Sunday, July 21, 2019

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 her 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

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).
  • 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.

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.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Orlando in San Francisco

Conductor: Christopher Moulds*
Director: Harry Fehr*
Production Designer: Yannis Thavoris*

Zoroastro, doctor: Christian Van Horn (bass)
Orlando, hero: Sasha Cooke (originally alto castrato, here mezzo)
Dorinda, nurse: Christina Gansch* (soprano)
Angelica, rich American: Heidi Stober  (soprano)
Medoro, patient: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen* (originally contralto, here countertenor)

Our production of Orlando, an opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel seen at the San Francisco Opera, has leapt into the latest craze in opera regietheater:  opera as psychotherapy.  We have seen this recently in:
  • Bizet's Carmen from Aix-en-Provence 7/9/17.  Don Jose is being treated for marital difficulties.
  • Weber's Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath live streamed from the Bayerische Staatsoper 7/30/17.  Psychiatrists experiment on random members of the audience.  Gods and fairies are delusions.
  • Berlioz' Les Troyens 2/28/19.  After the Trojan War, the survivors are institutionalized in a mental hospital with PTSD.
So our hero is showing signs of mental illness after fighting for Britain at the beginning of WWII .  In an early scene photographs of Edward VIII before and after his abdication are shown, including one where and Wallace are friendly with Hitler.  This sets the context.  Hitler is probably still easy to identify, but I might wonder about Edward VIII.

Orlando is having hallucinations which are projected on the set as seen above.  We see handwriting, a large engagement ring, lights, a woman's eyes, etc. 

Act I

Orlando is in a hospital bed.  He is shown rescuing a woman in a wheelchair.  Both Dorinda and Angelica fall in love with Medoro, who has injured his leg.  Orlando has given Angelica an engagement ring.  Characters are introduced in rooms of the hospital.

Act II

Dorinda lets Angelica have Medoro, and Angelica gives Dorinda Orlando's ring.  Orlando is furious over this turn events and threatens everyone.  At the end of the act we hear bombs exploding


Orlando is completely bonkers by this time and is locked up.  Spoiler alert:  he is treated with not too shocking shock treatments, and is cured.  Angelica and Medoro are allowed to go in peace.  Orlando puts his uniform back on and retreats.

I felt that this modernization was very successful.  It fit the story surprisingly well.  However, sometimes plot points went by in a way that allowed you to completely miss them.

In Handel's time Orlando was a male castrato and Medoro was a woman.  We have the long ago example of Marilyn Horne to reverse this.  Our countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is nice looking and has a beautiful voice.  My favorite singing was by Christian Van Horn, a bass who sings coloratura.  Who ever heard of such a thing.

Among the women Christina Gansch received the most applause for her act III aria.  She is someone to look out for.  Our stalwarts Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober were both excellent actresses and good in their roles.  Their voices didn't always precisely fit the music they were singing.  Orlando in particular is quite low.

One becomes impatient with endless da capo arias, but all in all it was very enjoyable.  The orchestra included recorders, a small organ but no harpsichord, and a theorbo.

The screens in the balcony are coming down.  This is sad.  I can't read the titles from where I sit without using binoculars, while the ones on the screens are very clear.  This has to do with money.  I'm not happy about it.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Essay about Faust

I decided that I needed to know more about Faust. We are hitting only the highlights. To get an idea of how big the influence of the Faust legend is see this list.  There are many, many works with this theme, more than I could possibly address.


I called the original Faust a German myth. Apparently others call it a legend. One reliable source (EB) says that the original Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540) lived in the time of Martin Luther and practiced the dark arts of wizardry, magic and astrology. This is rather a different idea than Goethe’s Faust. The Faust legend became the subject of extensive theological discussion.  Martin Luther was concerned that Protestantism would become associated with the practices of Faust and fought hard against him.


Between 1589 and 1592 Christopher Marlowe wrote a play usually referred to as Doctor Faustus. Calling Faust Doctor Faustus means pretty much the same thing it does now.  He has advanced to the top of academia.  This is an interesting work where Faust gives up his soul in order to gain magical powers for a specified time period. He accomplishes nothing useful but uses his gifts to perform tricks for the nobility. He goes to hell when his time runs out. 

I don’t have to go into all the details. Clearly in this early period the subject matter of Faust’s knowledge and studies is significant. Marlowe’s play represents the Calvinist position where salvation is preordained. He is condemned for his magical practices and cannot be saved.

Mephistopheles was a folklore figure in the Faust legend. He becomes a stock character.  It's best seen as a play for special effects.  Marlowe establishes the idea that Faust gets his magic powers from the Devil.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust part 1 and part 2 (1806-1832) was the next landmark in the life of this legend. Only part 1 is regularly staged.  It is regarded as a great monument of German literature.  For our purposes we will concern ourselves only with part 1.

It is Goethe who transforms the legend into something else.  Originally it is Faust himself who leads himself into darkness, perhaps with the devil's help, but not entirely.  In Goethe it is rather like the tale of Job where God challenges the Devil to lead his exemplary man to hell.  The Devil gives it his best shot.  Faust is a learned man but his studies are here regarded as good.  Mephistopheles enters into Faust's life as a dog who follows him home.

It is also Goethe who introduces Marguerite into the story.  We are to presume that Faust, the saintly scholar, is sexually inexperienced.  Here it becomes a transaction.  Faust may have anything he wants on earth, while the Devil alone has power in hell.  It is a witch who turns Faust into a young man.  Valentine, Marguerite's brother, first appears here.

Goethe's Marguerite donates Mephistopheles' jewels to the church, but is led to ruin anyway.  The Devil thinks Faust would be tempted by a Walpurgis Nacht.  Perhaps this links us back to the original legend where Faust is attracted to the dark arts.  Here he isn't.

The Marguerite story is extended through several scenes where she kills her mother, gives birth to Faust's child, kills her child and is sent to prison.  At the very end she prays for salvation and is saved.  This does not sound like a Calvinist perspective. The story of Faust continues into part 2.


It's after this that musicians become interested.  The first piece that has remained in the repertoire is Hector Berlioz' La damnation de Faust (1846).  This is intended to be a concert piece, but is often fully staged.  The prologue in heaven where God makes a bargain with the Devil does not appear.  Instead Faust is an old man who has become tired of life and wants to kill himself.  Méphistophélès appears and offers him something to live for.  They travel together to several locations, but Faust doesn't become interested until Marguerite enters the picture.

Berlioz focuses on Marguerite much like Goethe, but shows Faust's continuing interest in science in this aria. The presence of a love story makes it more suitable as an opera plot.  At the end Marguerite is saved but Faust goes to hell.  The musical style is fully romantic. 


The most famous of all the Faust operas is Charles Gounod's Faust (1859).  For about 50 years it was the most popular opera just about everywhere, but then it faded considerably.  Gounod's Faust summons the Devil to his study when after a long life in science, he finds that he has accomplished nothing and wants to kill himself.  Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust that he will show him something he cannot resist.  God's complicity in this bargain is not shown.  After changing him into a young man, the Devil takes Faust out to get drunk in a bar.  Faust is uninterested.  Marguerite is next.  The above aria is Faust's reaction to her.

This is my favorite aria from Gounod's Faust, sung here by my favorite baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin.  This is just before he leaves her to go off to war.  He gives responsibility for her to Siebel who appears only in this opera.


Here above we have the original version of "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."

The Walpurgis Nacht comes in the form of a ballet which is usually omitted.  Faust returns to Marguerite in her prison cell.  She is saved by an angel, but Faust continues on with Mephistopheles.  In the recent production from London he turns back into an old man.

We have wandered far from the original legend which concerned itself with Faust's interests as a scholar to the mere boredom of an old man who has accomplished nothing with his life.  The Met's attempt to drag it back by casting Faust as a nuclear scientist who regrets what he has spent his time doing.  We have the fully romantic music of one Faust and the story of another.

It is good to stop for a moment and point out the difference between Gounod and Goethe.  Goethe is clear that Faust the academic is a good man favored by God.  Gounod's Faust is just a bored old man.  The worst thing about this opera is the fact that both Faust and Valentin praise Marguerite for her chastity and purity.  Then Faust leads her into darkness with hardly a backward look.  Valentin abandons her.  She is saved in the end through God's grace.  This is seen as a Christian message because God can forgive anything.  Someone has pointed out to me that Gounod was a Catholic, and that we have here more of a Catholic perspective.


Not too long after Gounod's opera came Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (1868).  I know this opera from glorious performances in San Francisco starring Samuel Ramey.  Boito restores Goethe's prologue in heaven where Mefistofele challenges God for the soul of his servant Faust.  It was a failure at its initial performance at La Scala, Milan.

Faust agrees to give up his soul in return for bliss on earth. The Marguerite part of the story is similar to Gounod, except in addition to killing her child, she poisons her mother.  She repents of her sins, and the angels save her.

At the end Mefistofele and Faust return to heaven for the final judgment.  Faust is saved.

I think it is the music which speaks against this opera, Boito's only composed opera.  Boito is almost modern in his style.  The contrast to Gounod's music is enormous.  The version with Samuel Ramey is highly recommended.  Without Ramey does it work at all?


Ferruccio Busoni in his Doktor Faust (1916–25) writes his own libretto in German.  This opera was presented at the San Francisco Opera in June, 2004.  I attended one of these performances and was completely confused.  Now that I see the plot description, I can understand why.   It was done as a regie production in modern dress in what appears to be a modern factory of some kind.  To add to the confusion Faust is a baritone and Mephistopheles is a tenor.

God is not involved.  Faust the academic is visited by mysterious figures who give him a book.  He follows the instructions in the book, draws a circle on the floor and summons the Devil.  Marguerite's brother is a character whom Faust kills, but she herself does not appear.  Clearly we have wandered far from Goethe but closer to Marlowe.

Faust appears as a magician at the court of the Duke of Parma where he seduces and elopes with the Duchess of Parma.  I can't imagine how this fits in with a factory.  At the end he performs some kind of magic trick where he falls dead and gives his life to another.  I think it would be necessary to study this extensively to have any hope of understanding what was going on.


It might be possible to regard Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951) as a Faust opera.  It's a bit of a stretch.  The Devil makes an appearance.

It has also been pointed out to me that Damn Yankees is also a Faust story.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Robert Shaw on PBS

In my lifetime the great choral conductor Robert Shaw was a giant among men.  I just finished watching a PBS film about his life.  There was a lot of biographical material that I knew nothing about, might possibly have preferred not to know anything about.  Too late.  It was still moving and satisfying to hear it all.

I liked it that he insisted on integration no matter what the consequences.  Bravo.

My own life interfaced with his on occasion.  As a student at Indiana University, I sang with him in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Later as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus we performed the Brahms Requiem, a work which he recorded twice.  Ours was better than either one of these.  We had Kathleen Battle for the soprano soloist.

Details would require research.  The Indiana University performance was coached from beginning to end by Shaw who seemed to have secrets.  One secret was that a chorus should follow the same concepts as a symphony.  Every alto must sing precisely the same pitches in precisely the same rhythm.  This seems obvious.  He never talked about vibrato but did all kinds of pitch exercises.  It makes a huge difference. 

He was my idol before I actually worked with him.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Faust from London

Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Director: David McVicar

Faust Michael Fabiano
Méphistophélès Erwin Schrott
Marguerite Irina Lungu
Valentin Stéphane Degout
Siébel Marta Fontanals-Simmons

Gounod's Faust came to a theater near me from the Royal Opera in London where it was live on April 30.  Faust is a kind of morality myth of no specific era, so it cannot be considered regie that it is staged for the period of it's original appearance in 1859.  The settings bring the story to life.  I always remember that the Germans call this opera Marguerite.  For at least its first 50 years this opera was wildly popular, but musical tastes have moved on, and it's heard now as a bit corny, I think.

Erwin Schrott played Méphistophélès for laughs, something he's very good at.  I loved Michael's voice in his aria "Salut, demeure chaste et pure."   I enjoy his style as a romantic hero very much. Irina Lungu was a replacement for Diana Damrau who I understand has a slipped disc.  I liked her.

This is as close to a traditional production as you are likely to see these days.

This is the second opera where I've seen Erwin in a dress.  The other one was Verdi, I think.  This role better suits the voice of Rene Pape, but Erwin is much funnier and cuter.  The Walpurgis Nacht is done as a ballet with a dancer appearing as pregnant Marguerite.  Valentin comes back from the dead, followed by an orgy.  Marguerite appears with her baby.  Then a small casket.  Then a jail.

The ending is perfection.  Marguerite rejects both Faust and the Devil, prays to God, and an angel appears to declare her saved.  Faust is again an old man.  The Devil laughs.

It worked for me much better than the Met version.