Opera Review

SF Opera's Partenope

Partenope-sfoperaact3-2024* Notes *
A revival of Händel's Partenope returned to San Francisco Opera last night. The sleek staging (Act III pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) is still very funny and the cast is fantastic.

Even though Händel wrote 42 operas, we usually only hear Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. Partenope (1730) had its first performances in the United States in 1988 and at the War Memorial in 2014,  so it is great to have the chance to hear this opera again. 

The 2008 production from Christopher Alden is set in a 1920s Parisian salon and references Man Ray, Surrealism, and Dadaism. There are many sight gags, leaning into the silliness of the plot. Crude drawings are scrawled on the walls; bananas are eaten, thrown, and worn; lewd gestures made; and jokes in and around a water closet figure prominently in Act II. The amount of toilet paper employed has, perhaps, a different valence than it did pre-pandemic.

The music is lovely, and conductor Christopher Moulds certainly keeps everyone moving. The rapid tempi at times felt rushed, but it was always lively and never dully square. The continuo was played prettily by cellist Evan Kahn, theorbist Richard Savino, and Maestro Moulds and Peter Walsh on harpsichord.

Partenope-sfopera-act1-2024Best of all was the singing, especially from the title character. Soprano Julie Fuchs (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver), making her American debut, is truly a winsome Partenope. Her resonant voice is bell-like and clean, well-suited for the role. She went from strength to strength, her sound opening up as the night progressed. Her Act II aria "Qual farfalletta" was particularly beautiful and she interpolated some La Traviata into the end of Act III to hilarious effect.

Also making very fine company debuts were countertenors Carlo Vistoli (Arsace) and Nicholas Tamagna (Armindo). Vistoli has an almost girlish sweetness to his voice, very much at odds with his physical presentation, which was fun. His coloratura is impressive, but his introspective arias were also strong, as in Act III with "Ch'io parta." Tamagna sounded clear and open as Arsace's rival Armindo.

The cast was rounded out by three former Adler Fellows, all of whom can both sing and act. Baritone Hadleigh Adams is charming as Ormonte, he has a lot of charisma and a pleasant tone to boot. He looked and moved fabulously in his pink petticoated dress with Pickelhaube and bananas on his head. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is suitably tormented and vacillating as Rosmira who is disguised as a man named Eurimene. Her voice is light and pretty, but she can sound downright mannish. Her real-life husband tenor Alek Shrader is Emilio, a military general also besotted by Partenope, but presented here as a stand-in for Man Ray. Shrader's antics are amusing, he is creepy and weird, constantly photographing the others. His voice has a richer tone than I remember in previous years.

* Tattling *
The couple behind us in Orchestra Row R Seats 2 and 4 were having the best time. They arrived precisely at 7:28pm and were exhilarated to be there just before the curtain rose. They did talk to each other the whole opera, but were so engaged that it was hard to be annoyed with them. They laughed uproariously at every single joke presented.

Otherwise, the rest of the audience also seemed to enjoy the opera, I heard lots of giggles and clapping for the various arias but very little in the way of electronic noise or lozenge wrappers.

In fact, the most ill-behaved person I observed was likely myself. I tried to dress as a flapper per the Roaring Twenties theme of this production and my boa, shed pink feathers all over the place.


SF Symphony's Erwartung

Sfsymphony-erwartung* Notes *
San Francisco Symphony performed Schoenberg's Erwartung (1909) for the first time on Friday. Conducted by outgoing music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra sounded splendid at the Saturday performance I attended. The musicians were very clear and together, while soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams (pictured as the Woman, photograph by Kristen Loken) sounded hearty, always able to cut through the lush orchestration.

This opera is part of director Peter Sellars and Salonen's collaboration  at San Francisco Symphony to put on large-scale works over four years. Sellars reframes this piece as an "Accidental Death in Custody" and begins with a body bag on stage. Two guards come out and Williams signs some papers on a clipboard. This new setting did not always work with the text, as it is very specific, and the opera is more ambiguous, the Woman gradually realizes her lover is dead, which is at odds with a corpse at her feet. The imagery of walking through the forest at night is lost, but the Woman's journey does retain a nightmarish quality, a very contemporary horror.

Maestro Salonen got his ideas across,  the orchestra has a fine clarity and everything felt laden with intent.  The piece can be quite loud, but I could always pick out the fluid soli. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played particularly well, though all the strings were shimmering. The woodwinds sounded lovely, especially the flute. The brass fanfares were clear and in tune.

The one vocal soloist, soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, was utterly focused and very strong. Her voice is well-supported from top to bottom and her high notes are crystalline without being the least bit shrill. She sounded robust no matter how she was positioned, whether she was standing or lying down, it did not seem to matter. Her German diction was clear as were the emotions of the text. It was an intense 33 minutes.

Sfsymphony-mere-oyeThe evening began with Ravel's Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) with choreography from Alonzo King performed by his LINES Ballet. King chose not to literally tell these stories, but there were characters within each of the dances. The dancers (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) were dressed in muted autumnal colors and were a joy to watch, lots of impressive extension, and coordinated movement. I love to hear live music with dancers, especially at this high level, though there were moments when I might have been more focused on the playing than the dancing.

* Tattling *
The dancing kept the audience rapt, they hardly made a peep during the Ravel. The Schoenberg is more challenging, and there was some light talking and looking at cell phones to check the time.

Surprisingly, many people I know attended this performance, as it was not the prima.

I was startled to see that SF Symphony had not performed the Schoenberg before, it's a bit funny to think a Saariaho was here first. I heard this at Seattle Opera where it was presented with Bluebeard's Castle in 2009. When I saw in the program that Mary Elizabeth Williams was in the young artist program at Seattle Opera before I had my first child, I thought I must have heard her before. Sure enough, she was Serena in Porgy and Bess back in 2011, and it was nice to see that I was consistent about really liking her voice. Apparently I found Erwartung "interminable."


SF Opera's Innocence (Again)

IMG_6846* Notes *
Hearing Saariaho's Innocence a second time at San Francisco Opera is most gratifying. The music is richly layered and the orchestra sounds great, as do the singers.

The whole production is at a very high level, it was even more obvious from the orchestra level how perfectly coordinated the staging was, and how quietly everything was placed as the massive set was spinning. I noticed this time around that the set mostly goes clockwise, but did also spin counterclockwise. There definitely were times when things did stop or speed up, and it is truly a feat.

Maestro Clément Mao-Takacs has the orchestra sounding very clear, there is lovely shimmering punctuated with pops of percussion, and I look forward to hearing this up in balcony standing room. Mao-Takacs high-fived all the principal singers when he came to the stage for the ovation (pictured, photograph by author) and he seemed to have a strong rapport with the musicians.

Again I loved hearing soprano Vilma Jää as Markéta , but was able to get a better handle on the other voices this time. Soprano Lucy Shelton (Teacher) almost screams, I felt like her voice was reaching inside of me, it was very disturbing. Soprano Claire de Sévigné (Mother-in-Law) can sound bird-like and crystalline, while soprano Lilian Farahani (Bride) has a touch more warmth and heft to her tone. Soprano Beate Mordal has a certain sweetness as Lilly, one of the students who survives, and soprano Marina Dumont was sympathetic as Alexia, another surviving student.

Julie Hega is menacing as Iris, the shooter's friend, her slow, deliberateness and deep voice are striking. It is also clear that the character has been abused and is in pain, so again, there is nuance. Tenor Miles Mykkanen has a bright quality to his voice. Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose sang the role of Tereza, the Waitress, with a lot of passion, conveying the text with clarity in both her voice and her acting.

* Tattling *
There were some inappropriate giggles when Tereza confronts Patricia, the Mother-in-Law. Perhaps the person in question was just uncomfortable witnessing these mothers and their pain.

I did see the fog this time, it is right near the end and was to far upstage for me to see from Box B.

The original language supertitles to the sides of the stage did not appear during the June 7 performance, which was too bad, as I had found them very helpful to understand what language the opera was being sung in at any given moment.


The Magic Flute at SF Opera (Again)

Sfopera-rtg-2024* Notes * 
I attended San Francisco Opera's Die Zauberflöte with my family last Sunday, our first with all four of us. It was also my seven-year-old's (pictured left, photograph by author) first time to the War Memorial Opera House. Again, my favorite part was hearing Eun Sun Kim conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

It was very fun to be able to see the musicians in the orchestra pit, especially the fortepiano. We could not see all of the stage from where we were, but since most of staging was visible, it seemed easy enough to fill in what was going on, since all of us know this opera fairly well.

I was definitely a bit nervous about bringing my young children to the opera, and hopefully the younger one was not too annoying to the other two patrons with whom we shared Box Z. My daughter runs hot and was wearing two dresses, leggings, and a fake fur stole, so did overheat at one point.

Both children have familiarity with silent film, especially Buster Keaton, so they did get a lot of the jokes. They seemed charmed by the various animals projected on the stage. The black cat that befriends Papageno was a favorite, but they also liked the owls and cuttlefish.

Papageno may have missed a cue and his legs were facing the wrong direction from his body at the end of Act I.

The singing was more confident this time around,  Tenor Amitai Pati (Tamino) continued to sing well, though his voice is a bit light, as is soprano Anna Simińska (Queen of the Night).

* Tattling * 
My ten-year-old was his usual quiet self at the performance, this is the second time he's been to this particular opera. I think it's easier for him to pay attention when he's wearing his glasses, since that means he can actually read the supertitles. His sister did fairly well, and I'm glad I waited to bring her to San Francisco Opera now that she can read, since it is harder for her to sit still. When I told her if she didn't behave I wouldn't bring her again for a long time, she asked how long, and I responded with "20 years."


SF Opera's Innocence

Innocence2-sfopera-2024* Notes *
Kaija Saariaho's Innocence had a U.S. premiere last night at San Francisco Opera, almost exactly a year after her death. The performance was gripping, the music, narrative, and staging all had a relentless intensity.

As with Adriana Mater, the opera from Saariaho performed by San Francisco Symphony the previous June, Innocence deals with a very difficult topic. Sofi Okansen's original Finnish libretto, which was made into the nine-language final version by Aleksi Barriere, deals with a school shooting and its aftermath a decade later. The way the story unwinds, starting at a wedding reception in Helsinki and gradually taking us into the international school where the shooting takes place is very effective. The story is nuanced, there are many characters, but we are able to understand that nothing is black and white, nothing is simple.

The enormous set has two levels (pictured, photographs by Cory Weaver) and is basically looks like a modernist building. It revolves the entire 108 minutes of the opera, which has no intermission, and the scenes are changed when rooms are out of view. The crew members did an incredible job, and having rooms change from a reception hall into a classroom, which seemed to happen undetectably, pulled the audience into the world of this opera. 

Innocence1-sfopera-2024Saariaho's music is, however, the beating heart of this piece. The eerie textures of the orchestra had much color and shape under the baton of Maestro Clément Mao-Takacs. There wasn't a moment when my attention flagged, the intensity of focus from the orchestra pit was palpable. There were particularly beautiful soli from the bassoon, oboe, and harp. The brass and strings all sounded clear and clean.

The singers had microphones, which is characteristic of Sariaaho's work. This piece has a lot of speech singing (Sprechgesang) and the amplification made for good intelligibility, I could definitely understand the English, German, and Spanish without looking at the supertitles, which were provided in English above and in whichever language the words were in, which was so helpful. I really appreciated seeing the text, so that at a glance I could tell what language we were hearing.

There are a lot of principal singers for this opera, 21 in total. Soprano Vilma Jää was a standout, her portrayal of Student #1 (Markéta) was otherworldly. Her vocal technique comes from Finnish folk music, and her part was written for her. While it wasn't what one normally hears at the opera, it felt very much in place for this performance. Soprano Lucy Shelton as the Teacher was also very strong, she very much appeared to be a shattered person, it was clear in her singing. 

Baritone Rod Gilfry sang the Father-in-Law with warmth and subtlety, while soprano Claire de Sévigné gave an icy, almost frightening contrast as the Mother-in-Law. Tenor Miles Mykkanen has a pretty sound as the Bridegroom, but was able to effortlessly convey the different emotions of the opera. Soprano Lilian Farahani was a fine counterpoint as the Bride, her character is not in the community when the school shooting happened. She is perhaps easiest to identify with in the story, as what happens is unfolding to her as well. Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (Waitress) is the most devastating though, her pain felt very real to me, and her rich, powerful voice showed the anguish of losing a child.

* Tattling *
There were light whispers in Box A, but Box B (which included librettist Okansen, who had to scurry out to take her ovation) was exceedingly quiet. I did not hear or see anyone's cellular phone.

The advisory for this opera warned us of "FOG" in large letters, but of the gun violence in much smaller type below. I did not even detect this fog, but perhaps I was too fixated on other aspects of the performance. Cake is thrown out of anger and frustration, for example, which I really was not expecting.


The Magic Flute at SF Opera

_75A0387* Notes * 
Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade's delightful and clever production of Die Zauberflöte (end of Act I Scene 3 pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) opened at San Francisco Opera last night. Eun Sun Kim conducted a beautifully transparent performance with much lovely singing.

This 2012 production originates from Komische Oper Berlin and stages the opera in the silent film era. All the spoken text is cut, instead there are intertitles with Mozart's Fantasia in D minor K. 397 and Fantasia in C minor K. 475 played on fortepiano as accompaniment.

The stage is basically a large white surface with six revolving doors, all but one are situated high up, with little ledges for the singers to stand on. There are many animations to propel the story forward, all the scene changes are instantaneous. It was startling how many animation cues there were, some 729, all done by a dedicated stage manager, and they all appeared to go perfectly smoothly. The draw back of this elaborate scheme is that the singers have to be extremely exact in their positions and movements, and are hemmed in by the stage, often standing in a confined space for quite a long time as the projections move around them. But it certainly was an immersive experience, so much was happening and it was difficult to resist being drawn in to all the many sight gags and entertaining theatrical jokes and references.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim had the orchestra sounding completely transparent, I felt like I could hear every musical line and even feel where certain instruments were doubled. It was very nice to hear Mozart played with so much clarity. The soloists all did well, Julie McKenzie (flute), Stephanie McNab (pan flute), and Bryndon Hassman (glockenspiel) all played cleanly.

The chorus sounded strong, even if they were often hidden in two triple=tiered towers on either side of the projecting surface, we could always hear them.

The three boy sopranos Niko Min, Solah Malik and Jacob Rainow are suitably eerie as the the three spirits. Soprano Arianna Rodriguez is adorable as Papagena. The three ladies, sung by soprano Olivia Smith and mezzo-sopranos Ashley Dixon and Maire Therese Carmack, started off a bit hesitant but were fine by the end. Their scene mooning over Tamino was very much played for laughs. Tenor Zhengyi Bai's Monostatos was dressed as Count Orlok from Nosferatu, which was also very funny.

_75A7111Bass Kwangchul Youn is a solid and powerful Sarastro, while soprano Anna Simińska was a more delicate and ethereal Queen of the Night. She hit all her notes, sounding very fluttery and birdlike. Bass-baritone Lauri Vasar has a darker timbre than any Papageno I've ever heard, he has a breathiness to his sound as well, and a winsome manner. His duet with Christina Gansch (Pamina) in Act I, Scene 2 (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) sounded great. Gansch has a robust, well-rounded sound but also a certain brilliance. Tenor Amitai Pati has a very pretty voice, and his Tamino is sweet.

* Tattling * 
There were some lozenges loudly unwrapped toward the beginning of the performance, but not a lot of electronic noise. The audience did seem very engaged and reacted to the misogyny of the text. I also was bothered by the light of someone's phone in Row Q, in the center section, right on the aisle.

There were also a few pen clicks from the journalist behind me, who was clearly taking notes for a review. This person was asked to give an opinion of the opera at intermission by an audience member, which seemed quite inappropriate. I understand the audience member was just curious but it seems unkind to interrupt someone at work.


Pocket Opera's Cunning Little Vixen

Cunning-little-vixen-2024* Notes *
In April Pocket Opera did a charming run of Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) and I managed to catch the last performance at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco last weekend. It was the premiere of this translation from Pocket Opera's late founder Donald Pippin.

Janacek's opera was done in a new chamber version by the tiny orchestra that was seated on the stage behind singers. Maestro Jonathan Khuner had the musicians going at a fast clip, but the vivid music came through well and has stuck in my head for several days now.

Stage director Nicolas A. Garcia's production is very sweet and moves easily through the many scenes. The choreography, by Lissa Resnick, employs two talented dancers that portray a pair of insects and the human couple of Terenka and the Forester. I appreciated their movement through the lush instrumental interludes. The costumes were very cute, for the most part they suggested which animal they were to represent without being completely literal. The vixen wears a stylish sweatsuit in orange plus ears and a tail and the chickens have fifties dresses in black and white with red headbands and shoes (pictured), and it's just enough to feel intentional and cool rather than simply being on a shoestring budget.

The singing was all very strong. Contralto Sara Couden sounded great as both the Badger and the Parson, her rich voice is surprisingly well suited to these roles. The contrast of her with the tenor Erich Buchholz as the Mosquito and the Schoolmaster was very pleasing, they can hit the same notes and they sound totally different. Bass-baritone Robert Stafford did fine as Harašta the Poacher, as did mezzo-soprano Hope Nelson as GoldStripe the Fox, who was appealing and incisive.

Baritone Spencer Dodd also sounded plaintive as the Forester, a nice reedy sound. Best of all was soprano Amy Foote in the title role, her icy flexible sound and physical embodiment of SharpEars the Vixen was heartrending.

* Tattling * 
There was a lot of back and forth with one of the ushers as people were being seated during the beginning of Act I Scene 1, it was loud and hard to ignore. There was also one watch alarm at 4pm.

It's been about twenty years since I first heard this piece done at San Francisco Opera, and almost eight since I heard it at West Edge Opera in Oakland (also with Amy Foote, incidentally). It's embarrassing to remember how much I disliked it the first time, but I'm glad I've been able to come to appreciate Janáček so much more.


Opera San José's Florencia en el Amazonas

Opera-San-Jose_Florencia-en-el-Amazonas-8_Photo-Credit_David-Allen_edit-scaled * Notes *
Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas (Act II pictured, photograph by David Allen) had a long overdue Bay Area premiere at Opera San José last weekend. The attractive new production features lots of strong singing.

The music is reminiscent of Puccini, lots of shimmery swells of sound. The orchestra sounded robust under Maestro Joseph Marcheso. Likewise the singing was very powerful.

Bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian (Captain) has impressive low notes that resonate well. Baritone Ricardo José Rivera has a loud, booming voice, and he was suitably fey as Riolobo. Baritone Efraín Solís sounded very distinct from Rivera, his part as Alvaro is much more of this world, and his warm, textured sound was charming. He sang well with mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz, I like her part of Paula, as there are an interesting range of feelings that are explored with this role.

Tenor César Delgado and soprano Aléxa Anderson are convincing as young lovers Arcadio and Rosalba. Delgado is plaintive and Anderson is bright. Soprano Elizabeth Caballero did a fine job with the title role of Florencia Grimaldi. She has a dramatic flair to her sound, her final aria "Escúchame" was effective.

The set, designed by Liliana Duque-Piñeiro, has two pieces of scenery that suggest the river boat, basically some stairs with a deck and a paddlewheel. There are also a bunch of large cutout pieces hanging from the ceiling that are leaves and vines of the jungle, it is pretty, and the lighting pulls everything together. It wasn't always clear when the characters were on the boat or not, or when they were traveling on the river. Director Crystal Manich has the singers push the pieces of the set around to change the scenes, which went smoothly. I liked the butterfly imagery that was employed throughout the opera, there was a puppet, winged costumes, and blue butterfly confetti.

* Tattling * 
The audience silent for the most part, I only noted a light crinkling of paper from the center of the orchestra level during Act II, but it was only for about a minute.


Opera Parallèle's Birds and Balls

4.4.24-2105 Vinkensport Ensemble Credit Kristen Loken* Notes *
Opera Parallèle gave a splendid performance of two comedic one-act operas yesterday at SFJAZZ. Done in one go, the evening began with David T. Little's Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken), which was followed by Laura Karpman's Balls. It was impressive how cohesively these works were presented together, both visually and musically.

Director Brian Staufenbiel put us in a 70s telecast of these two very disparate sporting events, with Mark Hernandez as sports announcer Howard Cosell engaging the audience and even the conductor. There were projections surrounding us, and the live-image capture was especially effective. As always, Maestra Nicole Paiement deftly held the orchestra and singers together. It was fun to hear her conduct a bit of Verdi's Triumpal March from Aida in Balls, when Billie Jean King enters. At one point in this opera nearly all the musicians stopped playing their instruments and clapped beats with their hands, they were all very much synchronized, Paiement keeps everything very precise.

Vinkensport is about Flemish folk sport of Finch-Sitting, in which trained finches try to sing the most "susk-e-wiets" in an hour as possible. In this opera there are six competitors, all the finches have very amusing names. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin gave a very vulnerable and human performance as Holy St. Francis's Trainer, she's had quite a lot going on in her personal life, while soprano Chelsea Hollow's character of who trains Farinelli is actually just using a tape recorder, since her bird is deceased. Hollow's voice is crystalline and very beautiful. Soprano Shawnette Sulker as Sir Elton John’s Trainer drinks many martinis and is very funny, her bird-like voice seems very apropos. Tenor Nathan Granner is likewise entertaining as Han Sach’s Trainer, his nice light sound is very pretty. Rich-toned bass-baritone Chung-Wai Soong is more somber as Prince Gabriel III of Belgium’s Trainer, we learn he inherited his role as trainer from his father.  Baritone Daniel Cilli as Atticus Finch’s Trainer is also serious, setting his bird free in the end.

4.4.24-3004-Nikola Printz as BJK in Victory with Cast Credit Kristen Loken Balls (pictured, photograph by Kristen Loken) tells the story of "The Battle of the Sexes" tennis game between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 with a surrealist bent, Susan B. Anthony is a character, and at one point Billie Jean King dons a tricorn hat.

Many of the singers in the first opera were also in the second, but Balls has the jazz singer Tiffany Austin as King's secretary, Marilyn. Austin has a lovely voice that stood out. Tenor Nathan Granner is again very humorous as Bobby Riggs. Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz was compelling as Billie Jean King, their sound is resonant and powerful.

* Tattling *
The audience was mostly quiet, but as Billie Jean King sang about the pressure of tennis, someone dropped some plastic cups in the Left Terrace, Row TJ.


The Magic Flute at Livermore Valley Opera

MF rehearsal 3* Notes *
Livermore Valley Opera's The Magic Flute (Act I pictured with Liisa Davila, Megan Potter, Leandra Ramm, Victor Cardamone, and Alex DeSocio) opened last night with a delightful and well-characterized cast of singers. 

The English-language production, directed by Yefim Maizel, is straightforward and the set is simple, a platform with three stairs and a background with video projections. There were also a pair of doors that came in to change the space. The backdrops that represented the outdoors looked more fairytale-inspired, while the interiors had more of a video game from the early nineties feel. The costumes were often draped and Grecian though Tamino and the Queen of the Night looked more like they were from Mozart's time.

Alexander Katsman held the small orchestra together, though there certainly were times when the flute and horns were exposed and not in tune. The main attraction of the evening was certainly the singing. Bankhead Theater is an intimate space and everyone was very audible, especially given how small the orchestra was.

Bass Kirk Eichelberger was convincing as Sarastro, the acoustics were very good for his low notes and it was impressive hearing the depths of his voice. Baritone Alex DeSocio is an adorable Papageno, his sound is very resonant and pleasing. He was funny and sprightly.

MF photo 6Soprano Shawnette Sulker's chirping, bright sound was almost too pretty for the Queen of the Night (pictured in Act II with Phoebe Chee) she just bordered on shrill on the run up to the hardest passages of both her big arias, but seemed to effortlessly and beautifully hit the high notes. Soprano Phoebe Chee is a robust and dramatic Pamina, well-supported and clear. I'd really like to hear her as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, which Liveremore Valley Opera is doing next season. Tenor Victor Cardamone makes for a very fine Prince Tamino, such a lovely, powerful sound, with such ease.

*Tattling *
The audience was focused and pretty quiet. I did hear some electronic noise when Papageno's pan pipes responded to Tamino's flute call.

I was a bit flustered upon my arrival to the theater as I had been running late all day, and didn't manage to put my leftover tiramisu in my purse before entering. One of the theater staff rightly took it from me, but I wasn't able to discern where I was to pick it up after the performance, and abandoned the cake as it was rather late and raining a lot.


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

_74A8128 * Notes * 
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.