Sunday, September 29, 2013

Films from the San Francisco Opera

We are constantly confronted with ads for films from the Met, so maybe it's time to consider some from San Francisco.  If this is too commercial for you, I apologize.

The most recent is Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, a work I declared a 21st century masterpiece, which will be released on October 29.  It's available in DVD and Blue Ray.  If you'd rather, you can wait to see it on PBS Nov 1.  I reviewed this here.

I didn't know you could buy a film of Donizetti's Lucretia Borgia with Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano.  This was excellent.  I reviewed it here.  This DVD will also be released on October 29.

The original cast of the San Francisco Opera's current production of  Boito's Mefistofele can be seen in this DVD.

You can still buy a DVD of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire with Fleming, Futral and Gilfry.

So far I was in the audience for all of these, including this wonderful La Boheme with Pavarotti and Freni.

And that certainly is true for this very fine example of General Horne in Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso.

And what an incredible sensation accompanied this Samson and Delilah with Domingo, the most gorgeous man who ever graced an opera state.

This is just so you know we get some pretty fabulous opera here.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Post Script to Salzburg

There is something I forgot to say in my writing about Salzburg.  Both the Large Hall and the House for Mozart have really excellent acoustics.  I sat in various areas in both rooms and could always hear the singers.  I am accustomed to the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House which has truly terrible acoustics, so this was a treat.  In its defense I don't think either of the Salzburg houses are as large as the War Memorial.  Bad seats.  Marvelous acoustics.  Perhaps this is the proper prioritization.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Top Ten

This is Renée Fleming on last night's David Letterman. You get to guess which aria each one is.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The one and only

Cecilia Bartoli dueling with the trumpeter in a concert in Moscow--"A facile vittoria" by Steffani.

The view from almost 20 years in:  She is my ninja.  She overcomes all obstacles.  She can leap tall buildings at a single bound.  I only wish I had something she wanted. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Marie Plette as Vanessa and Nikola Printz as Erika

Samuel Barber's Vanessa (libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti) had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 with Eleanor Steber as Vanessa.  Like Patricia Racette in our Dolores Claiborne, Steber stepped in very late in the preparation process.  In my mind it's Kiri te Kanawa.

A company currently without a house, West Edge Opera decided to produce this opera anyway in a semi-staged version.  We get those in Sacramento, and they consist of the full orchestra on the stage with the singers in front.  The singers move and act as they would in a fully staged opera.  It's a large orchestra, so the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep left only a little space for the actors.  But not to worry.  Vanessa is about love with only minimal action.  The singers all had big voices sufficient to carry over the orchestra.  Thank you.  This was helped by the outstanding vocal writing of Samuel Barber.

I could hear but not see what turned out to be a synthesizer at the back of the stage.  I wasn't sure what this was supposed to represent.

The question is is the plot of Vanessa a circle?  Do we end where we began?  Here is the great one singing Vanessa's opening aria.  Perhaps this isn't fair, but nothing will give you a better idea of the wonderful music in this opera.

Vanessa has been waiting for Anatol to return for 20 years.  She has waited with perfect patience with her niece Erika and her mother, sung by Malin Fritz, a lovely tall woman who lurks silently in virtually every scene.  The stately old Baroness adds exactly the right gloomy atmosphere to this strange, romantic story.

When Anatol appears, it isn't really Anatol but his son, also Anatol.  Are you staying with me?  Anatol is a fortune hunter who has spent his life hearing his father talk about the mysterious Vanessa.  He wants to see for himself.  Vanessa is the complete romantic and immediately accepts this new Anatol as her lover.  She is happy.  He, however, has wooed and spent the night with Erika, and later proposes to her.  Erika is not the romantic Vanessa is.

There is no perfect recording on YouTube of the quintet from Vanessa, but this one is pretty good.  We fell in love with this piece.

The entire cast were well cast for their parts, especially given the lack of scenery or theatrical makeup.

Vanessa:  Marie Plette
Anatol:  Jonathan Boyd 
Erika:  Nikola Printz
Baroness:  Malin Fritz 
Doctor:  Philip Skinner 

At the end Vanessa and Anatol move to Paris and leave Erika alone with the old Baroness.  So will she wait quietly alone for 20 years like Vanessa?  I prefer to imagine not.


Friday, September 20, 2013

My Cosi

I was telling one of the members of my Salzburg tour group that I never go to Butterfly, that Patricia Racette's famous portrayal of it is something that I always pass up.  I just hate Butterfly.  She then told me that she feels exactly the same about Cosi fan tutte, that she never goes to it and can't explain why she is now.  I agreed.  It's a horrible opera.  Not one funny thing goes on in it.

I would promise I would love Cosi only if it were staged like this:

There must not be even so much as one beat between when the two assholes appear in their so-called disguises and the girls recognize them.  The sisters must know for every second of what remains of the opera that this is their boy friends playing a cruel and stupid joke on them.  When they turn to the other guy it is because they have finally let go of their illusions and are willing to play their own reverse joke.

No one must guess this except the audience.  At the end they fire Despina and dump these two losers.  I promise I would laugh all the way through.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to"

Conductor George Manahan
Director James Robinson

Dolores Claiborne: Patricia Racette
Selena St. George: Susannah Biller
Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly
Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futral

Last night at the San Francisco Opera I attended the premiere of Tobias Picker's new opera Dolores Claiborne, which is based on a novel by Stephen King, which I have not read.  According to Picker, King sold him the rights for $1, more a critique of opera than of Picker.

The genre I would choose for this opera is verismo, the realistic portrayal of the lower classes.  It doesn't get lower than Dolores (Patricia Racette) who is a maid for Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral shown below).  Dolores hates Vera.

The cozy picture of her family group seen below (daughter Selena, Susannah Biller, husband Joe, Wayne Tigges, and Dolores) would give you no perspective at all of her actual family life.  In this scene Dolores has brought home viewers for an up-coming eclipse, so they can all view it without harming their eyes.  Very domestic, don't you think?

In reality Joe is molesting Selena.  Dolores hates Joe.

The plot summary in the program might lead one to expect confusion, but the constant flashbacks were all handled with intelligent smoothness.  At the apron of the stage we are in the police station where Dolores has been brought for questioning after the death of her mistress.  The flashbacks appear at the back, and some of them are absolutely beautiful.

In one extended scene Dolores and Selena are riding together on the Little Tall Island ferry while boats and islands go by in the background.  It is here that Selena tells her mother that her father is molesting her.  Dolores says "No" but knows the answer is "Yes."  This is graphically dramatized in the final scene of the act.

In the second act is the eclipse when Dolores tricks her husband into falling into a well in the dark.  When he appears to be climbing out, she whacks him with a rock.

Susannah Biller as Selena appears as this character both as a child and as a grown woman.  In her guise as a child she sings a lovely solo to the stars that are visible during the eclipse.  This is the best solo.  The picture below from Opera News is Selena as an adult, perhaps remembering the eclipse she experienced as a child.

At the end of the opera Selena appears as a lawyer for her mother who is accused of pushing her employer down the stairs.  Dolores and Vera sing together the famous line from this story, "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to."  Vera falls down the stairs--done very convincingly by Elizabeth Futral, a wonderful actress--and dies all on her own.  I'm not sure Selena believes this.

It's a sad, depressing story that you completely get swept into.  Nothing musical sticks in your head.  My opinions are going to go here.  The score in an opera isn't background music--it's music.  If you don't know the difference, I can't help you.  If you need to have it explained to you by Patricia Racette that a singer's voice has something called a "passagio," you are not ready to write an opera.

The singing actors were all incredible.  No one shook the prompter's hand, a good sign when the leading lady, Patricia Racette, stepped in almost 3 weeks ago.  She always seemed secure in her part, but her Dolores is an unhappy but not an evil woman.  At the end you feel you would have done the same.

Futral and Tigges are very fine indeed, just the right amount of arrogant and cruel.  Vera gives all her money to Dolores who doesn't want it, making Selena even more angry.

I would not wish to offend Patricia Recette, but the star of this show was Susannah Biller as Selena.  Her characterization of Selena as a child was complete, and absolutely did not prepare us for Selena as a 40 year old lawyer in high heels and her lawyer power suit.  She was stunning.


I was wandering through the shop at the San Francisco Opera and came upon this DVD.  This appears to be Luca Pisaroni in a muscle suit.  He seems to get all the good outfits, like this one from the Enchanted Island.

In real life he's quite handsome.

I bought it, of course.  More later.  I have to write something for Dolores Claiborne first.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

THE Verdi Album

Other than a German's natural reluctance to scoop (he scoops-it's just very delicate), this is an absolutely lovely album.  Placido Domingo and I are in agreement.  Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor of our time. 

Some people have been questioning the existence of both this album and Netrebko's.  Well they're idiots.  I think Netrebko will sing all the tracks on her album better after she has a few live performances under her belt.  In fact I think her existing live performances of this repertoire are better than the recording.  See here and here.  I digress.

I like this album more than the Wagner, actually, but this is likely because I like Verdi better than Wagner.  Verdi is writing for the true tenor and is getting the maximum from that tenor intensity that makes them the center of opera.  The Heldentenor is more a high baritone with tenor technique.  If you get what I'm saying.

The best of all compliments is that I will undoubtedly listen to this one. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Operatic Madwomen

Here is a list of operatic mad scenes.  I have added a few of my own:

Harteros in Idomeneo.

Dessay in Hamlet.

DiDonato in Hercules.

 Bartoli in Nina.

Lemieux (woman/man) in Orlando Furioso.

This is a lot of fun.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pondering a Possible Number Four

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Salzburg and found this picture of Anja Harteros on the cover of Salzburg Exclusiv magazine along with the caption "Soprano of the century."

I like these in her voice, but she seems a bit too cautious with the phrases.  Judged strictly on the basis of her voice and technique, I have to say she is spectacularly gifted.  But perhaps with a different conductor I would experience them differently.  One could learn to love these exactly as they are.

In a previous post I made a statement about the size of her voice, but I must apologize.  You cannot accurately gauge the size of someone's voice unless you are in the room with them.  I compared her to Kaufmann whom I certainly have been in the room with--5 times, 5 different rooms, if my count is correct.  (Zellerbach, Zurich, Paris, Munich, Met.)  But Harteros I know only from streaming and recordings.  It seems from my observations that when she needs more sound, it is there for the asking.

She is far too restrained for Verismo, but I have loved madly her Wagner and Verdi, and look forward to hearing more.  I loved best, I think, her Don Carlo

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Michael Fabiano

I apologize for not posting him sooner.  I love his bright open tone.

Mefistofele or Fausts I have Known

Of the three operas based on Goethe's Faust only Boito's Mefistofele goes on to include material from Part II, ending with Faust's salvation.  Faust's bargain is that if he sees something he finds beautiful, he will ask to stay in that moment and lose his soul.  But it is only when he reaches heaven that Faust says, "This is beautiful.  I would like to stay."   He wins the bet.

This opera was a failure and really only came to prominence when it became a vehicle for Samuel Ramey.  In fact I've seen this production twice before, in 1989 and 1994, both times with Ramey.  I wasn't sure until they came to the scene where Faust seduces Margherita, staged here with a large raised circle in the center of the stage.  A woman sits next to the circle peeling apples, and then suddenly gets up and starts turning a crank that makes the circle rotate.  Memorable.

This time we have:

Conductor:  Nicola Luisotti
Production:  Robert Carsen

Mefistofele:  Ildar Abdrazakov
Faust:  Ramon Vargas
Margherita:  Patricia Racette
Marta:  Erin Johnson
Elena:  Patricia Racette

It's a very silly opera but highly entertaining.  My friends all loved it.   Ildar Abdrazakov is cute but not the towering figure Sam Ramey was in the role.

There was an honest to god Walpurgis Nacht such as I have never seen before.  I should have brought my birdwatching binoculars because mere opera glasses were not sufficient to tell if those actually were naked men on the stage.  (Avoid all sentences using the word dong.)  I thought perhaps it was an homage to the recently deceased Lotfi Mansouri who was famous for bringing lots of nudity to SFO.  I hope so.  At intermission we immediately began talking furiously about Mansouri's The Fiery Angel with almost nude acrobats and fully nude strippers.  I talked about bringing my binoculars for the rest of that season to search the back rows of the chorus for nude women.  And yes, I found some.  What a great season.

I can't think of anything sensible to say about this.  Patricia Racette was great, and is spending all of her spare time rehearsing Dolores Claiborne for the opening next week.  The chorus work was outstanding.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Last Night of the Proms

Like New Years Eve in Vienna, in London it's Last Night of the Proms.

Joyce DiDonato is peaking now.  Or she could go on to....

I like it very much that she sings it as herself, one of the great opera divas of today.

Pronouncing Chailly

Here is the question according to Q: Why is Riccardo Chailly's name pronounced 'Shaa-yi' instead of 'Kai-li' as should be in his native Italy?

In my tour group they said 'Tchai-li' while I had been saying 'Kai-yi.'  We were all completely off.  Here is their answer:

A:  "Shah-yee" is the French pronunciation of Riccardo Chailly's name.  Specifically, the pronunciation depends upon the country and the preferences of the speaker. It emphasizes what the speaker seeks to focus upon. The pronunciation therefore will be "SHAH-yee" if the speaker wishes to honor the surname's origins. It will be "KEYEL-lee" if the speaker wishes to honor the conductor's birthplace.

DrB:  Of course this isn't what we want to know at all.  The only way to know how to pronounce this Italian gentleman's name is to ask him.  Wikipedia is going with the French version which is certainly how you would pronounce the French towns named this.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Brahms Cello Sonata

Someone played this movement from the Brahms first cello sonata today at a meeting I attended.  This would be the main problem with obsessing over opera--Brahms did not write any opera.  I think today was the first time I heard this wonderful piece, here played by Jacqueline Du Pré and Daniel Barenboim.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Salzburg Festival

The large hall set up for a concert.

I enjoyed very much my visit to the Salzburg Festival.  I went on a tour which meant that I was well taken care of to compensate for my somewhat ill health.  Instead of doing touristy things, I generally sat in my room and watched television.  This helped to revive my German.  At one point I even carried on a long political conversation with the bus driver, all in German.  It is easier for me to talk about American politics with people who are as puzzled by it as I am.

The quality of the music for everything I saw was very high.  I thought of suggesting that American singers to be sure their careers include time spent in the German speaking world, for this is truly the center of opera today.

I was as stunned by Norma as I expected to be.  It felt revolutionary to me.  To move the opera to another time and place in order to more fully explain it, instead of the usual reason which seems to be to obscure it with irrelevant nonsense.  The purpose of modern productions often seems to be to relieve the boredom of the producers, to alleviate the tedium of having to stage the same operas over and over. 

I began to wonder if other operas might benefit from this approach.  The most film noir of plots is Streetcar, coming this year to the LA Opera.  A brutal and dark approach might bring it to life.  I'll try to think of some others.  It was, of course, the intensity of Cecilia's acting that brought Norma to this level of success.  Other singing actors might not be able to reach this.  Does that mean they shouldn't try?

Next year Luca Pisaroni will sing his Leporello.

P.S.  I promise to stop yammering about the Salzburg Festival, but I forgot to mention something.  At all the concert performances the orchestra swarms together onto the stage--to applause--just before the conductor enters.  There is none of this meandering onto the stage one by one, sitting around gossiping and fiddling with equipment that seems universal in the English speaking world. So there are options available.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Separated at birth

Isabel Leonard -- Olivia Wilde

Nabucco in Concert in Salzburg

© Silvia Lelli
Corso Genova, 26 I–20123 Milano

Riccardo Muti, Conductor

Željko Lučić, Nabucco, king of Babylon  (Met's Rigoletto)
Dmitry Belosselskiy, Zaccaria, Jewish high-priest
Anna Pirozzi, Abigaille, Nabucco's daughter
Francesco Meli, Ismaele
Sonia Ganassi, Fenena, Nabucco's daughter
Saverio Fiore, Abdallo
Simge Büyükedes, Anna, Zaccaria's sister
Luca Dall’Amico, Il Gran Sacerdote, high-priest of Baal
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

The highlights of the concert included a magnificent "Va Pensiero" by the Rome Opera chorus, an adorable ham-actor performance by the piccolo player with constant rocking and bowing, and an excellent stand-in Abagaille in Anna Pirozzi, although members of my group claim Muti skipped her when shaking the soloists hands.  Lučić must receive a mention.

Now is the time for complaining.  This is early Verdi (1841).  While I admit that Berlioz and Paris Grand Opera had already invented the giant orchestra, and that this is the legitimate orchestration, does it really have to be this loud?  Normally an opera orchestra is in the pit where the sound is muffled.  The first half was especially bad.  I was experiencing ear pain.

This closed our wonderful Salzburg experience.