Monday, October 16, 2017

Sac Phil does Prokofiev and Brahms

Saturday evening the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera performed at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

Andrew Grams, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 (1923)

  1. Andantino
  2. Scherzo: Vivacissimo
  3. Moderato – Allegro moderato
This might possibly be considered part of Prokofiev's neo-classical period.  Ask someone else.  Rachel Barton Pine plays a Guarneri with a lovely fat tone.  This piece is unusual but not particularly atonal.  She was impressive in this difficult piece.

She played her own theme and variations arrangement of the New Zealand national anthem as an encore.  One was reminded of Paganini.

Brahms Symphony No. 1 (1876)

  1. Un poco sostenuto — Allegro – Meno allegro (C minor, ending in C major)
  2. Andante sostenuto (E major)
  3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso (A major)
  4. Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro (C minor – C major)
It took him 20 years to write this.  Was it worth it?  The last movement works well.

The hall is being acoustically redesigned with panels that angle down over the orchestra.  I felt the orchestra sounded much more like an ensemble than in the past, so perhaps the redesign is working.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Die Zauberflöte in HD

Conductor:  James Levine
Production/Costume and Puppet Designer:  Julie Taymor

Pamina:  Golda Schultz
Queen of the Night:  Kathryn Lewek
Tamino:  Charles Castronovo
Sarastro:  René Pape
Papageno: Markus Werba
Speaker:  Christian Van Horn

Nadine Sierra was our announcer today for Mozart's Die Zauberflöte from the Met, and she did a fine job.  She has charisma to burn.  Julie Taymor's production of The Magic Flute first played in HD with cuts and in English in 2006 and has replayed since then. This performance was for those of us who love this opera in German.  It was lovely to hear the original words in an uncut version.

It is interesting to me that in his final year of life Mozart wrote two operas about forgiveness.  Die Zauberflöte and La Clemenza di Tito.  Perhaps it was for us.  This is Kurt Moll.  In this holy hall we don't speak of revenge.

Out of the cast listed above, only Markus Werba was completely new to me.  His Papageno was a joy.

Kathryn Lewek was in Cecilia Bartoli's Ariodante which I very much wish I had seen.  She was outstanding here.

Golda Schultz appeared in the La Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg this past summer. Pamina suits her better.

Charles Castronovo has appeared a few times in San Francisco.  My favorite outing from him was Il Postino with Placido.  His voice is robust for Tamino, but I agree with his comments--he enjoys a heroic sounding Tamino.

Everyone knows the one and only René Pape who flew over just for this performance.  He's the best now.

I love the Julie Taymor production and enjoyed seeing it again.

Golda / Magda

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Norma in HD

Conductor...............Carlo Rizzi
Production..............David McVicar

Norma...................Sondra Radvanovsky
Pollione................Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa................Joyce DiDonato
Oroveso.................Matthew Rose
Clotilde................Michelle Bradley

Above is the staging for "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma live in HD from the Metropolitan opera. The goddess to whom she prays is the moon, so the scene must appear to be moonlit.  This is the greatest complaint about this production, that the sets are too dark.  Our screen was quite large and generally easy to see, except for the very beginning, before the moon-rise, which was almost black.

My Normas have been Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Cecilia Bartoli and Sondra Radvanovsky, whom I heard first in San Francisco.  For me this version was best of all for the acting. I loved Cecilia's Norma for this quality, but here it balances across the cast.

We know we are at war by the presence of bodies.  What is to be their position toward the Romans?  Norma recommends reaching a peace with them, but we know that her motives are suspicious.  She probably recommends peace because of her relationship to Pollione, the Roman proconsul.  In the first act religious ceremony Adalgisa assists Norma in the rite.

In Norma's house Adalgisa reveals that she is in love with Pollione and has promised to go with him to Rome.  Norma does not reveal to Adalgisa until later that she has two children by Pollione. The increase in the significance of Adalgisa and the increased strength of her tie to Norma changes the emotional dynamic of the opera. 

So when Norma calls her followers together again, she recommends war.   We see Norma's range of emotions, especially her rage against Pollione.  She knows someone must die, but is not sure who should be killed.  She finally arrives at herself as the person at fault.  Adalgisa appears at the end to watch her lover and her friend walk off together to their deaths.

Sondra was magnificent, a giant, intense performance still wonderfully sung.  Joyce was also magnificent in both singing and acting.  I even liked Calleja.  When watching the old timers long ago, one hardly knew there was a plot.  Here we get the best of both worlds--a traditional staging with a lot of emotional interaction and magnificent singing.

Just saying

In case you didn't know, the average opera singer has a vibrato that causes the pitch to waver for about a half step, or the distance between c and c# if you don't know what a half step is.  It waves half of this pitch above and the other half below the intended pitch.  Listeners generally imagine the pitch to be somewhere in the middle of the wavering sound.  It is only your imagination that makes this a precise pitch.  So making comments about the singer being sharp for the whole aria may only indicate that your ear is interpreting the vibrato sharp.  Is she sharp?  Yes.  Is the exact same note also flat?  Yes.  Some singers push energy to the upper part of the vibrato or the lower part.  Pitch wavering is the same but energy is unbalanced.  Maybe your ear hears this as sharp or flat.  They aren't giving up their vibratos.

A vibrato becomes a wobble when the speed of wavering slows down.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


Perhaps you thought being addicted to coffee was something new.  You would be mistaken.  Apparently in Bach's day it was limited to females.  Or perhaps it's the usual men get to do whatever they want while women have to be controlled.  Sacramento Baroque Soloists presented a semi-staged version of Johann Sebastian Bach's Coffee Cantata with three soloists:  Derek Keller as the narrator, Omari Tau as papa Schlendarian and Bernadette Mondok as his daughter Lischen.  This was charming and amusing.  Coffee was provided.

Sacramento Baroque Soloists are a new group for me, though I think they have been around Sacramento for a while.

The program was filled out with a concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann and Cantata BWV 54 by Bach.  Derek Keller was the soloist in the Bach Cantata where he billed himself as a countertenor, and later in the Coffee Cantata he was a tenor.  I didn't hear falsetto from him.  For me he sounded more like a haute contra, a French style of high tenor.  He sounded fine, just not like a countertenor.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Non-Europeans in Opera

This is intended as a catalog with minimal commentary.  We are intending to survey the topic of cultural exploitation.  I have listed only those operas I have seen.

* means race is a factor in the story.

There are a small number of operas by Asian composers which include Asian characters.  They are not to be considered to be exploiting anyone.
  • Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun
  • The First Emperor by Tan Dun 
  • Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng

Asian characters appear in the following operas by non-Asian composers.  It is to be determined if this constitutes exploitation.
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace is based on a novel by Amy Tan.*
  • A Night at the Chinese Opera by Judith Weir is partly based on real Chinese opera.
  • Turandot by Puccini is based on a Persian story and transferred to China perhaps for the musical effects.
  • Madama Butterfly by Puccini is based on an American short story and a play by David Belasco.*
  • Nixon in China by John Adams is based on historical events that many of us watched on TV. *
  • The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet moves us to Sri Lanca.
  • Attila by Verdi is about the Mongolian ruler from the 5th century who invaded Europe.
  • Satyagraha by Philip Glass is about Gandhi in Africa.  The text is original Sanscrit.*

Native populations from around the world also appear in operas.  This should include the European racial minority called gypsies or Romani.  Even today Gypsies are easily identified by their facial features. 
  • Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau includes Turks, Incas, Persians, and North Americans.*
  • Carmen by Georges Bizet features Carmen, a gypsy.*
  • Il Trovatore by Verdi features Azucena who is a gypsy. *
  • Die Zauberflöte by Mozart includes a gratuitous black character for comedy. *
  • Aida by Verdi includes Egyptians and Ethiopians, but no Europeans. *
  • L'Africaine by Meyerbeer is a clash of Europeans and people from Madagascar. *
  • La forza del destino by Verdi has an Aztec as the male lead.*
  • Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie is based on the great American novel and includes a south sea islander, Queequeg. *
  • Il Postino by Daniel Catán is a Mexican writing about Chilean interacting with an Italian.  I guess that qualifies.
  • La fanciulla del West by Puccini includes native Americans and a Mexican bandit.*

In American musicals and operas white Americans interact with minorities.
  • Show Boat by Jerome Kern features a female black character who is passing for white. *
  • Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin is almost all black.  The copyright owners require all black casting.
  • West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein is about rival white and Puerto Rican gangs.*
  • Champion by Terence Blanchard is about a real person, the boxer Emile Griffith.  No one is exploiting anyone.

Operas about historical figures from before Christianity.
  • Nabucco by Verdi is about Jews and pre-islamic Babylonians. *
  • Semiramide by Rossini
  • Xerxes by Handel

Which brings us to my favorite and perhaps the only blatantly exploitative portrayal of non-Europeans--the interaction between Christian Europeans, usually Italians, and Moslems.
  • Otello by either Rossini or Verdi is the moor of Venice, which makes him Moslem, not sub-Saharan African.*
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart features a Spaniard rescuing his fiance from a harem.*
  • Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart where the young men pretend to be middle eastern.
  • Il Turco in Italia  by Rossini features a Muslim man visiting Italy.*
  • L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini features an Italian woman who escapes from her Muslim husband.*
  • Maometto II by Rossini is a serious opera where the female character commits suicide.*
  • I Lombardi by Verdi includes a Muslim character who converts.*
  • Death of Klinghoffer by Adams is about a clash between western and middle-eastern cultures. 
  • Flight by Jonathan Dove includes a refugee trapped inside an airport.  For me he could have been from anywhere, but others say he was Iranian.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Turandot in San Francisco

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Production and Design David Hockney

TurandotL Martina Serafin
Calaf: Brian Jagde
Liù: Toni Marie Palmertree
Timur: Raymond Aceto
Ping: Joo Won Kang
Pang: Julius Ahn
Pong: Joel Sorensen
A Mandarin: Brad Walker
Emperor: Altoum Robert Brubaker *

Puccini's Turandot played at the San Francisco Opera last night in the wonderful David Hockney production.  One of the reasons it's so wonderful is because it doesn't look at all Chinese.  Because the story isn't actually Chinese.  It should reasonably be regarded as a fairy tale.  I'm a sucker for the story, although I enjoyed it more before I could remember the answers to the riddles.

The chorus was particularly spectacular.  Brian Jagde seemed very intense.  With Turandot it is as much the spectacle one comes for rather than the fine details.  Let's just say it's one of the hardest operas to cast in the repertoire.

Talk at the Opera

Last night we were enjoying the 1993 production of Turandot by the great artist David Hockney when I remembered that once upon a time we were treated to the wonderful production of Die Zauberflöte by Marc Chagell, in 1980 actually, originally from the Metropolitan Opera.  No one else seemed to remember this.

Hockney also designed sets for Die Zauberflöte, The Rake's Progress and Tristan und Isolde apparently.  I'm not sure I've seen these.