Opera Review

Rigoletto at Opera San José

OSJ_Rigoletto_PhotoBy_DavidAllen_1114-scaled* Notes *
Rigoletto opened at Opera San José last weekend, but I attended the fourth performance, today's matinée. The opera was very moving.

Dan Wallace Miller's production has the title character with a large scar on the right side of his face, rather than a spinal deformity, while the Duke has pox on his left arm from syphilis. There are also a lot of books, the opening scene has Gilda sitting in the middle of the stage reading, books litter the space of Rigoletto's home, and the chorus is pretty gross and lascivious with one of Gilda's books in Act II. All of this is coherent and fits the narrative.

Jorge Parodi presided over an enthusiastic orchestra that occasionally was out of tune (the beginning of "Caro nome" definitely had an issue) but pleasantly buoyant. There were also a few times when the orchestra got ahead of the singers, but mostly in Act I.

The cast is rather large, the chorus sounded cohesive, and there were notable contributions from bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Count Monterone and soprano Abigail Bush as Countess Ceprano. The former had a palpable pathos and the latter an imperious dignity. I also very much appreciated the siblings Sparafucile and Maddalena,  bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam and mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti Luna, both were very convincing and their low, textured tones were a good contrast to the principal singers with higher voices.

Tenor Edward Graves was a dashing Duke, his bright voice has a lovely lightness. He was a little quiet with the chorus and the orchestra in Act I, but his "È il sol dell'anima" in Act II and "La donna è mobile" in Act III were both strong and pretty. Soprano Melissa Sondhi was sweet as Gilda, her sound can be very pure, though some of her high notes do seem somewhat strained. Her Act II "Caro nome" was beautiful. Best of all was baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (pictured in Act I, photograph by David Allen) as Rigoletto. His warm, round voice is utterly sympathetic, even when he's being cruelly funny as in Act I or unreasonably bent on revenge in the last scene. I was in tears as he discovers his dying daughter, Sondhi does very well here as well, and Brancoveanu's poignancy is undeniable.

*Tattling *
The couple in Row A Seats 2 and 4 did not like sitting next to the service dog with the people in Row A Seats 6 and 8, so they moved to Row B. They talked quite a bit at times, but I found was able to block them out by concentrating really hard on the music.

Worse though was the mobile phone that rang in the quiet part in the last scene right before Rigoletto sings Gilda's name.

I was sad to have to leave before the final ovation, but had to rush off right at 4:48pm right when the music ended, as my spouse needed to get to his own rehearsal by 6:30pm and our household only has one automobile.


SF Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore

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A new production of L'elisir d'amore opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon. Updated to the 1950s and set in the Italian Riviera, today's performance was a delight to see and hear.

This co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago is definitely festive. The action takes place at the restaurant of the Hotel Adina (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), owned by Adina, where Nemorino is a waiter. We are outside and can see the sea. The set and costumes are supposed to evoke Fellini's La Dolce Vita, and many of the characters do look very stylish. There are also three Vespas on stage in one of the scenes. The only down side of the set is that they brought the curtain down twice to change scenes, even though the set essentially stayed the same. It seems that something more artful might have been employed though everything happened reasonably rapidly.

Conductor Ramón Tebar's San Francisco Opera debut sounded fine, the orchestra played well, especially the woodwinds. There were a few moments when the orchestra got slightly ahead of the singers, but got back on track quickly.

The chorus was very funny and all the choristers sang together robustly. Baritone David Bizic was suitably blustery and arrogant as Belcore, he does sound gravelly in his lower range but for this role was not a problem. Baritone Renato Girolami was very amusing as Dulcamara, and his voice too has texture to it, more of a gritty sound. I never much noticed the role of Giannetta before, but Alder Fellow soprano Arianna Rodriguez sounded lovely, her voice is very clean.

_75A0453Tenor Pene Pati is truly a charming Nemorino. His voice is absolutely beautiful, bright and clear throughout his range and he sings with ease. His "Quanto è bella, quanto è cara" in Act I was impressive, and his "Una furtiva lagrima" was plaintive. He was well matched with soprano Slávka Zámečníková, in her American debut. Her voice is elegant and very pretty, and she seems to sing without effort. Her Act II aria "Prendi, per me sei libero" was splendid.

* Tattling * 
The house looked entirely full, as this was both the prima and a matinée. There wasn't much talking  or electronic noise in Box Z, only lots of laughs around us. I did hear a cellular phone ring right before the Barcarolle in Act II, Scene 1.

There was some sort of very loud alarm that went off right before "Una furtiva lagrima" that sounded like a bird warbling. The maestro stopped the music and asked for it to be turned off before starting over again.


Opera San José's Il Barbiere di Siviglia

OSJBarber_6872_PhotoBy_DavidAllen-scaled* Notes *
Il barbiere di Siviglia opened at Opera San José last Saturday, but I attended the matinée on Sunday. The performance was a cartoonish delight with lots of pleasant singing.

In his Opera San José debut Stephen Lawless directed this new production, which might not have had the best sense of space but was a lot of fun.

It was unclear if we were on the ground floor (pictured, photograph by David Allen) or if we were a level up, as there was a door downstage that was supposedly to the outside but there was also a balcony on that same level upstage. But I did like the liveliness of the production, the walls that didn't behave and stay put, the four flamenco dancers that would dramatically appear for really no reason except that the action takes place in Seville. The storm scene had a dream sequence in it, which was novel and effective.

Rossini's music is always enjoyable and the singers did a fine job. Mezzo-soprano Courtney Miller was a long-suffering and oddly endearing Berta and bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian was an especially creepy and greedy Basilio. Bass-baritone Joshua Hughes (Fiorello) sounded bright and robust, as did baritone Michael Kuo (Officer). Everyone was clearly characterized and acted very well,

Likewise the leads were all strong. Bass-baritone Dale Travis is always reliable, his Bartolo is very funny. Nikola Adele Printz is charming as Rosina, their clean, brilliant sound is not that of a coloratura mezzo-soprano, but they were able to work with their voice to give a splendidly resonant performance. Tenor Joshua Sanders is also very solid as Count Almaviva, his plaintive voice sounds strong from top to bottom. Baritone Ricardo José Rivera is a very loud and lovable Figaro, but his voice is pretty and he seemed all smiles.

*Tattling *
In the middle of Act I there were a lot of barking coming from backstage but we never saw dogs in the production. I was very impressed by how the service dog that seems to always be at afternoon performances at this opera house maintained their cool and did not make a single sound at all.

There was some light talking, I did hear a cellular phone ring once, and lots of cellophane noise at certain points.


SF Opera's Omar

_74A8653* Notes * 
Omar, an opera about a West African Islamic scholar sold into slavery, opened at San Francisco Opera this afternoon. The opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels is an artful combination of rhythms, syncopation, textures, and lyricism.

The main character of the opera, Omar ibn Said, is based on a real person who was born in Futa Toro (present day Senegal) and spent more than twenty years studying with Muslim scholars. He was captured in 1807 and enslaved, taken to Charleston, South Carolina, sold to a cruel master, ran away to Fayetteville, North Carolina, was jailed, and then subsequently sold to one James Owen, who was fascinated by Omar's literacy in Arabic and used this as a kind of party trick, giving samples of his writing as gifts to friends. Half a dozen documents that Omar wrote in Arabic survive, including an autobiography.

The production (Act II, Scene 4 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), from Kaneza Schaal, is very attractive and involves quite a lot of cloth and Arabic calligraphy. The projections are thoughtful, I liked seeing Omar ibn Said's image from an ambrotype on the scrim before the piece began, and the way he was brought to life once the music started really worked well. Having the Arabic script projected as if it were being written was also a nice way to emphasize the importance of writing in this story. The costumes too were all covered with writing and it kept this opera from being a simple period piece. Having Omar enter from the audience dressed in contemporary clothing, and transforming himself into this character by putting on his costume on stage was effective, and drew us in right away. The dancing, choreographed by Kiara Ben, was often full of joy. The Ancestral Figure portrayed by Jermaine McGhee spun ecstatically in more than one scene.

The music has lots of West African drums, including the tar, the ghaval, the talking drum, and the djembes. There is also a focus on strings, there is even a viola solo at the beginning of Act I. A variety of influences could be heard, from spirituals to blues, but it is definitely an opera, with beautiful, sweeping lyricism. Conductor John Kennedy kept everyone together.

The 32 choristers sounded unified throughout the opera. It was especially moving to have them in the audience for the last scene, singing all around us. The rest of the cast was solid from top to bottom. Tenor Barry Banks has such a bright, sweet tone, that was absolutely disturbing as the auctioneer in Act I, Scene 3. He reappears as Taylor in Act II, sounding as lovely as ever. Baritone Daniel Okulitch plays both of Omar's masters, Johnson and Owen, and sounds strong.

_75A4890Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven is haunting as Omar's mother Fatima, her voice is dramatic and very clean. Soprano Brittany Renee, as fellow enslaved person Julie, also has a crystalline sound with a good heft to it. Her scene with Omar where she reveals her father was also a Muslim was very sympathetic. Best of all is tenor Jamez McCorkle (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in the title role. His voice is so pretty and clear, and his part is heartrending.

* Tattling * 
The audience was focused and quiet, I heard no electronic noise, people with phones out were admonished as were those who talked.

There were at least three people that were not able to make it through the last scene, and one even climbed over other people to get to the aisle.


SF Opera's Lohengrin

_74A5437* Notes * 
David Alden's Lohengrin opened at San Francisco Opera on October 15, but I only managed to attend the fourth performance on Tuesday. The orchestra sounded perfectly transparent and there was much lovely singing including a powerful chorus.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim gets a very clear sound out of the orchestra, I feel like I can hear all the parts neatly stacked up, it feels very vertical and lucid to me. It was very different than Luisotti's performance of this work with San Francisco Opera back in 2012, and I feel lucky to be able to hear the contrast.

This very dark and incoherent production (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) comes from the Royal Opera House, London, and likely works a lot better in that smaller space. It premiered back in 2018, and uses a lot of war imagery, there are guns and spears. The costumes are mostly from the 1930s but then Elsa inexplicably wears a slip dress and footless tights in Act I that are very 1990s. It's also really difficult to see what is going on, and the singers sound different depending on how the stage is set up or where they are standing within the stage. I did like the way everything seemed to be on rollers and it all went very smoothly. And there were a few very funny moments, like when Elsa's fluffy wedding gown descended from the ceiling in Act II and when Lohengrin shoves the marital bed across the floor in Act III.

_75A5506The chorus sounded wonderful, very full and cohesive. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson sounded very shaky as King Heinrich, but perhaps it works for this role. In his San Francisco Opera debut baritone Thomas Lehman sounded very nice as the King’s Herald, his voice is pretty, but Alden had him act in some unsavory ways, he tries to shoot Elsa in the final scene. Mezzo-soprano Judit Kutasi (pictured in Act II with Simon O'Neill and Julie Adams, photograph by Cory Weaver) likewise had a strong San Francisco Opera debut, her icy sound was downright terrifying. Her singing was very much well-suited to Ortrud.

I love the warm resonances of baritone Brian Mulligan, but his voice is too lovely and sympathetic for Friedrich von Telramund. It was a bit disorienting for me, as I have pretty recently heard Mulligan as the Herald in the Met's broadcast last season. As Elsa von Brabant, soprano Julie Adams has a beautiful, honeyed sound, but it's not very pure and innocent which would work better for her part. Tenor Simon O'Neill certainly paced himself well as Lohengrin, he was very consistent. His sound is loud and cuts through the orchestra, but has an unpleasant thin reediness to it.

* Tattling * 
There was a surprising amount of talking as the singers were singing. Usually Wagner attracts focused listeners, but people both in front of me in Row J of the orchestra level and behind me in Row L spoke at various times. There was also a lot of coughing and sneezing, and I myself had a coughing fit in Act II which I mostly got under control with some hot tea as quickly as I could.

Lots of people also left at each intermission, so that by the end I could see the conductor because fewer people were blocking my view.


Ars Minerva's Olimpia Vendicata

Olimpia-vendicata-2023 * Notes * 
Ars Minerva returned to ODC Theater in San Francisco for the modern premiere of Domenico Freschi's 1681 Olimpia Vendicata ("Olimpia Avenged"). The Sunday matinée had all the features of an Ars Minerva production: a small orchestra with clean, dry playing; projected backdrops; medieval-inflected costumes with a Burning Man aesthetic; beautiful, clear singing; and a silly, convoluted plot that the cast leaned into and made very funny.

Francesco Aurelio Aureli's libretto concerns one Olimpia, princess of Holland, who is abandoned on a desert isle by her erstwhile lover Bireno, prince of Denmark. Olimpia is captured by the pirate Araspe, and sold to King Oberto of Hibernia, but under the name of Ersilia. Of course, Bireno is in Hibernia wooing Oberto's sister Alinda, who is in turn loved by King Osmiro of Scotland. King Oberto, naturally, falls in love with Olimpia/Ersilia. Antics ensue, and Olimpia ultimately gets the vengeance in the title of the opera.

Unlike some of the operas we've heard at Ars Minerva, this one has a baritone, in the role of the pirate Araspe. Nicolas A. Garcia made for a good contrast with the rest of the cast, which includes lots of voices in a more middle range, including tenor Sidney Ragland as Bireno's servant Niso.

Most impressive, perhaps, was contralto Sara Couden in the smaller role of Osmiro. The character is often hapless and unintentionally hilarious, Couden did a great job with the physical humor, and her voice is effortlessly deep and resonant. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Martinez Rosengaus was entertaining as Oberto, her voice is colder than Couden's but also has a good weight to it. Mezzo-soprano Nina Jones has a very clean, crisp sound as Bireno.

Both sopranos were very strong, Aura Veruni has a nice powerful voice that is flexible. Veruni conveyed a lot of Alinda's feelings in her face and body, her disdain for Osmiro and her conflicted views on Bireno. She did some hula hooping in Act I, Scene 2. Leslie Katter (pictured) was triumphant as Olimpia, her clear, bright sound worked well and her acting was spot on, from demure handmaiden to would-be vengeful murderer.

The staging was a lot of fun. There was a ferris wheel and lollipops at the end of Act I and a humorous fishing scene with animated jumping koi and characters wearing little row boats.

The orchestra, led by harpsichordist Matthew Dirst, was scaled back to only a string quartet plus violone, bass, and theorbo.

* Tattling * 
It was the birthday of costume designer Marina Polakoff and supertitle translator Joe McClinton, so we got to hear everyone sing them "Happy Birthday" at the end of the performance.


SF Opera's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Steve-jobs-2023* Notes * 
Mason Bates' The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, opened at San Francisco Opera last night, after being postponed for three years because of the pandemic. The opera has a propellent energy and lots of great singing.

This opera, with libretto by Mark Campbell, about the Apple co-founder and CEO does not seem like it could work, but somehow the circular structure, fast-moving non-linear scenes, and humor pull it together. In certain ways the opera is pretty traditional, there's a hero's journey, a mentor, and a true love that saves the protagonist. There's even some moralizing at the end, which reminded me of the final ensemble of Don Giovanni.

The set, by Vita Tzykun, flows easily from scene to scene as it is mostly segments of walls that can have projections on them plus props that are rolled on and off or picked by singers or stagehands. Kevin Newbury's direction is straightforward. There were times when the projections were slightly tiresome, like the moving motherboard  ones (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), which reminded me of The PeopleMover Thru The World Of Tron ride at Disneyland back in the 1980s and 90s.

The music is percussion heavy, there are lots of mallets and seven timpani drums. The composer performs electronics in the piece using two MacBook Pros with the orchestra in the pit. There is also an acoustic guitar. Everything is amplified, including the singers, which is not unexpected but does somehow flatten the sound for me.

The chorus sounded very much together. Members of the chorus would have soli as Apple employees but would seamlessly rejoin the group. The principals were all quite strong as well. Adler mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag was startlingly beautiful as she sang about calligraphy as a teacher at Reed College and Adler soprano Olivia Smith's Chrisann Brennan was crystalline yet flexible. Tenor Bille Bruley was convincing as Steve Wozniak, his bright sound is pleasing.

Steve-jobs-principals-2023Baritone John Moore also has a bright, resonant voice, portraying Steve Jobs as a cruel megalomanic and a vulnerable human being. His interactions with bass Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs) were best. Wu had the most entertaining lines as the Zen priest and spiritual mentor of Jobs, though Moore has a pretty good one about Bach and mosquitos in Scene 10. Cooke was radiant, her voice is ethereal but well-supported.

* Tattling * 
The orchestra audience did not whisper or talk, but I did hear some cellophane being rustled by someone around Row G Seat 6. Worse yet was the cellular phone that rang in the middle of Row H during Scene 17. It was very loud, but at least the phone was shut off right away.


SF Opera's Il Trovatore

_74A2548* Notes * 
Il Trovatore, the first opera at San Francisco Opera this season opened last night with lots of varied and beautiful playing from the orchestra. There was strong singing from the chorus and from the principals.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim continues to impress, her tempi hold my attention. The tradeoff is that there are moments when the free quality of the rubato causes a certain fuzziness. The orchestra does sound very full and fiery but it is always very easy to hear each individual line of the music.

This is a revival of David McVicar's elegant production (Act II Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) but directed here by Roy Rallo. It works well and the huge rotating set from Charles Edwards is surprisingly quiet.

The chorus is robust, "Vedi le fosche notturne" in Act II was rousing. The beginning of Act III showcased these singers well too. I found bass Robert Pomakov (Ferrando) creaky at first, but his voice opened up over the course of the evening. Baritone George Petean had a strong San Francisco Opera debut as Count di Luna. His voice has a pleasant roundness and his "Il balen del suo sorriso...Per me ora fatale" in Act II was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sounded weirdly ethereal as Azucena, it was not an interpretation I had considered before. Her voice doesn't have a lot of earthiness to it, but is very pretty and can be creepy.

_75A8856Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz makes for a handsome Manrico and though he hits all the notes, his timbre has a hollow quality. He seemed almost to be shrieking "Deserto sulla terra" offstage in Act I. I also could not hear him at the end of Act II Scene 1 at all, even though he and Semenchuk were all the way downstage and the mezzo was not overpowering him. He did sound better in the second half of the opera. On the other hand, soprano Angel Blue (pictured in Act IV, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a resonant sound from top to bottom. She conveys the text very clearly, and I felt all the emotions that poor Leonora experienced. Her Act IV "D'amor sull'ali rosee" was particularly moving.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was well-behaved, there was very little talking around us, and only when there was no music happening. I did hear a cellular phone at the beginning of Act IV when Leonora is brought before the dungeon keep.

I tried to keep my inappropriate giggling to a minimum, but this opera's plot is so convoluted and incomprehensible that I did feel some mirth bubbling up at times.


Opera San José's Roméo et Juliette

IMG_3054* Notes *
Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (Sunday matinée ovation pictured, photograph by Charlise Tiee) opened Opera San José's fortieth season last weekend. The singing yesterday was very lovely and lyrical. It was well worth the drive to the South Bay to hear.

General Director Shawna Lucey directed this new production, which did not seem to be of a particular time or place. The costumes had elements of historic and contemporary clothing. It was difficult to tell if we were inside or outside, as there were numerous walls of greenery and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It was interesting to see a crumbling cathedral window in the background of Acts IV and V, I feel like it was repurposed from Opera San José's elaborate production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The scene changes were simple and transitions were very smooth.

The direction included an alarming sword fight between Montagues and Capulets during the Prologue. While it did keep the audience engaged, the action involved a young girl being accidentally killed, which was distressing to watch and also a bit on the nose as far as the plot of this opera and Shakespeare's play. Antara Bhardwaj's choreography did work with this out-of-time production, the kathak meets ballet was elegant and it was great to hear some of the ballet music for this opera, which often gets cut from modern performances. Bhardwaj was also one of the four dancers to perform.

Gounod's music is tuneful and fun to listen to. As is often the case at Opera San José though, the singers were the main attraction of the afternoon. There were so many young singers, no less than a dozen soloists. I liked how they utilized the cast for the choruses as well, it did fill things out. But it was also clear that they were accustomed to being principal singers, and not everyone blended in exactly. I could very distinctly hear tenor WooYoung Yoon (Benvolio), for instance.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg exuded both exasperation and authority as The Duke of Verona while baritone Robert Balonek was a ostentatious Count Capulet. Tenor Alex Boyer makes for a villainous Tybalt and one could not help but feel badly for baritone Efraín Solís as Mercutio.

The title roles were splendidly cast. Tenor Joshua Sanders was believable as Romeo, he sounded reedy and plaintive. He has impressive control and was able to hit all his high notes without sounding strained. Soprano Jasmine Habersham (who shares the role of Juliette with Melissa Sondhi) started off a bit on the harsh side, though her "Je veux vivre" was exciting. Her voice really bloomed in the second half of the performance, I loved how round and full she sounded, and her character is certainly  the most sympathetic.

*Tattling *
There were all kinds of noises from hearing aid feedback to cellular phone rings in the first half of the show. There was also loud snoring from more than one person in the center orchestra section.

In the second half, there was less snoring but a person on the aisle of Row D or E kept rustling food in some kind of plastic wrap and seemed to drop several objects on the ground.


Festival Opera's Carmen

Carmen_stefancohen_021* Notes *
Festival Opera put on a visceral production of Carmen at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek last weekend. The staging was effective and there was a lot of great singing.

The small orchestra was conducted by Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff at San Francisco Opera and was a Merolino back in 2011.

The staging relied heavily on projections to set the scenes, it looked to be a contemporary urban environment, replete with graffiti, highway overpasses, and the like. It did seem like the projections were on a loop, there seemed to be constant clouds of smoke in the background, which was unsettling.

Michael Mohammed's direction included two dancers, Stuck Sanders and Anthéa Colot (pictured with the chorus in Act IV, photograph by Stefan Cohen) who were very impressive. I loved how fluidly Sanders was able to move in particular, and there was such joy to the movement. They really drew me into the piece.

The cast for this was likewise engaging. Bass-baritone Matthew Lovell was suitably brutal as Zuniga. The quintet "Nous avons en tete una affaire" was memorable, baritone Daniel Cilli as the Le Dancaïre, tenor Taylor Thompson, mezzo-soprano Lily Bogas as Mercédès, and soprano Lila Khazoum as Frasquita were all very distinct but also cohesive. Baritone Young-Kwang Yoo was a charming Escamillo and soprano Hope Briggs a very sweet Micaëla.

Carmen_stefancohen_025Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz is convincing as Carmen, they certainly are seductive. But most appealing was tenor Dane Suarez as the otherwise fairly repellant Don José. Suarez's voice has plaintiveness and bright warmth, but also an interesting rawness that works for this role.

*Tattling * 
I haven't been to a Festival Opera performance since 2015, and I was surprised how easy it was to get to the theater from the BART station. I brought Axel Feldheim with me to the performance and managed not only to get on the same train as him but also found the exact car he was on. We got there so early that we were able to go to a nearby farmers market and to a boba tea place beforehand. There were also activities happening outside the theater that involved many children.

There was some pretty loud talking from some audience members but it was usually about the performance. It's always very funny to me that people need to express their thoughts aloud about how beautiful something is and they interrupt other people's experience of that very beautiful thing.


SF Opera's El último sueño de Frida y Diego

_DSC0095* Notes *
The opening of Gabriela Lena Frank's El último sueño de Frida y Diego (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) at San Francisco Opera last night was vivid and visually impressive. There was much great singing, especially from the chorus, and the colors of the orchestra were on full display.

This Spanish-language opera premiered at San Diego Opera in October 2022. It is two acts, each about an hour long, and takes place on El Día de los Muertos in 1957. The narrative follows Diego Rivera's summoning of Frida Kahlo from the dead during this liminal time of year. La Catrina, Keeper of the Dead in the Aztec underworld (Mictlān) convinces Kahlo to crossover to the living world. Frank's music features a lot of slippery, sliding chromaticism and percussion. I liked hearing the celeste. I was less keen on Nilo Cruz's libretto, there were many jokes about Rivera's physical appearance, his pot-belly and fear of becoming fat, which seemed so sad given that he's 70 years old in the opera and close to death. This did garner much laughter, perhaps serving to humanize the famous muralist. In addition to the three main characters, there is the young actor Leonardo, who is Kahlo's buddy in Mictlān and wants to return to the living world impersonating Greta Garbo to please a fan of the actress. The character is a bit random but endearing.

Frank handles the chorus well, the 40 choristers sounded cohesive and powerful. All the singing was very fine. Countertenor Jake Ingbar is charming as Leonardo, his bright voice cut through the orchestration without being harsh. Soprano Yaritza Véliz has a lovely otherworldly quality as La Catrina, bird-like and angelic. Baritone Alfredo Daza is an imposing Diego Rivera, his voice is very strong. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack impressed as Frida Kahlo, no small feat given how iconic the painter is. I've heard her many times in a variety of repertoire, but this role really shows off the depths of her voice.

_DSC0168The production, directed by Lorena Maza, is sumptuous with lots of rich details. Jorge Ballina's set makes splendid use of color, the saturated marigold orange in the underworld and intense cobalt blue of La Casa Azul were particularly striking. The scenes switched easily and artfully, whether it was altars of flowers suspended from the ceiling or platforms rolled in to create different spaces. I especially liked how a blank mural wall hid the chorus at the beginning of Act II and then revealed Rivera's Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver). Of course, the recreations of Kahlo's paintings were also very beautifully done, Eloise Kazan's costumes certainly made that scene that occurs later in Act II work.

* Tattling *
It was great to see that the house was full for the prima of this opera. I situated myself in the middle of balcony standing room right behind two couples and had a great view of the stage where I could easily ignore the OperaVision screens.

There was a cell phone ring right before the music started which made the audience titter. There was a fair amount of light talking and lots of phone screens being checked for the time during Act II.


SF Symphony's Adriana Mater

Saariho* Notes *
Composer Kaija Saariaho (pictured) died last Friday on June 2, and San Francisco Symphony's presentation of her 2005 opera Adriana Mater last night showed what a profound loss this is. Her music is wholly unique and is very much a case for live performance.

Saariaho turned Davies Hall into an instrument, her slow moving music has a physicality that is like being surrounded by a monumental sculpture that gradually appears and then dissipates. Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the orchestra very even and consistent.  The piece has a lot of percussion, more than two dozen instruments, which undoubtedly help create the soundscape that feels so solid and palpable. The brass sounded very clear and the strings shimmered.

The opera, with libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, is set in present day, in an unnamed country on the precipice of war. Adriana, a young woman, rebuffs the advances of a young ne'er-do-well Tsargo, and is later raped by him at home when her sister Refka is out. She becomes pregnant and keeps the child, a son she names Yonas, but is tormented by fears that he will be like his father. When Yonas discovers his true paternity, he seeks revenge by taking Tsargo's life, but finds he cannot and thus proves to Adriana that he is indeed her son, and her fears were unfounded.

20230608_AdrianaMater_bhs_059Saariaho dedicated this opera to Peter Sellars, who directed the world premiere seventeen years ago at Opéra Bastille in Paris with Salonen conducting. Sellars is halfway through a four opera series at San Francisco Symphony that will continue next year with Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung. This new staging for Adriana Mater (Act II pictured, photograph by Brittany Hosea-Small) included four platforms for the four principal vocalists, two downstage, and two upstage. The orchestra is arranged in a diagonal dividing the platforms in half, and the chorus is above but continues the diagonal by being stage right. The lighting switches up from primary colors on different platforms, to fully green or pink depending on the tableau. The singers are all fine actors, I was especially impressed how well mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron (Adriana) was able to hold her body in place for such long periods and how transformed she was from Act I where she is a young adult to Act II when she has a fully grown son. The staging does include four iPads with the music for the singers, and I found this would occasionally take me out of the drama and the music as a singer would turn the page or carry the device to the floor if the choreograph demanded it.

The singing was all very beautiful, an interesting contrast to the dark and disturbing content of the opera. Baritone Christopher Purves is terrifying as the violent Tsargo, but his voice does have.a pretty warmth to it. Tenor Nicholas Phan is wrenching as son Yonas, his sweet, bright sound conveys a lot of emotion. Soprano Axelle Fanyo also has a sweet, full tone and gave a focused performance as Adriana's sister Refka. Barron is devastating in the title role, her deeply burnished mezzo embodied the pain of Adriana and her redemption.

* Tattling *
There was some light talking throughout the performance, which completely didn't make sense to me, as this experience was intense and immersive. A person in Row T Seat 3 of Premier Orchestra kept looking at her phone in the second act.

It seemed like almost everyone I knew who loves opera was at this performance. Even soprano Nina Stemme and baritone Johan Reuter, who are both in Die Frau Ohne Schatten over at San Francisco Opera were in attendance.


SF Opera's Die Frau Ohne Schatten

_DSC2744* Notes *
Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Act I Scene 2 pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) returned to San Francisco Opera after an absence of 34 years. The vibrant production by artist David Hockney premiered at Covent Garden way back in 1992, but still has much to recommend it, and the singing and playing were all wonderful.

The plot of this opera, as with so many of Strauss' operas, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is basically a fairy tale about a magical empress who has no shadow, meaning she is barren, and she must find a shadow or the emperor will turn to stone. She descends to the human realm with her nurse, and tries to gain a shadow from the wife of Barak the Dyer. There is much talk of the unborn. The empress eventually decides it is wrong to harm Barak, as his wife will unable to have children if she gives up her shadow, and in the end she is granted grace and given a shadow. This folktale is consider to be of Aarne-Thompson type 755, about forgiveness and redemption, and has origins in Scandinavia.

Hockney's set is as colorful as the music is, the many scenes are switched up with ease. I really loved how the earthly realm of Barak the Dyer and his wife looked like a rainbow salt mine, even the mortals live in technicolor. The costumes, from Ian Falconer of Olivia fame, looked to be influenced by Rajasthani or Mughal miniature painting.

_DSC2439The cast included 25 principals and not only the regular chorus but a children's chorus. Soprano Nina Stemme (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded as powerful and glittery as ever as Barak's Wife (Die Färberin). It was fun to hear her with soprano Linda Watson (Nurse/Die Amme), since they are both known for performing Brünnhilde. Watson has a more strident tone, but it works for this role, which was written for mezzo-soprano, and the two singers did sound very distinct. The Empress (Die Kaiserin), sung by soprano Camilla Nylund, seemed like a very challenging part, there were dizzying heights that were frankly shrill. But there was no mistaking Nylund for the other two sopranos. Baritone Johan Reuter was a very human Barak, and sang with warmth. Tenor David Butt Philip was certainly more otherworldly as the The Emperor.

The orchestra sounded magnificent under Maestro Donald Runnicles, there were so many colors and textures in the music that came out rather beautifully. This is definitely an opera to return to, and I'm very curious to read the score.

* Tattling *
The people in Box D Seats 7 and 8 arrived slightly late and left a few minutes before the end of the opera. We inconvenienced them by being in their seats at the start, as the person in Seat 4 kept going in and out of the box. The person in Seat 4 also spent a little time texting, but this was relatively brief. The person in Seat 8 smashed her plastic water bottle in order to drink, and this happened 2 or 3 times. She also left the bottle at her seat after leaving the performance.

Otherwise it was pretty quiet, most of the people in attendance very much wanted to be there and were listening intently.


SF Opera's Madama Butterfly

_DSC0444* Notes *
San Francisco Opera resumed its 100th season with a new production of Madama Butterfly (Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) directed by Amon Miyamoto and featuring a solid cast. The stars of the show for last night's prima were, however, San Francisco Opera's Music Director Eun Sun Kim and the orchestra.

In this production, we begin in silence with a scene of the elderly Pinkerton in his sick bed. He hands off a letter to his son Trouble and the words bring us back some thirty years to tell us the story of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. I appreciated the reframing of this problematic opera to be through the eyes of mixed race son, I am also a multiethnic Asian American with mixed race children. But the constant presence of actor John Charles Quimpo as the adult Trouble is very distressing and distracting, his movements were erratic and made me deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps if he had been a more ghostly observer, it would have worked better, but obviously this was a directorial choice. The spartan set used judicious projections, the exploding flowers in Act II that were projected in the background were appealing. The costumes from Kenzō Takada are elegant.

The cast is strong. The chorus was lovely, as were all the supporting singers. It was nice to see that all the principal Japanese characters are Asian or Asian American and that Chiharu Shibata, who has been in so many San Francisco Opera productions, was the shadow dancer here.

Baritone Lucas Meachem is a perfect Sharpless, the warmth of his voice is sympathetic and kindly. I did like how he was directed to be more forceful than many others in this role, he throws a chair in frustration when Cio-Cio-San refuses to understand her situation in Act II. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, is well-suited vocally and dramatically for Suzuki. Her voice is big and rich.

_DSC0877Tenor Michael Fabiano (pictured in Act I with Karah Son) embodied Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, his bright, bold voice seems made for this music. He sounded equally great in the Act I aria "Dovunque al mondo" and the Act III aria "Addio, fiorito asil" and never overpowered in the many fine duets of the opera. Soprano Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) has a very interesting voice, she has a steel-tinged vibrato with an otherworldliness in her high notes, and her low notes seem deeply anchored. She's very dramatic and moving.

The orchestra sounds splendid under Maestra Kim, the sweep of the music has a distinct clarity and beauty. The brass did particularly well, as did the woodwinds, strings, and harp.

* Tattling *
Latecomers were shuffled into the back of the balcony and not allowed to sit, even though there were plenty of seats in the back rows of the house. I spent a lot of my time in Act I with my eyes closed trying to stay focused on the music, and I was mostly successful, even though I seemed to be surrounded by families with children or adoloscents.

There were some cellphone rings heard during quiet moments and at least two of dropped bottles, as one can bring drinks into the house, apparently.

Before Act III, I was told I could not take a picture of the stage while the curtain was down and there was the message "Please remain at your seats for this brief pause" by one of the ushers who also asked me where my seat was as I stood by myself in balcony standing room. Soon after this I was asked by another patron if I was the one who read the score of operas in the past in standing room, and it reminded me that I should probably attend another performance in this run of Butterfly and do that again.


Opera Parallèle's The Shining


OP-The-Shining-02* Notes *

Opera Parallèle made a triumphant return to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater with a chamber version of  Paul Moravec's 2016 opera The Shining (beginning of Act I pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) last night in San Francisco. The piece is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King and features a lushly creepy score.

Maestra Nicole Paiement conducted with nuance and precision, the tiny chamber orchestra sounded absolutely full and robust. The music references Berlioz and Wagner, and made me curious to hear Paiement conduct a Ring cycle. The pacing of Act I seemed somewhat slow, there was a lot of plot to get through, but Act II was completely engaging. Director Brian Staufenbiel put together a visually rich production, the set moved smoothly, the scenes switching easily with artful use of video projections and set pieces pushed about by ensemble members.

There were about as many singers in the cast as musicians in the pit, it was a bit dizzying. Girl sopranos Perri So and Kiyomi Treanor were particularly chilling as the Grady Girls, their grotesquely large baby bonnets in lurid pink only heightened the scariness. Tenor Nathan Granner sounded great as Bill Watson, Lloyd the Bartender, and part of the vocal ensemble, his diction is always perfectly intelligible and he has a charismatic stage presence even in these supporting parts. Tenor David Walton was also a delight to hear, his bright voice cut through the orchestration and he was able to be distinct in his roles as Stuart Ullman, the general manager of the Overlook Hotel and the ghost of Delbert Grady,  the previous caretaker of the Overlook who murdered his family.

OP-The-Shining-19My favorite singer in this was bass-baritone Kevin Deas as cook Dick Halloran (pictured with Michael Thompson in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver). It's a sympathetic character, to be sure, and Deas brought a warm richness to the role, his rapport with Tenzin Forde as Danny Torrance (who shares the role with Thompson) was clear. Forder does not sing but is very convincing, it is interesting that this child with special powers is the only one who does not have a singing part.

Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (Wendy Torrance) has an icy, flexible voice. She has an effortlessness that never comes off as harsh. Her early seventies outfits were a lot of fun and she rocked bellbottoms and platform shoes with a disarming ease. Baritone Robert Wesley Mason as Jack Torrance has a powerful sound, though not terribly varied. He did unraveled rather dramatically and had impressive stamina for this marathon of a role, he was onstage for nearly all of the opera.

* Tattling *
There was quite a lot of talking at the beginning of Act I, but eventually everyone quieted down as they were drawn into the narrative and stagecraft. Electronic noise was not noted, though a few people did briefly have their mobile phones out and illuminated.

It was nice to see dozens of people I know at this performance, as I hadn't been to this venue since 2017 for Opera Parallèle's Flight.