Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer

MS Achille Lauro was a cruise ship based in Naples, Italy, that was hijacked by four members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985.  Apparently there were specific intentions for this hijacking involving sailing to Israel and killing Israelis.  This proved impossible.  So instead they shot a disabled Jewish-American passenger named Leon Klinghoffer and threw his body into the sea.

Then John Adams and his librettist for Nixon in China, Alice Goodman, decided to do an opera on the subject.  It premiered in Brussels in 1991 and then played at the San Francisco Opera in 1992.  I attended one of these performances.  According to Wikipedia, "The concept of the opera originated with theatre director Peter Sellars, who was a major collaborator, as was the choreographer Mark Morris."  That's Peter Sellars of Don Giovanni as a drug addict and Doctor Atomic as a bomb hanging in the air.  I never get him.

Why write an opera about such a disgusting subject?  I generally feel that the fact that Palestinians don't receive more sympathy stems from the fact that they have absolutely no sense of PR.  We aren't going to feel sympathy for people who kill crippled old people and throw them into the sea.  Elevating a disgusting act to a performance subject just makes the perpetrators seem all the more disgusting, no matter how hard the creators of this work try to make it seem even handed. Perhaps they are trying to create PR where it has so obviously failed.

I can understand that the Klinghoffer family might not wish their father's death to turn into this ridiculous media circus, but never at any time did this opera make me feel sympathetic toward his killers.  If I go to an opera about the most disgusting public act of my lifetime, I would like for that opera to attempt to engender the nausea I naturally feel about it.  It didn't.  So my question is, if it completely fails in its attempt at even handedness, is it still antisemitic?  When I was watching it, I didn't feel this antisemitism.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Man Ray

Most of my comments about the photographer Man Ray were from friends.  We have samples.

Here's a picture of Lee Miller in the bathtub with a photo of Hitler.

I knew about him only in relationship to Gertrude Stein whom he photographed on many occasions.

This is Gertrude posing for Jo Davidson in a photo by Man Ray.


These are Gertrude and Basket.

Can you get a famous photographer to photograph your dog?

And here is Gertrude with her portrait by Picasso.

Un Ballo in Maschera



Amelia:  Julianna Di Giacomo *
Oscar:  Heidi Stober
Gustavus III (Riccardo):  Ramón Vargas
Count Anckarström (Renato):  Thomas Hampson
Madame Arvidson (Ulrica):  Dolora Zajick

Conductor:  Nicola Luisotti
Director:  Jose Maria Condemi

If you go all the way back to 1982, Un Ballo in Maschera at the San Francisco Opera starred Lucciano Pavarotti and Monserrat Caballe, but that was during the reign of Kurt Herbert Adler who ran the opera as though it were the greatest institution on earth.  Our cast wasn't quite that distinguished, but it was still excellent.  Dolora Zajick is still the greatest Ulrica. 

I was very impressed with the Amelia Julianna Di Giacomo who had plenty of Verdi voice and Verdi style.

I have been puzzling over the credits listed on the programs.  If you look through the production photos from 1982 to 2014, you will see that the look of the scenery and costumes changes, but never do any of these changing productions, all traditional, claim to be a new production.  Who decides the credits and why has become something of an obsession to me.

The conducting was exemplary. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014


My background was in both music and theater.  I have never felt the desire to choose between them.  My first great operatic love was the Marschalin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who was fully an actress and a musician.

I feel very strongly that opera is becoming a theatrical medium.  This is validated for me by this wonderful week in opera.

First Anna Netrebko invigorates a bizarre production of Macbeth by sheer force of will.  No one acts with such overwhelming energy, both in her voice and in her body.  Perhaps it is she who defines this new theatricality.  This opera is moved in time. 

Then on Wednesday comes the astounding Handel comedy Partenope which is not merely moved to the 1920s but is also transformed into an homage to the great art period of Paris.  The strongest influencing artist would seem to be the photographer Man Ray, someone we see not nearly enough of.  I understand that the giant photo mural in the last act is by Man Ray, though I could not find a copy of it on line. 

And now today is a new production of Le Nozze di Figaro where the producer is first and foremost a great theatrical director.  It is also moved to the twentieth century with Spanish style mixed with modernism.  For the first time I see Susannah in what to our eyes is a wedding dress.  At last a real wedding.  When she changes costumes with Susannah, the countess wears the wedding dress and reveals herself to her husband by raising her veil.

It is only suitable that Isabel Leonard, the most real of all Cherubino actresses, would grace this production.  Richard Eyre also brought us last season's Werther and the great Carmen with Garanca and Alagna.

Opera is becoming a theatrical genre.  It is all very well to complain about the productions where everything is moved to modern times, but these are the people who produce opera today.  If not them, then who?

The opera for this week is the opera of the future.

P.S.  I am biased toward acting, something seen only occasionally in the past.  Scenery and costumes are less interesting to me.

Figaro #75

Conductor:  James Levine
Production:  Sir Richard Eyre
Host:  Renée Fleming

Figaro:  Ildar Abdrazakov
Susanna:  Marlis Petersen
Doctor Bartolo:  John Del Carlo
Marcellina:  Susanne Mentzer
Cherubino:  Isabel Leonard
Count Almaviva:  Peter Mattei
Don Basilio:  Greg Fedderly
Countess Almaviva:  Amanda Majeski
Antonio:  Philip Cokorinos
Barbarina:  Ying Fang

Today was James Levine's 75th time conducting Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met.  There aren't enough superlatives to describe this.

This was also the best staged Figaro I've seen.  The countess stays in her disguise until the end, and for me this works much better than when she changes back into the countess before surprising her husband.

Thank the opera gods for allowing Isabel Leonard to get over her cold so we could see her marvelous Cherubino.  How many mezzos can do pushups?  She was the best Cherubino I've seen.  They have her take a leak on the stage.  Hmmm. 

Here is a surprise for me:  both Isabel Leonard and Amanda Majeski were in Griselda in Santa Fe.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Think of her as one of a pair of twin girls:  PeNELope and ParTENope.  Penelope, Partenope, Penelope,  Partenope.  You'll be close enough to how to pronounce it.

We are referring, of course, to the Handel opera Partenope now playing at the San Francisco Opera.  Get up from your couch and get down to see this.

David Daniels selfie


Partenope:  Danielle de Niese
Rosmira:  Daniela Mack
Arsace:  David Daniels
Emilio:  Alek Shrader
Armindo:  Anthony Roth Costanzo *
Ormonte:  Philippe Sly

Conductor:  Julian Wachner * 
Director:  Christopher Alden
Dramaturg:  Peter Littlefield

I was ready for this because I read this tweet from David Daniels:

Opening Night of PARTENOPE  #Cards #Bourbon #cigarettes #gasMasks & #HANDEL TOYZ!

It has all this and tap dancing, toilet paper, bare chested man not baritone and a gorgeous homage to art deco.  Favorite joke:  Sound of a toilet flushing followed by Arsace saying "I hear her."  It all kind of went like that.

The production is a constant flow of references to the artists of Paris in the twenties.  There is a film by Man Ray, gas masks a la photographer Lee Miller, Ezra Pound, etc.

Lee Miller photograph

The plot can be briefly summarized.  Partenope has three male suitors:  Arsace, Armindo and Emilio.  At the start of the opera she prefers Arsace and has completely rejected Emilio.  She is ambiguous toward Armindo.  Rosmira arrives disguised as a man who wishes to kill Arsace.  At the end Arsace has returned to Rosmira and Partenope has turned to Armindo.  Ormonte is a servant?  As Baroque plots go, it is quite sweet and uncomplicated.

This is the first time in all my years at the San Francisco Opera when I have seen a Dramaturg listed in the program.  A dramaturg is someone who conducts historical research and places the action within the historical period.  You see this in European opera companies quite a lot.  So why would you need a dramaturg for Partenope?

They have moved the action from 1730 to 1930 Paris.  Or perhaps, since Partenope is an historical figure, from 300 b.c. to 1930 Paris and the great art movements between the wars.  So Partenope may or may not be the photographer Lee Miller, Arsace may or may not be the writer Ezra Pound and Emilio is definitely the photographer Man Ray.  Or Maybe Arsace is Tristan Tzara, also a writer.  I'm sure there were more historical references I didn't pick up on.  Perhaps the dramaturg is for making any sense at all of the historical environment of 1920's Paris.

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.  The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo entertained us with beautiful singing, astounding acrobatics on the staircase, a scene where he bares his chest for Partenope and tap dancing.  AND he gets the girl.

Alex Shrader photographs people, develops the pictures and hangs them on the wall, all while entertaining us with some spectacular singing.  One aria is sung while....  I'm giving too much away.

Danielle de Niese gets four wonderful costumes, including a tuxedo, to display gracefully while she sings her arias.


In case you were wondering why Partenope wore a tuxedo in Act II, this is from the movie Morocco 1930 where Marlene Dietrich wears one in her night club act.

The sweetest arias were for Arsace, sung beautifully by David Daniels.  I can't exactly explain the effect this had on me which consisted of smiles and contentment.

In spite of all the smoking I didn't smell any tobacco smoke in case you are worrying about that.

Oh, and I forgot shadow puppets.

André Breton - Man Ray

At last!  This is a portrait of Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, by Man Ray.  Yeah!!  Alex Shrader wears something that looks like this in Act I.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Lately I have been pre-ordering from iTunes who send out emails when your order is ready to download.  In the middle of the night I was notified that St. Petersburg had arrived.  (So of course I leaped out of bed....)  So far "Pastore che a notte ombrosa" from Seleuco by Francesco Araia is my favorite with its wonderful sinuousness.

This recording has made me wish to ask about the available singers in Russia at that time.  Were they Italians?  Castrati?  Russian?  What? 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Scottish Opera

CONDUCTOR: Fabio Luisi
PRODUCTION: Adrian Noble
LIVE IN HD HOST: Anita Rachvelishvili

MACBETH: Željko Lučić
BANQUO: René Pape
LADY MACBETH: Anna Netrebko

This is the same opera and the same production that we saw in 2008.  So why doesn't it feel like it?  Because it is about 100 times sexier.  For me Netrebko simply transformed the production.

There are at least two other Scottish operas besides Macbeth, the name you are not supposed to say aloud:  Lucia di Lammermoor and Handel's Ariodante.  There wasn't anything particularly Scottish in this production.  Perhaps the landscape might resemble a wooded part of Scotland.  It bothered me that there were no branches illustrating the movement of Birnam Wood.  In fact there didn't seem to be much relationship between the play and the set.

So much of this performance has been written about already that there is little I could add.  Anna was stunning, truly shocking.  There were lots of chairs.  I've never seen women carry their purses the way the witches did.  If there's a strap, don't they just hang it over their arm?  Perhaps they carried them like that so that they would be easy to open and let the lights shine out.  The witches had lights inside their purses.

There was only one thing I would criticize about Anna's performance--she is intensely self-confident for long stretches of the play and then is suddenly having nightmares about the blood on her hands.  Could we have seen this coming just a little?  Perhaps I am being nit picky.

Lučić was excellent, better than his Rigoletto.  There is a roughness to his voice that doesn't go with Rigoletto for me but was ideal for Macbeth. The entire cast was excellent, especially Rene Pape.

I was struck by how huge both the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are.  Luisi called the opera short, but we were out after 3 1/2 hours.  Except for the chorus, all the other roles are insignificant.  This is part of why the opera is so difficult.

I was pleased that Netrebko did not try to push into her chest voice.  In the really quite mad intermission interview she said that she would give herself 2 years on Lady Macbeth and then let her go.  I am hoping this is true.  There will probably be a DVD.

No one generates the sheer excitement and intensity that Anna Netrebko can.  She is the singer for our time.

Thursday, October 09, 2014


I had a small comment in passing:  what is the difference between opera today and opera 50 years ago?  It seems to me the main change is that opera doesn't have the same penetration into the general culture that it had before.  Renee Fleming appears on David Letterman and at the Superbowl, but that's about it.  Thank you, Renee.  Comedy / variety shows where Beverly Sills guested no longer exist.  Do we need an opera singer on Big Brother?  Certainly the other guests wouldn't recognize them.

Just thinking.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Met Futures

While we are discussing futures, here is some stuff from the Met.  Here is a list of new productions for 2015-16:

Strauss' Elektra
Production: Patrice Chéreau
Elektra: Nina Stemme [2]
Klytemnestra: Waltraud Meier [3]
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka

Berg's Lulu
Conductor: James Levine
Production: William Kentridge
Lulu: Marlis Petersen (same as Munich this season)
Geschwitz:  Susan Graham
Alwa:  Daniel Brenna
Dr. Schon / Jack the Ripper:  Johan Reuter
Animal Trainer / Athlete:  Martin Winkler

Puccini's Manon Lescaut 
Production: Sir Richard Eyre
Manon: Kristine Opolais
Des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann

Verdi's Otello
Production: Bart Sher
Conductor: Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko
Desdemona: Hibla Gerzmava / Sonya Yoncheva / Angela Meade (?)
Iago: Zeljko Lucic / Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles [The Pearl Fishers] 
Production: Penny Woolcock
Nadir: Vittorio Grigolo / Matthew Polenzani (?)
[alternate source lists Mariusz Kwiecień as Zurga.]

Donizetti's Roberto Devereux
Production: David McVicar (?)
Elisabetta: Sondra Radvanovsky/Angela Meade
Roberto Devereux: Matthew Polenzani
Nottingham:   Mariusz Kwiecień [alternate source]

It is important to note that while the Met has never produced Donizetti's Roberto Devereux before, San Francisco mounted it in 1979 with Caballe and Pons.

All of these would make excellent entries for the HD simulcast list.  

Noteworthy from the remaining items are:

Sondra Radvanovsky is everywhere:  Anna Bolena in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda in Maria Stuarda, and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.  This is intended as a genuine tour de force:  Sondra Radvanovsky will perform all three of the three queens in a single season.  As I recall, even Beverly Sills didn't try this.  Will they simulcast all three of them?  I notice they are now live streaming, so perhaps I will try for that.  Forgive me for being a bit slow to pick up on this.

The return of Angela Gheorghiu, who will appear as Norina in Don Pasquale with Ambrosio Maestri, and as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra.  She is no longer associated with Roberto Alagna, and is deemed to be trustworthy now.  Welcome back, Angela.

The return of Maria Ghuleghina in Tosca with Bryn Terfel.  I am a fan.

Christine Goerke is cast as Turandot with Leah Crocetto as Liu.

In fact, the only thing even a little unusual about this season is the presence of four operas by Donizetti, and none of them is Lucia di Lammermoor.  When did that ever happen?

Post Script

Even more interesting are a few items from 2016-17:

Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin
Production: Robert Lepage
Conductor: Susanna Malkki
Jaufré Rudel: Eric Owens

Well, Met, It's about time. I'm hoping it's this one.

R. Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier
This will be a new production and Elina Garanca will sing Octavian.  I'm hoping this means she has taken my words about Octavian requiring a mature voice to heart.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
Production: Willy Decker
Conductor: Simon Rattle
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Tristan:  Stuart Skelton / Gary Lehman
This is also a new production, and it's about time.  We never liked the old one.  Note Stuart Skelton will sing Tristan.

Catalani's La Wally
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Giuseppe Hagenbach: Jonas Kaufmann
Wally: Angela Gheorghiu
I've actually never seen this opera.  Twitter gossip says the tenor role is not very significant.