Opera Review

SF Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro Review

_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.


SF Opera's Roméo et Juliette

_T8A0455* Notes *
The curtain came up on the latest season of San Francisco Opera with Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) yesterday evening. The youthful cast sounded great, but the production was simply clunky.

From the very first moment there were familiar faces on stage, there are a lot of former Adlers and Merolini throughout the cast, and a lot of other singers that are here regularly. Tenor Daniel Montenegro is well cast as Tybalt, his voice has darkened in the years since he's been here last, and he is a good foil for Roméo. Baritone Timothy Mix is a powerful Capulet and baritone Lucas Meachem a robust Mercutio.

_37A0214Soprano Nadine Sierra is an appealing Juliette. Her clean, bright voice seems tailor-made for the role and her Act I "Je veux vivre dans le rêve" (Juliet's Waltz) was lovely. Tenor Pene Pati, who took over this role from Bryan Hymel, sounded secure. His Act II "Ah! lève-toi, soleil!" seemed effortless.

Unfortunately, director Jean-Louis Grinda did not make the best of the fresh-faced cast, and the results are scattershot and incoherent. Carola Volles' costumes are pretty enough, but the hues she chose for Juliette were clearly for fair, pinkish skin and were unflattering on our soprano, even from way back in the balcony. The set, designed by Eric Chevalier, is basically a shallow cube with a raked top surface. It isn't unattractive, but from the balcony, the scenes are not distinct as the upstage scenery isn't visible. The biggest problem is how long the scenes took to set up, the scrim was brought down at least four times and the wait really brought down the focus of the drama.

The sprightly orchestra, conducted by Yves Abel, sounded florid and somewhat fuzzy at first, particularly in the brass. The musicians sounded better as the night wore on, the woodwinds had some beautiful soli.

* Tattling *
Opera standees were not allowed into the auditorium until 7:30pm, and had to wait in ticket number order just outside the orchestra level.

As General Director Matthew Shilvock gave his opening remarks to start the season, a couple of protestors in the balcony started yelling "Impeach Trump now!" and throwing leaflets at the audience. Nancy Pelosi did not seem to be in attendance this year, so I am not sure who this was directed at exactly.

There was a lot of talking during the music, as is normal for the opening night crowd. A cell phone rang during Act II, as Juliette is singing to Roméo about blushing in the dark.


West Edge Opera's The Threepenny Opera

Weo-threepenny-stage-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera performed an English language version of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera for a second time yesterday afternoon. The darkly funny piece features much bawdy humor with some fine singing, though somewhat marred by the location of the theater.

What was clear right away was this is a play with songs rather than an opera. The opening number, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," looked very pretty. I enjoy Christine Crook's costume design, which has a vintage circus feel, lots of black and white stripes, red and pink accents, and lovely lacy details. The singing here ensemble members (pictured with Sarah Coit as Jenny and Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, photograph by Cory Weaver) lacked punch, perhaps because it was so hot at the Bridge Yard that the back of the stage was left open, as were some of the doors or windows at the entrance. Again, there was much noise from the highway and even a helicopter during the second half.

The staging is very much in keeping with what director Elkhannah Pulitzer has presented at West Edge before. There's lots of curtains used to hide the stage when scenes are being switched out, lots of attractive tableaux, and plenty of people in various states of undress. I am not sure the circus artists were used to the best effect, any acrobatics that appeared were pretty subtle. But the finale was quite fun and involved a tricycle rather than a horse and a confetti gun.

Weill's music was conducted by David Möschler, who also played the piano and harmonium with six other instrumentalists, all except the trumpeter used more than one instrument. There were times when the orchestra was ahead of the singers, but the charming music did come through and I liked hearing it even if it seemed less than primary.

All the acting was very strong. Tenor Derek Chester is winning as Macheath and has an impressive physicality, he spends much of his time on stage without a shirt on. He was hard to hear at times, especially when he descended into the orchestra pit at a certain point, which probably was only visible and fully audible from the first few rows of the theater. That said, Chester is very charismatic, and it was easy to see why all the young women in this work are crazy for the character.

Weo-threepenny-singers-2019Soprano Maya Kherani (pictured with Derek Chester, photograph by Cory Weaver) is an appealing Polly Peachum, very much in command of herself and at the same time a brooding adolescent on the couch in a hoodie at her parent's house. Some of her sibilants were harsh, especially when speaking, but her voice is brightly pleasant. Her fellow sopranos Sarah Coit (Jenny) and Erin O'Meally (Lucy) were both distinct, Coit was more measured and placid, while O'Meally was brasher.

Both baritone Jonathan Spencer as Peachum and bass-baritone Robert Stafford as Tiger Brown were funny, Spencer was a touch quiet while Stafford was more robust. The person who stole the show was definitely mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, she's great at physical comedy and her voice cuts through the orchestra with ease.

* Tattling * 
The performance was sold out and there was a lot more talking for this compared to the other two operas this season.

One of my friends was deeply disappointed the piece was not being done in the original German and he left during intermission.


West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves

Weo-breaking-waves-set-2019* Notes * 
Yesterday West Edge Opera gave the West Coast premiere of Missy Mazzoli's compelling Breaking the Waves. The bleak plot based on the film by Lars von Trier makes for good theater and the singing was powerful, especially from the lead, soprano Sara LeMesh.

Set in Scotland in the 1970s, the dark narrative concerns a young woman who marries a Norwegian from outside her Calvinist community. Mazzoli's music deftly weaves together sweeping vocal lines and many orchestral textures, including an electric guitar that nearly jarred me from my seat at first. I liked how she could use sounds that are referred to in the text or part of the setting without being trite, whether it is church bells or oil drills. She skillfully juggles different voices singing together, like the duet in Act I where Bess asks Jan to quit his job on the rig and stay with her that turns into a trio when her mother threatens to send her back to the hospital if she can't control her "moods."

The space, the Bridge Yard, was less of an issue for this opera for some reason. I don't know if it is because I'd never heard this music before, and had no expectations of how it should sound, or if these singers simply had voices that could cut through the orchestration better. In any case, soprano Sara LeMesh (pictured with chorus, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a piercing yet ethereal sound that works well for the girlish Bess. This character is central to the piece, and LeMesh is sympathetic. It could have easily gone the other way, Bess is co-dependent, depressed, and pathetic. She suffers relentlessly but perhaps because she is thinking of others rather than herself, she is engaging rather than annoying.

Weo-breaking-waves-closeup-2019The rest of the cast supported LeMesh well, nearly all the characters have many different sides and get to portray a range of emotions. From baritone Robert Wesley Mason, whose Jan is heartbreaking, to tenor Alex Boyer who plays Dr. Richardson with convincing sensitivity. Bass-baritone Brandon Bell is much needed comic relief as Jan's friend Terry in Act I, and shows a gentler side in Acts II and III. Soprano Kristen Clayton is imposing as Bess' mother Mrs. McNeill, but her love for her daughter is clear in the end. Most impressive is mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich (pictured with Sara LeMesh, photograph by Cory Weaver) as sister-in-law Dodo McNeill. Her tender warmth and sturdy voice is persuasive.

* Tattling * 
I recognized quite a few people in the audience and even on the stage, it seemed like most of my Bay Area opera-going friends were in attendance. There was little to complain about as far as electronic noise, there was some rustling behind me in Act II.

My companions, like me, had not seen the film on which this opera is based and were somewhat confused about where it was set and why the vowels were so odd. There is a line of Scots Gaelic in Act I, but I guess not everyone is up on Celtic languages, and I don't know that the mostly North American singers were exactly on point with the Scottish accent either.


West Edge Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice

Weo-orfeo-dancers-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera presented Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice last night at yet another new venue. Unfortunately, the space, once a repair facility for rail cars, is not acoustically suited for unamplified music.

In the past decade, West Edge Opera has performed everywhere from a high school theater in El Cerrito to a Bart station in Berkeley. The decrepit Oakland train station used in 2015 and 2016 was by far the most cool location, while last year's performances at a former Ford plant in Richmond had breathtaking views but was difficult to get to from San Francisco.

This year's venue, the Bridge Yard, has a fantastic views of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and the Port of Oakland. The industrial building dates from 1938, and has an edgy charm. However, it deadens sound, something about the shape of the space takes away from the resonances of both instruments and singers. Part of the problem is certainly the lack of back to the building, it is simply open. Another issue is the proximity to the highway, the white noise of vehicles takes the bite out of sounds.

Director KJ Dahlaw, a non-binary dance artist whose pronouns are "they" and "them," utilizes half a dozen dancers (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in their production. The choreography reminded me of yoga combined with Graham technique. The dance costumes were beige unitards that could be festooned with tulle, ribbons, or sleeves and wig changes to switch characters from wedding celebrants to furies to blessed spirits. Mikoko Uesugi's minimal set is elegant, simply a few huge panels of transparent cloth that could be transformed with lighting.

Christine Brandes, best known as a soprano, took the helm of the orchestra. The proceedings were restrained and sedate, it is utterly beautiful music, but somehow the musicians seemed to lose momentum in Act II, and "Che farò senza Euridice" was particularly muddled. There were lovely moments, especially with the chorus, who stood in the pit and were able to unify the music.

Weo-orfeo-singers-2019All three principals (Maria Valdes, Shawnette Sulker, and Nikola Printz pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are well known to Bay Area audiences. Soprano Shawnette Sulker cuts a dramatic figure as Amore in an asymmetrical tulle collar and lace corset. Her bright bird-like voice cuts through the best of the trio, but even she was dampened by the venue.

As Euridice, soprano Maria Valdes looked like a sweet doll. The brilliance of her sound was not apparent, but she did give a tender performance. Her interactions with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz (Orfeo) were convincing. In this production Orfeo is non-binary, wearing both a gown with bow-tie and men's wear (a vest with pinstriped trousers) that plays up feminine curves. It isn't a stretch at all for opera, women play men all the time after all, and queering this story is perfectly reasonable and even anticlimactic. Printz has the stature for the role, being tall and athletic with a clear, strong voice. Some of her lower register was undercut by the challenging space, but I could always hear her.

* Tattling * 
There was light talking at the beginning of the opera, a watch alarm at 9pm, and titters at the super titles. Mostly the audience members were very good, though I did not appreciate a loud crash from something dropping house right in the middle of Act II.


Merola Opera Program's If I Were You

If-I-Were-You_Pearl-Cast_Kristen-Loken_14* Notes * 
Merola Opera Program's very first commission, If I Were You, premiered last night at Herbst Theatre. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's opera certainly shows off the young singers voices but most impressive was Maestra Nicole Paiement at the helm of the orchestra.

The focus of Merola's performances is, of course, very much on the singers in the training program, and the orchestra often sounds less than perfect. Paiement had the musicians in the pit sounding formidable and together, and the shape of Heggie's sweeping lines were apparent.

The music is lyrical and showcased a great many beautiful voices, and the Faustian story fits the youth of the Merola participants (Cara Collins and Michael Day pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken). The main character, Fabian, is a young writer who makes a deal with the demon Brittomara to be able to move from one body to another, taking over other people's memories and selves. It is quite convoluted, and the singers did a fine job embodying the characters. I did not much like the sound of Fabian taking over a new body, it is supposed to be the sound of an electric shock but I couldn't help thinking it was like a big bug zapper killing insects.

If-I-Were-You_Pearl-Cast_Frank-Wing_10From the very beginning mezzo-soprano Cara Collins is a charismatic Brittomara, her deep low notes and sparkling ones are ideal for a shape shifting spirit. Tenor Michael Day is a poignant Fabian, his voice has a lot of different hues and much strength as well.

We see Fabian inhabit six different bodies, from his boss Putnam, played by bass-baritone Rafael Porto to his love interest's best friend Selena, performed by soprano Patricia Westley. There were no weak links, these are all singing actors. It was particularly amusing to see baritone Timothy Murray as the brash, confident Paul. The contrast of "real" Paul with Fabian/Paul is very charming and funny.

Soprano Esther Tonea stood out as Diana. As Fabian's love interest, she starts off pretty mild, her voice has a lovely, pure sound. By Act II she has been through quite a lot, trying to piece together what is going on around her, and her performance is much more dramatic and powerful.

The production, directed by Keturah Stickann, effectively uses vertical space by having stage elements come up and down from the ceiling. The many scenes are seamless because of this and the projected video art that could put us in an auto body repair shop (pictured, photograph by Frank Wing) or book-filled apartment within seconds.

The opera has a second cast that performs tomorrow and August 6, and it is sure to be interesting to hear other singers in the principal roles. The opening cast returns on August 4.

* Tattling *
One of the people in Row F was convinced I was in his seat but his companion assured him that they needed to keep going.

There was light talking in the middle of Row G, at least one watch alarm marking 8pm, and the person next to me in Seat 108 checked the time on his phone right before the opera ended.


L'enfant et les sortilèges at SF Symphony

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(5)-copy* Notes * 
Last night's opening of L'enfant et les sortilèges at San Francisco Symphony shimmered and shone. James Bonas' semi-staged production (Anna Christie and Isabel Leonard pictured, photograph by Jean Pierre Maurin) made use of quirky animated projections. The nine soloists and three choruses all sang beautifully and the playing from the orchestra glittered.

Maestro Martyn Brabbins filled in for MTT, who is recovering from a heart surgery. Brabbins, the music director at English National Opera, is a charming presence, and the orchestra sparkled, only overwhelming the singers during the arithmetical section of the opera.

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(7)_1The opera has three sopranos and three mezzos (plus tenor, baritone, and bass), and it must be a casting challenge voices that are distinct from one another. In the lead role of L'enfant (The Child), mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is all petulance and brattiness at first, and the ethereal qualities of her instrument come out later.

Mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa Jackson (A Herdsman, The Chinese Cup, The White Cat) has a darker tone and more sensuality. I found her jarring as both The Chinese Cup and The White Cat, the former because of the mocking nonsense words meant to be Chinese, the latter because of the palpable violent eroticism. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson-Cano (Mama, The Dragonfly, The Squirrel) is warmer and richer.

Soprano Anna Christy has a bird-like brilliance as The Fire, The Princess, and The Nightingale, while sopranos Nikki Einfeld (The Bat, A Country Lass) and Marnie Breckenridge (The Bergère, The Screech-owl) are more icily penetrating.

Tenor Ben Jones was very funny as The Little Old Man, he comes out on stilts and a pointy hat while numbers bounce around in waves behind him, he was only a touch quiet. As The Tree Frog and The Teapot I had no trouble hearing him. Baritone Kelly Markgraf  gave evocative performances as both The Comtoise Clock and The Black Cat. Bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson  was particularly poignant as The Tree, his mournful grievance against The Child is convincing.

L-Enfant-et-les-Sortileges©Jean-Pierre-Maurin-(3)The set is essentially an downstage scrim with drolly drawn projections that the singers interact with, sort of a live action and cartoon mashup. The effect is charming, I really loved the scene with The Fire (Anna Christie pictured, photograph by Jean Pierre Maurin) and the aforementioned one with arithmetical demons.

Tattling * 
There a lot of whispers. Someone with a child in Box D spoke quite a bit to her throughout the evening, though fairly quietly. The woman behind me in Row S had many audible reactions to the production at first, and I was glad she seemed so engaged with the performance.

The three young people in Row R Seats 17, 19, and 21 next to me chatted and looked at their phones, even taking photos during the performance. I think they must have been string players, they seemed more interested in the orchestra members than singers.

The boy next to me absolutely hated the pianist John Wilson who played pieces from Debussy's Children's Corner in the first half of the evening, which included several short French chamber music works from 1879 to 1915.  Wilson was restrained, his Serenade for the Doll had a delicacy to it to be sure. I just wish the person on my right hadn't talked so much during Ginger Costa-Jackson's rendition of "Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons" by Debussy. I was completely distracted already by Costa-Jackson's amazing biceps, and his comments about accompanist Peter Grunberg on the piano were not helpful for me.


SF Opera's Rusalka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SF Opera's Orlando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SF Opera's Carmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opera Parallèle's Today It Rains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LA Opera's Clemenza di Tito Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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