Sunday, August 11, 2019

Breaking The Waves at West Edge

Conductor: Jonathan Khuner
Director:   Mark Streshinsky

Sara LeMesh: Bess McNeill (soprano)
Robert Wesley Mason: Jan Nyman (baritone)
Kindra Scharich: Dodo McNeill (mezzo-soprano)
Alex Boyer: Dr. Richardson (tenor)
Kristin Clayton: Mrs. McNeill, Sara's mother  (soprano)
Brandon Bell: Terry (bass-baritone) 

Breaking The Waves (2016), music by Missy Mazzoli, libretto by Royce Vavrek, was presented by West Edge Opera at The Bridge Yard in Oakland on Saturday night.  We are in rural Calvinist Scotland in the 1970s.  I think we may assume this was around the time that oil was discovered in the North Sea.  They keep referring to "the rig" which we may assume is an oil rig off the shore.

The community, or the ones in charge at least, do not like outsiders.  Sara, a child of the community, has fallen in love with Jan, a worker on the rig who is from Norway.  Dodo is another outsider who was married to Sara's brother who died.  Dodo and Sara are close.  Jan and Sara marry and are happy at first.  Soon Jan must return to working on the rig.  People don't think these things through.

The atmosphere was well captured by the production, and atmosphere is almost all there is.  Church fathers hover over everything.  Sara is very religious and prays constantly.  Unexpectedly, God answers through her.  This is a really tough part.  Jan is injured and asks Sara to go out and have sexual experiences and report back to him.  Her personality gradually disintegrates.  This is a true tragedy.  Her casket is sent out to sea, the only reference to waves. 

The music is pleasing and was well performed.  The orchestration included a synthesizer and an electric guitar.  My favorite of the singers was Kindra Scharich, but I usually go for the mezzos.

The Bridge Yard is very hard to find and very close to the freeway.  Most of the time the sound from the freeway was not disturbing.  The acoustics were not favorable to light voices.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

SFO Emerging Stars 2019

Here are the nominees for this year's emerging stars at the San Francisco Opera:

  • Golda Schultz (soprano) Clara in It's a Wonderful Life (didn't see this cast)Met 2017, Salzburg.
  • J'Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano) Carmen in Carmen. Last year Girls of the Golden West
  • Daniel Johansson (tenor)  Matteo in Arabella (debut).
  • Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano) Rusalka in Rusalka.  I missed this.
  • Christina Gansch (soprano) Dorinda in Orlando (debut).
  • WINNER!  Andriana Chuchman (soprano) Mary Hatch in It's a Wonderful Life. Met 2014
  • Hye Jung Lee  (soprano) The Fiakermilli in Arabella.
  • Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) Orlando in Orlando.  Met 2007.

I was most impressed by our mezzos J'Nai and Sasha, but everyone loved Christina.   Vote here.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Orfeo & Euridice

Conductor:  Christine Brandes
Director:  KJ Dahlaw

Orfeo:  Nikola Printz
Euridice:  Maria Valdes
Amore:  Shawnette Sulker

Orfeo & Euridice by Gluck played at West Edge Opera's current venue The Bridge Yard in Oakland.  A lot of fuss was made about the female/female pairing, but this is pretty common in opera. My problem was that nothing at all was made of the fact that the character Orfeo is a singer, probably a celebrity.  Oh well.  I enjoyed the singing.

Research tells me that this was the original 1762 Viennese version of this opera with an aria for Amore interpolated from the later 1774 Paris version. So nothing fishy.  In the original version Orfeo was sung by an alto castrato and wasn't sung by a woman until the much later 1859 version.

This opera is supposed to be revolutionary, but it never seems so to me.  Perhaps it is the Viennese context that makes it so.  Gluck's early career was as a standard Neapolitan opera composer whose operas were endless strings of da capo arias.  In this opera there are long scenes resembling recitativo accompagnato, but no detectable da capo arias.  We are back to Cavalli more or less, except now everything is tonal. 

A very long portion of the opera is taken up with ballet.  In the second part it is Orfeo avoiding looking at Euridice which doesn't really work theatrically.  For our eyes we don't see the revolution.  French opera never fell into the all da capo aria trap.

If I Were You

Jake Heggie coaching the two Brittomaras.  The pearl cast left, emerald right.

Conductor:  Nicole Paiement
Director:  Keturah Stickann
Librettist: Gene Scheer

Brittomara (Mephistopheles): Brennan Blankenship
Fabian (Faust): Nicholas Huff
Diana (Gretchen): Anne-Marie MacIntosh
Selena: Elisa Sunshine
Putnam: Rafael Porto
Paul: Timothy Murray
David: Brandon Scott Russell
Rachel: Edith Grossman
Jonathan: Edward Laurenson

If I Were You by Jake Heggie was commissioned for and presented by this summer's Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera. This is the first work commissioned by Merola, and this is its world premier.  The one requirement is that there must be a lot of roles.  The first four characters were double cast and ours was the emerald cast.  I'm going to try to explain this.

There are a few theatrical elements that need to be explained.  Brittomara appears various times throughout the opera in different outfits but always with red hair.  She is an ambulance attendant, an auto mechanic, a waitress, etc.  There are electrical flashes that seem to be entertaining but meaningless.  My friend and I discussed this at length and finally concluded that this was the device with two paddles that medical professionals use to revive someone whose heart has stopped.  Brittomara refuses to let Fabian die because she wants his soul.

We also argued over whether or not this was a Faust plot.  The final plot element that requires explaining is the major plot element.  Fabian falls for Diana, named for the goddess, whom he meeds at the auto mechnic.  Initially she takes no notice of him.  He gives the devil his soul in order that he may become someone Diana would be interested in.  Most of the other characters are his reincarnations.  There are magic words and loud flashing sounds when the transfer takes place.

So "If I were you" followed by advice, advice, advice, isn't it at all.  It's if I were actually you and robbed you of your soul.  For me it almost worked.  I enjoyed the part after the intermission more than the earlier parts.  Our Diana, Anne-Marie MacIntosh, I enjoyed very much, but now that we've settled the argument, I'd like to see it again.

Moral of the story:  don't give away your soul.  It's the best thing you've got.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Tannhäuser from Bayreuth

Conductor: Valery Gergiev 
Director: Tobias Kratzer

Tannhäuser: Stephen Gould
Landgraf Hermann: Stephen Milleing
Elisabeth: Lise Davidsen
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Markus Eiche
Walther von der Vogelweide: Daniel Behle
Venus:  Elena Zhidkova
Shepard:  Katharina Konradi

Tannhäuser from Bayreuth is a confusing mix of images.  The first scene suggests that we add it to the caravan series, since we see Tannhäuser, Venus and her troop wandering around in an RV in the guise of a carnival.  Venus drives.  They live outside the law.  When the vehicle runs out of gas, they siphon some from a nearby vehicle.  They go through the Burger King drive through and steal their food.  This is not realistic since you always have to pay before they give you anything.  A policeman tries to stop them and Venus runs him down, making Tannhäuser uninterested in going on with her.

In the second scene the curtain opens on an exterior shot of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus.  He is met by a bunch of guys in black outfits drinking beer out of the bottle.  They recognize him in his clown outfit and welcome him back.  At the end of the scene Venus arrives in her RV.

Lise Davidsen is utterly magnificent.  I adore her "Dich teure Halle."  Our boy is back in normal clothes.  Or at least the clothes suitable for the singing contest that is to come.  People begin to enter.  Outside Venus and her gang are trying to get inside.  This must play like a film inside the hall.  Venus steals a suitable outfit from one of the dressing rooms and participates in the ceremony.  This whole thing is like a movie with cameras behind the scenes.  Is that the trend of the future?

The contestants sing about love back and forth until Tannhäuser tells the crowd that he has been in Venusberg.  The women in the crowd all escape except for Elisabeth, Venus removes her disguise, and her group all appear together with Tannhäuser.  Elisabeth prevents the men from killing him, and he thanks her.  The scene is strange.  While Tannhäuser thanks Elisabeth, he is also happy to see Venus.  Someone calls the police.  The Landgraf curses Tannhäuser for admitting he was with Venus.

I am enjoying the idea that the teure Halle is the Festspieshaus itself.  A song contest with pieces that are more like songs would have been nice.  The story is concerned with salvation, and the music is a bit droning.   Tannhäuser chooses to go to Rome with the pilgrims and the giant black man in drag drapes a rainbow flag over the harp that accompanied the singers.

This is almost the Tannhäuser as comedy version. Frei im Wollen! Frei im Thun! Frei im Geniessen!  R.W. [Free in the wanting! Free in the doing! Free to enjoy!]  This seems to be the opposing of two life views that make up the struggle of modern life:  The path of individual freedom represented by Venus and the path of adhering to social norms represented by Elisabeth.  The sign outside the Festspielhaus seems to place Wagner on the side of freedom.  Our hero vacillates back and forth between them.  One gives him a life of earthly pleasure and the other brings salvation to his soul.  He seems to want both.

She seems to have killed herself. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Rigoletto from Bregenz

Conductor: Enrique Mazzola
Stage Director: Philipp Stölzl

Duke of Mantua: Stephen Costello,
Rigoletto: Vladimir Stoyanov,
Gilda: Mélissa Petit,
Sparafucile: Miklós Sebestyén​,
Maddalena: Katrin Wundsam,
Count Monterone: Kostas Smoriginas

There is a film of Verdi's Rigoletto from Seebühne, Bregenzer Festspiele, Bregenz from July 19, 2019, on Opera on Video. There is nothing in the outdoor setting at Bregenz on Lake Constance to provide reflecting surfaces for the singers' voices, and as a result they are miked.  This cannot be helped.

The setting is amusing.  The clown's mouth opens and The Duke is inside with the girl friend of the moment.  Gilda at home with Rigoletto is carefully chained to the clown's right hand to prevent her from falling.  It's all very lively looking and frightening. Gilda then sings "Caro nome" from the basket hanging below the balloon while the giant clown looks up at her.  I liked Mélissa Petit quite a lot.

Our Rigoletto is possibly a bit feeble minded.  I've always seen him played as though he only tried to be funny for the Duke, and was dark and angry the rest of the time.  The kidnapping of Gilda from her basket in the sky is far more exciting than I've ever seen before.  Only one man makes it up to her location, and she fights to knock him off, almost succeeding.  He cheats and chloroforms her.

The Duke sings from the top of a ladder, and Gilda is dragged around like a rag doll.  Perhaps she is an acrobat, or has a stunt double.  The big eyeballs come out and roll around.  If you find your opera stagings boring, this is not in that category.  It's a bit scary for me.  This is Rigoletto at the circus, which makes more sense than Rigoletto in Vegas.

I could go either way with Stephen Costello's Duke.  I see that he has sung it all around the opera world.  It seems a bit heavy for him but otherwise quite good.

Modern opera is all theater and only occasionally good singing.  Do people really require that much distraction today?  Perhaps.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Bon Appétit!

Joyce Castle as Julia Child

Bon Appétit! by Lee Hoiby, the one act opera about Julia Child, streamed today from Des Moines Metro Opera.  It's presented with dinner.

Here is the official menu for the evening, provided by the chefs at the Iowa Culinary Institute:

Chilled Vichyssoise; Pissaladière; Asperges et Tomates en Vinaigrette; Suprêmes de Volaille aux Champignons; Boeuf Bourguignon; Salmon Choulibiac; Cheese Soufflé with essence of Truffle; Ratatouille; Rice Pilaf with Summer Vegetables; Le Gâteau au Chocolat ‘Eminence Brune’; Pain au Levain.

It may not be possible to describe this.  The accompaniment is on the piano.  The musical style can be described as modern recitative.  "If you have a self-cleaning kitchen like mine," she says.  This is because invisible gremlins scurry around and fix any problems.  In Julia's version we never saw them.

It is utterly charming, a bit more manic than Julia herself, but loads of fun.  She whips her egg whites into perfect peaks.  It runs 30 minutes like a real television show.  They're putting it on YouTube, so look for it.

I have recently begun to complain about the absence of American opera on streaming platforms, so take advantage of this rare opportunity.  It's coming to Opera Parallèle in the Bay Area in the new year.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Tosca from Aix

Conductor Daniele Rustioni
Stage Director Christophe Honoré

Floria Tosca Angel Blue
La Prima Donna Catherine Malfitano
Mario Cavaradossi Joseph Calleja
Il barone Scarpia Alexey Markov
Cesare Angelotti Simon Shibambu
Il sagrestano Leonardo Galeazzi

I was curious about the Tosca from the Aix-en-Provence Festival.  It was advertised to have two Toscas.  Well.  If you have spent enough time in show business, you recognize that this is a rehearsal being held in the home of the great Tosca from the past Catherine Malfitano.  She is most famous for her part in the movie of Tosca with Placido Domingo filmed entirely in Rome in the real places identified in the score.  Her home is filled with memorabilia from this great performance.

At the end of Act I instead of kneeling before the altar, they kneel before the picture of Catherine.  Angel Blue sings Tosca but plays herself.  She is coached by Catherine.  It's chaotic.  Most professionals know how to behave better than this.  Perhaps they're students.  The chorus members mob around the great lady, seriously scaring her.

After the first act, the feed begins to buzz loudly and does not stop until after Act II has started.  Instead of disappearing from view when they are not in the scene, everyone goes off into another part of the apartment. Do we go to the opera to see people being themselves? I think not.


I have to add a bit more.  Angel sings the big aria in her jeans, and suddenly we find ourselves in an homage to all the great Toscas, beginning with Callas and going on to Caballe, Verrett, Tibaldi, and ending with Catherine herself in her prime.  Today's Catherine confers the ultimate compliment--she gives Angel the Tosca costume to wear.  It was well done.  It asked for comparisons and we consented.

I didn't mind at all the mixing of reality and performance.  It worked much better than La Sonnambula from the Met.  The Diva is overcome with her real emotions.  I have to say I think Angel could have handled the role quite well on her own.  I ended up liking it very much.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Pereira back in the News

Alexander Pereira left his post in Salzburg to become the Intendant at La Scala Milan.  We discussed this at the time.  The explanation as I understand it was that La Scala needed money, and Pereira had the gift of persuading people to give money.  He had success here.

I am giving you my perspective which could always be wrong.  Pereira was good friends with Cecilia Bartoli whom he knew from his time in Zurich.  He helped her get the Pfingstfest gig at the Salzburg Festival while he was still in Salzburg.  He persuaded her to perform three Baroque operas at La Scala beginning with Julio Cesare this fall.  This is all good.  Everyone is happy.

However, there is another side of the story.  La Scala had more money, but it also had more empty seats.  A sign of this problem is that for the final performance by Lisette Oropesa for her run of Verdi's I Masnadieri at La Scala, they were advertising all over the internet that tickets could be had for half price.  This run was well reviewed.

I noticed a certain amount of Germanification of the repertoire and artists.  Periera is Austrian.  An indication of their unhappiness showed itself when the board of La Scala did not renew Pereira's contract.  In July, 2021, he would be replaced by Dominique Meyer.  Cecilia immediately resigned from her run of Baroque operas in protest.  Pereira asked her to support him, but she replied Anywhere but there.  Here is a more accurate version of the conversation.

The new guy comes from the Wiener Staatsoper, but before that he was in Paris.  I don't know him.  I will refrain from taking sides here.  My strictly outside sense of this is that Italians are very fussy.  The La Scala audiences drove out Muti, and it doesn't get more Italian than that.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Salome from Munich

Conductor Kirill Petrenko
Production Krzysztof Warlikowski

Herodes Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Herodias Michaela Schuster
Salome Marlis Petersen
Jochanaan Wolfgang Koch
Narraboth Pavol Breslik
Ein Page der Herodias Rachael Wilson

Salome by Richard Strauss streamed today from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  This was an extraordinary production with great depth of imagination.  It was performed in German by the best company for German diction.  A commenter on FB said, "They dock your pay if you make mistakes in your German."  One of the results of this is that while the orchestra is spectacularly musical (Kirill Petrenko), the singers don't bring us the best of all possible Strauss phrasing.  This shifts the focus away from the singing onto the theatrical presentation.  Usually your attention is distracted from the story by either the striptease or the intense lyrical singing of the soprano.  We had neither distraction.

The biggest surprise came when the curtain opened to a countertenor singing the opening song of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.  Perhaps this is an entertainment for the party.  Or perhaps it is to tell us that whatever we may be seeing, this is an opera about children.

It was Regie, of course, which means there were clothing designs from around 1950, plus something intended to be a swimming pool that is visible when the center of the stage opens up to show Jochanaan's cell.  The singers mention frequently that it's cold, and they would like to go inside.  However, we seem to be in a library.

People smoke, including Salome.  When the opera begins, Narraboth sings about how beautiful the princess Salome is this evening.  Nothing about the women on the stage suggests that one of them is Salome.  The Page is usually a trouser role, but here it is staged as a woman who is in love with Narraboth and jealous of Salome.  Maybe I'm explaining too much.  When she finally sings, we see Salome is the woman in the red dress.

Why is one so fascinated?  Salome herself is clearly too old to be a child.  This is the main problem with this opera in general.  Salome is a teenager who sings like a fully mature spinto soprano.  Maria Ewing destroyed her voice singing it because she made a perfect stripper in the dance scene.  This is a problem without a solution.  Our Salome is not a teenager and also not a spinto.  I'd call her a full lyric.

Herodes is something of a pedophile and wants to see his wife's daughter dance.  Throughout the opera the stage shows a young girl with long dark hair sitting and observing.  She moves from place, has a mother who occasionally approaches her, but does not interact with anyone else.  She sees everything without reacting.  Maybe she's a Salome alter ego.

The dialog clearly states that Jochanaan is young, yet when we see him he is late middle aged.  Why she loves him we do not know.  But does anyone know the why of love?

For her dance Salome dresses as a bride and dances with a man made up as a skeleton:  Death.  It is relatively pleasing.  Animation appears on the wall behind.  They show afterward when the cast goes outside to greet the onlookers in the platz, that the box she is singing to actually has a head inside.  It couldn't be seen on the stream.

Narraboth comes back to life, and so does everyone else.  What is that about?  One is fascinated but not sure exactly why.