (Gertrude, the Mother) has a piercingly powerful voice that conveys much emotion.

Tenor Robert Brubaker is delightful as a drag queen witch, Rosina Lickspittle, ingratiating at first and increasingly more threatening. Our title characters are clear voiced and perfectly charming. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a roguish Hansel and soprano Heidi Stober a sprightly Gretel.

Maestro Christopher Franklin conducted a nimble orchestra that ranges from stately to vivacious. There were times that the orchestra did overwhelm the singers, but the playing was attractive, especially from the woodwinds.

* Tattling *
I've never heard this opera live, as I was put off by the 2002-2003 production because it was also in English and not the original German. Now that I have more or less illiterate but music loving child, I definitely appreciate that these performances are in English. I spent much of my time during this opening performance playing attention to what my very sensitive 5-year old will be interested in or afraid of in the performance, so I can prepare him for the matinee we will attend tomorrow. He's crazy for clocks and household appliances, and he's sure to be intrigued and possibly terrified of the wooden spoon that sparks fire and the intense lighting effects.

The audience had quite a few youths at it and even small children, but was not close to being sold-out by any means. An usher slipped into Box Y next to us during the overture and proceeded to rifle around in her bag to get out her dinner, which she ate during Act I. I thought it was a sandwich but my date insists it was a burrito. Otherwise, there was the usual light talking during the music, but on the whole audience members contained themselves.


SF Opera's Manon Lescaut

_T8A0032* Notes *
A very loud revival of Manon Lescaut opened at San Francisco Opera last night. All the singing was strong, and the orchestra sounded exuberant under the baton of former San Francisco Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

My main memory of this production way back in 2006 is of Karita Mattila in the title role doing the splits in a very blue room. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian (pictured in Act II, photograph by Cory Weaver) is a more convincing Manon, her lack of splits notwithstanding. Her voice is passionate, she has a tendency to be sharp, but it isn't much of an issue unless she's singing a duet.

_37A3078Tenor Brian Jagde (pictured in Act III, photograph by Cory Weaver) is a dashing Chevalier des Grieux, his powerful voice can always be heard over the very bold and propulsive sound of the orchestra. Baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut was a touch quiet in Act I, overwhelmed by both orchestra and chorus, but was certainly audible in the rest of the opera, while bass-baritone Philip Skinner is a vivid villain as Geronte de Revoir. The latter's sturdy voice and fine acting won him boos during the final ovation.

The production, designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and directed by Olivier Tambosi is attractive. This team also created recent productions of The Makropulos Case, Falstaff, and Jenůfa, which is abundantly clear in the lighting, colors (lots of blue and grey), and especially the rocky wasteland scene at the end. This last scene requires a long pause to set up, and the super-title admonition demanded we stay in our seats for the scene change. Much of the audience pulled out mobile phones, unable to wait the few minutes between acts. I did appreciate that the curtain was down for the intermezzo before Act III, it was lovely to be able to really concentrate on the orchestra without any distractions.

* Tattling *
After hearing this opera three times now, I must admit I still do not like it. I think it might have to do with the source material, I just do not like Manon, her frivolousness and faltering nature doesn't appeal to me somehow. Perhaps I will try again with the score and focus on the music. Tellingly, I woke up this morning with Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel still in my head, as I had watched a DVD of it with my son yesterday afternoon in preparation for the performance we are attending at San Francisco Opera next weekend.

The audience was sparse, I arrived a little bit before 7pm and got the thirteenth standing room ticket, and could have easily sat in a seat in the balcony. Because of this, there was very little to note as far as bad behavior.


SF Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro

_37A0260* Notes *
Le Nozze di Figaro opened at San Francisco Opera yesterday in a fresh new production, the first in decades. The performance marks the start of revamps for all three Mozart/Da Ponte operas from director Michael Cavanagh and set designer Erhard Rom, each set in the same American estate over the course of 300 years.

"Well, I hope it doesn't have screen savers" was my spouse's comment as we drove over to the War Memorial, after I mentioned this. As the overture played a few hours later, we looked at each other and silently laughed, the graph paper scrim showed architectural drawings that bounced around during the music.

Thankfully, that was it for animated projections, and the set (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) is easily and quietly maneuvered. The scene between Marcellina and Susanna in Act I ("Via resti servita, madama brillante") was moved into and out of a kitchen and was particularly deft. Placing the action in the Mid-Atlantic states but still in the late 18th century works perfectly well, Contance Hoffman's costumes are eye-catching, I loved the bright pink with Prussian blue accents that Cherubino initially wears, and enjoyed Barbarina's complimentary bodice in a similar pink with blue stripes and polka dots. You could tell at a glance who she was even though she stood with the chorus.

_T8A0382Maestro Henrik Nánási, who had such a memorable debut in Elektra a few seasons ago, conducted a rapid and transparent orchestra. Bryndon Hassman's fortepiano continuo was very amusing, wittily commenting on the comedy unfolding on stage.

The opera is cast well, suiting each role quite convincingly. From Natalie Image as a cute-as a-button Barbarina (her "L'ho perduta, me meschina" was utterly lovely) to dependable Bojan Knežević as her drunken father Antonio, everyone looked and sounded pretty fantastic. Mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi is an adorable Cherubino, I loved hearing her legato sound in "Non so più cosa son" and "Voi che sapete che cosa è amor."

Soprano Nicole Heaston is a stately presence as Countess Almaviva, while baritone Levente Molnár very much embodied a blustering and jealous Count.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique (pictured with Michael Sumuel, photograph by Cory Weaver) is a perfectly sweet and bubbly Susanna, and though her stature is not unlike Ms. Heaston's, her voice is a complete contrast, which made the Act IV shenanigans all the more realistic. Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel's beautifully burnished sound occasionally got lost in the orchestration, but is very pleasant. He is charming in the title role, and his Act IV aria "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" was one of the best of the evening.

* Tattling *
There were a lot of people in attendance for the opening performance of this new production, but there was noticeable attrition at the intermission. Box X was reduced by one third by the last act, which I didn't mind at all since one person that left rustled paper more than once during Act II.


SF Opera's Billy Budd

_37A9295* Notes *
A new to San Francisco Opera production of Billy Budd opened last night. The performance was dramatically satisfying and had absolutely solid cast.

The Michael Grandage's production comes to us from Glyndebourne and is directed here by Ian Rutherford. The set (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Christopher Oram, is tiered and suggests both a ship and a prison. The seven scenes are handled well, the set changes happen without ever lowering a curtain, though of course it is much easier in this case since all the action happens on the HMS Indomitable.

The male chorus sounded solid and very cohesive. All the singing and acting was strong. From bass-baritone Philip Skinner's gruff but tender Dansker to tenor Matthew O'Neill's bright-voiced Squeak, even the smaller roles are finely cast.

_37A9117Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn made for an excellent villain as John Claggart, and managed to even be almost sympathetic at times in his aria at the end of Act I. Baritone John Chest makes an ideal Billy Budd, he looks and sounds the part, completely embodying the goodness and haplessness of the title role.

Best of all is tenor William Burden (pictured with Christian Van Horn, photograph by Cory Weaver). His wonderfully sweet voice is always consistent, and his Captain Vere is heartbreaking.

* Tattling *
I am not a big fan of Benjamin Britten, but I seem to like this opera, especially Act II's "Don't like the French!" It always makes me chuckle, and I like that there is humor in this otherwise very serious piece.

Sadly, the balcony had rows of empty seats. Nevertheless, the audience members that were there managed to be quite annoying anyway. There was a man in the last row who talked a bunch, and one of companions rustled a plastic packet for what seemed like minutes while Billy Budd sings his last lines in Act II, Scene 3.