It is really nice to see SF Opera put a woman of color into a leadership position, after creating a Department of Diversity, Equity and Community last summer and the various attempts at "diverse" operas such as Girls of the Golden West and Dream of the Red Chamber. Kim is from Seoul and studied composition and conducting there as well as in Stuttgart.
San Francisco Opera
* 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.
* 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.
* 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.
All 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.
* 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.
Tenor 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.
The incoming 2020 Adler Fellows are sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine, and Esther Tonea; tenor Victor Starsky; baritone Timothy Murray; bass Stefan Egerstrom; and apprentice coach Andrew King. They join current Adlers mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh; tenors Zhengyi Bai, Christopher Colmenero, Christopher Oglesby; and pianist Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad. The outgoing 2019 Adler Fellows are sopranos Mary Evelyn Hangley and Natalie Image; mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon; countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen; baritone SeokJong Baek, bass-baritone Christian Pursell; and pianist César Cañón.
* 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.
Maestro 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.
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.
Bass-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.
* 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.
Soprano 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.
Tenor Pene Pati (pictured), originally scheduled to sing Roméo in the October 1 Roméo et Juliette at San Francisco Opera, will now sing all the performances starting with opening night this Friday. He replaces Bryan Hymel, who has withdrawn for personal reasons.
The world-renowned singer is the head of Los Angeles Opera, which has engaged outside counsel to investigate these claims.
* Notes *
The hit of the summer at San Francisco Opera is Rusalka (Act II pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), which opened a week ago on Father's Day. Right out the gate, the orchestra sounds utterly lush, the set is mysteriously beautiful, the costumes elaborate, and best of all, the singing is fantastic all around.
David McVicar's production is all you could want, a dark fairy tale come to life. The set has visual impact, but the scenes switch seamlessly, there are no pauses. My only quibble was that some of the set changes are slightly loud. The choreography from Andrew George is nicely integrated with the opera, working equally well on the singers and dancers.
Maestra Eun Sun Kim conducted an energetic orchestra. The brass is quite clear. The harp certainly gets a work out and sounded absolutely lovely. The piece is rather sweeping and Wagnerian, but the singers were never drowned out by the orchestration.
It was difficult for me not to compare this opera with Pelléas et Mélisande, as they are from the same time period and both deal with enigmatic women found near water. As much as I love Debussy's work, many of the characters in Rusalka are rather more human, showing a range of emotions.
The powerhouse cast is splendid and has a lot of volume. The wood nymphs, soprano Natalie Image, mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon were charming. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is a delightfully grotesque Jezibaba. Her low notes ring out as clearly as her upper range.
As water goblin Vodnik, Kristinn Sigmundsson shows emotional scope often absent from the performance of a bass, all those dads just sound authoritative. Sigmundsson can, to be sure, sound angry, but has a more mournful side too. His singing in Act II was particularly plaintive. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a beautifully nuanced performance as the Prince. He went from in love to deceitful to desperate, and showed all manner of colors and shades in his voice.
Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen (pictured in Act I, photograph by Cory Weaver) made me question how this part could have suited Renée Fleming so well, the singers are just so different. Willis-Sørensen is not delicate, she has a dark power and a lot of volume. Her voice can be brilliantly ethereal. Her "Song to the Moon" is gorgeous, her anguish in Act II so palpable, and her deep empathy in Act III heartbreaking.
* Tattling *
After yet another weekend of coughing fits, wheezing, and lethargy that caused me to miss the opening of Rusalka, it turns out I have bronchitis. It felt amazing to be at the opera this past Saturday night without having to choke back coughs, since I am now on the appropriate medications after seeing the doctor last Monday morning.
Standing room back in the balcony was much more crowded than usual. There was some light humming and watch alarms. Especially annoying was a mobile phone ringing when Willis-Sørensen sings toward the start of Act III.
* Notes *
It is a joy to hear Händel's beautiful music live in San Francisco Opera's latest production (pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver) of Orlando, which opened this afternoon. Set in the early autumn of 1940, in a hospital in West London, the staging turns out to be fairly dull though the singing is all very lovely.
The set is based on a real hospital from 1933, and has green floors and basically three different configurations. Mostly they simply turn the stage around. The scenes move quickly but don't have much visual impact, people aimlessly wander through. There are projections, but all are rather literal. We see a diamond ring and Angelica's eyes many times. For the most part it was tame, but I was outright annoyed by the bombing that took place at the end of Act II during Orlando's music. It didn't add anything to the drama and only got in the way of experiencing the opera.
Maestro Christopher Moulds seemed very relaxed in conducting the orchestra, it was all very pretty but perhaps could have used a bit more sharpness and precision. The singing too was attractive on all sides. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has some glorious high notes, very warm and legato. Some of her lower range was swallowed up by the orchestration, but she sounded great in her Act III aria "Gia l'ebro mia ciglio."
Both sopranos, Christina Gansch as Dorinda and Heidi Stober as Angelica, are splendid. Gansch has a tawny brightness while Stober is more icy. The contrast works well. Gansch's Act III aria about love ("Amore è qual vento") was particularly charming.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a powerful Zoroastro, while countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is a tender Medoro. Nussbaum Cohen has a brilliant, strong, and smooth voice, one can hardly believe he is only twenty-five. His trio with the sopranos at the end of Act I ("Consolati o bella") was memorable as was his Act III aria "Vorrei poterti amar."
* Tattling *
I am just getting over a bad cough, and took something to suppress it just so I could make it through the opera along with six lozenges and some hot mint tea. While I managed to get through the three hours and twenty minutes without a coughing fit, I did notice a lot of unwrapping of drops and not a small amount of outright coughing.
I really enjoyed the standee to my right, he was adamant about shushing a man in front of us who was rifling through a bag during the overture, and he asked the usher and a latecomer to "please stop talking." He also tattled on a woman in front of him who was resting her bare feet on one of the chairs. I wish I had the wherewithal these days to confront people about their bad behavior, but sadly simply can't muster the energy for it!
* Notes *
"Enjoy your hundredth Carmen!" teased my husband as I left for the opening of the latest production of this opera at San Francisco Opera last night. Quite an exaggeration, at best I've seen this opera twenty-five times, though I have seen this staging by Francesca Zambello way back in 2007 at Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London.
As it turns out, the performance was enjoyable. The playing was lovely, there was lots of good singing, and the production is attractive and sleek. I very much remembered the warm orange-reds of the stage and the orange tree in the middle of the stage in Act I. The set is efficient, there's no dead time in-between acts, and the performance clocks in under three hours since is only one intermission and cuts to the dialogue.
I always like Zambello's humanistic details, as with Captain Zuniga's struggle to get free when he is bound at the end of Act II and the possible observers to Carmen's tragic end up at the top of the arena. It was clear she was able to engage the audience.
Maestro James Gaffigan conducted a sprightly orchestra. The overture had a fine transparency. There were brief unfocused moments, as when the children's chorus entered or in the smugglers quintet in Act II. However, the many soli throughout the piece were all very nice, particularly the clarinet solo at the beginning of the last act.
The cast is youthful and attractive. The Adlers all were great, I especially liked mezzo Ashley Dixon and soprano Natalie Image as Mercédès and Frasquita, they are well matched and charming.
Bridges is remarkably consistent, her voice had only the slightest few catches at first. Otherwise she gave a strong, vital performance. Though her dancing lacks verve, she moves with a lank grace, and her Carmen is robust. Her Don José, tenor Matthew Polenzani, has a depth of emotional range that is palpable in his voice. In his last aria, he moves from imploring to cajoling to demanding, every phrase with a different color with an immediacy that doesn't require knowledge of French to understand.
* Tattling *
This is a great first opera, and I hope the production brings out lots of new people, as it seems to have so far. The only problem with this is there were quite a lot of whispering and phone screens out during the music at yesterday's opening, so you won't see me at Carmen again this summer.
This summer there are changes for all three operas on offer at San Francisco Opera. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (pictured) makes his San Francisco Opera debut as Medoro in Orlando, replacing David Daniels who was fired last November after serious allegations of sexual assault. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson is Vodník in Rusalka instead of Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has decided against adding the role to his repertory. Maestra Michelle Merrill takes the place of James Gaffigan conducting Carmen on June 20, though Gaffigan will be here for the rest of the performances.