Opera Review

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.


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.